Q. When is the right time to put a sex scene into your ms?
A. When your characters need to have sex.
Notice I said “need”. Now, they can need to have sex for any number of reasons. In Blood Will Tell, Julian needed to seduce Cecelia so he could drink her blood and find out if she was a spy, and sex was the easiest way to do that. In Eighth Wand, Royd needed to seduce Prudence because she had the wand he’d been sent to earth to retrieve, and he’d struck up a bargain with her: a night of pleasure in exchange for the wand.
Conversely, Cecelia needed to have sex with Julian, Prudence needed to have sex with Royd, Santos and Yelina, and Greyson and Megan, and any number of other couples I’ve written over the years, needed to have sex with each other because they really, really wanted to. Because for whatever reason, and whatever their circumstances were, they wanted each other. Bad. (This is, incidentally, another problem I have with the “magic hoo-ha”; it gives the heroine an “excuse” to have sex with the hero, thus removing responsibility from her decision. If she can’t slip off her big-girl panties and say “Yeah, you know what, I really want to fuck this guy,” then I’m not that interested in her.)
Notice also I said “need” for other reasons. Perhaps you need your characters to have sex because they’re going to discover something about each other during the act that will have major implications on the story and/or plot. If, for example, Heroine has been searching for the man she thinks killed her father, and all she knows about him is that he has a birthmark in the shape of an elephant on his thigh, and our hero just happens to have a birthmark like that… Well, sure, she could catch him in his underwear, or wearing a pair of short shorts, or something, but let’s not lose focus on the rest of the work we’re doing when writing a story, which is ratcheting up tension. You tell me which is more likely to involve the reader emotionally: When the Heroine sees Dumbo grinning at her from the thigh of a guy she thinks is kind of hot, or when she sees Dumbo grinning at her from the thigh of the man sleeping next to her on well-used sheets, just when she thinks she may have gotten everything she ever wanted? Yeah. I thought so.
All of these are valid reasons for a sex scene. ANY reason can be a valid reason for a sex scene, as long as you’ve done your job and made me as a reader believe it. In Demon’s Triad, Aleeza is willing to have sex with a total stranger in the middle of the woods. Kind of crazy, right? But (hopefully) you believe it, because you’ve learned enough about the poor girl by then to know that she’s been under a celibacy curse since birth and is so sexually frustrated she’s risked her life—almost literally—just to have one orgasm.
But whatever the reason, and whatever the situation, your sex scene will not fly if your characters have no chemistry. If your readers aren’t at least half as desperate to see these characters have sex as the characters themselves are to have it, your scene will fall flat, no matter how well-written it is. (or rather, it might not fall flat, but it won’t be everything it could be.)
At this point you might want to go back and reread this post from my Heroes series, which outlines a few ways to create chemistry between your leads. It’s more hero-oriented, but it’s a good basis for what I’m about to elaborate on. (And no one has yet identified the source of the “Brock Landers” joke. Come on, people!)
So how do you make it clear—through SHOWING, not telling—that your characters are dying to hop into bed? How do you make the reader desperate to see it?
In the Heroes post I mention the importance of knowledge about each other. You want to show the reader, beneath the dialogue, beneath the clandestine looks and casual touches, that these people have a connection. Knowing something about the other person is a good way to do this—it’s one of my favorite “tricks” to use, because, honestly, it’s very important to me in real life and is something I firmly believe is the basis of a real, strong relationship.
The following are all suggestions, nothing more. You can use all of them, or some of them, or come up with your own, or whatever (and please, add any you have in comments!) I don’t mean to even come close to suggesting that there’s some sort of paint-by-numbers way to create chemistry, not at all. Just that these are ideas. They’re merely here to help you begin thinking about how your characters interact, and to help you begin, with the very first meeting of these characters, to build up your sex scene. You didn’t think a sex scene was just about that one scene, did you? Nooo.
A sex scene is the culmination of everything the hero/heroine have done, said, and been through together from the moment they meet (or the moment the reader meets them)
So here you go. Mix, match, or ignore as you will—but I bet you’ll find at least a few of these in every romance or romantic subplot you’ve ever read. They’re in no particular order; some are obvious, some less so. These moments can be as subtle or important as you like; it’s your book and your characters, after all. This is just to get you thinking. This series isn’t about how to write sex exactly the way I do, with the exact level of heat and graphic-ness. It’s about how to find the place where you’re comfortable, how to best serve your story and characters within the confines of your own voice and your own vision.
*H/h notice something special about each other, and comment on it, with uncomfortable or pleasing results depending on who they are/where in the relationship they are/etc.
*H/h touch casually. Maybe they feel sparks, or warmth, or comfort? Maybe the hand in theirs or the arm beside theirs is surprisingly strong? Maybe skin is rough or smooth or soft or hard?
*H/h notice how each other smell. Smell is extremely important in human sexual response, thanks to pheromones. This is quite literally chemistry. It’s one reason why we take an instant liking or disliking to some people; it’s why that handsome hunk doesn’t really turn you on but the slightly nerdy guy beside you does. Do NOT neglect smell. You don’t have to be obvious about it. You can slip it in anywhere. But letting the reader know these people like the way each other smells is, in my mind, a necessity.
*H/h find themselves in close quarters; one or both feels awkward. Or aroused. Or both.
*H/h open up to each other, sharing stories or secrets they don’t usually share. Maybe they don’t know why they’re telling each other this? Maybe it’s because they have to, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re afraid of how the secret will be received, and find it’s received with exactly the sort of reaction they were subconsciously/secretly/not-so-secretly hoping for.
*H/h think about sex with each other. Yeah, it’s pretty basic, and for that reason I dislike it intensely when this one is overused. The level of use that equals overuse varies with every story, of course, but there are so many more subtle ways to show attraction. While this one shouldn’t or needn’t be ignored, it’s not—absolutely NOT—a substitute for any other kinds of interaction.
*H/h think of each other in a non-sexual way; perhaps they do it without knowing why? Why would you wish for the company of someone you don’t trust, for example? Because there’s chemistry, that’s why.
*H/h flirt. Oh, yes. Flirt away. Let them joke and laugh together. Let them make subtle comments to each other, it doesn’t have to be obvious. It doesn’t have to be all the time. But this is another extremely important one.
*H/h are unaccountable nervous around each other. Or unaccountably calm.
*One of the two makes a move. How it’s received is up to you, but there’s nothing wrong with having one character make it clear they want the other (just be careful about sliding into stalkery or crude territory, which is one of the most common if not the most common beginner errors) or both characters make clear they want the other.
*They kiss. Yeah, it’s an obvious one. It’s also a great one. There’s a reason why they call those little bits of food they give you before the main meal “appetizers”; it’s because they get you wanting more.
*They find they have a similar hobby/interest/whatever.
*There’s jealousy when another person with some claim to the other shows up.
*They have dreams/fantasies about the other. This is an oldie, so old it now borders on lame and obvious. Be careful with it, but it is still possible to find a way to use it if it fits the story and/or characters.
*They have extreme—or what feels extreme to them—physical reactions to being around each other/touching each other.
*They make each other feel good. Doesn’t have to be all the time. Doesn’t have to be “weeping with joy” good. But they lighten each others’ moods. They make each other smile. They don’t have to understand it. They can be annoyed by it or scared by it or whatever. They don’t even have to realize why they feel so good. But it should be there.
*They care about each other. Again, this can be as subtle or as obvious as you like. And it depends on what sort of scene you’re writing and what the relationship between the characters is. But it’s one to think about.
Now that’s a long list. And it’s by no means exhaustive (feel free to make other suggestions in the comments!) But what it boils down to, what it all ultimately means, is this:
Your Hero/heroine should react to and interact with each other.
If they don’t do that, nobody’s going to be interested in seeing them have sex.
I think we’re all done with theory; next week we’ll start getting into practical application, on MONDAY. I’ll have to slip any personal blogging in around the edges; there’s too much to do.