Close upon the heels of Valentines Day it feels appropriate to talk about writing intimacy, or intimate scene writing, or…well, you know what I mean.
I am not talking about erotic writing; that is a whole other skill set. I refer to those intimate scenes that we write within almost any form of fiction; scenes that are increasingly demanded by our readers, regardless of genre. Romance rules.
Such writing does not come easily to everyone. But regardless of whether or not it does, there are skills to develop and lessons to learn from the masters.
I’ve learned that less is more. A large part of sexuality is anticipation. Authors may spend half a novel leading toward a particular sexual encounter. And as in real life, if the eventual act is disappointing, all that time spent in anticipation may seem wasted. As always with fiction, the best scenes are those created within the mind of the reader, not dictated by the writer. To that end, less is more when writing about intimate encounters. Too much detail tends to repress the reader’s vision of that moment, a vision which has been growing and taking form throughout the entire anticipatory approach.
Brown and King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers call this “sexual encounters that take place in line spaces.” They illustrate this concept with the love scene from Gone With The Wind, when finally, after half a book’s worth of anticipation Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara get it on. A little more than a page is devoted to the scene. The only physical touching mentioned in all of that is kissing. Instead of a literal, physical description, we experience Scarlett’s growing fear and passion and wonder. It all leads to a final cloud of ambiguity: “Somehow her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.” Reading this, we have no difficulty filling in the line spaces with our own imaginations.
No less important is a consideration of the time, place, and participants. In McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove when the men talk of a sexual encounter it’s about having a “poke”, in Meyer’s The Son it’s a “rut”, and both are always appropriate to the setting. As Brown and King point out, if your novel contained no vulgar vocabulary heretofore, the sudden use of the word “fuck” during a sexual encounter is jarring. And, on the obverse, a novel full of obscenities except when describing love-making is inconsistent, or at the least must seem to be trying to make a point.
Finally, consider the purpose of the scene. Why has it been included? If it is the culmination of the sexual tension that has grown throughout the entire novel, the scene should reflect that. But if it is simply meant to establish the relationship of some minor characters in a subplot, don’t allow the description of that encounter to overwhelm the entire work with its vividness.