by Damon Suede
(why some erotic romances are neither)
All of us have had the misfortune to read erotic romance that, y’know, isn’t. Ugh. What’s worse?
In theory the characters look hot, the setup seems charged, the intercourse pushes every kind of blistering sexual boundary but in the end… meh. How does that happen? When does taboo and carnal become tedious and comical? How can something salacious become a snoozefest? Like comedy, sexiness that falls flat can actually kill the enjoyment of an entire romance or even doom a book to the will-not-finish pile… and yet erotic romances need a certain amount of sexytimes to merit the name, right?
Well, I write erotic romance, so I think about this problem constantly. When I’m reading or writing, I’m always tracking how stories get under our skin the right and the wrong ways. After 20 years writing for film and theatre, here’s what I’m learned about hotness on the page: Actions fascinate people; activities bore them to tears.
That almost sounds like a tautology, but it ain’t.
Readers connect to characters making choices and making change happen in and around their lives; they always pay attention to specific actions focused on a goal which must overcome friction. Two naked people rolling around sticking parts of themselves into and onto each other may be titillating for a couple minutes of rubbernecking, but what engages the reader beyond the wet spots is the ways that the interaction transform the people involved or the events around them. Action arouses interest, provokes desire, and sparks empathy. On the other hand, activity defines tedium: a task or motion repeated without consequence or alteration. The only difference between the two is the will of the person involved. As Gilda, Rita Hayworth seduces in order to survive and in order to keep her secrets buried.
Specificity is the source of everything great.
THIS is the reason that Jane Austen can make you hold your breath when hands brush or eyes meet. Charged by the strictures of Regency Britain, her protagonists risk ruin every time they speak too candidly or allow intimate improprieties like a lingering glance. The tension allows actions to occur in maddeningly subtle and seductive ways. Contrariwise, Showgirls will always be a piece of flaccid sophomoric trash entertaining for all the wrong reasons, no matter how much groping/grabbing/grinding goes on. Even with the relentless nudity and “kinky” shenanigans, all of the incessant repetitive activity affects nothing, changes nothing, means nothing; wall-to-wall candy-colored sleaze at a cost of sixty million dollars and it cannot even succeed as softcore porn! Yikes.
Readers pick up romance with certain expectations. At the most basic level, they want to experience the unfolding of a relationship that ends positively. Fair enough. But if the protagonists hop in the sack on page two then squirm and squirt for 200 pages without sense or consequence, it will have the emotional and erotic impact of a re-grouting a tub.
Since Hot Head came out, I’ve gotten anywhere from 40 to 50 fan letters focusing entirely on the first kiss between my heroes. That scene is ten pages long and not by accident! I’ll admit, I LOVE kissing and I know that fetish crept into the writing of that scene… but I believe the reason that liplock nails people is because there are about four actions occurring at that exact moment their mouths meet. Those actions infuse the kiss with thermonuclear friction and so it sticks in people’s minds. The readers remember the heat and charge of that moment because of the actions woven through it.
There’s an old chestnut about Hamlet being this amazing tragic hero who does nothing. This is, of course, complete bullshit. Hamlet never stops doing things for a moment: he argues with a ghost, pretends to be insane, stages a play, attacks his friends, insults his family and sullies his innocent lady love with some very nasty innuendo, murders and betrays and wrestles with cant! Hamlet’s actions in the play never STOP; in fact the only thing he doesn’t do until the gory finale is take his justified revenge… but all of those other actions lead inexorably and ineffably to that perfect bloodthirsty finale.
Okay, so fair enough. Shakespeare knew his shit. Big whoop. How does that translate to the juicy bone-dance you have planned for your protagonists?
Action or activity? Any activity can be elevated to an action, if the stakes escalate and the context carries enough charge. And any action can be made into a boring activity if the author removes the stakes and context. The simplest way to test a love scene? Ask yourself after the characters climax: what changed because of the intimacy that just occurred? If the answer is “nothing” then you’ve just wasted time reading (or writing) an activity which fits the story like a concrete swimsuit.
In essence, readers trust authors to provide action that sustains the story and rewards the time spent inhabiting its world. The author’s tacit promise to provide action separates pros from hacks (and prose from pablum). This responsibility to provide action is the basic contract between entertainment and audience. It’s the root of the overworn “Show don’t tell” criticism from English 101 classes across the world. It’s a relentless reminder to professional authors that writing is a job and not a hobby.
My question to you is: how do you plan to keep the sex active rather than an activity. What does the act of sexual intercourse do, get, or make change in their relationship that drives the story forward? As an author, you have to move beyond the mechanical porno model (“time for another cumshot.”) towards character. How is THIS sex scene different than the last or the next sex scenes? How do the intimacies build upon each other and refract in the characters’ lives? In life people have sex for any number of reasons, but only some of those offer the kind of drama needed to sustain a narrative. Having sex for revenge, having sex to heal, having sex to cement a bond are all clear, playable actions for a character. Activities that will kill the story or cripple it: having sex to scratch an itch, having sex because you’re bored, having sex because the editor said, “It’s been 30 pages.”
Of course that’s not just sex; EVERY scene in your story flourishes with action and buckles under activities. Unfortunately love scenes in particular tend to become literary quicksand if nothing’s going on but the smoosh. As Hollywood has often observed, any sex scenes on screen stop your film dead for the three minutes it takes to run a montage of body parts over a song. Most popular film and television treats love scenes voyeuristically…as boring, static, inconsequential activities; small wonder that popular fiction does the same.
Bottom line: if you give your readers permission to skim they will. Agatha Christie knew this, she provided new information on every page. Readers couldn’t skim or they’d be lost. Sex scenes need that kind of precision and context. No two couples make love the same way; sexual intimacy is (and should be) as singular as the people involved. Why would any author waste an opportunity to flesh out these subtle gradations in a character by foisting generic hokey-pokey onto their readers?
A book is a promise.
When a reader trusts me enough to plunk down hard-earned money to buy something I made, I believe I owe them something. Labeling a book “erotic romance” establishes a pact with our audience, and we flout it at our peril. I had a novella called Grown Men released by Riptide on October 30 and in many ways it’s raunchier and riskier than my first novel. In a sci-fi universe which encourages genetic modification and franchised sex resorts, things were gonna get a little kinky and carnal. An eight-foot giant presents certain…umm …challenges and opportunities to a normal-sized human lover. My two heroes demanded a different kind of eroticism, and the vast disparity between their sizes made certain things possible and other things scary. The eroticism needed to be specific or it would have sucked asteroids. Discovering the intimacy between them allowed me to map the relationship between them on their terms. They made the love, I just caught it on paper.
So, the next time you pick up an erotic romance, get specific! Pay attention to the sex. Is something happening during the scene or does everything stop so they can insert tab A into slot B enough to punch the meter? Distinguish between actions and activities. Learn to spot activities when they crop up. Don’t put up with them in your own writing or anyone else’s. Does sexiness only appear when literal SEX is occurring or do they build sexiness into the characters’ transformations and the world of the book. When and how does it turn you on? If you eliminated a scene of intimacy how would that affect the story if at all?
Hold all your erotic scenes accountable, those you write and those you read. Are your characters doing the deed, having sex, or making love? Invest your intimacy with meaning and context to wring every drop of possible power out of each moment.
Action is a pact all books make. As writers, it’s a promise to our readers, a bargain with our characters, and a discipline we owe ourselves.
Copyright 2011. Damon Suede. All Rights Reserved
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