I would love to hear more about the difference between making love, having sex and erotica in a romance novel. What exactly makes them different from each other? . . . I always hear it described as ‘different levels of sizzle or heat’ but it seems to me that there is more to the grading than that. . . . Are there market expectations now re detailed sex? Romance novels seem to be getting more and more graphic (or maybe those are just the ones I’m buying!) I noticed in the [comments to the favorite love scene post] how few people listed a love scene that had any sex in it – I think I spotted one that took place in a bed. That’s interesting.
Sex is in the eye of the beholder.
Let me put that another way.
What’s sexy is subjective. Sex scenes that some people think are tame are considered porn by others. Therefore, there really aren’t any clearcut guidelines for telling the difference between romance novels with sex scenes and erotica because it’s a combination of writer intent and reader reception, the most important being reader reception. The closest I can come is that in a perfect world, all sex scenes in romance novels would change character and advance the plot and thus be an intrinsic part of the story and not there to titillate the reader. In that same perfect world, all erotica would be written to deliver sexual titillation to the reader without diluting the erotic charge with plot and character change.
That is, romance novels would be mostly about the stories, and erotica would be mostly about the sex.
In the real world, the distinction, like sex, is a lot sloppier.
There are romance writers who drop sex scenes into their stories because they think readers want sex in their stories, and so they don’t much care if the sex moves the plot or arcs character, they’re just trying to write hot sex to satisfy readers. And there are erotica authors who spend time on story because they think that a role-playing context makes their stories more erotic. Neither of these groups of writers is wrong because there are as many different kinds of readers as there are writers, and somebody will buy and enjoy their books.
So the difference between romance novels and erotica? It depends on who’s reading the book.
.Within the world of romance, the distinctions continue to be subjective. Generally a romance described as “sweet” has no sexual content at all. After that, my assumption would be that the content would determine the level of heat, but the characters in my books all have vanilla sex–that is, nothing that’s surprising or shocking or even all that interesting–and I’ve still seen my books labeled as hot.
(Okay, small time out here for a story I have to tell about sex scenes in my book and the fallout thereof. I come from a small town in Ohio, and a couple of years ago a women’s group invited me to speak. My best friend from high school, Gretchen, e-mailed me and said, “You almost got blackballed from (name of club withheld here because they were lovely people).” You have to hear that sentence in Gretchen’s voice–rich and full of laughter–to appreciate how funny that line is. Apparently a woman named Beany (last name withheld to protect her privacy) said that I should not be invited because there was oral sex in my books, and the rest of the club overruled her. YAY. Then I made the mistake of telling my mother that, my mother who tells me she’s read all my books:
Me: “Beany (last name withheld) didn’t want me to speak to the club.”
Mother: “Why not? Your books are wonderful. I’ve loved every one of them.”
Me: “Because there’s oral sex in some of them.”
Mother: “THERE’S ORAL SEX IN YOUR BOOKS????”
She was also sure my daughter was a virgin birth, but that’s another story.)
So honestly, I have no idea how the industry assigns hotness, and I have a feeling the industry doesn’t, either. To paraphrase Justice Potter, the industry can’t define it, but it knows it when it sees it. I never worry about it; I just write the story the way is needs to be written and let everybody else sort that stuff out.
Now let’s move on to more practical stuff: How are you going to handle sex in your novel.
If you’re writing erotica, any plot you’re using is a scaffold that supports your sex scenes because people who buy erotica want to be turned on, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nobody should do the literary equivalent of slut shaming: erotica is just another genre. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about it because I don’t write it or read it. My GUESS is that any plot you choose should provide an erotic context to heighten the tension in the scenes without adding so much detail that the power of reader arousal is undercut, but again, I don’t know anything about writing erotica, so never mind.
Romance novels, I know. My advice there–and this won’t be new to longtime readers of the blog–is “Don’t write sex scenes.” Instead write scenes that move plot and arc character, and if those characters are having sex, have at it. If you write a scene in which the characters have sex but the plot stays in the same place and they’re the same people after the scene that they were before, cut it. The sex in that case is garbaging up your story in the same way too much story can garbage up the erotic part of erotica. Decide what you’re doing and focus on that..
So how much sex do you need to put into a romance novel? It depends on the romance novel. (Yes, I know this isn’t much help. Ask easier questions next time.) How much sex a story needs depends on what happens during the plot and what happens during the plot depends on the kind of characters whose actions are driving the plot. Character is the reason the sexiest scenes may have no sex in them at all, while some explicit sex scenes are about as erotic as a shopping list. That’s because actions without context have no emotional impact; that is, unless you’re invested in a character who’s invested in the action and who is experiencing emotion because of that action, you can write detailed sex scenes that leave your reader yawning. But if your character is invested emotionally in the action, and if that action does change her, then your reader will be affected by that action, too, so you can write vanilla sex scenes with very few details that have a highly erotic charge because your reader is invested. A single glance across a room or a brief kiss can be hotter than a stereo-instructions-insert-Part-A-into-Part-B explicit sex scene because of the emotional impact on the reader.
That means that the key to writing sex scenes in romance is to write what your characters feels, not what she’s doing. Anybody who’s reading your book has either had sex or seen it on cable TV; she does not need instructions. What she wants is what every reader in every book wants: to experience the story through the protagonist, see what she sees, feel what she feels, become a part of the story vicariously. Adding detail can make a sex scene less arousing because it undercuts reality. Think about the last time you had sex. How much detail did you actually notice? How much inventory did you take of your physical surroundings including the other person’s body? Generally speaking, if you’re really turned on, your thoughts tend to scramble into a driving blur, interrupted only by sensation. That’s why, when I’m writing a scene in which the sex is not working, my characters notice detail and have complete thoughts: They’re not turned on. (This is where I should point out that the sex scenes I’m most known for are Bad Sex Scenes, which means somebody else should probably be writing this post.)
So right now I’m working on a novella in which two strangers are locked in a vault, fight, and then knock off a quickie fueled by a lot of conflicting emotions. They have sex, they don’t make love, because they’re not in love. Because they’re both so tense, the sex feels great, and because they’re not emotionally involved, it doesn’t change either of them during the act. Here’s the sex scene:
Yeah, I didn’t write it. I wrote the scene before it in his POV and I wrote the scene after in her POV, but I didn’t write the act because nothing of interest happened during it. They had good, fast sex to blow off some steam and that was it. Absolutely no reason to describe it.
I’m working on another book (yes, I have a focus problem) in which two people go back to his place and have sex, and while they’ve only known each other for two days, they do know each other, they have friends in common, they’re part of the same community, so the stakes are higher. Neither one of them thinks it will be Forever, but they like each other, so there’s some investment there. And things happen when they have sex that surprise them both, small things that need to be on the page and so, as much as I do not want to write a first person sex scene, as much as I would do anything to duck that sucker because writing that much emotion and sensation using “I” always sounds like Too Much Information to me, I am going to have to cowgirl up and write that scene because it moves plot and shifts character.
The character of the people in your stories not only dictates the frequency of sexual activity in your story and the emotional impact of the sex, it also dictates the kind of sex they’ll have, especially the first time. Sophie the con woman from Welcome to Temptation got conned into sex on a dock, art forger Tilda from Faking It faked it, and Cranky Agnes from Agnes and the Hitman had angry sex. The way a character makes love is character, and it changes depending on the character he or she is having sex with.
That means that if a sex scene is so generic that it can be dropped into any book, it’s death for your story because it’s going to flatten character. As Lord John Whorfin says, “Character is what you are in the dark,” and if your characters are in the dark, naked, meshing body parts with somebody they care about, you’d better believe that character change is happening because that sex is going to embody who they are at their deepest levels, their fears, their secrets, their darkest needs, their strongest yearnings. Sex scenes are boring; scenes in which your characters have sex that only they can have because of who they are, and that changes their characters and shifts the plot lines are fascinating. A lot of readers skip sex scenes; if you write your romance so that every word counts, they can’t; they’ll miss too much story.
As long as you remember that the sex in your story has to happen because of the characters in your story and that what they do has to result from their hopes and fears and needs, from who they are, you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about whether it’s not hot enough or too hot and definitely don’t worry about what people will think of you (except for Beany, she’ll judge), just write the scene the way your characters demand, and you’ll be fine.
Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.
For more Questionables, go to the Questionable Table of Contents.