Thursday, February 26, 2009

Writing Sensual Love Scenes without S-E-X

Our guest at Seekerville today is Stephanie Newton, a brand new Love Inspired Suspense author. Her first book, Perfect Target, will be released in March. She, her pastor husband and two daughters live on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Thanks for joining us today, Steph!

I cut my reading teeth in middle school hiding in the attic with my mom’s copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ Shanna—the beginning of a long and varied love of romance. My favorite thing even now while reading a book is feeling that little thrill in my stomach when the hero and heroine finally get it. They’re made for each other. Or maybe they don’t realize it yet, but nevertheless they’re beginning to understand that they can’t stay away from each other. These are what I call love scenes.

Writing these scenes can be tough, especially when there are very strict guidelines about what your characters are and are not allowed to do to express their physical attraction for each other. Frankly, while I find some of the guidelines confining, mostly I tend to look at them as a challenge. How can I write this scene as emotionally charged as possible while keeping the physical relationship at the “sweet” level? In my opinion, these scenes are vital to a believable book, because let’s face it…in real life, sensuality plays an integral part in what we think and feel about that significant other. So, here are a few things that I try to remember as I write (with some examples from Perfect Target, my March release from Steeple Hill Love Inspired Suspense).

Love scenes come about from actions that show the hero or heroine’s heart. Love scenes shouldn’t be a surprise to the reader. They should grow naturally out of the action of the story. The hero or heroine should feel irrevocably drawn to the other person because of that person’s actions even if it is contrary to her beliefs about that person.

Bayley snatched the cordless phone from the kitchen wall, her finger on the nine before her mind registered what she’d seen. Moonlight glinting off sun-bleached hair. Cruse. She’d told him she didn’t want him inside her house, so he’d slept on her deck instead. In a bent-up, neck-cricking position in a too-short plastic chair. Foolishly, tears pricked her eyes. She’d had a lot of protectors over the years…None of them had cared a lick how she felt about them being in her space. But Cruse did.

Love scenes involve all the senses. One of the most important things to remember is that every encounter between the hero and heroine leads up to these very intimate moments. The two characters should be aware of each other from the beginning—a sort of hyper-awareness--building the suspense as their relationship grows to create a love scene that is both moving and believable.

At three in the morning, the moon had traveled across the sky and angled across the water in a rolling ribbon of light. Bayley joined Cruse at the rail. When she glanced up at him, he wasn’t looking at the moon anymore. His eyes were on her face. A long piece of her hair, floating in the breeze, brushed Cruse’s cheek. He took it between his fingers and very deliberately tucked it behind her ear, his fingers sliding along the sensitive skin at the curve of her neck. He leaned toward her. In the bright moonlight, she could see his eyes dilate as he gazed into hers. He didn’t move away, just stood, a breath between them.

Love scenes show the hero and heroine’s feelings—physical and emotional. I’ve read some hot love scenes, but unless those scenes draw me into the characters’ emotions through their senses, then there’s no emotional buy-in for me, the reader. And to me, that’s really the point.

Bayley walked through the kitchen door and closed it, pressing her back against it. The sense of danger had shifted away from the constant anxiety she knew so well. This new fear startled her in its intensity—that the walls she’d worked so hard to build around herself could be breached so easily by a cop who gave up his good night’s sleep to make her feel safe.
If the hero and heroine’s actions show their heart, if the scene involves all the senses, and the characters’ emotions are an intrinsic part, you’ll have a scene with impact on the reader and the characters.

Love scenes are an essential part of reading romance for me. My favorites are those where the attraction between the hero and heroine is nearly palpable, yet the author manages to show how the relationship between them is growing. Oh, and the ones that give me that funny tickle in my tummy, kinda like when my husband sends me that secret look over the kids’ heads.


  1. Welcome to Seekerville, Stephanie! (I guess everyone else is a sleepyhead this morning!)

    Excellent post! It truly is the EMOTION that makes a love scene, the emotion that sets a reader on the edge of his/her chair. How can a writer know if what they've written will hit that emotion trigger in a reader?

    Please make yourself at home--others (probably bearing cyber goodies) will be along shortly!

  2. Thanks for being with us Stephanie. This is really really good stuff. I am printing it out. Tell us a little about how you became a LI Suspense author.

    Yes, Glynna I finally arrived with our breakfast. As usual, to maintain our svelte Seekerville figure, we have cyber food. Are you ready?

    Cheese blintzes, sausages and a fruit bowl.

  3. Hey y'all! Well, that's a header to get your attention, huh? It should actually read "Writing sensual love scenes withOUT s-e-x!"

    Hope nobody spewed their morning coffee when they came to Seekerville this morning...

    Hi Glynna! I'm going to do the school run and then settle in at Panera with a cup of coffee, a bagel, and some fun! I've been looking forward to this for weeks!


  4. Steph, I'm so sorry for my Freudian slip!!! I hope you'll forgive me some day when I'm old and gray. Actually, I'm there now and getting older and grayer by the moment.

    Great post!

  5. Stephanie,
    Kathleen Woodiwiss, huh?
    For me it was "Ashes in the Wind"!

    You've given some great thoughts into this subject. It's a walk along a thin line and the line keeps moving, depending who you talk to, what line you're targeting and of course personal comfort zones.

    I find the most difficult part is writing that emotion from the male point of view because I think (ladies am I right?) that men's response is just a tad less emotional than women's and more physical.

    yikes, talk about showing not telling.

  6. Welcome to Seekerville, Stephanie! Congratulations on your upcoming release PERFECT TARGET! And thanks for your excellent post on how to write sensual love scenes within the LI guidelines. I write for LIH so I know the challenge.

    I especially like your reminder to show the growth of the characters in the love scenes. All their back story and external conflicts that are keeping them apart shift and change as they learn to trust each other. In the end, the reader knows with certainty that these two were made for each other.

    Tina, thanks for breakfast!


  7. Congrats on your sales! I love your excerpts and your post. :-)

  8. Great post. You're right, Glynna, the emotion is what tugs at me while I'm reading.

    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  9. Welcome, Stephanie!!! I'm so glad you're with us today. And I'm so excited about your new release!

    Thanks for your great examples of the attraction as well as the emotional involvement in your book. In the revisions on my first book, I had to edit out several kisses. They were in there too soon and before the hero/heroine had any emotional attraction. And once I re-did the book, I found it was so much better. It really gave a drive to the story, because I held off so long on that first kiss. One reader wrote to me and said, "I thought they'd never kiss!" She said it's what kept her reading. :)

    So that tension is as important as the actual kiss. Well, maybe not quite as important, but you know what I mean. LOL


  10. Wow! Thanks for the awesome welcome! Glynna asked how can a writer know if what they've written will hit that emotional trigger in a reader. Obviously every reader won't respond the same way, but I think if the scene and the heightened emotion that it evokes in the character is true to the character, it will evoke some response in the reader.

    Donna Alward who writes for Harlequin Romance says she knows if she cries that she's written a great emotional scene. Valerie Parv, who's written over 53 books for Har/Sil, says that she puts in the amount of emotion she thinks it needs and then doubles it. If I get a lump in my throat while I'm writing, I'm feeling what the characters are feeling...I think each writer probably has their own barometer for a great emotional scene.

  11. Tina asked about my journey to becoming a LIS author. It's a six year journey that started with a suspense submission to then LI. (Insert five years of trying different suspense lines trying to find where my voice fit in the Har/Sil lineup, some great mentoring by authors and feedback from editors) In late 2007, my agent met Melissa Endlich at a conference and Melissa asked if she had anyone who might fit the LIS line. My agent called to see if I might be interested and I was! I sold to LIS in January 2008 and I'm so, so blessed to be in that line and working with Melissa!

  12. Missy, that's funny that you had to edit out kisses...the only thing I've had to edit out so far is that my male characters tend to take their shirts off (well, my stories are set on the beach!)

    I do find it challenging to see how I can show the characters' attraction to each other without the obvious! But I think about my own relationship with my's his hand against the small of my back, his thumb rubbing my fingers as we hold hands, or the way our eyes meet across the room at a party. There are so many little gestures of affection that can bring an extra layer of richness to a manuscript.

  13. Now I really want to get to one of my "lovey" scenes in my editing process.

    These are most favorite scenes to read and your post defines why so clearly.

    Revealing emotion, tenderness, and closeness between the hero and heroine just makes my tummy tingle if done right. What a great feeling!

    Thanks for this!

  14. GLYNNA! Your comment is posted at 5:08 and we're SLEEPY HEADS!!!!!?????

    Okay, I know we have early risers and time zone issues, so maybe someone's a sleepy head, but not ME!!!

    I like the article, Stephanie. I LOVE using the emotion without the physical...exactly. It's exactly the way I want to write.

    Although I have perhaps been accused of being too discrete, in the now over-mentioned comments I got about Petticoat Ranch...when did she get pregnant????

    So maybe I took discretion a bit too far.

  15. I had to edit out a breast feeding scene.


  16. Oh, man, Stephanie, I loved Cara's slip-up, only because it made me feel more normal.

    A trick, as Seekers and guests know.

    This was a great post and I'm loving the cheese blintzes. You can't get them anywhere around here. Only available if you make 'em and I've got no time this AM, so Tina, thank you!

    Steph, you touched on the very reasons that movies like You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle, Pride and Prejudice, etc. make it big. The feelings between the H/H are what we're after, what makes us plunk down $20 for a movie without snacks...

    Great examples and I can't wait to read your upcoming suspense novel.

    Now tell me that your picture is a twenty-year-old retouched photo, and I'll be super-happy.

    Hey, dropping off some jelly beans into the mix. Fruit ones. If someone likes spice, I'll grab those on my next trip to the market.


  17. Sure there was a baby involved, Connealy.

    You strumpet.


  18. Congratulations Stephanie on your upcoming release. And thanks for a wonderful post on emotion vs. sex. Is there a general sense/timeline as to the progression of the relationship? I recently read a book where the characters came no where near kissing until somewhere around page 250 out of 374. And that worked just fine but sooner is not always bad either.

  19. Hi Stephanie:

    Donna Alward writes very emotional plotlines. (I’ve read all her books.) Simply reading an Alward synopsis can bring tears. Your emotion seems to be more character-driven rather than plot-driven. Do you see it that way?

    Also are you allowed to use ‘innocent’ behavior which could be said to symbolize more explicit behavior or would this be taboo, too? (I have in mind the hero petting the heroine’s cat and saying something like, “She just loves being scratched behind the ears.”)

    Now I’ll have to read your book with this post in mind trying to learn some techniques that I can use in my writing. I enjoy reading a book with a theory in mind as this can provide a second level of reading pleasure.



  20. Thank you for your insightful post today. I always struggle with cliches when writing sensual scenes. Finding an original way to write about the emotions love evokes is very challenging! Any tips?

  21. Ah, Ruthy, you are a sweetheart! My forty year old face thanks you!

    Patricia, I really think the timeline depends on the story. In one of my books, the characters had a previous relationship. They kiss earlier than in the first book, where the first kiss is closer to the middle of the book (I think, :) But I also think there's a progression to intimacy...I think the closer characters grow, the more believable it is when they kiss or hold hands or whatever. The timeline in a novel is usually compressed--especially in suspense, I think, so it's important to make that progression believable.

  22. Vince, I think the hero or heroine could notice the way the other stroked the cat...that's actually a very sensual experience, tactilely speaking. (not sure tactilely is a word!) I can't say for sure because I'm not an editor, but I'd guess that a remark about it implying an action from one character to the other would not be allowed.

    Mary, I love your editing story!

  23. Forgot to say that I was lucky enough to be in the same RWA chapter with Cara for a short while before my husband's job moved me too far away! She's so amazing and precious...and I love that I now have this awesome story to tell about my first guest blogging experience! :)

  24. Jody, I'm so with you on love scenes being challenging to write!! I try to use the setting-- if possible--to evoke a sensory feeling in the scene. There's a storm scene in Perfect Target that was one of my favorites to write and was the inspiration for the cover art.

    Sometimes on my first draft, I try to get things down, and then on the next few pass-throughs, I work with the words to make them sound more fresh. Hope that helps!

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. I hadn't had my coffee when I reader the title of your post, so I never noticed.

  27. Talking about romance without it being sexual is a perfect place for me to comment that:

    You know you're a Christian historical western romance novelist when you realize you've just spent ten minutes of your life researching the etymology of the term hornswoggled to make sure it's not rooted in any cuss words.

    It's all very murky, but I guess I'll go ahead and use it.


  28. Steph,

    Great thoughts! I appreciate your broader definition of "love scene" ... it's become interchangeable with "loveMAKING scene," and that just doesn't always have to be the case. I think having your protective hero pretzel-twist himself over a too-small plastic chair is super romantic.

    Mary, I'm pretty sure I ran across "hornswoggled" in a Love Inspired Historical, so I think you're safe. If not ... I have a feeling they'll tell you! ;)


  29. What fun to think about emotions for the peeps in my WIP. I thnk that's what makes older movies unforgettable -- what's not shown ... ;-)

    Thanks, Stephanie!

  30. THAT is the truth. If it's not okay, I'll hear about it.

    But seriously, I don't want to miss out on the change to work the word hornswoggle into my book if possible. How can a writer pass up a chance like that????

  31. Great point, Ann. What's not shown is sometimes as important as what is shown.

    Sierra, maybe it's my nearly twenty years of being married that have broadened my definition of romance. My man doing the dishes so I don't have to will just about bring me to tears sometimes! ;o)

    What's the most romantic thing your spouse or significant other has done for you? It can be hearts and flowers romance or something completely non-traditional.

  32. Great post, Stephanie. Showing and not telling without showing too much. LoL.

    Is there a place that spells out the 'thou shalt nots' for LI? or LIHw

  33. Thank you, Stephanie. That's what I've been going off of, but I was concerned there were other guidelines I didn't know about. It's good to know I was at least on track. LoL

  34. You know, Patty, I think it's mostly common sense. I have a twelve year old, and while my book has some mature themes, I had no problem letting her read it. There are lots of YA books that I would not let her read until she's an adult and can make her own decisions.

    Back to the original post, you can build a lot of tension with the characters' conflict (Bayley's problem with being protected) and a lot of romance with the characters' needs, conscious or unconscious, being fulfilled by the other (Cruse giving her space, but protecting her in the process).

  35. Stephanie -- Welcome to Seekerville, and I'm sorry to pop in so late. I usually like to come for coffee, but was up and out early today.

    Love the post and LOVE the line: "Because let’s face it…in real life, sensuality plays an integral part in what we think and feel about that significant other."

    A LOUD ALLELUJAH CHORUS HERE, PLEASE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Amen and amen, sister!! Life is full of passion, whether we are talking about love for God or love for romance, so I personally LOVE to see a touch of sensuality or romantic passion in the books I read. Which, I'm guessing, will put yours on my TBR list.

    And your line "Oh, and the ones that give me that funny tickle in my tummy, kinda like when my husband sends me that secret look over the kids’ heads." Double Amen.


  36. Hey Steph - whoa! You read Shanna in middle school? I don't recall much of the book but when I read it as a soon to be adult, my sheltered Christian life shattered. Or was it Sweet Surrender or something that did the trick?

    I love tour voice. Powerful stuff.

    I didn't have any physical love scenes (kissing, etc) in the wip I targeted for LIH yet the editor said it was too sensual for LIH. Wasn't that a kicker!

    I'm definitely copying your post. Hopefully it'll help me figure out what I need.

    Great post!

  37. Hi Julie and Anita! Thanks so much for the compliments. Julie, I think we're definitely in agreement!

    I have loved visiting with y'all today. Thanks for welcoming me so warmly at Seekerville! I love the lively discussion. I'll try to stop back by another time or two, but for now I'll leave a big bowl of colorful Gulf of Mexico salt water taffy for y'all to enjoy!

    Have a great weekend! Happy reading...

  38. Thanks for this great post, Stephanie! The kissing scenes are always my favorite part! And it really is all about emotional build-up. If you build on their attraction and interactions from the very beginning, the kisses are really great. Some writers are great at this, some are not are not as great.

    The first couple of times I wrote kissing scenes, it was really hard. Now it's my favorite! I've even worried that I might one day progress to the point that I want to write secular! Yikes! I guess the reality that that terrifies me means it won't happen. :-)

    Can you guys believe I wrote almost 4,000 words yesterday? I've been writing at least 2,000 every day! And today I wrote the second big kissing scene, which comes near the end, so this post was very timely for me. I wish I could share it with you, but it won't mean as much unless you've read all the emotional build-up. :-)

    I'm so close to finishing this rough draft! YAYYYY!

  39. Stephanie,
    Such a great blog!!! Loved your "love" scenes. Really, so nicely written ... lots of emotion ... I'm ready to buy the book!!!

    Shanna was the first romance I ever read, as well.

  40. I'm Stephanie's newest biggest fan. ;) and when I saw this blog post, I thought...that's perfect! Because i just read your book this past week Stephanie and thought you did a GREAT job of that while I was reading. :-)