Thursday, February 10, 2011

Looking for Love in All the Right Places

by Saralee Rosenberg

In honor of Valentine's day, the question has been asked how I handle writing love scenes. The answer is very, very carefully. First lesson I learned is not to necessarily equate love with sex, which has nothing to do with my thirty-three year old marriage. It has to do with the fact that there is no need to succumb to bodice-ripping in order to share a romantic moment. What readers find more moving and tender is the heart and humor of love...something I had to learn the hard way.

I could not wait to show my then agent my first attempt at writing a hot love scene. It involved a hotel chandelier and a rented cheerleading outfit and that's all I'm going to say. I worked on it for days and choreographed each move so that my readers were with me every breathless step of the way. Honestly, I thought it was great writing and expected my agent to say "Wow, I'll have what she's having!" Instead she said something to the effect of, "Uchhhh. Please don't ever write another sex scene. Stick to what you know."

Yep. Sex scenes weren't my strong suit. But what to do? I loved writing about romance and relationships so I was going to have to learn to manage this slippery slope without having readers (or me) cringe. Over time I learned that the key was to delicately balance the laughs and the love because hey, sex can be funny.

That meant that I didn't need to steam up the mirrors for the purpose of titillation. Didn't need to resort to Hallmark mush to prove undying love. Didn't need for any achy-breaky hearts to come off like a country ballad. What I did need was some honest dialogue mixed with sharing and caring between the sheets. My goal then and now is to always keep it honest.

Trouble is, it's not as easy as it sounds to write an intimate scene that leaves the reader satisfied (Was it good for you?). You can't gloss over it like the peck on the cheek. You have to be totally in the moment while sidestepping the three big no-nos- melodrama, schmaltz and clichés.

If you need a few pointers on navigating this murky path, here are some tips:

Show Don't Tell: When a character experiences an emotion (physical or emotional), don't say that they felt confused or amused. Show us how the emotion manifested through the sensation—the laugh/cry, a racing heart, sweaty palms. Yes, yes, those are cliché but you can do better. Just steer clear of writing- She felt heartbroken. He was in a panic.

Cliches= Slush Pile: Overused and unoriginal expressions make us all roll our eyes, so avoid cliché cringers such as Her heart broke. She hated him with a passion... Use "like" and "as". Veronica stabbed her meat as if her fork had the power to maim. Use gestures and facial expressions. Bob raised an eyebrow. Tracey stomped like a child.

Remember involuntary responses: If a character is hit over the head, we expect them to scream, cry, etc. But what if a character is kissed unexpectedly? Would tingles run up her spine (no because that's a cliché), but his heart might race like a rebuilt engine. The idea is to check her/his vital signs to reveal real emotion.

Use Your Senses: If a picture is worth a thousand words, so is a beautifully written passage that shares sight, sound, touch, taste and feelings. What do we hear while walking on the beach? How does it feel to touch a newborn's cheek? Incorporate as many senses as possible to heighten the drama.

Don't Overwrite: Use a pen not a bat. Ditch the long, flowy, mushy dramatic dialogue (I will never talk to you again as long as I live you heartless bastard), which violates the no-cliché rule. Don't exaggerate actions (He paced for so long he wore out the bottom of his soles). Don't overuse exclamation points!!!!!!! Don't overuse adverbs. He bravely walked up to his boss and quickly grabbed his embarrassingly small wrist. Or throw in hackneyed words like glared, shouted, clenched, etc. which are show more than tell, but still leave us wanting for an emotional experience. She eyed the planter and wondered if she had the strength to hurl it overhead.

Do Paint a Picture: Envision a scene and take a mental snapshot. Let's say the scene is at a funeral and the protagonist introduces himself to the husband of the deceased. He says that he was a good friend, but how good? From his POV, tell us if he appears nervous. Dying for a cigarette? Does he keep looking at his cell? Reveal, reveal, reveal.

Yes, writing a love scene can be a challenge, and for sure it's going to involve some level of mortification. But if you approach it with honesty and humor, it will be good for you AND the reader. Sigh.


  1. Awesome advice. I'm keeping these points handy.

  2. Wonderful, warm, funny, helpful ... exactly what I'd expect from you, my friend!

    Thanks for the great post. I can't wait to share ...


  3. I love romantic scenes that aren't all bodice ripping. Or if it is bodice ripping - I love knowing the story and the passion behind it first. Great advice.

  4. Saralee, great post!! I don't really write a whole lot of love scenes, but you have inspired me to give them a try!

  5. Saralee, now I really want to read that chandelier/cheerleading outfit scene! ;-) You are too funny! Fab advice, btw!!!

  6. What a fabulous post, Saralee! Loved the humor and the dead-on explanations of what to avoid. And I'm with Susan on this -- you've teased us with talk of that chandelier + cheerleading outfit scene... I want to read it!! :)

  7. Thanks for this, love scenes are not my strong suit and these are great tips. Will you just give us the title of the book with the cheerleading suit and chandelier??

  8. Great advice! I always find that the love scenes are the most awkward for me to write. (I tend to keep thinking that my mom will read it since she keeps freaking out that I am writing romance.)
    I tend to overcompensate on my discomfort and make them too steamy (and full of clichés). I need to keep in mine that I need to stay true to my own voice or it will be awkward not only for me but for the reader. Thanks!

  9. Great post! I'm still laughing at the agent telling you to stick to what you know!

  10. Thank you so much for the writing advice! Wonderful post..

    I especially will remember to check my character's vital signs, use the five senses to describe the scene; and finally (the hardest one I think for me will be) avoiding tired verbs like glared, shouted, clenched, etc...

    how do you know if one verb is truly more unoriginal than another?? It'd be great if there were a resource/list somehwere! Thanka again for the post - this is one I intend to save for a loong time:)