In Which the Author Is Asked a Steamy Question

How do you write scenes that contain physical intimacy? Do you have any advice?

I’m willing to share some thoughts on this, but with the caveat that this is a subjective matter, and another writer with another writing style could give opposite advice that’s just as valid and that you’ll like better. Okay? There are many ways to, um, get the job done. And the job you do is not going to please everyone. 🙂

Also, where this post contains spoilers for my books, I will do my best to be as warny as possible. READ THE RED PRINT, which announces the beginning and end of spoiler sections. (If you have read both Graceling and Fire, then you don’t need to worry about the spoiler warnings.)

So, how do I write scenes about physical intimacy?

  • With extreme, persnickety, finicky care. When writing scenes of any kind, you want to try to avoid too many clichés, right? The trouble is that the language of sex and intimacy is SUPER-clichéd — just imagine a parody of a sex scene in a romance novel — so it becomes difficult to say things in a fresh way, a way that doesn’t draw unwanted attention to the writing. When I’m writing a book, I return to every scene and every exchange, over and over, days and weeks and even months after I’ve written them, testing them with my more objective eye. I fiddle with single words, or even punctuation. I do this with every type of scene — but I do it even more with scenes that have to do with physical intimacy, because these scenes require such a delicate balance of vocabulary and feeling.
  • With my thesaurus open. Let’s face it: there are some words that are best avoided in these scenes. Maybe never used the word “throbbing” in your sex scene :). Of course, there are no set rules, but words such as “ecstasy,” “rapture,” and a whole litany of corny names for body parts (manhood! member!) can also be problematic. This leaves the writer with a crisis. What words can you use without cracking yourself (and others) up? What words are left? I can’t tell you. Be patient. Keep fiddling with it until it feels right. I give a few more tips about word choice below.
  • With a lot of laughter. Writing one of these scenes is not a dignified activity. My thesaurus, in particular, is constantly cracking me up. I don’t want to use the word “passionately,” because that’s wooden and clichéd, but wouldn’t it be hysterical if I used the word “concupiscently” instead? Or “agog,” or “with biological urge?” Agog with biological urge, he thrust his throbbing manhood into her quivering conflagration. The antonyms always get me, too. What if I just admitted that my smooching characters find this turn of events to be “dreary,” “uninspiring,” “producing ennui,” or just plain “stupid?”
  • Reminding myself that less is more. Here’s the thing: you’re trying to evoke the feeling of what is happening to your characters, for your reader. So, how are your characters feeling? Keeping in mind, of course, that everyone is different 🙂 — while this funny business is going on, the characters are probably NOT going through a mental inventory of the steps involved. My goodness, I am now moving my left hand slowly up his right calf and over his bumpy knee while spasmodically clutching his throbbing torso with my right arm! Fantastic! Assuming the characters are into what’s happening, they probably aren’t thinking that way. Chances are, they’re in a bit of a haze. So, create a bit of a haze for your reader. Don’t feel the need to over-describe; resist the urge to explain. If you’re struggling with what words to use for body parts — see if you can evoke the same impressions without naming the body parts. If you’ve written a sentence about hands touching face and back and neck (or whatever), try how it sounds if you just talk about hands touching, without specifying where. See how much you can do with as few words as possible. Maybe, choose a single specific physical touch for one of your sentences, and then back away from specifics for a while. Or, don’t. It’s a delicate operation. You don’t want to do too little or too much, but where that line is depends entirely on the nature of your book, the nature of your characters, and the situation.
  • With extreme attention, at all times, to who has the power and who is taking the initiative. These types of scenes are inevitably at least partly about power. The power dynamics between whoever the players are in the scene need to be realistic. Depending on how you write these scenes, they can go a long way toward defining your characters, and defining the power dynamics of their relationships. For example: [FIRE SPOILERS!!!] In Fire, Archer sleeps with women indiscriminately and makes it obvious he always wants to sleep with Fire. So, if and when Fire sleeps with him, I make damn sure that it’s because she wants to and takes the initiative, not because he finally “wears her down,” so to speak. In fact, Fire is so much about Fire being desired by others, even attacked, that this became important to me throughout the book. Onscreen, I try to make her always decide for herself when she wants physical intimacy, and never allow herself to be pushed into it by loved ones. I also try to demonstrate the decency of various loved ones by showing them resisting the urge to try to push her into it — resisting the urge to exploit their own power. Which she does, too. Power dynamics get messy! [END OF FIRE SPOILERS!!!] ……. [AND NOW….] …… [GRACELING SPOILERS!!!] Katsa, on the other hand, is the aggressor in all things, always — except for in this particular sphere. She’s a frequently fearless person who is suddenly terrified to discover herself having feelings for someone. So though she finds the courage to initiate the first hug, I decided that her partner should kiss her first. That being said — that first hug, initiated by Katsa, was also carefully planned. He didn’t kiss her until she gave him an invitation. All of this was part of my attempt to create an even balance of power between two people with an unusual power relationship. [END OF GRACELING SPOILERS!!!] And it’s relevant, of course, that the exchanges I’ve been talking about here are all consensual and involve characters who love each other and want what is happening. Obviously, if the power dynamics are important in that sort of situation, they’re going to be extra important in a situation that isn’t consensual, doesn’t involve love, etc. (Here’s a post from Rebecca Rabinowitz’s blog from a whole year ago that led to some interesting discussion on this sort of stuff, btw.) (BTW, I could write a book about this bullet point.)
  • Taking into account the physical realities of the situation. This might not be as relevant for you as it is for me, but my characters are often injured, stranded in the wilderness, recovering from traumatizing experiences, etc. :), and it’s important that as you approach a smoochy scene, you remember the realities of the situation. For example, [FIRE SPOILERS!!!] in Fire, I had this spectacular smoochy scene all planned out… and then, when I got there, I was suddenly like, “WAIT. She has a broken nose.” How fun can it be to kiss someone if every time your nose touches something, you’re in agony, plus, blood is running down your throat? Ew. So instead of trying to force the characters to do something uncomfortable, I changed the way the scene played out. I ended up quite pleased with the way it played out, actually. [END OF FIRE SPOILERS!!!]
  • Remembering who my characters are. On the other hand — I’m not sure what it would take to break one of Katsa’s bones, but I can’t imagine a broken bone stopping her from kissing her partner, who could probably handle a little blood :). People are different. What’s likely to happen will change depending on which character you’re writing about. Trust your instincts on this one; they’re your characters, and it’s your book. Here’s an example of how who my characters are affected the way I wrote their respective scenes: [MILD SPOILERS FOR BOTH GRACELING AND FIRE!!…] at a the beginning of Graceling, Katsa is an intensely physical person, but with a complete lack of experience of physical intimacy. Fire, on the other hand, is a more emotionally-oriented person and much more experienced in both giving and receiving pleasure. Also, Fire is injured, or in emotional distress that’s causing her physical discomfort, a lot of the time. For all of these reasons, I found myself making Katsa’s experiences of physical intimacy more descriptive, more specific about what was actually happening, than I did with Fire’s. Maybe I wanted intimacy to be a physical revelation for Katsa, a new way of being an intensely physical being. Whereas I wrote Fire’s experiences using fewer specifics, because I found myself wanting those scenes to be less about physical revelation and more about giving and receiving comfort and love. [END OF SPOILERS.]
  • Being willing to embarrass myself. You know what? You gotta take risks. Try things, and then give them to readers you trust. If you’re lucky, you have an extremely sarcastic sister who loves you but is happy to tell you when your corniness needs to be de-corned.

Important: What I’ve talked about here is what I’ve tried to do. I don’t make any claims as to my success, and I kind of cringed through the sections above that involved some “explaining” of my own characters. Authors aren’t allowed to do that. Reading is subjective. YOU decide who my characters are, whether they’re decent to each other, whether you agree with their decisions, whether you like them at all, whether the writing in any particular scene makes you happy or makes you roll your eyes. One of the things that’s become most enormously clear to me, since becoming a published writer, is how true it is that taste and interpretation are subjective. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me they loved the very thing about one of my novels that someone else has told me they hated. Keep that in mind as a writer. There is no absolute right. It’s art, and it’s yours. Make it what it’s asking to be, and don’t worry too much about what other people are telling you it should be, unless what they’re saying speaks to your soul.

And that’s my answer!