"A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous."
~ Ingrid Bergman
In the next few posts I will attempt to deconstruct the elemental differences between love scenes and erotica. How much is too much, and how little is too little? How can love scenes/erotic moments enhance or destroy plot? As a reader, I've come across my fair share of spicy, intimate, interesting love scenes. I've read raunchy pulpy things that were less artistic and more pornographic; I've read cute little 'fade to black' implied love scenes; and I've read tastefully done hard core sex. I've also tried my hand at writing pretty much everything I just mentioned and so this topic bears personal importance to me not only as a reader but as an author as well. First up, we'll explore the love scene and try to identify some of the elements that make it what it is.
In a love scene (for a romance novel), this is the most important moment of character interaction. It reveals a great deal about one or both of the characters involved and this is done primarily through the events before and after the actual 'deed.' The foreplay and the banter (be it comical, dramatic, endearing, or even a bit on the naughty side) tell us what these characters mean to each other, or don't mean to each other. The following pillow talk moments (if present) tell us how this loving moment is going to change or not change the course of events for the characters and possibly the whole novel. Every choice in a love scene has meaning. Everything the characters say to each other in a love scene has meaning. This moment sets up the reader for the inevitable doom or triumph of these characters because in this one moment, they are vulnerable. They are happy and in love, at least physically if not emotionally, and everything is right with the world and now we sit back and wait to see how it either all comes together or all falls apart. It is here where 'too little' can actually detract from a story. If one is not willing to give the love scene the care and craft that it is due, then it is often better to leave it out entirely, but, in some cases that would ruin the point of the novel.
The main emphasis is not the actual sex in a love scene, hence the title: love scene. It is about the love, or lack thereof, and it propels a romance plot forward by giving the character(s) something to fight for or fight against or cherish or regret. I have read several love scenes that go into a bit of detail in an attempt to spice it up, but even still, there is always a decided lack of frank anatomical references, the author favoring obscurity behind terms like 'manhood' and 'rod' and 'her mounds.' Also the actual 'doing of it' generally lasts (on the page) a few paragraphs at best, and ends with both parties mutually satisfied (the ear mark of fiction, as this is very rarely the case in real life). For the most part, these scenes are all about the lead up and sometimes - depending on the author's style, the needs of the story, the wills of the characters - it's all about what happens after.
In novels that do not fall into the romance genre, love scenes may or may not bear the same importance. They can become objects of comical relief, they can be statements on a character's lack or adherence to moral codes, they can be pure and blatant fanservice (giving the reader what the reader wants for the sake of doing so), and they can also be that optimal moment where everything changes and the characters have to figure out where they go from here. Successful love scenes engage the reader's emotional side at least as much as, if not more than, their visceral side.
Something rather magical about love scenes is that they can exist in a story without even being written and, in some cases, can carry all the significance, relief, confusion, regret, or hope that a featured love scene brings with it. In Harry Harrison's Planet of the Damned, the love scene between the main characters takes place in a hospital setting and all that the author gives us to go on is some gentle kissing and a whisper from the female lead telling her paramour "I bruise easily." That ends the chapter and when we pick up the story again the action plot surges forth and the tiny moment of romantic reprieve is all but forgotten. We don't need to know what she might have cried out as they finished, or how long they lasted to be satisfied that they expressed their long over due affection and just in time, as the fate of the planet hangs in the balance. Another absolutely fantastic love scene that is truly a 'love' scene and not an observation of sex in any way shape or form comes from Henry de vere Stacpoole's The Blue Lagoon. With a target audience of young adults, it might seem strange that this story, published in 1908, would deign to explore sexuality at all. However, chapter nine of book two (which is only five paragraphs long - just as long as it needs to be), explores the carnal coming of age without ever indicating the act. The previous chapter ends with Dick and Emmeline's frustrations coming to a head in a sudden sweet kiss and then we skip over the specifics and are left with this beautiful acclamation of love which, I believe does all the things a love scene ought to and does it in a way that is palatable to the audience and appropriate for the overall mood and setting of the story.
The Blue Lagoon, Book II, Chapter Nine (in its entirety)
The moon rose up that evening and shot her silver arrows at the house under the artu tree. The house was empty. Then the moon came across the sea and across the reef.
She lit the lagoon to its dark, dim heart. She lit the coral brains and sand spaces, and the fish, casting their shadows on the sand and the coral. The keeper of the lagoon rose to greet her, and the fin of him broke her reflection on the mirror-like surface into a thousand glittering ripples. She saw the white staring ribs of the form on the reef. Then, peeping over the trees, she looked down into the valley, where the great idol of stone had kept its solitary vigil for five thousand years, perhaps, or more.
At his base, in his shadow, looking as if under his protection, lay two human beings, naked, clasped in each other's arms, and fast asleep. One could scarcely pity his vigil, had it been marked sometimes through the years by such an incident as this. The thing had been conducted just as the birds conduct their love affairs. An affair absolutely natural, absolutely blameless, and without sin.
It was a marriage according to Nature, without feast or guests, consummated with accidental cynicism under the shadow of a religion a thousand years dead.
So happy in their ignorance were they, that they only knew that suddenly life had changed, that the skies and the sea were bluer, and that they had become in some magical way one a part of the other. The birds on the tree above were equally as happy in their ignorance, and in their love.
In summation, a love scene typically entails some if not all of these elements: love in some form, foreplay (and, occasionally pillow talk), brevity during the actual act, polite euphemisms in place of lewd or scientific terms, and everyone gets their jollies. To put it bluntly, a love scene should be like a young woman's skirt; long enough to cover the subject but short enough to keep our attention. In the next installment we will look at what graduates a love scene into all out erotica.
Love Scenes VS. Erotica: Erotica
Love Scenes VS. Erotica: Pillow Talk
Love Scenes VS. Erotica: Erotica
Love Scenes VS. Erotica: Pillow Talk
Planet of the Damned, by Harry Harrison, published in 1962, can be purchased at Amazon.com. You can also download the royalty free audio book here .