Okay, so we’ve looked into why your sex scene is there, language, rhythm, and the expansion of character and relationship, so it’s time to start the really fun stuff and talk about amping up the sexiness of your sex scenes. We’ll do more of this as we go along, but I wanted to slide us into it easily today, to make us all ready and willing. To prepare us, if you will. To make us desperate for more.
In other words, to talk about foreplay.
The thing is, while writing about sex usually involves penetration, covering the physical act of penetration is the least important part of writing the scene. And it’s the least interesting. And I honestly believe this is where a lot of people slip up. Because, despite my strong belief that no two people make love the exact same way as far as their feelings and emotions etc. etc. go, the fact is, once Tab A is inserted into Slot B, all that’s left—physically—is a little friction.
Obviously when writing that friction—as we’ve already covered—you add emotion and sensation, thought, allusion, and imagery to make that friction interesting and different (as do different positions etc.--having sex from behind, for example, is a very different experience from face-to-face; it looks different, it feels different physically and emotionally). But the longest sex scene possible—I believe Blood Will Tell’s bathroom scene is one of the longest instances of penetration I’ve written—is still going to be much shorter than foreplay. Like in real life, foreplay can go on for pages and pages; penetration is probably not going to last longer than a page or two--twenty or thirty minutes tops (and let’s be somewhat realistic here; do you really want it to? Chafing isn’t fun. Neither is numbness. I’ve never understood people who go on and on about hours of tantric sex; I have stuff to do. I’m fully aware that may just be me, but really, whether it’s in real life or in books, there’s only so much you can do once the actual business gets started.) I’ve never consciously planned this, but in thinking back I think my scenes on average are about 70-80% foreplay. Of course every scene is different. I’m a fan of rough, fast, must-have-you-now scenes, but I would say the majority of my scenes hover in that percentage.
Foreplay doesn’t have to be achingly long hours of teasing and kissing and touching, either. Here’s a bit of foreplay from Black Dragon, my attempt at an “old school” medieval romance (not only does this have a different voice from my usual work, because it’s an old-school historical, but it’s from Cerridwen Press so is one of my less graphic scenes; it also contains a minor linguistic anachronism or two [which I explained in the book’s Author’s Note, lest you think me lazy]):
“I hate you,” she said, tears in her eyes at both the cruelty and truth of his words. “I wish we had never met, I wish we had never married, I wish I had never come here.”
“Aye? Then that makes two of us, my lady, for I do not like you much either.”
“You do not like anyone, including yourself,” she snapped. “Tell me, Gruffydd, what happened to you in life that made you so eager to grow up to be a complete bastard? You are certainly ready enough to examine my flaws. How about yours? How about the way you refuse to show any vulnerability, as if you can be more than human simply by willing it so? The way you will not allow anything to be important to you?”
“I will not. How about the way you hate having people help you in any way? How about the secrets you keep? Finding out what you want for your meal is a trial, much less anything about you or your life. You say I like to hide behind a façade and then tell myself nobody understands me. I am not surprised you see this, my lord, for I have never in my life met someone who hides as much as you do!”
“What else are you hiding, Gruffydd? What other ways do you devise to cause pain to yourself, to—”
“Stop it!” he yelled. His fists were clenched at his sides.
“Oh, are you angry? Are you actually showing some feeling? Forgive me, you have never done so before and I fear I am not seeing correctly.”
“Stop it, Isabelle, or I swear I will—”
“You’ll what? Hit me? I would not be surprised if you did. I have been expecting it since the day we met.”
“Do not tempt me!”
He grabbed her shoulders, his gaze burning into hers, rooting her to where she now stood. Livid at both him and the fire started in her belly by his mere touch, she twisted sideways, struggling to pull free from the feelings in her heart and body.
But he pulled her closer, making escape from the heat of his skin and the strength of his hands impossible. She gasped. For a moment they stared at each other, their faces furious, chests heaving in unison, before his mouth fell on hers, devouring her lips as his grip threatened to squeeze the life from her body.
Now, I know the fight-into-sex isn’t exactly original (nor is the "Don't tempt me!" line--it's pretty cliche but so what?), but I don’t care. I love it. I love writing angry sex, because angry people are people with less inhibitions, people whose passions are already raised. That’s why I’m using this particular scene; it shows you don’t have to write traditional foreplay for the reader to still believe these people are ready for some sex. I’m particularly proud of this scene because it enables me to do a couple of very important things, and show how well the characters know each other (Gruffydd’s analysis of Isabelle’s character came immediately before this and sparked her tirade, but would be too long to excerpt here); it also gives the reader an additional insight to Gruffydd’s character because, although Isabelle doesn’t know it, he self-harms, which makes her comment about him devising other ways to cause pain to himself extra sharp and explains why he goes from angry to furious in about a second and a half. (And, true to form, the actual sex part of that scene is only a few paragraphs of raging, angry, violent sex; 70-80%, remember? Not a rule, but a guideline.)
So in this bit of foreplay we see the characters know each other well. They’ve obviously spent time watching each other and paying attention to each other, even if they won’t admit it. Spending that amount of time studying someone indicates passionate feelings; we don’t absorb that much about people to whom we’re indifferent. It also shows us the relationship at something of an impasse: because they’ve had sex once before, they now find it difficult-to-impossible to be around each other under any degree of emotion or stress without touching, but neither of them is willing to acknowledge it. They’re using sex to solve their problem, in other words, and the problem is they can’t admit their feelings.
I know the effect here is a bit deadened because you haven’t read the book and so aren’t familiar with the characters, but in the book itself, again if I’ve done my job, by the time Gruffydd plants that kiss on Isabelle the reader’s heart is pounding too, from the emotional intensity of the moment. And like any other stress or high emotion, it’s easy to translate that into sexual intensity.
Just like the rest of the sex scene, foreplay must advance the relationship; it must advance the story; it must interest and arouse. How you do that is up to you; the above example is just one way (we’re going to get into more traditional foreplay Wednesday and some writing tips and examples on Friday.) Honestly, since the sex scene is the culmination of every moment the characters have shared up until then, you could say the entire book is foreplay—and as we discussed in Friday’s post, you can and should bring images and thoughts from their previous interactions into the sex scene, in order to make the entire thing more cohesive.
Foreplay is where your characters assert their individuality. It’s what makes this scene uniquely theirs, and not anyone else’s. And just like real life, it’s terribly important.
So. Find a published sex scene you particularly like, but this time focus on the foreplay. What is it about the foreplay in that scene that does it for you? Is it very sexy, and why? Is it clever, or funny, or angry? Find several scenes; is the foreplay similar in those scenes, or very different? What is the foreplay-to-penetration ratio of your favorite scenes?
Take one of the scenes you’ve written and re-read it, stopping as soon as penetration occurs. How much foreplay is there? Have you stretched it out long enough, is it as intense as it should/could be, or does the real action start when the real action starts? Is that ratio the same for all of your sex scenes, and if so, how can you mix it up a bit? Remember, not every scene has to be 70-80% foreplay, not at all. But if you’re looking to heat up your scenes, expanding the foreplay should be the first thing you look at.