Love Scene vs. Sex Scene: One Author's Take

Each of my romantic suspense novels details the development of one couple's relationship during a time of crisis. There's plenty of suspense, a full-blown mystery plot, and quite a bit of world-building, which includes the development of a number of secondary characters close to or at odds with the protagonists (a girl's gotta have her pool of suspects, after all). It's a whole lot of book to work into four hundred or so pages...

Which is why is annoys me no end when some rarely-seen acquaintance or relation (let's call him Uncle Walt) gives me an Ooo-la-la waggle of dandruff-flecked eyebrows and says something in the order of, "So, you still writin' those smut books?" Usually there's an associated elbow-nudge, apparently a holdover from junior-high days. Argh! Of course, it goes without saying that "Uncle Walt" has never bothered to actually *read* one of my books, a suggestion that is invariably met with a variety of pathetically-lame excuses (that mostly translate into "I don't read").

I've learned the best response (after the reflexive eye-roll) is to murmur something to the effect of, "I'm writing romantic suspense, if that's what you're getting at," and quickly shut down the conversation. Because it wouldn't help to explain that out of the 400 manuscript pages, maybe five or six (fewer than many brand-name, bestselling male authors include in their mystery, suspense, or horror novels) are spent detailing the characters' carnal relations. It wouldn't help to defend myself with awards won or reviews received or to attempt to educate a guy who hasn't "read" a book since high school and whose idea of great art is a rerun of King of Queens .

Because in the pea-brain's mind, I've copped to the word "romance." Only Uncle Walt doesn't hear romance at all but S-E-X, which to him can only mean porn. Which misses the point of romance *entirely* and makes me pity poor Aunt Tillie.

For the record, let me elaborate on the differences between a love scene and a sex scene.

1. A love scene illuminates some stage in the protagonists' emotional journey. It's revealing of character and conflict and sometimes even serves as a metaphor for some other aspect of the story. Sure, a love scene can be a turn on for the reader (might be worth noting, gents, that research has shown women who read romance enjoy more frequent and satisfying lovemaking with their partners than those who don't), but that's not its reason for existing.
2. A sex scene's primary purpose is titillation. The reader's physical reaction takes precedence over logic, characterization, or - heaven forbid - literary technique (although there are many excellent writers of erotica in today's marketplace, many of whom incorporate the emotional journey of a romance).
3. Love scenes should not be interchangeable. Since the characters are unique individuals at a particular stage of their relationship, each encounter should be distinctive and revelatory. Hot, of course, is an added bonus.
4. Focused on "the act," sex scenes can get boringly repetitive, so the author often resorts to alternate forms (toys, fetishist stuff, "taboo" types) to keep the reader from losing interest.
5. Emotion matters, first and foremost.
6. It's all about the T&A, baby.

Teenage boys often don't grok the difference between love and sex. This takes maturity and emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, some men never come this far. Memo from your wife, Uncle Walt: please grow up (and do something about that dandruff in your eyebrows)!

Anyone else have something to add about the difference between love scenes and sex scenes? Or do you have an "Uncle Walt" story to share?


Susan Lyons said…
Colleen, you said, "A love scene illuminates some stage in the protagonists' emotional journey. It's revealing of character and conflict and sometimes even serves as a metaphor for some other aspect of the story."

Yes! Yes, yes, yes!!

Sometimes I'm not in the mood to write a love scene and I've heard people say, "Oh, just type ADD SEX SCENE HERE" and carry on after. You can always write the scene later.

Nope. That doesn't work. Something's going to happen in that scene, something I didn't anticipate. There's going to be humor or tenderness I didn't expect, or one of the characters is going to say something I didn't know they were going to say - and at the end of the scene, both of them are going to be changed in some way. How can I write what comes after that scene until I know how they're both going to change?

That's also why, as both a reader and a writer, I generally like sex scenes that are longer and more explicit - and I definitely don't like the "closed bedroom door" scenes. I really want to know everything that's going on with those two people.

Great post, Colleen!

Thanks, Susan, and I couldn't agree with you more. I've never been able to write a love scene in isolation outside of the flow of the story.

Glad that you stopped by!
JoAnn Ross said…
Back in the spring of 1983, after I'd sold 9 books, thinking I might have a career going (I'm now writing on book #101), I bought an IBM computer. The salesperson, thinking himself helpful, told me it'd be really cool because I could just cut and paste my sex scenes into all my books.


A sex, or lovemaking, or whatever you want to call it scene is no different than any other. It needs to be an intricate building block of the story. Even if you're writing in erotic romance, which is what I occasionally do in my Brava Bad Boys. It should not only reveal the relationship between the characters, if it doesn't show relationship growth/change, what's the point? All my favorite writers -- and Colleen, that includes you! -- are smart enough to show me that!
Amie Stuart said…
*raises hand* I am SO guilty of writing ADD SEX SCENE HERE.
In my defense many times I go back and write them by hand (sometimes it's just hard to write sex with two teenaged boys underfoot (and their friends)).

As a reader, more often than not, I don't read that many books with explicit sex. I'm guessing because I write it--funny enough I read a LOT of YA last year LOL Ok I'll go now.

*runs from the firing squad*
Thank you for the insightful post and the lovely compliment!

At Boxing the Octopus, we don't keep firing squads on staff (but if we did, they'd be reserved for the Uncle Walts of this world and the occasional obnoxiously-snarky critic)!

Seriously, there's no one, universal way that applies to every writer. I can understand not wanting to write love scenes with your kids on hand (talk about an ick factor; I avoid that, too), but I suspect you're going back and rereading carefully to incorporate the scenes and show growth.

Thanks for stopping by and daring to differ from the prevailing sentiment. :)
Suzan Harden said…
Thanks for the advice, Colleen, even if I'm sorry that you have to state the obvious.

Ironically, my "Uncle Walt" story came from a good law school buddy who's now in her mid-sixties. Once she found out what I was writing, she lamented that my generation was throwing away all the advances her "bra-burners" had gained. I sent her the first couple of chapters of one my paranormal romances. Never heard another disparaging word from the lady.
Christie Craig said…

Great post. Love scenes for me are a place to really get into the characterization of my hero and heroine. When my characters share intimate moments with each other, this is a place where they really reveal part of their personalities. I find this is where a lot of my character’s sense of humors and their insecurities come out.
Frankly, when we, as humans, allow someone intimately close, we are exposing part of themselves that we don't show just everyone. Therefore this is a great place to let the readers peek inside and see some deep secrets of my characters.
I’m so enjoying your blog. Thanks….

Victoria Bylin said…
Great distinctions, Colleen. A physical love scene has to be vital to the story. It needs to move the plot, develop character and illustrate theme. If a love scene doesn't do all three, it's not necessary. They're challenging to write because they have to do so much to be effective.

I'd also add that not all love scenes are about sex. Even inspys have them. They're not carnal and not in the bedroom, but romance is, at its heart, about men and women falling in love. That happens with our hearts, our minds and senses, everything that's human and a generosity that goes even deeper.
Thanks for stopping by, Suzan, and sharing your method of dealing with a naysayer.

Christie, I like your take on people letting their guard down during intimacy. Makes a lot of sense.

Victoria, I guess I was guilty of considering the love scene one of carnal intimacy, but you're right. Strictly emotional love scenes should be all over the book and certainly aren't limited to the more sensual reads.

Great comments!
People who confuse a love scene with a sex scene are missing the point that there is no good way to separate the two. As much as our society wants to reduce sex to a purely physical activity, it's not. Even if we choose to ignore it, there is an emotional and even spiritual aspect to physical intimacy. (Perhaps that's why people say "Oh, God!") Anyway, my personal line between what I write and pornography is whether my scene acknowledges the whole person--mind, body, heart and soul. If it's just insert tab B into slot A, it's porn.

On a lighter note, I have to share a funny story Jana Deleon told me. She normally writes on her laptop at a Starbucks. She was all set to write a love scene when a fellow at a nearby table rose and led his friends in a very loud prayer for their coffee and danish. Jana said it took her a whole hour to get back into the mood to write a love scene!
Sapphire Phelan said…
Sex is just that--those who just want it, with no emotional attachments--like one night stands.
Making love is carnal relations between two people in love with each other. if it was 'just sex', then all those happily married couples would be considered doing that. My husband says he's making love to his wife.
Unfortunately, there will always be diorty-minded men who think you're writing sex. Same for me. I write erotic romance.
Yes, I wrote erotica horror one time, but that wasn't making love. Rest of what i write is.
Joni Rodgers said…
But I think it's possible for two long-married lovers to just f--k sometimes. And it's possible for two strangers to meet on a train and make love. Any act of intimacy is going to be fraught with subtext of some kind, and my task is to make sure that gets heard over the squeak of bedsprings. Or whatever.
LOL on the Jana DeLeon story, btw. That's hysterical!

Interesting point, Joni. And true.

Thanks for stopping by, Sapphire. I can imagine the sorts of comments erotica writers get. Ah-OO-ga, indeed! (snort)

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