A writer emailed me to ask me about portraying intimate scenes in romantic relationships, specifically sexual scenes. "Are those scenes relevant, or just there to entertain the reader? As characters relationships evolve should those scenes exist or can every book a teen writes be super clean in that matter? Are there rules on how to go about a scene of that nature?"
The question of "how far is too far?" as it relates to romance, violence, language, etc., is a question writers will be debating with themselves and others until end times. So I can't tell you what the answer is, but I can toss out some thoughts on the matter.
|I wanted to find an image for my blog post ... but I felt totally awkward trying to think up one that related to this particular topic. Cute puppies in fields of flowers are always a crowd pleaser, I figure.|
It won't all be up to you
Publishing houses care about their readers, and they work hard to know what readers expect from their brand. So even if you have no problems with your bad guy swearing or your character's boyfriend spending the night, your publishing house may push back on that. Or they might not. The publisher for the Skylar Hoyt series is a Christian market house, and I was pretty surprised by everything they let me leave in. If it served the story, they didn't mind.
And that's what you should ask yourself regardless of what kind of publishing house you write for - does this serve the story? Does it advance the plot, deepen the characters, etc. If the answer is no, then it's probably something that should be cut.
Have an ideal reader
If you've worked up a target audience (by which I mean, "My books will appeal to girls between ages 13 and 18") that can help determine your boundaries, but if you're not there yet, you can have an "ideal reader." That person in your life who, when you're writing, you're thinking of what their reaction might be. Will this scene make my sister laugh? Will my best friend cry when Bitsy loses her puppy? (Let's all scroll up and look at that puppy again - aww...)
The flip side of that is you can get a person lodged in your head who stifles you - which is bad. I'm gonna use my dad as an example. Now let's establish that my father is nothing but encouraging of my writing. But my dad is still my father, so it would be impossible for me to write any kind of romantic scene with him lodged in my head. Even though Dad has read all my books, which are full of romance, and tells me how much he adores them, I still would not be able to write a passionate kiss scene if I were thinking about how he might react.
So make sure your ideal reader is someone who will help you excel in your chosen genre.
Consider your comfort level with the subject and what you would want to read
Any of those hot button topics - sex, language, or violence - need to be treated with great care. There are readers who like their books to be full of those things, but there are also readers who skim those parts, so don't throw it in just because you think it'll give it a broader appeal.
After being married to me for this long, my husband has finally accepted that I don't watch war movies. Or anything where torture is involved. I loved 24, but when there was torture, we either muted it while I hid my eyes, or I left the room and sang to myself so I couldn't hear.
Because of the way I react to those scenes, I can guarantee I would never "leave the door open" on a torture scene in my manuscript. Instead, if one of my characters required torturing, I would do something like bring the character into the room, show the reader the yucky torturous devices, have the torturer say something menacing, and then end the scene. We would resume sometime later, post-torture, or when the torture is just about to end.
There's no shame in closing the door for the readers
Again, this just depends on who your readers are and what your story is. In the Skylar Hoyt books, Skylar is nearly date raped right before book one begins, but I didn't need to show my readers that scene. The readers know it happened, and they might see bits and pieces of what transpired, but I never fully opened the door for them until we had to go in and hunt for clues in book three.
So I guess what all that advice boils down to is treat those sticky scenes in a way you're comfortable with, and be open to feedback.