Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Writing Sticky Situations

by Stephanie Morrill

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.



28 comments:

  1. ~tries to put the puppy OUT of my head and formulate an intelligent comment related to this post~
    ~fails~
    OH ISSA PUPPY!!!!!!

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    1. Lol, Emily. They're impossible to resist!

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  2. I don't think I'll have much of a problem with this. I wouldn't want sex, and etc. in my book. If anything happened, I would do like you said and show a bit of stuff, then leave. Great post! And boy, that puppy is CUTE!!!!!!!!

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  3. I'm so grateful for this post. It's a great help, especially that bit about your dad xD I had to write a kiss scene once and it took me forever because I'm sitting there thinking- "O_O what if my mother ever got her hands on this?!" And then I realized my mom WOULD have to read it at some point, so I wrote accordingly xD

    I've been really struggling with things like this. Whenever my readers want a kiss scene, I feel real nervous. So I end up pulling a fast one on them and having the two characters share a chocolate Hershey kiss...

    This is a post I will be referring to often. I love your blog! It's always a big help.

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    1. I'm so glad you liked it, RT. Man, I felt nervous when I was writing it!

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  4. I do have a tendency to wonder "what would my parents think?". Lol it can be stifling but it can always force me creatively like how can i deal show this with being explicit.

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  5. Love this post!

    As a reader, I love romance in books (not strictly romance books, because..well, you'll see). What girl doesn't? But, what brushes me all wrong is when a romance gets to vivid and descriptive. They kissed on the balcony, aw, how sweet. I don't need it ruined by telling me EVER LITTLE DETAIL about the kiss. One book in particular...(*shuddering* just thinking about it) really grossed me out. Thank you, Author-I-shall-not-name for telling me what the kiss tasted like, and bringing me the realization about kissing and tongues...>.>.
    That being said, I don't write very descriptive romantic scenes, and NO sexual moments. Sorry, just not doing it. I can't.


    But, I was really happy to learn about ideal readers! I have two ideal readers, and I always considered it bad. I would write a scene, and think, "Oh, they will love this" or add something just to please them. So, I'm glad to hear I was ok doing that. ^.^

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    1. @Ashley -- I agree; I don't want to be tasting the kiss! =)

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  6. Excellent post. I write for a conservative audience but often bring some edge to it--so it's a topic I have to think about a lot. Yes, publishers have their lines. I recently had to rewrite ever "What the devil?" for instance. But it really does come down to plot. If you handle it well, you can achieve more tension with hints than with the explicit.

    I recently got a review from someone who usually reads more explicit books that said, "I honestly didn't mind the lack of sex." I took that as very high praise, LOL.

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  7. I have thrown a book across the room because (well, mostly because) it described a kiss. Despite the fact that it was Christian fiction.

    Be warned.

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    1. Haha! If I wasn't so concerned about the welfare of my paper bound friends, I would throw many a kiss descriptive book as well!

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    2. Well, you won't find many publishers (or readers) who oppose kissing in books, even Christian fiction ones. Which is why it's impossible to write a book that everyone will approve of. Some people get mad if you put the kiss in, and some people get mad if you leave it out.

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    3. Yeah, Stephanie, I know not very many people agree with me, but I feel the same way all the same!

      Thanks for writing about this topic in this post!

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    4. Oh yeah, and I just realized that one of the reasons I threw that book wasn't just *describing* the kiss. I hated how the people who were kissing didn't have any commitment to each other; they weren't even "officially" dating, much less in a serious relationship. And the guy was a jerk, too. I wouldn't have minded as much if the author hadn't described they kiss OR if they were seriously dating.

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    5. On a similar note: there's this one mystery series I like where the main characters are a husband-wife amatuer detective team. And there's some bantering and hinting between them, and I find that I don't mind it, because they're married, and they are very committed to each other. I'd still skim or skip over if there was anything explicit (because I'd feel like I was spying) but the simple fact that they are married makes me much more comfortable with what is going on.
      ~Amo Libros

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    6. On another similar note...


      Miss Jill Williamson handled her kiss scenes in "Replication" very well and I felt extremely satisfied with the brewing romance between Martyr and Abby! :D And the stuff with arrogant J.D. too... that was amusing. haha.
      One of my favorite parts in the book is when there's a scene where it goes something like this...
      "'Marty, wait!'
      Abby kissed him, and at first it was quite stiff but then it was as if something primal in him clicked and his arms wrapped around her and gently tucked her legs into the dumbwaiter."
      Seeee, you don't need to have steamy descriptions to make a kiss scene sweet. ^_^

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  8. Thanks for writing such a helpful post, Stephanie!

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  9. I usually don't have trouble containing the romance because I'm not a romantic person. I like a bit of a love story in my books, but it's not a just-romance plot.

    I do have a lot of violence, though. Not explicit violence, just fighting and things blowing up and one tiny, very mild torture scene because it was absolutely needed. But it's no more violence than you would find in a PG rated movie. Usually, if it doesn't have a PG or low PG-13 rating, that's my signal that it doesn't need to be in the book. So far, it's worked well.

    One thing that irks me is tons of unnecessary bad language. I mean, really, who really uses a curse word every sentence? So in my WIP, my main character, who does get highly frustrated a lot, uses her own words and phrases that aren't explicit or crude. They are even funny sometimes (Thanks for that post Jill!)

    This was another excellent post that really deals with some of the hot subjects that writers deal with. Thanks, Stephanie!

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    1. Ooh, that's a good policy Abigail!!

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  10. Thank you so much for this encouraging post, Stephanie. I always think of my "ideal reader" when I'm writing, and a lot of the time, this ends up being my sister or parents. I ask myself: "Would I be ashamed or embarrassed to show this to my little sister? Would I be comfortable with her reading it?" It helps me keep track on whether my writing is going too far.

    Thank you, lots! I enjoyed reading it. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed that picture of the puppy (aww).

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  11. So true about not picturing the parents when writing. I have a friend who I now send scenes to as I write (Yes, I know, Stephanie, you won't be happy to hear that! :P)and I tend to picture her as my "target audience." She also tells me if my humor is on target or not, which is nice. :P I figure if she found something offensive in some way, she'd say so. :)

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    1. If you are talking about me I totally would tell you if I found something offensive. :D

      Personally I write alot of more violent scenes because my fantasy book is about a war. Torture? Er, if it fits the plot? Then I'll add it. I have done kisses, but I hardly ever describe them just because I personally hate reading stuff like that. LOL

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    2. ;) Who else reads my stuff unedited? :P
      :D

      Hmm, I might have a torture scene coming in in my WIP. It's going to be violent... And awesome. *feels evil*
      Eww, I agree, I don't want a play by play of kisses! Yuck! I would prefer the author just say something about how good/bad the kiss was. JKR did a good job with it HP, I think.

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    3. Agree Allison! Just enough to satisfy those of us who like to see the guy and girl (who really do love each other) kiss, without going too far.
      ~Amo Libros

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  12. Gracefully handled, Stephanie. :) I'm with ya on the war and horror flicks. Not happening. ;)

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  13. Nice post! I myself am pretty okay with the heavy stuff (ooh, dramatic violence in war films is my favorite, honestly) but I need to remember to think of my readers.

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  14. I'm not a fan of war in general... but then I'll be contradicting myself when I say I love Narnia, and Lord of the Rings. That involves war... but then again what book like that doesn't involve war? lol
    I agree with ya though Stephanie, I say just stick with your gut and what your morals are. Now me personally, I know I'm never going to have steamy scenes involving things that should be in the sanctity of marriage. ;) But I might have a passionate kiss like once, in every other book I write, but that would only be for the first kiss between two people.
    Then again I'm not really sure if you would call it passionate. haha. Aren't first kisses normally passionate but then leaning more towards the sweet side?

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