Falling in love, into bed, and sometimes out of sorts

Note: I’m quite aware that nobody who reads this blog needs any advice about the craft of writing. If occasionally pontificate on style, please forgive me. I’m afraid I miss the classroom, having retired a couple of years ago after teaching creative writing part-time for twenty years.

I have strong opinions when it comes to writing about love and relationship, love and sex, and the thrilling experience of falling in love. No matter how a person experiences relationship, sex, or falling in love in “real life,” when a fiction writer takes on these subjects, it’s all about change. That’s how the magic of fiction works: something happens to somebody, and that something is change.

To begin this discussion, I want to focus on that overwhelming, surprising, beautiful (usually), changing experience of falling in love.

As if we needed some instruction or a road map for falling in love, I’m guessing at least a third of the standards in the Great American Songbook deal with the magic moment. Steve Allen wrote, “This Could Be the Start of Something Big,” and Johnny Burke warned us “It Could Happen to You.” For my money Nat King Cole put it best when he sang, “Flash! Bam! Alakazam! Wonderful you walked by…”

In fiction this experience changes a person from dull to alive, from self-centered to embracing, from sleepwalking to tap-dancing. Be warned, however, that falling in love can bring a lot of disruption and trouble; but let’s be carefree lovers and forget the consequences…until some later chapter.

Meanwhile, let’s move onto something that often comes up when lovers find out that they’re lovers. Sex.

How much sex belongs in a novel? And how explicit should the sex scenes be? Both answers depend on whom the writer wants to entertain. Let’s assume we’re not writing for the porn audience. Let’s also assume we’re not writing for young children or prudes. Somewhere between these extremes is an intelligent audience of readers who accept sex as a normal and healthy ingredient of life, especially when we’re writing about the relationship of a couple of lovers.

Still, it’s a touchy subject, and sex described clumsily can appear offensive, laughable, or boring. I propose a few guidelines for keeping sex scenes intelligent and meaningful.

1. Less is more. There’s no need to tell about every time a couple make love. There’s no need to describe in detail every feature of the human body, nor does the reader want a complete laundry list of your characters’ clothing as it is unbuttoned, unzipped, torn off, and cast aside. And remember that every sex act doesn’t end with a fireworks display and a hallelujah chorus.

2. Engage the brain. Remember that the mind is the most erogenous zone we’ve got. Don’t be afraid to inject some humor into the scene if it’s appropriate, or tears if they’re called for. And try to come up with something original, difficult as that may seem. After all, you want your characters to be interesting in everything they do.

3. Remember that fiction is about change. This sex should be important to the plot, not just a dance routine thrown in for added entertainment. The sex act should significantly change either one or the other lover, or both, and it will most likely change the nature of the relationship as well.

Speaking of relationship, I have a couple of things to say about that, too. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the psychology of love, but I do have opinions concerning how to write well about the relationship between lovers.

Once again, it’s all about change. If you want the relationship to be central to the plot, the relationship must be developing, evolving, growing closer or more distant or falling apart, turning sour or turning to gold.

Another essential ingredient of a story or a novel primarily about a relationship is the sine qua non of all fiction: conflict. A novel about a perfect relationship wouldn’t make much of a novel. In fact, the “perfect relationship” hasn’t been around since Eden, and even that one didn’t last, or at least didn’t stay perfect.

Take heart. Not all relationships die, even in fiction. But at the core of every story about relationship is that question posed by Ladies’ Home Journal: Can this marriage be saved? The job of the writer is to show the success or failure of the relationship, and to make the reader care whether the relationship flourishes or flounders.

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4 Responses

  1. Well put, John! Maybe I’ll steal some of this for my classes ;>)

  2. I echo Shelley. And I certainly agree that “less is more” (re: sex) in a mystery. Or in any novel for that matter. But how much ‘change’ comes into a relationship in a mystery? Especially when other matters (dead bodies, et al.) are paramount and when the reader is more concerned with resolving the mystery than with the sleuth’s relationship with her partner/husband/lover?

    • Good point, Nancy. In a mystery, a love relationship usually plays second fiddle to danger and death. So that’s another reason not to spend a lot of attention, time, and words on the details of sex.

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