Welcome back. In this article I’ll ask the question, should you include love scenes in your work? A complicated subject, to be sure, and one that I’m certain won’t generate any controversy at all. Let’s jump into it.
Diving headfirst in the deep end of a shallow pool…
The short answer… No. No, you shouldn’t.
Good night, everybody! Thanks for reading. I’m sure you all agree with me. Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!
What? Do you want a bit more justification than that? Fine, let’s see how this goes. But before we get into anything, I just want to clear the air about a few things.
I’m not saying this because I’m some crazy, right-wing prude… Okay, I’m not only saying this because I’m some crazy, right-wing prude. I have some valid reasons for my opinions and they’re not all mine. Some I gleaned from other more prolific and talented writers than myself.
In fact, both of my most influential sources include love scenes in their own work. I don’t know the politics of one, because I don’t care. But I know the other is an outspoken atheist compared to my own conservative Christianity. The gist of what these authors have to say isn’t that you shouldn’t include them, but you need to be very careful if you do.
From “Stein on Writing”
My first source comes from author and publisher, Sol Stein. If you’re at all familiar with my other articles or videos, you’ve heard me mention him before. Before his passing in 2019, he was the author of 13 books, publisher, and editor-in-chief of Stein and Day publishing for 27 years.
His book, “Stein on Writing,” is a must-have for any established or aspiring author and I highly recommend it.
To the point, his view is that most authors should steer clear of love scenes altogether. Especially new authors. He isn’t saying you shouldn’t use sex scenes at all and he even used them in his own work. He’s saying that there are serious pitfalls unskilled writers can fall into with love scenes.
Sex can be a complicated, and often painful, issue, according to Stein. Some authors, especially neophytes, tend to use scenes as a type of therapy to work through trauma.
There’s nothing wrong with that if it’s for your own private library. I’m a big fan of using the pen as a form of play to make sense of the world around us. If this is the best way you know to make sense of certain issues or events in your life or society, who am I to stand in the way?
The issue comes when we produce work for publication. It’s good if your work brings you some form of catharsis. But it also needs to be readable and relatable to the audience. If you dredge up issues from your own life and put them on display you risk alienating your audience. If they’ve suffered the same ordeals as you, then your work will resonate. If they haven’t, or if they have a different worldview, then you may only alienate them. They’ll walk away from the scene, and possibly the work itself, feeling disturbed and confused.
Maybe that’s what you’re going for. There’s a place for making people feel uneasy in literary fiction. Is there an issue or idea you want to highlight through your work? Sometimes you want people to go away disturbed and confused.
Okay, fine. But it needs to be intentional and not the result of inexperience. But, even then, you need to be ready for the possibility that your work alienates more than it resonates.
According to Stein, this creates difficult problems editors dread facing. Writers who include such personal, passion scenes are often resistant to criticism.
Let’s face it. Writers can be a difficult and obstinate lot to reason with at the best of times. This becomes even more true the more we’re invested in our work. And if you have a passion project or a passion scene, it can be difficult to accept criticism. Especially if that criticism means we need to re-work, or even cut, a scene that has a deep, sentimental meaning to us.
We tend to dig in and hold the line until the other side gives ground. And if they don’t give ground, we throw up our hands and say, “Oh, whatever! You just don’t get it.” If you find yourself surrounded by people who “Just don’t get it,” stop and reflect. Maybe it’s not that they “don’t get it,” but that, on some level, you’re using your work as therapy for some underlying issue.
The result is that many editors either give up or don’t try to offer criticism on a client’s love scenes. It’s possible to get a clunky, awkward scene amid an otherwise good book or movie, and from an otherwise good author. I’m sure we’ve all seen the type. The next time you enjoy a good book or movie and come across an awkward, out-of-place love scene, stop and think about it. You may be witnessing someone working through issues with a tasteless passion scene.
Or it could be a crap movie, with a crap writer and a crap director. That’s also possible.
You may write a manual
Another pitfall is that authors may pay undue attention to the mechanics of sex. They may fill the scene with graphic nudity and lewd acts, thinking this is a love scene. The result will be more like a how-to manual than an emotional connection between two people. Or even worse, a cringy scene from some seedy, cheap adult movie.
And again, as the author, we may be resistant to hear criticism owing to our own biases on the issue. We tend to put on emotional blinders and see things as we intend them instead of how they are. So we think, “Of course, it’s an emotionally charged scene. I was emotionally charged when I wrote it, so how could it not be?” Once more we inexplicably find ourselves surrounded by scores of people who “Just don’t get it.”
If there’s one thing to take away, it would only be this; If you must include a scene in your work, then fine. Include it. But check yourself first and ensure you have a level of proper detachment before you do.
The pen isn’t a couch, and your reader isn’t a therapist. They don’t want to hear your problems.
From “The Art of Fiction”
I credit the next set of reasons to “The Art of Fiction,” by Ayn Rand.
Your darkest scenes are what you’ll be known for
In “The Art of Fiction,” Rand recommends tempering your enthusiasm when writing sex, gore, or other controversial content. The problem, she claims, is that you’ll be known most for the darkest scenes you produce.
If you write a book with a little graphic content, or gore, that’s fine. Watching the heroes take a beating in the Pre-Climax can show the antagonists’ power. It can also up the tension of the Climax if we see the hero limp into battle still bruised and bloodied. The final image your reader will remember is that of the hero valiantly staring down the villain before mastering his destiny.
In the book version of “Jurassic Park,” there’s a scene where a raptor kills Dr. Wu. The author describes the scene as the raptor rips Wu across the stomach and his intestines fall out. It’s brutal, but brief, and demonstrates the danger and power of these creatures. It was well thought out, measured, and had a point. But it didn’t define the book.
But if every other scene had been of dino’s shredding innocent bystanders who cried for their mothers and begged for mercy, crawling desperately through a pool of their own blood and entrails, it would have created a very different tone. That’s what readers would have remembered the book for and the movie would have been very different.
In the movie version, we get the same effect when the character of Donald Gennaro (A.K.A. The Bloodsucking Lawyer) gets eaten by the T-Rex. The scene is brutal, but also short and measured. We get the same visceral punch, but the scene doesn’t define the movie.
Although it was fun seeing a lawyer get eaten by a T-Rex. Just saying.
So it is with love scenes. You need to take a measured and calculated approach to your scenes. If they get too extreme, or too frequent, that’s what your work will be remembered for. People won’t see the connection you were trying to draw between two living human beings. Instead, they’ll only see the frequent, gratuitous carnal feasts you set before them. And that’s what they’ll consume your work for.
There’s certainly a market for that kind of content. I would never dabble in it, but it’s there. If that’s your genre and you want to cater to it, fine. But do it intentionally and not out of inexperience.
Again, include sex scenes if you must. But you need to take a measured and tempered approach to them. Don’t include a scene in every chapter. Save them for when they matter. Develop your characters and show your readers why they should be together. Let the tension develop for as long as you can and then release it at the right time.
Now, it’s my turn
And now it’s time for my contribution to the discussion. These are my personal observations based on my 40 years of consuming modern media.
They just don’t matter
In four decades of books, movies, and games, I can count on one hand the number of scenes that are necessary for the plot. I could add a few fingers more if I’m feeling generous. We could cut most of them with no discernable change to the plot.
I can count on two or three fingers the number of scenes that were well done. But even they are fraught with their own problems. And I can count on one finger the number of “love scenes” that I would call an actual, honest-to-goodness love scene. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but the source is surprising.
Very few sex scenes are necessary for the plot of any given book, game, or movie. I don’t think they’re necessary for games at all. If your game can’t keep a player’s attention with action and graphics, it’s a bad game and doesn’t deserve to exist.
But, in my list of relevant love scenes, the top of my list would be “Terminator.” The reason for this film to be at the top of the list should be obvious. Without the romance between Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese, John Connor could never be born.
There would be no one to lead humanity’s resistance against Skynet and no point for the movie. Of all the edits of “Terminator” I’ve seen, my favourite is the TV edit. In this edit, Sarah and Kyle start kissing and then the scene fades to black. The viewer is left to fill in the gaps with his imagination.
The second runner-up on my list would be “The Oath,” by Frank Peretti. A demon terrorizes a small American town and marks its victims with a black spot before consuming them. The protagonist contracts the mark during a scene with another character who also has the mark. It’s the mark that draws the demon to him so he can confront it in the books Climax.
The Well Done
Though Rand does give some advice to the contrary, she also has some scenes in her own work. Her inclusion on this list will be controversial and I’ll expand on why later. But for now, let’s say she’s very difficult to classify in this regard.
On one hand, her scenes are very well done. They still aren’t necessary, but they have literary characteristics that are interesting.
To the point, they contain a near-total lack of any anatomical description at all. This is especially true in her later, and more sophisticated work, “Atlas Shrugged.” She doesn’t describe the character’s anatomy much, but for a brief description of touch or the curve of a breast. You’ll actually be hard-pressed to come away with a complete picture of what the characters do to each other. Instead, she chooses to focus on the raw emotion of the scene.
She never touches the subjects. Rather, she orbits them as a satellite orbiting a planet. She describes what’s going on around them and within the sacred confines of their own minds. If this sounds like a strange thing to experience, it is. But it also adds up to an encounter that’s somehow even more visceral than if she had just come out and described the act.
But now we come to the bad, and the reason for the controversy surrounding her. Her scenes are… extreme. They’re intense, to say the least, and the reason I debated putting her on this list. But I did because there are two more lessons we can learn from her.
First, Rand doesn’t take her own advice with her love scenes. Do you remember her advice? The most extreme things you write are what you’ll be known for. She should have paid heed to her advice, for her work has been stigmatized for not following it.
She has many critics. One common condemnation is that her love scenes are too extreme, bordering on rape. Some even say that they are rape. So Rand has forever tainted her own brand by not tempering her enthusiasm. It’s a shame because there’s a lot of talent in those scenes that go unrecognized. All because of the extreme way in which she used it.
How could she do this? How could she make such an obvious and, if we’re being honest, hypocritical blunder? It comes down to another issue we’ve discussed in this article.
I think Rand was working through some of her own issues during the writing of her work. She seems to have a “type” regarding her male protagonists, even down to their names. The names are very abrupt and masculine. They even tend to start with the same letters. Hank Rearden, from “Atlas Shrugged,” and Howard Roark from “The Fountainhead.
Both men are aloof and emotionless. Both men are hard-working and defensive of their labours. They also tend to have a disregard, even disdain, for the emotions of others. I’m no doctor, but they also seem to possess psychopathic, or sociopathic, tendencies.
They also have a certain contempt for women. Roark demonstrated his contempt when he forced himself on Dominique Francon. And Rearden demonstrated repeated contempt for his wife and his mistress, Dagny Taggart.
He all but told Dagny, after he borderline raped her as well, he had no feelings for her, never would, and she was a toy for him.
The most disturbing thing is the women in these encounters tolerate this behaviour. More than that, they even enjoy it and seek it out. In “The Fountainhead,” Dominique Francon visits Roark’s quarry to taunt him daily. She then takes this man she had spent so much time taunting and invites him to her mansion to repair her fireplace. Rand reveals after the scene this was a calculated action on her part to seduce Roark and instigate the encounter.
While the scenes are well written, they also represent a case study of the first point of this article. It’s clear to me Rand was working through some serious issues with her writing. She should have kept them in her private library and demonstrated a little detachment in her published work. I can only imagine the conversations she had with her editor on the topic. The result has been a black stain on her brand and an otherwise masterfully written body of work.
I would have recommended she read Stein’s book before writing the scenes, but that it was written about 50 years too late to help her.
And now it’s time for “The One.” The one scene in my entire 42 years of gluttonous, western media consumption that qualifies as an actual, honest-to-goodness love scene. It ticks off all my boxes. The scene is…
- Relevant to the plot
- Well written
- And restrained
So, what’s the source? Where can we find this wunderszene? The scene in question is from…TWILIGHT!
That’s right, Twilight. Plank of wood protagonist, Twilight. Ridiculous, sparkling, Lite Brite vampires, Twilight. Co-dependant, semi abusive, love triangle, Twilight. Let’s see how I got there.
My first exposure to Twilight wasn’t the books. It was the movie. At the time I had no idea the books even existed. I saw a trailer for this movie with two vampire houses fighting over a girl in a church and thought, “That looks awesome!” I wasn’t married yet and didn’t have a girlfriend, so I saw the movie on my own.
I like to arrive early to my movies, so I sat down in the empty theatre and munched on my popcorn. Then the other patrons started arriving. I saw a gaggle of giggling 12-year-old girls and a chaperone who glared at me curiously.
“That’s strange. This doesn’t seem like a movie parents would let kids watch.”
I first felt something was wrong when more patrons filed in and I found myself bobbing in a sea of pigtails and barrettes. Before I knew what had happened, I was surrounded. On my right, a chaperone gave me a menacing sidelong glare. My response was to point to the girl on my left and mouth…
“I’m with my niece.”
On my left, another chaperone shot me an icy, daggered gaze. I pointed to the pigtailed girl on my right and mouthed…
“It’s my niece’s birthday.”
I know what you’re thinking. “Why didn’t you just get up and leave?” Two things…
First, screw you and your cursed common sense.
Second, I’m a career hermit and a very shy guy. The only thing worse for me than sitting through a movie for 12-year-old girls was the glares I would receive being the only man in the theatre rising to his feet to make the walk of shame to the door. So, I decided to stay and tough it out. I have regrets.
Then the movie started and I was introduced to the main character with all the charisma of a plank of wood. And my regrets deepened.
Then they started sparkling. It was at that moment I knew my failure as a man was complete.
So, I sat through what I’m sure the 12-year-olds thought was a fantastic movie. I watched Plank of Wood fawn over Lite Brite to the delight of a sea of 12-year-olds. 12-year-olds who had much more common sense than I. At least they knew what they were walking into. I watched Lite Brite inexplicably fawn over Plank of Wood while more interesting and charismatic girls fell by the wayside.
And then it happened. About halfway through the movie, I saw the scene that reframed the story for me and made the whole ordeal worthwhile. This is also one of the only scenes I respect in the movie, so I’ll use the characters’ actual names.
Bella was in her room when Edward appeared on her windowsill. He confessed that he liked watching her sleep and she seemed okay with it because… creepy, undead, serial killer, stalkers are hot, I guess? So, she starts getting frisky and wants to do more, but Edward, to his credit, says no. He wants to wait for marriage because he’s old-fashioned and wants to treat her with respect.
Because nothing says respect and healthy boundaries like an 80-year-old man breaking into a teen girl’s room, perching above her, and silently glaring down on her while she sleeps, oblivious to his presence. But at least he wants to wait until marriage before doing anything creepy.
And this is the only scene in the movie I actually respect. Consider that.
So, after Edward gets done “respecting” her, we get into the scene. It starts as many love scenes tend to, with the bedroom eyes and cheesy music. But where it goes from there is surprising. Instead of a session of making out or heavy petting, they talk. That’s it. The music plays over them as they sit on the bed and talk. They make eye contact, hold hands, and Bella falls asleep curled up next to Edward.
That last part is interesting. Pattinson sells his role as a bloodthirsty vampire in love with a mortal. You can see the blood lust rise in his eyes as she gets close. His face contorts into an aching strain as he restrains his urge to take his teeth to her throat. Bella, meanwhile, snuggles close to him without fear. Showing complete faith in his love and his ability to curtail his urges for her sake.
The thing that impressed me the most was that there was no sex in this love scene. Granted, adding a sex scene in a movie with teen actors would require anyone who saw it to go register themselves. But I digress.
There was only a genuine, honest connection. A connection between a teenage girl and an 80-year-old, undead, serial killer… but let’s ignore that.
What’s more, was the character development. Namely, that we had any. Bella remains a plank of wood through most of the movie. This scene is one of the few where we see actual character development. Both Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson can act, and they show it in this scene.
You may disagree, but that’s why this scene from Twilight is the only honest love scene I’ve ever watched or read. I want to write an article about Twilight in the future because it’s an interesting case study. That a movie starring lumber could gain such a following is interesting to me and I have some thoughts on it.
So, what would I do?
I probably wouldn’t write one at all. As I said, they’re superfluous and most stories can chug along fine without them. And the pitfalls of writing a bad scene are too great, regardless. If I ever did, it would only be occasionally and for the challenge of it. But this is how I would do it if I ever did.
I’ll reference my articles on the Three Act story structure and Dan Harmon’s story circle for the rest of this article. I would suggest checking those out before proceeding.
Who are going to be the characters in your scene? Choose them carefully for maximum impact. You’re the author, and creator of their little pocket universe. So you can also groom your characters for the scene from the start. Remember, be purposeful. This may be the plotter in me speaking, but nothing should happen by accident.
What will they be doing? How far are we going to ride this bus? Will they be talking and making eye contact? Exchanging an impassioned kiss as bombs burst overhead? Getting busy creating the next leader of the resistance? It’s up to you how far you take this, just be purposeful about it.
And whatever you do, don’t pull a Rand. Don’t get so engaged in your scene that you write something so extreme it borders on rape. You’ll only alienate part of your audience and fuel your critics. Trust me, you’ll have enough critics on your own without doing something to create them.
Where and when?
We need to choose the best time and place for the scene.
It can’t be in the first act, because your characters have just met, and you haven’t had a chance to develop them yet. This is where you introduce your world, its characters, and some exposition on the state of the world. Not where your characters hook up.
Remember, if the first thing you show your audience is what they’ll expect from the rest of your work. If the first thing you show them is a love scene, that’s what they’ll come to expect. Or if it’s a screenplay, they’ll be counting down the seconds until they can see the next one. Restrain yourself and choose the time and place of the scene with care. Now is not the time.
There are places in the third act where a scene could fit. I’m thinking of the brief space between the Pre-Climax and the Climax. Your hero has taken a beating in the Pre-Climax and they’re preparing to go into battle in the Climax. This may seem like a strange place to introduce a sex scene, but it isn’t.
If you have time, look at a population graph from WWI and WWII and you’ll notice something interesting. During the wars, there’s a dip in the population, as one might expect. But after the wars, there’s a bump in the population. In the end the two even out, or nearly, and the population remains unchanged in the long term. Why is that?
When a population is in crisis, hormone levels spike and there’s a community-wide urge to mate. There’s a sense the world will end, and society will need replacements. How many soldiers had one last “Hurrah” with their wives and girlfriends before shipping out? Many of them never came back, but they left a little bundle of joy in their place.
So it is in the third act. It’s do or die time for the hero. Tensions, and hormones, are running high and, well… things happen. In “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” this is where Ron finally wins Hermione’s heart and she kisses him. Your “love scene” doesn’t always need to be some grandiose overture with candles and flower petals. It can literally be that simple.
But the best place is in the midpoint of Act Two.
It can’t be during the Rising Action. Your character is running for their life and has other things on his mind. I wouldn’t put it in the second half because the character is busy driving the story and needs to concentrate. Instead, I would put it squarely in the middle, at the Meeting with the Goddess moment.
In “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” this is where we see Aragorn and Arwen connecting on the bridge.
The scene itself could even be the Meeting with the Goddess moment.
Many things happen to your character at this point. This is where questions posed in the Ordinary World and Rising Action are answered. It’s also where they receive a gift for their journey. This could be a physical gift, knowledge, insight, inspiration, or something else. This is also where the plot twist happens.
Your hero thought getting to the midpoint would be the end of their journey. They thought they had achieved what they wanted and in many ways they have. But now they learn the journey isn’t over and there’s still far to go. You could use a well-thought-out, well-placed love scene to introduce some of these points. Even all of them at once.
What I would do is have the tension build between your two love interests up to this point. Then, in this place of relative safety and comfort, allow them to release the tension. They’ll get something that they thought they wanted during their journey, but what they wanted isn’t what they got. Things about their relationship will be revealed at this point and it may not be what they thought it was. Their encounter will reframe the rest of the story and how they relate to each other.
Will they find each other again? Maybe. Maybe not. Build the tension and answer that in the sweet spot between the Pre-Climax and the Climax.
Why do we need the scene in the first place?
Character development. Plain and simple. The answer to the question of “Why?” in any part of your novel should always come back to some form of character development. Never miss an opportunity to develop your characters.
Is one of your characters a people-pleasing doormat? Or an arrogant, self-absorbed prick who takes what they want and gives nothing back? Are they insecure or afraid? Show it. Your characters are in a very vulnerable and raw state at this point. I still advise against sex scenes. But they can be phenomenal vehicles for exploring and developing your characters if done properly. If not, you’re just writing a scene for some cringy “B” movie.
If your scene isn’t developing your characters, you have two choices. Either re-work it until it does or ditch it if you can’t. It doesn’t matter how great you think the scene is, if it doesn’t develop the story or the characters, it needs to go.
How do you intend to actually write the scene?
For my part, even with the issues Rand dumped on the page, I liked the style with which she dumped them. She never touched her subjects, but orbited them like a satellite around a planet. This lead to a scene that didn’t have the hallmarks of a traditional “boobs and butts” sex scene. Yet it somehow evoked more emotion and seemed more visceral. Pairing that style with something a little less rapey might be interesting.
That’s it. My short answer to the question, “Should you include a love scene in your work?” remains unchanged. No. It’s hard to make them work and they’re rarely needed when they do. And, as Ayn Rand so helpfully pointed out, it’s easy for even experienced writers to ignore their own advice and dump their issues on the page.
There’s still only one scene in all books and cinema I would categorize as a true “love scene” to begin with. The quality of the source may be questionable, but I stand by my choice.
But that’s not to say they can’t be done. You just need to understand the pitfalls of doing them poorly. I finished the article by showing you how I might write one if I were ever so inclined.
I hope that helped. Until next time, good reading and Calamus Gladio Fortior!