Many blog readers probably know that Phoenix Comic Fest was held recently in downtown Phoenix with some hugely popular and successful author attendees, both locally and nationally. Being that I’m a huge fan of Phoenix Comic Fest (formerly Phoenix Comicon), I was thrilled to once again be able to attend this informative and exciting event that encourages “fangirling” and cosplay while bringing you up close and personal with your favorite sci-fi and fantasy authors. One of my favorite panels this year was held with all women authors (Suzanne Young, Gail Carriger, Amity Green and Yvonne Navarro to be exact), discussing something that is crucially important to do well in fiction: writing romance and sex scenes that are believable.
As the managing editor for Midnight Publishing, one of my jobs during developmental edits is to highlight areas in the material that don’t flow or fit with the rest of the prose, come off as clunky and/or clichéd, or are inappropriate for the desired readership level. During the Comic Fest panel, Carriger mentioned a sentiment that was echoed by all other panelists: “that crafting a believable and satisfying sex scene is one of the hardest facets of writing books.”
For part 1 of this two-part series of posts on writing romance and sex in fiction, I’m going to explore the topics that were addressed with these popular and NYT’s bestselling authors during the panel, while next week’s post will focus on common mistakes made in romance and sex scenes, as well as providing additional references for navigating this difficult and varied component of fiction writing.
Age Categories in Fiction and Common Levels of Explicitness
1. Young Adult:
YA fiction is one of the most widely read and popular genres in fiction and is usually a category aimed at readers who are 13 and up. Because of the ages of the protagonists (usually teenagers themselves) and the intended readership, YA fiction oftentimes hints at sexual encounters and details but utilizes a “fade to black” tactic that concludes the scene before any actual sexual steps occur. Verbiage is tame and descriptions of organs/body parts are almost never seen, unless they are stated in characters’ dialogue and play an integral part in moving the plot forward/character development. This Swoon Reads post on writing sex in YA fiction makes a valid point and provides a rule of thumb for YA writers: that any romance/sex in a YA book is always about character building, and not just the sex itself.
2. New Adult:
A genre to gain traction in the last few years, NA fiction started out in the contemporary genre with older protagonists (18 to mid-20s) experiencing college and other more “adult” situations that oftentimes include or even center around romantic relationships and sex. While sex scenes are more descriptive and can also focus on topics such as sexual assault, consent, and LGBTQIA/diversity subject matter, a similar focus to such material furthering the plot and developing character should still be the driving force for these scenes. This post by author Dahlia Adler on B&N Reads lists some great NA books for familiarizing yourself with the genre and its handling of romance and sex scenes.
Encompassing many genres and styles, Adult fiction can expect to see the most variation in explicitness and scene details, both in genre fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal romance, historical fiction/Victorian, or contemporary and literary. In regards to each genre’s handling of romance and sex, authors should take note of the time period they’re writing in and use that as their guide: a Victorian novel’s romantic scenes will likely be prim, proper and heavy on allusions, while a paranormal romance populated by vampires and werewolves might exhibit more direct language and action.
Defined as “literature meant to induce sexual desire and arousal,” erotica fiction is the arena in which authors can write sex scenes with a goal of steaminess and passion (while still furthering the plot). These books are most often driven by a romantic plotline (as opposed to a subplot of romance) and can have multiple graphic sex scenes that exist solely for the pleasure of the characters (and the readers). Erotica also explores fringe topics such as BDSM, controversial subject matter, polyamory, and polygamy, etc.—but it’s important to remember that illegal or disturbing topics are monitored by e-book and print book distributors and can be banned. A post on She Knows by Sara Dobie Bauer lists some popular NSFW excerpts from popular erotica books and can provide a framework for this style.
Come back next week for part 2 of Midnight Publishing’s series on writing romance and sex in fiction, and contact our award-winning editors and ghostwriters anytime with questions of your own!