Help me write a love scene. A good one.
November 11, 2010 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Struggling writer asks: Help me write a non-cringeworthy love scene! What are some of your favourite literary love scenes, and what made them great?

I'm writing a story which contains love scenes - important from a plot standpoint, so "fade to black" won't cut it, but I find it very difficult to write love scenes. I get embarrassed by writing open emotion; I'm better at people hiding their feelings. These love scenes trace the development of a relationship and need to be be pretty emotional. They are sex scenes but not meant to be eye-wateringly explicit.

So help me out, hopeless romantics of Metafilter - have you ever read a love scene where you really felt moved? (Not turned on, or not just turned on.) What made it so great? Alternatively, how would your ideal love scene read?

Any pointers much appreciated!

Anonymous because the book is a private project and many of my friends know I use Metafilter. (I hope this is not misuse of anon posting.)
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

Pretty much anything by Anaïs Nin. I'd start with Delta of Venus if you are unfamiliar. As far as writing goes i find that women tend to focus on more than just the mechanics, while men are more into what goes where, when, and how hard. Personally both have their places, but I tend to prefer character driven stories, so to me that's what's going to be most important.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:06 PM on November 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

Good, sexy, character-based details. Lots of them. Example: I really like the love scenes in Franzen's Freedom (using this example because I just read it and it's good example fresh in my mind - probably not the *best* example). During one love scene, he describes the woman climbing into the bed of the man in a sleep-walking sort of state (and isn't that a sweet, familiar feeling - that out of it state you're in when you wake up and have middle of the night sex or early morning sex?), cuddling him and his penis coming out of the hole in his boxers and rubbing her belly as she unbuttoned her pajama top. Seduction, I think, says a lot more about characters and who we are and how we operate than actual sex. And it keeps the reader engaged. Good seduction sequences with good, specific details are much better than "and then he put his big cock in her and started ramming her pussy as hard as he could and she screamed really loudly until they both came and fell asleep."

Fiction can be hot, steamy, sexy and explicit - nasty even - but it isn't the same thing as erotic literature.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:23 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me recommend How to Write a Dirty Story by Susie Bright. It really is the gold standard how-to for writing about sex.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:25 PM on November 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

Remember, you don't have to focus solely or explicitly on the sex scene. You can describe the moments leading up to it and/or the aftermath of it, leaving the actual mechanics to the imagination of the reader.
posted by nomadicink at 2:31 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's easier for me to think of what not to do when writing a love scene. A really good terrible example are the love scenes in Endless Love. Horribly graphic compared to the rest of the book (which is pretty bad all the way around) - I noted it as such: what not to do if I ever wrote a love scene.

-Not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

- Graphic to the point that all mystery is lost, no matter the tone of the rest of the story.

- So purple as to suggest that the writer is actually embarassed and hiding in behind pretty words.

- Writing too much from the perspective of one character or another - possibly due to the gender of that character /comfort level of the writer (that is, in a way where it stands out for me, the reader).
posted by marimeko at 2:48 PM on November 11, 2010

I need to feel it's not gratuitous or it just kind of makes me cringe. So why is it necessary for the plot? Concentrate on that element. Whatever makes the scene intrinsic can make it compelling for its own sake, and the sexy stuff can be flourishes (ie, if it's about someone opening up, or about someone being manipulative, or - whatever - you show their behavior and attitude through the writing, and describe the mechanics secondarily). You can do plenty of "fading to black" otherwise.
posted by mdn at 2:57 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I second Freedom. Franzen doesn't write beautiful prose, but the wealth of detail and focus makes the scenes very emotionally realistic.
posted by yarly at 3:06 PM on November 11, 2010

Less Barbara Cartland, more Georgette Heyer. Or rather, imply rather than explicate. No bosom heaving drama. Interestingly, I find PD James has done it well with Adam Dalgliesh's evolution into falling in love. Its delicately handled, conveys the depth and passion but leaves the dignity of the characters intact with respect to the reader, who is in a sense, a voyeur to the unfolding private drama. We simply sense a hint of perfume in the air and imagine the rest rather than pull the curtain aside and stare.

Adam Dalgliesh is in love: "He felt as vulnerable as a boy in love for the first time. . . . Somehow he had to find the courage to risk that rejection, to accept the momentous presumption that Emma might love him" [pp. 28--29].

Otherwise its erotica or porn and that is an entirely different animal.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 3:08 PM on November 11, 2010

One of my favorite things I've read about this subject is actually directed at people who write fanfiction... but don't be afraid! It's a thoughtful read about writing any sort of intimate moment between two people in a grounded, character-specific way.

Smut: You're Doing It Wrong (Or How To Do It Right)
posted by warble at 3:11 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I liked the library love scene in Atonement. I don't have it in front of me, so I can't point to anything in particular, but overall I thought McEwan struck a good balance between having enough detail to keep it sexy and interesting while not making me feel like I was reading porn.
posted by sigmagalator at 3:12 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, there's the end of Ulysses.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 3:56 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

On the explicit end of the literary spectrum, I do love Diana Gabaldon's scenes in the Outlander series.
posted by purlgurly at 4:46 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

James Salter's A Sport and a Pasttime

Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women
posted by Joe Beese at 4:47 PM on November 11, 2010

Like all fiction writing. Flee cliche. Zero in on a few relatable but compelling details, rather than elaborating every last trivial thing or merely asserting abstract ideas.
posted by foursentences at 5:04 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best advice I've ever received is to remember that you're still writing a scene, and great scenes have conflict. The idea that my job in a love scene is to build the action to or around a point of conflict changed the whole feel of writing these scenes. This conflict may be resolved or unresolved, but I've found that love scenes are a terrific way to create minor points of conflict, and therefore tension, and to move the action of the whole story.

More, your characters should change as a result of this resolved or unresolved conflict, and just like everyone else has said, your characters should be the same characters you've created in every other scene. If you're writing characters who hide their feelings, what physical action can you show when they touch each other and make love that demonstrate that suppression/reticence/tension? You don't have to tell the reader that it's an emotional scene if, for example, a repressed character is gripping the arm of the sofa and closing her eyes tight as her lover gets close and touches her for the first time.

So you've already recognized your characters need to change, and that this change is important to the rising action (somehow) of the story, and that the best way for them to change is to be physically intimate with each other. Don't be afraid to get inside of that and let those conflicts snap. It can be a lot of fun to take your characters through that scene just to see what happens.

Also, I find that dialogue really helps make a love scene seem live and present. Even spare conversation connects your characters to each other and it's easier to imply even really explicit action in dialogue than it is in narrative (and make it feel natural and sexy). A great writing exercise I had to do once was to write an entire sex scene in dialogue only.

Also, I like this little piece for a nice primer for love scene writing. Also, Charles Baxter's Burning Down the House is a terrific fiction resource and he's a writer that really gets love scenes and how they tell the story of his characters. Our sex lives are a part of our lives, in general, after all.

I think you'll find that once you dig into it as an opportunity to write a really good conversation and create sparks of conflict and reveal even more about your characters and layer the plot, you'll look forward to love scenes and look for places to fold them in.
posted by rumposinc at 5:21 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some links and suggestions for you from the text and comments of this One Story blog post.
posted by tangerine at 5:33 PM on November 11, 2010

In my view, the problem with many love (and sex) scenes is that writers tend to describe them in abstract language. I guess the urge is to try to capture spiritual or oceanic feelings. But a general rule of writing is "If you're trying to describe the indescribably... don't."

I love it when a writer conveys something abstract to me, but the good writers do it via concrete detail. And if you can't think of concrete details for an abstraction, then stick to the concrete details for the concrete.

In real life, when two people proclaim their love to each other (and/or have sex), they say specific things. They touch each other in specific ways. They feel tingles in their stomachs or a warmth that starts in their shoulders and spreada down their arms...

Since love and sex are SENSUAL, this is your chance, as a writer, to write sensual (as in "the five senses") details. What did her hair smell like? What about his sweat? When she said, "I want you," did his breathing stop for a moment? Did his stomach lurch? What color were her stockings? Did the sheets rustle as they dropped to the floor?

To me, all of those details are way more useful than "She felt something indescribably wonderful" or "at last she he felt whole."

Don't confuse common experience with cliche. "Their two hearts beat as one" is a cliche. We've heard it so often, it's hard to actually picture heart #1 and heart #2 beating in unison. I just hear nonsense sounds: theirtwoheartsbeatasone. And I know, in some vague sense, that those sounds mean "passion."

But there's nothing cliche about this, even though it's simple and common:

He brushed his fingertips against hers. She didn't pull away. He took her hand. He pressed her palm to his face. "His skin is hot," she thought. He looked into her eyes. He looked and looked. "I love you," he said.
posted by grumblebee at 5:34 PM on November 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh wait, I just saw that rumposinc linked to Steve Almond's Rumpus piece, which is the main focus of my linked post. Well, the suggestions in the comments might be helpful anyway.
posted by tangerine at 5:34 PM on November 11, 2010

Here's a great resource: Rosina Lippi's Writing Sex Scenes

It's from an old blog that has since taken that particular page down. But you can still read the whole thing over at the Wayback Machine (, which is where the link above points to. The articles there (scroll down for the first one) have fantastic details, examples, and analysis on what makes a scene work or not work.
posted by danceswithlight at 6:02 PM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought the love/ sex scenes in The Time Travelers Wife were well done.
posted by morganannie at 6:25 PM on November 11, 2010

The passage in Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers where Peter and Harriet are in the punt and she's all "oh hell, I am in love with you, aren't I?" Most of it is excerpted in this (alarmingly devoted fan's) post.

Ok, it's from a 1935 mystery novel that doesn't even have a murder in it. And it's not really a love/sex scene as much as a realization-of-love scene. But I've reread it dozens of times. Man, breathed as though he had been running. It's so restrained and ordinary, really, but you can still feel the tension and the heart-pounding and all of it.

Later on in the book they, you know, make out or whatever. I guess. She barely hints at it. I think omission can get you pretty far -- when the sexual stuff isn't made explicit, the obvious sexual tension suffuses everything else instead, which gets your (my?) attention way more than more broadly descriptive, cliché-reliant love scenes. This is very specific. It's about the scroll-work of Peter's ear, apparently, and Harriet's helplessness when she finally lets herself see him. Magnified and subtle.
posted by little cow make small moo at 7:58 AM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Popping back in to give a hard second to Susie Bright.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:29 AM on November 12, 2010

In the vein of little cow's comment--you also might want to check out Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond chronicles. You have to get through a few books before you get to the really intense romantic scenes, but judging by the obsession of Dunnett's followers (who read and reread and reread)--and in my own opinion--it's worth it. Dunnett's love scenes fall somewhere in between explicit and "fade to black," and are built entirely around character.
posted by torticat at 4:54 AM on November 13, 2010

I think the key with something like that is to highlight a select handful of sensory details, the way your brain does when you're remembering something like that. "I remember she was taking off her shirt and a button came off and went clattering into a corner and she laughed; I kissed her then and the flush of her throat was so warm against my hand I worried I was chilling her..." Fragmentary sensory detail. If you go too blow by blow, if there's a plague of serial commas gurgling through every paragraph, it can come to feel instructive in tone, rote. Similarly, if you get too metaphorical, you can derail into absurdity unbelievably quickly. Good sex is sort of above and beyond words, yes? Sensation meeting emotion well before conscious verbalization. So, to describe it well you can't get too thoughtful or highblown; the more abstractly you have to think to get what the author's describing the less sexy.

The Guardian's Bad Sex award could be helpful too here --- this first entry from 2007 falls into both the traps I was mentioning.
posted by Diablevert at 5:40 PM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Curtis Sittenfeld writes really great sex scenes that are excellent at developing the plot and/or the characters. Check out Prep and American Wife. As with the rest of her writing, she has a knack of using very specific detail in a way that, instead of feeling mechanical, tells you so much about what the characters are experiencing emotionally.
posted by wholebroad at 3:04 PM on November 15, 2010

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