The most critical lesson in writing a love scene is that it is similar to making love in the real world: when done well, it is messy, chaotic and somewhat animalistic. The civilized approach does not work; it leads to the greatest drawback of all: predictability.
Does this sound familiar? The leading man and woman dislike one another intensely; something happens and they see another side of the other; in spite of their best efforts to deny it, they find themselves attracted to one another; and they ultimately fall into a passionate embrace. Do you really want to write that one again?
The Best Love Scenes
The best love scenes are the ones in which the participants are not perfect specimens and the circumstances are obscure and somewhat confused. They are the scenes in which the reader has to work for it. In a word, they are authentic.
For example, here is the opening paragraph of my book, Point and Shoot:
This is how you make love to a woman undergoing cancer treatments. You ignore the metallic taste of her kiss; the slight snorting sound she makes when you press into her; the bony feel of her body, covered by skin that lacks tensile strength; the hairless scalp. You close your eyes and remember what it was like before. You move gently, until you forget yourself, as you should. You savor the moment because there might not be many more. And one more thing: you move very gently.
How to Get Started on Your Love Scene
I would suggest that you start by imagining your most interesting and emotionally-moving encounter with the opposite (or the same) sex. Write out a free association narrative about the images; scents; colorings; texture; dialogue; weather; and other aspects that trigger your memory.
Then, complicate it. You must assume that your memory of the event has been neutered by the passage of time. You remember your past, as we all tend to do, in an unrealistic light, obscuring and shading over the petty annoyances (Could you stop that whistling?); the inconvenient bodily functions (I have to pee.); and the wanderings of your mind (Did I lock the car door?) . So instead of writing that simplistic and ultimately, predictable story, shake it up.
Have your female character imagining a former lover, while her words are only about the man in her arms. Have your male character fear that he will not achieve arousal, and keep this truth from his lover until it can no longer be hidden. Have your characters wear blindfolds, so that all of the narrative description is tactile. In other words, create some kind of slanted, asymmetrical aspect to the story. Make your characters, and the reader, work for it.
Sure, Sex Sells, But Don’t Make it Porn
One of the most frequently asked questions is how explicit to make the love scene. The answer is simple: less explicit than what you would want to read. It is axiomatic that the most sexually-charged organ of the body is the mind. That is where your story will be experienced, and you need to cater to the mind’s unique way of perceiving. The best caricaturists will use nothing more than a curved line or a geometric shape to suggest an instantly recognizable celebrity. They draw the most memorable aspect of the person’s face, for example the ears. By that alone, the viewer can instantly discern the subject’s identity.
Likewise, a writer must suggest rather than explain. Describe how it feels to run a finger along a thigh; to feel blankets bunched between your body and your lover’s; to be out of breath and not really know why. To paraphrase a long-ago Presidential campaign, make it subtle, stupid.
Here is another excerpt from that scene in Point and Shoot which illustrates the point:
“Are you getting there?”
“I told you never to ask me that question. It doesn’t matter. Keep going. Finish.”
“If I’m hurting you.”
I sped up. She shifted her hips to make it easier. After a while, I could see a tear well up at the corner of her eye. The tip of her nose flushed. She patted my shoulder again. “I said keep going.”
A wave of remorse and self-pity, a heavy, deadening feeling, yanked me back.
I stopped for good and rolled off her.
She lay there, splayed out, staring at the ceiling. Unmoving.
I propped myself on one elbow, stroking her abdomen.
We were silent for a long while.
To sum up, love scenes are done best when they follow no particular formula, but instead, come from the heart. Less is more. Of course, you should also keep in mind that the research is frequently much more fun than the actual writing. But take a few moments to get it down on paper, anyway. We readers like to watch.