What does this guest post from Heather Demetrios have in common with a fresh cup of coffee? Both will energize your Monday morning, and their contents are EXTREMELY hot.
Take it away, Heather!
Anatomy of a Sex Scene
One of my favorite things about YA are the sex scenes. Whether I’m writing them for books like I’ll Meet You There or reading them, they are pretty much my favorite part of any book in my hands. In fact, I get downright angry when the author skimps on the love. Whether they’re steamy, as in Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses, or sweet and a little awkward, as in Stephanie Perkins’s Isla and the Happily Ever After, sex in YA has an abundance of feels.
I think what does it for me is that sex scenes in YA are often about characters—one or both—having the experience for the first time. What results is often a tenderness that you don’t get as often in adult lit, a hyperawareness of the body experiencing something so profound for the first time. That’s not to say that all sex scenes in YA are about virgins or are necessarily sweet, but even those with more experienced characters retain a newness to the act. This keeps it fresh, exciting. With few exceptions, there isn’t a feeling of been there, done that. And the scenes rarely happen between characters who are mildly into one another or just hooking up. Often, even what might seem at first like the most casual or unfulfilling kind of sex (I’m thinking The Duff here) often ends with the characters falling for one another. I’m a romantic and nothing turns me off more than sex without an emotional connection. For me, it’s the characters’ investment in each other that propels the scene and gives the sex the undercurrent it needs to be more than a how-to guide or full-on erotica. The connection between the characters is what brings the reader further into the scene, since their entre into the novel is an emotional investment in the protagonist.
There’s nothing worse than sticking with a book for hundreds of pages waiting for a sex scene that doesn’t pay off. Whenever that happens to me, I feel cheated. I stuck with you through thick and thin, I want to shout. Give me the goods!
So what makes a sex scene fulfilling to the reader? How do writers know if they’re hitting the sweet spot? In order to answer these questions, I picked a couple of my favorite YA sex scenes to illustrate what we’re looking for in our lovin’. Spoilers abound in terms of who has sex with who in these books, so beware.
The Classy Fade To Black
This is your classic YA sex scene. Good ones are written lyrically, bringing in the five senses to add to the sensuality of the moment. What you’re looking for here is a satisfying culmination of the relationship between the protagonist and their love interest. These scenes are usually short, especially once the characters’ clothes are off. The act itself is shrouded in a haze of pretty writing. If this is done well, the reader is satisfied. If not, though, they want their money back. Sometimes you’ll see the narrator get more specific in the lead-up and then more general once you get to the actual sex. Lead-up or none, nobody wants to read a how-to guide.
Here’s one of my favorites:
All Our Pretty Songs by Sarah McCarry
He kisses my throat, behind my ear, the curve of my shoulder. Skims his palms up the line of my back, ticking off the vertebra. I let him take off my shirt, unzip my jeans, make a nest of our clothes in the long grass and bring me to him. The air is heavy with the scent of roses, the warm honeyed buzz of a bee. His hands on my skin are cool, his mouth hot. I can hear the earth thrumming beneath us like a pulse.
“I’ll take you home,” he says later, lazily flicking away an ant making its way up my wrist. Sweat’s cooled on my skin. I smell like him. If we don’t put our clothes back on, if we lie here in the grass forever, if I don’t think about anything, I can make this moment last for the rest of time.
Daaaaammmmn. I love this fade to black because you get all these delicious sensory details: the roses, the honeyed bees (metaphor!), cool hands, hot mouth. And you get something at the end, too—sweat and the scent of him on her. It’s an erotic scene even if the act itself is purged from the narrative, to say nothing of the gorgeous prose. Oh and P.S. the characters really, really like each other.
The Whole Shebang
Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins
What works for me in this blush-worthy scene is that it’s the opposite of the one above. It doesn’t have flowery language. It’s very honest and real and, because of that, hot. Isla and her boyfriend, Josh, have been through a lot as a couple and this is the moment where everything’s going to be okay. This scene has the whole act narrated and it’s fumbling and sweet. There’s a kiss, the undressing, then:
Our kisses are soft. Teasing. Restrained. Our skin is clammy, then warm, then hot. Our kisses grow longer, our breathing gets faster. I fumble for a condom. He presses against me, and it feels so good, so intense that I cry out. He meets my gaze to make sure everything is all right, everything is more than all right, and my hips arch against him in response. His eyes close in rapture, and he’s guiding my body, and we’re finding our rhythm, and we’re together again, at last.
There’s more, but I’ll let you read the book for the rest. What makes Perkins such a great writer is the rhythm of the scene. Look how we go from short to long sentences to signify the progression of the act. I also like how she brings in different things: sensation, body temperature, movement, tender moments.
The Middle of the (Jellicoe) Road
These are scenes that have more detail than a fade to black, but less than the whole shebang. These are great scenes because you get some of the specific action but you also get the lyrical pretty stuff.
Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
I love the rhythm of this scene, how it’s written as one beautiful burst. I like that we get that it’s her first time and that he’s attentive to that. Her pain isn’t glossed over which allows for this scene to ring with authenticity. The last line underscores how much the characters care about each other.
I sit up in the dark and after a moment I take off my singlet and I hear him take off his T-shirt and we sit there, holding each other, kissing until our mouths are aching, and then we’re pulling off the rest of our clothes and I’m under him and I feel as if I’m imprinted onto his body. Everything hurts, every single thing including the weight of him and I’m crying because it hurts and he’s telling me he’s sorry over and over again, and I figure that somewhere down the track we’ll work out the right way of doing this but I don’t want to let go, because tonight I’m not looking for anything more than being part of him. Because being part of him isn’t just anything. It’s kind of everything.
One thing you might have noticed is that all these scenes have an ending that resonates emotionally. They bring the reader back to the story and what matters most—the journey of the protagonist. Sex in a story should always have a purpose, whether it’s to teach the protagonist more about herself or to bring two characters closer together. When written with care, these scenes become set apart, glowing. Everyone’s happy: characters, writer, and reader.
So what are some of your favorite sex scenes? Why do you like them?
Thanks for stopping by, Heather! Check out Heather's website, or find her on Twitter (@HDemetrios), Pinterest, or Facebook. And stay tuned for more from FYA's month-long celebration of I'll Meet You There!
Week 1: November 2015 calendar + giveaway of signed book
Week 2: Cocktail recipe
Week 3: Guest post from Heather Demetrios
Week 4: Character quiz + giveaway of handwritten love letter
Psst -- if you live in the U.S. and own a copy of I'll Meet You There, you can email your proof of purchase to [email protected] for a signed bookplate and bookmark from Heather!