September 28, 2017

Sexy Scenes: Open Door or Closed Door?

Ladybugs mating on a flower with text: How Much Intimacy Should We Show?

Last time, we discussed how to get over our dread and write sexy scenes for our stories. As I mentioned in that post, no matter our genre, at some point in our career, we might need to write depictions of intimacy.

However, there’s a wide range of what “intimacy” means for our writing. We could be referring to the description of any specific action, how “far” our characters go in the scene, or how openly we let readers experience the scene.

There’s no right or wrong answer for how to depict intimacy in our writing—only what’s right for our story. The best choice can depend on our genre, our characters, their situation, their emotional journey, and our target audience.

Let’s take a closer look…

The 3 Aspects of Intimacy in Our Writing

As mentioned above, the term intimacy can refer to several different aspects of our story. That can make it hard to know where our story might fall on a heat scale.

Last time, I shared these heat descriptions from All About Romance (AAR):

  • Kisses only
  • Subtle (closed door or allusions)
  • Warm (open doors, sensual, some physical descriptions)
  • Hot (very sensual, explicit descriptions of desire, graphic physical descriptions)
  • Burning (explicit everything, strong focus on sexual feelings and desires, may include kink)

Notice those levels encompass three different aspects of intimacy:

Intimacy Aspect #1: Action:

How “Far” Do Our Characters Go? What’s the Action?
An intimate encounter between our characters could be anything from embraces or kisses to a full love scene (potentially with kink or other activities).

Intimacy Aspect #2: Description:

How Explicit Is the Description?
The description of the action could range from a summary or subtextual hint to every caress and nibble being fully described in non-euphemistic language.

Intimacy Aspect #3: Reader Experience:

How Much Action Does the Reader Experience?
A love scene could fade to black after the intention for action is clear, or the door could remain open for readers to witness (or anything in between).

We Can Mix & Match the 3 Intimacy Aspects

While the AAR scale implies those aspects occur linearly, that’s not always the case. Even for something as simple as a kiss, our description could remain fairly dispassionate or close to “telling,” or it could include blush-worthy explicit details.

Match our story's needs by tweaking a sexy scene's intimacy in three different ways. Click To TweetFor example, my freebie short story Unintended Guardian is technically kisses only, but because of the explicit sensuality of those kisses, I’ve often considered it closer to the “Warm” designation (with low action but high description and experience). As a short story, a full sex scene didn’t make sense, but I also didn’t want to mislead readers about the heat level of the rest of the Mythos Legacy series.

The explicit word choices and sensual descriptions for those kisses better match the “Hot” style of the novels in the series. If the story was the introduction to a “Subtle” or “Warm” series, I could easily have toned down the descriptions of those kisses to match.

At the other end of the scale, I’ve read an inspirational historical romance where the characters married at the beginning of the story. For that story and genre, the characters needed to make love, but descriptions were subtle and doors closed (with high action but low description and experience).

In other words, just because our story needs a love scene, that doesn’t mean we have to be uncomfortably explicit. We can tweak an intimate encounter several ways to match what our story needs.

What’s the “Right” Level of Intimacy to Show?

What we’re comfortable writing might not match the needs of our story. In my previous post, I shared tips for how we can deal with our comfort level to ensure we’re not short-changing our story.

However, we might not be sure what our story needs. Some of the variables that can affect the “right” level of intimacy for our story include:

Genre: What’s Expected?

Different genres have very different expectations of all aspects of intimacy. Some genres avoid sexy scenes or keep any intimate encounters very low key or unemotional. In contrast, the romance genre emphasizes the emotions of the growing relationship, no matter what intimacy aspects are included.

Within the romance genre, the various subgenres have different expectations as well. An inspirational or Amish romance will likely be kisses only or “Subtle,” while paranormal romance stories are typically at least “Warm.”

Characters: What’s Appropriate for Them?

The differences between our characters can affect the action. Some of our characters might take intimacy slowly, perhaps waiting for marriage. Others might jump into sexy times when they feel desire.

Our characters can also affect the description. If we’re in deep point of view, word choice and descriptions should match the character’s thoughts. Some characters will use explicit words and some won’t.

Situation: What Are Our Characters Facing?

As I alluded to with the inspirational historical romance mentioned above, if our characters are already married, that affects what action would be appropriate. Similarly, characters on the run in a romantic suspense story might not have time to stop for some sexy fun.

Target Audience: What Are Readers Expecting?

Just as our genre creates expectations with readers, so too does our target audience. Every technique we use to attract readers determines more about our target audience.

For example, the marketing aspects of our book’s cover, title, and description all create expectations. A book with bare man-chest on the cover would disappoint readers if the story was kisses only.

How we advertise and promote our book—and who we advertise and promote to—all lead to expectations of our book’s content.

Emotional Journey: How Much Does Intimacy Affect the Arcs?

One of the defining characteristics of erotic romance is that the sex scenes help drive the characters’ growth. The couple builds a relationship because of their shared intimacy.

But as I mentioned last time, no matter our genre, something has to change during a scene to make it necessary to the story. That means characters might have epiphanies about themselves or the relationship during a sexy scene. For those situations, the reader experience aspect of intimacy needs to show enough to trigger the epiphany.

Putting the Story Variables Together

Sometimes those variables will play well together, and they’ll all point us to a common level of intimacy for our story. Other times, we might need a lower level of intimacy in some respects and a higher level in others.

How can we balance the different intimacy needs of our story? Click To TweetFor example, the variable of emotional journey is often separate from the other expectations. If we’re writing a story with a strong emotional arc, it wouldn’t be unusual for our characters to experience an emotional turning point during an intimate scene. In that case, if the other variables point toward a lower level of intimacy, we can try including just enough of the scene to show the emotional journey before a fade to black.

For help, we can use the tips I previously shared for how to avoid gratuitous scenes of any type:

  • From a plot perspective—assuming a scene is necessary—we need to show only the lead-up and initial actions of the scene. The minimum requirement is that readers must know the event happened, and if the circumstances are important, readers should know those too.
  • From a story perspective, changes of goals, motivations, or emotions must happen before the fade to black or be held until the following scene(s). The minimum requirement is that readers see the journey of any thought or emotional changes.

So while a spicy story might show the heroine’s epiphany of “I love him” at the *cough* climax of the scene, in a sweet story, that epiphany might happen when she decides to make love to her partner. In other words, if all the other needs of our story point toward closed doors, we can try to fulfill an emotional journey with closed doors as well.

My Story: Why I Have “Open Doors”

So if we can “close the doors” on many of our characters’ sexy scenes, why would we choose to keep them open? No, it’s not just to be titillating, despite the smears against the romance genre. *smile*

In the case of my stories, the right level of intimacy requires me to show open doors:

  • The paranormal romance genre expects at least “Warm” heat levels.
  • I write in a contemporary setting, so my characters are usually comfortable with some level of explicitness.
  • My couples work together as a team, so their situation allows them opportunities to indulge in sexy times.
  • The target audience of my stories and genre expects “Warm” or higher heat levels, and the language of my books’ descriptions supports that expectation.
  • Like erotic romance, my characters’ emotional journey often ties closely with their intimate encounters.

I want to talk more about that last item, because I’ve discovered that my characters’ emotional journey through the vulnerability exposed by intimacy is a huge part of my stories and why I write.

As I mentioned last time, I’m a big believer in ensuring that sexy scenes are important to the story and not gratuitous. That drive to fully integrate the sex scenes into the story means that emotional turning points happen in every one, and those emotional turning points are frequently messy. Just like real life.

Soapbox Time: Another Reason My Stories Have Open Doors

One unfortunate side effect of the push to establish strong understanding of the issue of sexual consent is that—for all the good and positive aspects of that education—it can also create unrealistic expectations in the real world:

  • Young adults are told to accept nothing less than “enthusiastic consent”—which is great…in theory. But in real life, many people weren’t raised with a healthy, sex-positive perspective, so enthusiastic behavior could be seen as something shameful.
    Should only those confident and outgoing enough to express their desire get to have sex? Of course not. But nuanced depictions of the consent stages of relationships might help show the variations found in the real world.
  • That expectation of enthusiasm can also lead to feelings of the encounter being a mistake if people experience conflicting emotions. In the real world, we can experience shame, worry, insecurity, and desire and enthusiasm—all at the same time.
    In this disturbing article at The Atlantic, a young woman decided that she was sexually assaulted after the fact—even though she fully owned her actions—because she was uncomfortable with owning her messy, conflicting emotions. (I don’t blame her. I blame the RA training she received that failed to give her the tools necessary to recognize the nuances of emotions. Regret is not rape.)

In my stories, my characters experience conflicting emotions during sexual encounters that illuminate aspects of their arc and illustrate their emotional growth. They feel desire, yes, but also shame, confusion, anger, worry, guilt, fear, vulnerability, etc.

If I were to try to close the door on my sexy scenes, while I might be able to show a single emotional change in an epiphany, I’d have to lose those conflicting emotions they experience along the way. So another reason I’ve chosen to keep the doors open is because I think it’s important to show that messiness is part of normal, healthy sexual relationships.

That said, that choice is right for me, my genre, my characters, and my stories. Other choices are just as valid.

If we’re still not sure what level would be right for our story, even after this post, we can always gather feedback on whether our draft version feels gratuitous or cheating to readers. The important thing is to think about what’s right for us and our stories and find a way to make all the aspects of intimacy work for what our story needs. *smile*

Have you written sexy scenes? How did you decide on the level of intimacy? If you’ve decided on having open or closed doors, how did you reach that decision? Did this post help you figure out what might be right for your story? Do you have other insights to share?

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Comments — What do you think?

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[…] I started getting ideas for paranormal romance stories. Okay, I could still “close the door,” right? […]

Carradee / Misti

Anything left for assumption in a story will be interpreted through what’s “normal” for a reader, so the more you leave open to implication, the more will be misunderstood by the average reader. Folks used to abuse will insert that in characters who are supposed to be healthy; folks used to healthy will insert that in characters who are supposed to be abusive. Folks used to having water with dinner will insert that; those used to wine will insert that.

If something doesn’t matter to the end goal or story in what you’re writing, then leaving it to reader assumption can be good. But it’s best to consider what best suits what you’re seeking to convey and to do with that conveyance, rather than to demonize or idolize any particular method, IMO.

Lorinda McKinnon

I chose to keep the door closed in my first novel. My writing is aimed at older readers – Baby Boomers and seniors – and quite frankly, I’ve become bored with most of the sexy scenes in fiction (I think I’ve read every possible description and position possible) and I’m sure my readers are too. I may add a little more detail during my editing phase because senior sex isn’t exactly overdone in the romance market, but I’ll keep it mellow.

Julie Glover

I think what you’re willing to write also plays into what genre and subgenre you should choose. While I enjoy historical romance, the expectations of that genre are not in line with what I want to write (plus, I freak out about getting all the facts right, but that’s another story). Meanwhile, I adore the early relationships of YA and showing how even that first kiss is a powerfully charged moment … and changes the people involved. I’m also eagerly tackling a cozy mystery now, partly because I can also maintain genre expectations while playing to my strengths.

Great article! And I LOVE the breakdown of action, description, and experience. While I’m low on action, I do put a lot into description, milking those moments for what I can.

McKenna Dean

This is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately as I am launching a new pen name and brand. The problem is, I have two very distinct series in mind, that will have different heat levels. The first is written in third person POV and centered around an elite pararnormal agency that deals with shifter issues–and the heat level is much warmer than the second series.

The second is set in the 1950s, and written in first person, as it follows the adventures of our hero and heroine investigating paranormal events. While it’s a bit of an origin story for the contemporary series, it’s much more like the X-Files as done by Nick and Nora. That, plus the first person POV, has made me question the degree to which I depict the sex scenes. They will undoubtedly lean more to emotional impact than graphic description. I just can’t envision the heroine of the series sharing her intimate experiences, regardless of how ahead of her time she might be.

To avoid confusion on the part of readers looking for a specific kind of romance, I’ve modeling the covers for the Redclaw Security series on the genre standard and have created a series logo that will hopefully make it recognizable across the installments. The historical series will have a very different look to the covers, and I intend to do my best with blurbs, etc. to indicate the different tone of the series.

I hope it works out!


Interesting post! I like your point about exploring conflicting, complex emotions. As a reader, I would prefer that the author do a summary/ telling to convey these emotional nuances, rather than making me go through all those sexual details that I find uninteresting and intellectually unengaging… I’m sorry, I realize that I might sound very harsh here, but AGAIN, I emphasize that my feelings may be a combination of being almost completely asexual, and because I have read too much already that I am easily bored and may have much higher expectations for sex scenes than most readers do..

About the writing itself, if the sex scene needs to be shown rather than just summarized, I would rather that the author use metaphors and other implicit means of conveying what happened, rather than direct and explicit descriptions. The latter doesn’t leave much to the imagination, you know? At least in my opinion. With metaphors and implicit descriptions, I would find it much more interesting and engaging.

As for my own stories, maybe it’s just my own style, but I don’t feel motivated to write anything beyond verbal hints that something sexual will happen. My covers also look relatively “cute and innocent,” so anything steamy would feel jarring and out of place in my story anyway!


[…] As I mentioned in my post about the debate of writing open- or closed-door sex scenes in our stories: […]

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