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Romance and desire

Is there a romance in your work in progress? No? Perhaps your story is better off without one, but let’s pause for a moment and consider: If you’re telling a story of deep human experience why wouldn’t you include one of the most powerful human drives?

Desire, love, intimacy, sex, completion. This is the territory you enter when you introduce a romance between two characters. This territory is deep and productive. If we are going to set aside this subject matter, we should have a compelling reason for doing so. At times, the story is not strengthened. For example, in some coming of age stories, wrenching war stories or tight psychological thrillers.

But we should think clearly about the uses of romance before bypassing them.

Aspiring writers cite a number of reasons for making a wide berth around sex and intimate relationships. Here are are a few I’ve heard that could use a second look.

It doesn’t fit with the genre.

I don’t know where this peculiar idea comes from. All genres are about people. People have total emotional lives that include pursuit of the object of desire, whether male or female… even while rushing to save the world.

Romantic elements are cliches.

OK, sometimes they are–as are spy plots, end-of-the-world scenarios, evil government conspiracies and dysfunctional families. We must make them fresh. The problem is not in the subject matter, it’s in the execution. My conviction is that romantic relationships are a testing ground for fear, grief, love and trust. If you don’t know your main character, ask her to be emotionally vulnerable to another human being–under duress–and see what happens.

There’s no room in the plot.

Maybe your plot is so complicated that you can’t explore the romantic angle deeply. Not every plot aspect needs 50 pages to come alive! While the characters are on their way to incredible destinies–to fracture Ray Bradbury’s famous line–they might hold hands. In other words, they could help each other, and along the way discover whether they might dare a deeper commitment.

I don’t believe in romance.

Fair enough. You should write about what you know and believe. But it’s hard to make a case that intimacy, sex and commitment are false urges. If the thrill of the chase and syrupy emotion turns you off, why not show love and attraction in some different light?  Dump the happy ending, for instance. Make the relationship fraught with complexity. Let’s make it tragic, or comi-tragic like the romance in the Cloony film, Up In the Air. The point is to convey your insights on the subject, not to deliver a predictable affair.

I’m uncomfortable writing about intimacy.

Lots of writers feel this way. It may help to remember that sex scenes are often less about mechanics than about emotional intensity and mood. If you are self-conscious about explicit descriptions, create the scene in a different way. Use great pillow dialogue. Learn to do this from Laurel K. Hamilton, Catherine Asaro, Guy Gavriel Kay. And for inspiration for the truly erotic, read Richard K. Morgan, Justina Robson, Ian McDonald, Kij Johnson (The Fox Woman, for example.)

No excuses.

Maybe your WIP really doesn’t want any love and sex. If you say so, I believe you. But first take a look at what you’re giving up–and what you may be afraid of. Then write what the story demands.


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