September 24, 2020
One of the issues with writing romance in young adult novels lies in the question of how far to push the love scenes. Do you stop at the kiss and fade to black like an old-fashioned movie? Do you stay in the scene longer, and if so, how long? And how much detail do you need? All of these questions can make writing love scenes stressful and worrisome (two emotions that don't lend themselves to smooth writing). But the question remains, how do you handle the love scene?
You Don't Have to Do This
The first thing to keep in mind when writing YA sex scenes is that you don't actually need any. It's not a requirement of the format. It isn't even the requirement if you have a love story as part of the book. Sweet Romance is perfectly acceptable in YA as long as it makes sense with the rest of the story. Sweet Romance is written totally without sex scenes. You may have the occasional kiss and hand holding and longing and wondering and sexual attraction, but you simply don't have sex. Today many dating teens have sex, but many do not. Some characters won't be ready for a sexual relationship and know it, but that doesn't mean it can't be a love story. Sex is not a requirement for romance.
And even if your characters are having a sexual relationship, you aren't required to write an explicit sex scene. You can write a sizzling love scene that we are certain is going to end in sex and simply draw the curtain before you have to get to the point of describing how the parts fit together. You are the one who will choose how far you want to go on the spectrum of love scene possibilities.
That, of course, ignores the fact that an editor or agent may encourage you (sometimes strongly) to take the sex scenes further. This means it’s important for you to think about why you’ve written the book the way you have and why your choices work for the story (not just for your sensibilities.) Ultimately the choice of how far you want to go is up to you. And the reality is that if you're incredibly uncomfortable with writing sex scenes, it might be better for the book if you don't.
When You Write a Love Scene
If you're writing romance, you're going to have some kind of love scene. It may be a first kiss and the push and pull that leads up to it. It may be the scene where the characters go much farther than the first kiss. But if you have characters who are strongly attracted to one another, readers will expect them to do something about it. Still, the real secret lies in the most important area of any novel: characterization.
"Use your love scenes as a way to illuminate characters." Anne Marble
Virtually all the resources out there to help writers conquer the love scene agree on one thing: don't focus on the sex, focus on the characters. In other words, you need characters who are deep enough and real enough to you that those characters guide you in knowing what will happen. This applies even if you don't actually write a single sex scene. Not writing a sex scene doesn't mean you're creating characters without a sex life. It means you aren’t exploring that sex life on the page. You still need to know all the secrets of that character's life, not because you will share them all on the page, but because all of those elements will color other aspects of the character's life.
"In writing a love scene, you have to worry less about choreography and more about characters."
One thing to keep in mind about love scenes in young adult novels is that you're exploring the life of an adolescent. This person is going to see things differently and make different decisions for different reasons than an adult. Everything about sex is still new (even for relatively jaded teens). The scenes you write need to reflect that youthful perspective.
Characters are going to be unsure of what they want or what they need. In this, they can be like adults since adult sexual relationships can also be about pursuing something they think they want, even if it's going to be harmful to them in the long run. As we said before, it all comes down to knowing your characters deeply so that what comes to the page is guided by these people you’ve created.
No matter how far you intend to delve into the sex scene, it's important not to rush the characters into it, not if you're creating a love story. Remember the rules of a good love story: Make the reader want to see these two get together and then keep them apart. Tension is part of every great story. There are things a character wants and things they dread. The tension lies in whether the good things will happen or the bad things will befall them. The longer you can stretch the tension, the more you'll hold the reader in the story.
"Restraint and tension are the name of the game. Make it too easy for your characters, and your love scene will hold as much power as a deflated balloon."
Jessi Rita Hoffman
A love scene also needs to do more than show sizzle. You don't have a sex scene just because you think you're supposed to have a sex scene. All scenes (including love scenes) need to further character development and make sense with the plot. One of the things my family often collectively catcalls are ridiculous love scenes in action movies when both lives are in immediate danger, and they're taking a pause to make out. If I'm being chased by killers and they might be right around the corner, I'm not going to feel particularly like putting myself in an incredibly distracted and vulnerable position and neither should your characters.
Writing for Today
Two things publishers tend to want to see in young adult novels that include characters having sex are safety and consent. Today teens are generally aware of the many possible physical results of sexual activity, including diseases and pregnancy, but it's easy to get caught up in a moment. And it's also easy to fear seeming too prepared. But one of the values of young adult novels is that they can offer positive examples as long as you can do it without preachy lectures. And safe sex is one area where character can offer those positive examples.
Now writing safe sex doesn't mean you need to have a character hold up a condom and give a tutorial on the importance of safe sex. It doesn't mean you need to write explicit sex scenes that involve proper condom use. It can be as simple as having a more experienced female character pass a condom to a less experienced female character in the restroom. The less experienced character may be deeply embarrassed, but she'll slip it into her purse because whatever happens, she intends to be smart. Now ultimately she might not even have sex, but the reader will infer that if she does, she’ll do it with precautions taken.
Consent is a similar issue. You don't need a lengthy discussion or a sign contract to prove consent between characters, but the "old style" sexual encounter where one character is seduced or coerced and it ends up in true love is no longer acceptable for young adult novels. If you have a love story, there should be no consummation without clear consent, and both characters need to reflect that. If one character badgers the other for sex, that person should not be presented as a positive character who ends up in a successful relationship.
Love scenes can be tough, but if you let your characters guide you and you work within your comfort zone (or maybe a little outside it), you can create a love story with scenes that feel satisfying and real. Time to kiss and tell.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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