Sex scenes can be difficult to write. Probably the most ubiquitous piece of writing advice is: Make the sex further the characters. That is, have something emotional at stake between them. Have it develop and surprise and change them the way a conversation might.

That advice highlights for me that a romance is really two stories happening side-by-side: The love story of the body, and the love story of the mind. And if you get a really good writer it’s impossible to unwind one from the other.

I know I quoted this recently, but it’s so pertinent I have to quote it again. When Rochester is desperate to make Jane stay, and she won’t, he clutches at her and says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Bodies are alive. Bodies are dying, breath by breath.

I first started thinking about what a morbid thing this can be – this attempt to get at what’s inside the organic, breathing, dying cage – when I was reading KA Mitchell. I’d just read a medic hero followed by a surgeon hero. Because of their professions they come across a lot of physical trauma, which KA Mitchell doesn’t try to separate in the text from sex – physical penetration, raised heartbeat, blood and flesh.

In No Souvenirs Kim is a surgeon and his lover Shane undergoes severe physical trauma:

And even when the paddles and the hypo brought back the flutter of life, Kim couldn’t shake off that feeling like the emptiness was just waiting for another chance. It was there in every long space between the electric contractions of Shane’s cardiac tissue. Nothing as sure as the knowledge that they were all nothing but animated meat just waiting for the power to go out.

Then later:

At every stroke of Kim’s hands, the muscles under Shane’s wet skin rippled with that vital current, warm and alive. Kim couldn’t erase the memory of Shane cold and still on that reef, of the clammy, pale chest when he’d ripped open Shane’s wet suit to get the paddles on bare skin, but he could have this one to go with it, Shane’s heart pounding hard against Kim’s palm, breath deep and strong as he fisted Shane’s cock.

The body is how we can come close and express love, and the body is the thing that will betray our love by dying.


These images from Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty’s 1746 “Anatomical Study” perfectly capture the body as a romantic object that is also a piece of flesh.

There was a study done last year on how arousal “makes everything less disgusting”. For my money, sex scenes could do with fewer perfect bodies, and more living/dying flesh made wondrous by love, by the urgent desire to keep on being – and by a healthy dose of lust.

Comments 14 Responses

  1. Shelley

    As always, you have a lovely post here. As I write, I find myself struggling to combine the development of physical love and lust with that of the characters– I have a tendency, I find, to chart their emotional growth separately from the physical sensations they arouse in each other.

    This, of course, won’t do, and I’m working to overcome it. I’ve been reading with an eye toward the ways other writers make these work in tandem or even make them work at odds, as they sometimes do in life. This idea of the body as both the instrument of love and as something that ultimately betrays it with mortality was a theme I noticed in Sarah Mayberry’s “The Other Side of Us,” which is on my mind as I finished it this morning. The way she had her characters deal with issues of ability and, to an extent, disability, and how that influenced how they saw each other and their physical relationship, came a little closer to this than we usually see in romance novels.

    On a personal note, my husband was once hospitalized in the ICU and much sicker than someone would be expected to be at age 30, and what I remember most is needing to breathe with him, as if my breath could somehow make his work, keep him there, keep him connected to me. The only other time we breathe like that is during physical intimacy, and yet there I was, next to him in his hospital bed, matching my breath to his, holding his finger, since that was the only part of him not hooked up to something important and mechanical and frightening.

    I think anyone who has been in that situation probably has that story, the story of matching your breath to theirs, as if it is a magic that can hold them to us. Something for me to hold on to when I’m writing love scenes, that story and that feeling.

    1. Cheryl Nekvapil

      It’s well recognised that great support for a woman in childbirth is to breath with her, and sometimes to get her to breathe with you! Life polar experiences!

  2. Mary Ann Vadnais

    I’m a healthcare provider in pediatrics. I’ve been bedside, or have been assisting in a code, when patients have died. I will be again, because to bear witness to death is woven into the work. I rarely talk about it, because of my patient population, and there are rules about who is supposed to die, and I understand if the people in my life would rather not know how often such rules are broken.

    I am not wise, but here is a very small truth: there is no barrier between ourselves and death, and no veil. Our lives are wide open to death and as receptive to dying as satellites in space are to a signal. We were made to die and born to it. There is no transfiguration during the moments we die; we are as we ever were until there is some arbitrary acceptance by those who tried to stop it, or by those who loved us, that we cannot be reached.

    Here is a confession: I sometimes hold my son and think that I have brought him into this world to die. Dying will be, by virtue of his humanity, the only experience I can be sure he will have. I hope that his dying will be filled with incredible confrontations with learning and change as well as adventure and deep and satisfying love. I hope that I am privileged to know many decades of his dying and that my own death will not burden him and only remind him of what work he has left to attempt.

    I have been very intimate with death: with the cadaver I dissected in school, the nameless woman I named Silent Professor. With patients I have been a part of teams to save, with patients who traveled slowly to the end and with tremendous physical and emotional suffering, with patients so small they only experimented with breath. Every death was as different as the person it belonged to, and the same.

    Sometimes I read a book and think “this author can’t know what it is she’s done here, the kind of hope this represents.” But that isn’t true, is it? Why write about a hot look across a room or a lover madly clutching his lover’s hip if you don’t understand what, exactly, is at stake? Immortal, love is another way to pass the time. But our hearts beat only because a thimbleful of sparking fibers thread them, and there is a meter counting every beat. To spend those heartbeats on love, on orgasms, defiantly adds depth to time if not any measure breadth.

    1. Cheryl Nekvapil

      That’s it, thank you for expressing it so vividly!, and every loving moment is the latest, most recent experience of it in the history of humankind, in the world, in the universe!

  3. Liz Mc2

    All three of you (Anna, Shelley and Mary Ann) please go away and write books I can read. But no, wait, I’d miss the blog posts and comments.

    One of my favorite books is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light, in which two characters talk about making love after someone dies (er, not with the dead person) to affirm life. It puzzled me as a teen reader but does not at all, now. Mixed up in that affirmation is the awareness that the body you’re loving, and your own, is ephemeral.

  4. Kaetrin

    Great post, excellent comments. I don’t have anything profound to add. But I will say that the second quote from No Souvenirs has always resonated with me. You can’t protect yourself from the bad things in life happening. But embracing the good things, creating those good memories, makes the bad things easier to bear.

  5. Brie

    My grandparents were together for over 60 years, and they had one of those love stories cynics believe exist only in fiction. He lived with Alzheimer’s for over 8 years, and she was the only person he never forgot; not even at the end when he didn’t know who he was. When he died, my grandmother told me that she didn’t understand how his body could betray her like that when his mind did. She died four months after.

    So you can imagine how much this “The body is how we can come close and express love, and the body is the thing that will betray our love by dying.” resonated with me.

  6. Merrian

    This post and the comments are important and beautiful and moving to read on a day were I re-wrote my will, planned gifts for the living and gave directions for my funeral. In a collision of our universes having this post in mind gave me a lot of peace while I was doing all this. Mary Ann’s comment reminds me why it was time to do this and how it is always time to be ready.

  7. anna cowan Post author

    I naively thought I was writing a craft post about sex scenes. I never expected responses like these and am so moved by every one of them. We are discouraged to talk about death, even though it underpins every part of life. I think about it a lot, and it’s remarkable to be able to have a discussion about it.

  8. Emily Greenwood

    Wow, what a beautiful post and comments. There’s so much here. I love that we’re talking about sex and death and love and their capacity to deepen our connection to each other, to one another’s souls. Surely this is why we are all here: to learn how to love. Sex has so often been hidden and made shameful, when in truth it comes from a deep, often wordless yearning for connection, and I love that romance novels don’t shy away from the details and messiness of sex, and the needs and hopes people might not even realize they have until they are drawn together in attraction. Sex, like us, is ephemeral, but the love that it can help nurture lasts beyond death.

  9. Amber Belldene

    Anna, this is a lovely post, as are the comments. I admit I read it earlier today and felt a block in my chest, like “I just don’t want to go there right now.” But finally I had some space to think about it a little. In my day job as an Episcopal priest, I find the duty of officiating at weddings and at funerals to be surprisingly similar.

    In my own life, the periods of greatest joy and greatest pain have a rawness to them that makes them very similar–something that strips us completely bare and vulnerable, and open to receiving love. In a romance novel, sex that isn’t somewhat bitter, that doesn’t hold the taste of death, is…(I’ll try not to be sweeping here) probably missing something. It’s why that final love scene can often fade into black–you don’t need it, when the conflict is resolved (as I write this, I am making notes to go cut one of those!).

    I love what Liz said about only understanding the impulse for making love to affirm life as an adult. That resonates with me, as does that impulse to make love when words fail, when there is no other way to repair a hurt dealt one another. As an adolescent, these things would have horrified me.

    Lastly, and this is perhaps only interesting to me, as a religious person, but I think there is something fascinating in the Christian story that God becomes incarnate in one of these frail human bodies. To me, that suggests that in some mysterious way, love needs flesh and death.

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  11. Merrian

    “…a romance is really two stories happening side-by-side: The love story of the body, and the love story of the mind… ”

    I have been thinking about your post and this sentence in the light of the general struggle of the romance genre to represent disability and chronic illness and ‘real’ stories of love for people who may be struggling with not being in love with their bodies or who society sees as unlovable because of their embodiment.

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