Last Friday at LDStorymakers I taught a class called, “Steam and Simmer: Writing Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line.” The topic was so popular and the room so small that they asked me to teach it again on Saturday. But the only time they had an open room just happened to be the same time Brandon Sanderson was teaching his plotting class. By virtue of the fact that he’s a genius, Brandon Sanderson happens to be a much stronger draw than I am. So I’m guessing several people who missed my class the first day missed it again because they were there (or unconscious in a corner somewhere, as it was the last hour of the conference and most of us were running on fumes).
People were asking for notes from the class, but I thought it might be better for me to convert my power point into something a little more coherent (considering they would not also be able to download me to explain it) and post it here.
Let’s get into it.
To accurately discuss the topic of “How to Write Sexual Tension without Crossing the Line”, I strongly feel the need to address the question of “the line.” What is it? Where is it?
Since this is a sensitive topic and has less to do with constructive writing advice and more to do with a theological discussion, I’m not linking it directly to any Storymakers sites. However, it was in my presentation, so I wanted to include it here.
I’m going to kick this off by reminding you all that I taught this class at LDStorymakers, which is a conference begun by and still largely attended by LDS (Mormon) authors (though all are welcome). The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think of sex as a supremely sacred act, and as such, it should only be shared with one’s spouse. So when I talk about “the line,” that’s where I’m coming from. A place where sex is sacred and where the portrayal of it can be a sensitive issue. After all, no matter how out there I seem the more conservative members of my faith, I am LDS.
So, what and where where is “the line?”
“What?” is easy. The line is the place where it becomes inappropriate to portray the physical goings on between two people.
“Where?” is a little more complex. A lot of us, including me, wrestle with what is and isn’t appropriate to include in a novel, let alone show.
First, consider your audience. What age group are you writing for? Who, specifically? Is your audience LDS or are you writing for a mainstream market? Covenant Communications and Deseret Book have extremely strict guidelines about what sort of physical intimacy they will and will not include in the books they publish. Mainstream publishers, not so much.
Also, you shouldn’t labor under the assumption that people will know you’re writing clean novels because you write YA. Plenty of YA novels include explicit sexual situations.
Second, consider your comfort zone. Remember, you write for you. Sometimes agents (not mine, she’s wonderful) and publishers try to push authors into including more explicit material than they’re comfortable with. Don’t give in.
Conversely, sometimes readers can be a little judgmental, especially when they find out an author is LDS. Some people in the church confuse “sacred” with “dirty.” But this way of thinking has its own pitfalls. I have more than a few friends who’ve had difficult times in their marriages because no one ever told them it’s okay to enjoy sex and that they should. Some people are so focused on preventing sex before marriage that no one got around to telling them how great it can be after. Some of these same friends happened to read a book with a sex scene that was so beautiful and spiritually moving that it vastly improved their marriage. To me, that says books that include sex scenes are not smut across the board. You may or may not agree.
Which brings me to my final thought on the location of “the line.” It’s highly personal and varies widely. Certain consideration must be given to the artistic expression of real-life relationships (which may include sex) because writing fiction is art and we want to portray things as genuinely as we can. However, don’t make excuses to go against the morals by which you live. What you write comes down to you and God. If you’re conflicted, pray about it. When you get your answer, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. In my opinion, the only wrong thing you can do in this situation is judge someone else’s morality by your personal line.
Now, onto more practical advice. Later tonight I plan to compile a post on the difference between sexual and romantic tension and then give some broad advice about writing romance. Following that, I’ll put up a post about sexual tension on a micro level (within the scene itself) and then on a macro-level. Then possibly some thoughts on how romantic and sexual tension can intertwine. As I put up more posts, I’ll put links on the bottom for easy navigation. I hope you enjoy!