I'm reading Stephen King's On Writing and am just as captivated by it as his fiction. Here's a reprint of a former blog entry I wrote about how much any writer of any genre can learn from Stephen King:
A bad sex scene can turn a romance novel into a horror. Conversely horror novels can offer great sex. Stephen King is famous for fright, but his real specialty is finely-crafted stories that cover the range of human experience and emotion. Whatever he writes about, he does it with honesty, clarity, tension and passion. It works for horror and it works especially for romance. The author of The Dead Zone can teach writers of any genre something about erogenous zones and how to portray them on the page, without scaring readers.
In The Dead Zone, the hero is a regular guy. John Smith—an everyman. He loves an ordinary woman, a schoolteacher, Sarah Bracknell. Before they can consummate the relationship, he has an accident and goes into a coma. For four years, or roughly 200 pages. For romance novels that’s too long, but there’s nothing wrong with creating tension and a good reason to keep lovers apart.
Appearances aren’t everything--strong vs. weak words
In The Dead Zone, when John comes out of his coma, he’s emaciated, a shell of his former self. Weak. But he just looks weak, he has an inner strength that doesn’t need to rely on physical appearance. Just because a person is flashy or good-looking, doesn’t mean he or she is good in bed, and just because a word is flashy, doesn’t mean it works in a sex scene.
Writing experts advise us to avoid what they consider weak verbs, and scorn “to be.” Never write: there is a house on a hill. Write: A house straddles the hill. In sex scenes that concept can come across as forced. In setting up the love scene between John and Sarah, King often uses “to be”: “There was the sweet smell of the hay. Time spun out. There was the rough feel of the army blanket, the smooth feel of her flesh, the naked reality of her.” Here it works as anything but weak. It’s immediate, and most importantly unpretentious. Honesty and good intentions, rather than acrobatics. That’s what lovers (of words) appreciate.
Talking dirty and foreplay.
It’s surprising how many female writers of romance make the same mistake men do in real life. To grab readers by the throat, they go straight for the sex organs, completely ignoring the neck and a myriad of other places humans love to be touched. Unless the scene calls for a quickie, don’t skip the warm-up, or ignore less excitable body parts in an attempt to create excitement.
Here are the only body parts King mentions in his scene: stomach, face, legs, knee, back, shoulder blades, hips, hair, chest (his not hers), shoulder, fingers, bare toes, belly. It’s possible and maybe even preferable to bring a scene to climax without mentioning unmentionables.
Here are some of the ways King describes the scene:
“Her hand touched him like silk.”
“Sinking into her was like sinking into an old dream that had never been quite forgotten.”
“Her voice is rising excitement. Her hips moving in a quickening tempo. The touch of her hair was like fire on his shoulder and chest. He plunged his face deeply into it, losing himself in that dark-blonde darkness.”
He does not use euphemisms. He uses verbs like sinking, rising, plunged, not always to describe the sex act itself, but to describe the feelings that go with it. The words convey a sense of losing control, as the lovers give themselves over to each other physically and emotionally.
Setting. Where sex takes place is just as important as how. “The sound of the barn creaking gently, like a ship, in the October wind. Mild white light coming in through the roof chinks, catching motes of chaff in half a hundred pencil-thin sunbeams. Motes of chaff dancing and revolving.” In describing the setting, comparing it to the motion of a ship, or describing how the motes dance and revolve, he mirrors or intimates the motion of the two lovers without being explicit.
When writing a love scene, don’t stop to organize thoughts or smooth out word choice. How unromantic is it when your lover takes the time to fold his clothes neatly and place them over a chair instead of letting them drop to the floor. Or worse, takes a few minutes to straighten out his sock drawer while he’s at it.
In King’s essay, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes” (reprinted in Sylvia K. Burack, ed. The Writer’s Handbook.
: Writer, Inc., 1988: 3-9) he writes: Boston, MA
“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain - or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? . . . You can check it…but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.”
Don’t stop the action or interrupt the rhythm of a love scene for anything. Let it flow. If thinking too much during the actual act of sex is a problem, it’s an even bigger problem in writing about it.
No sex without love.
Or at least not without emotional investment. King’s characters have depth. The kind of people you know well enough to marry vs. the kind you’ll have a one-night stand with. Sarah and Johnny don’t make love until page 204. They’ve suffered. They’ve made choices that have kept them apart, and life has made choices for them. The reader has invested in them, because King has invested in the characters. Romance novels can sometimes come across as prostitution. The author forces two characters together to make a buck. There’s not much in the way of connection beyond a physical coming together. To make a scene more emotionally authentic, consider yourself more a matchmaker than a pimp.
The language that is. King throws out all the unessentials in the climax to the scene. Sentence fragments mimic the breathlessness of lovers. Short and long sentences dictate the rhythm and speed. There is a sense of order being fractured, of thought being scattered.
“Time spinning out in the sweet smell of hay. The rough-textured blanket. . . She cried out. At some point she cried out his name, again and again and again, like a chant. Her fingers dug into him like spurs. Rider and ridden.”
That last metaphor is presented without a verb, but it works perfectly to convey the action and their interaction with an image, being explicit without being graphic, or pornographic.
In conclusion it's not fear that keeps King’s readers up all night long. It’s his craftsmanship, and his honest way of working with words to create tension, suspense and a sense of deep emotion