How to Write Emotion-Grabbing Romance without Sex Scenes

April 8, 2019

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the interaction between two lovers became graphic? Have you ever been absorbed in an adventure story and suddenly had to skim unnecessarily steamy scenes? I have, and I hate it. Not only does the sensuality rip me out of the story and make me roll my eyes, it taints the characters (and prevents me from recommending an otherwise great novel).

 

Now, to clarify, I’m not saying that all stories should avoid this subject. Sex has a place in fiction, just as it does in real life. For advice on handling it appropriately, check out Josiah’s excellent article, “How Should Christian Authors Depict Sex?”

 

However, not all (or even most) stories need to include sex, which presents a quandary. Why are numerous stories prepackaged with a sex scene, and what are the alternatives? After wrestling with these questions, I came up with a plan.

 

The Obligatory Sex Scene

In modern cinema and on the bestseller shelf, sex scenes often represent commitment. Our culture views intimacy as the pinnacle of a romantic relationship, ignoring (more important) aspects like selflessness and friendship. Once characters are sleeping together, the audience understands that they’re official and inseparable.

 

This rule has exceptions (a story about victims of sexual abuse, for example), but most sex scenes in today’s literature are lazy and secular. The goal is to confirm that two characters adore each other, as well as increase the book’s appeal (but we shouldn’t be willing to stoop to this to gain readers). Overemphasis of sex generally results in inappropriate content—but it also suppresses the power of godly romance, which I’ll explore below.

 

The Biblical Definition of Love

As Christians, we know that extramarital sex (or even marriage centered on sexual attraction) has consequences. So we worry about misusing sex in fiction, but we need to pour an equal amount of effort into portraying righteous behavior.

 

The Bible defines love as a self-sacrificial act, not a feeling (John 15:13). And although Scripture contains plenty of passages about romance (Song of Solomon), the biblical basis for love is service and sacrifice. Our stories should reflect this instead of cheap lust, because truth is stronger than lies (Proverbs 12:19).

 

Tips for Writing Romance without Sex

Before we dive into this point, note that a protagonist and a secondary character of opposite genders do not have to get together. They can just be friends. That’s the crux of this whole idea. You should only ship two characters if they’re compatible. Pairing up every guy and girl will create weak, forgettable relationships.

 

Instead of pulling your hair out over your characters’ personal lives, seek outside help. You’re too close to the story to gauge whether the romance seems forced. Write a scene featuring the lovestruck couple and share it with friends. Ask them what works and what doesn’t, then figure out how to incorporate their feedback. If the guy and girl are an ideal match from page one, you won’t have to convince readers with a sex scene.           

 

1. The Characters Must Have Good Chemistry

In any Robin Hood movie or book, Robin and Marian obviously belong together with their fiery dispositions and quick tongues. But how do you imitate that?

 

Um…it’s hard. Recognizing and developing character chemistry is a topic that deserves its own article. As a shortcut, I suggest you show your work to a critique partner, family member, or close friend and see if they ship two characters. This is your best shot at discovering natural chemistry between characters, because it removes your bias from the equation. If a third party identifies a potential couple, that should be your greenlight.

 

2. The Characters Must Change Each Other

Love transforms characters. They either grow up or lose whatever scraps of maturity they had. If your characters stay the same after meeting each other, the relationship will feel static. Spend time thinking about how they impact each other. Why are they attracted? What traits do they notice in each other that they wish they had? How does that affect them?

 

At the beginning of Phillip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Hester is a scarred (pun intended) scavenger with suicidal revenge on her mind. After she gets stuck with and gradually falls for naive Tom, she starts to see the world through his eyes. Ultimately, she abandons revenge, proving that she values her relationship with Tom more than her former life.

 

3. The Relationship Must Have a Keyword

Your characters can’t just be “in love.” That’s an overdone trope. The relationship needs to be fresh and unique. To accomplish this, assign a keyword to the couple that describes how they act around each other and hints at their individual personalities. Are they cute, harsh, doubtful, or anxious? This keyword will establish consistency that readers can latch onto, helping them get involved in the relationship without a bedroom scene.

 

Use this keyword to color the characters’ interactions as you write. Don’t insert a sarcastic line if it’s too harsh for the relationship. Don’t get sappy if the relationship is usually tense.

 

A prime example would be David and Megan from Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series. Their relationship, characterized by David’s bumbling attempts to impress and Megan’s slowly warming responses, could be summarized as “awkward” or (perhaps surprisingly) “tender.” Though sometimes they’re at each other’s throats, their relationship is touching overall, and David’s foibles make it entertaining.

 

Or consider Rudolf Rassndyll and Princess Flavia from Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda. Their passionate relationship is unexpected and unwanted. At one point it even tempts Rudolf to commit assassination and treason. They experience many highs and lows, and the relationship doesn’t have to be sexual because it’s identifiable without the bedroom.

 

A word of caution: You still need to avoid stereotypes. Tense relationships have tender moments. Cute relationships go up in flames occasionally. Breaking away from your keyword will add realism to the relationship, but it must be done purposefully or you’ll confuse readers.

 

4. The Characters Must Rely on Each Other

In the end, two characters who are in love should lean on each other. This (perhaps unwelcome) co-dependency should be brought to the story’s forefront and influence the plot. Put pressure on the characters. Watch them gravitate closer together. Make it an emotional punctuation point.

 

In the Out of Time series by Nadine Brandes, as Parvin’s world spins out of control, she cracks under the stress and looks to Solomon for emotional support. That’s exactly how you want to draw your characters together. Intensify the situation until they implode, then let them prop each other up and keep each other going.

 

That moment of implosion and support can replace an obligatory sex scene. It can be as simple as an exchanged glance before facing danger, and as long as it communicates that the two are a unit, it will be powerful.

 

True Love (and Happy Readers)

Sex is an important part of marriage. But it isn’t the only part of any (healthy) relationship. You don’t have to flaunt sex to reveal love. Love is about service and sacrifice and laughter and smiles and sometimes even heartache. If you can bottle those emotions in your story, you won’t have to infuse it with sex to hold readers’ attention.

28 Comments

    • Brandon Miller

      Thanks, man! Glad it helped!

  1. Luna J

    I really liked this article. Also, you have a handsome face. God bless!

    Reply
    • Emily

      I don’t know Mortal Engines. What is the pun?

  2. Katie Hanna

    Ooooh. The keyword bit is great advice. Thank you.

    Reply
  3. NicoleG

    This is really great advice! Thank you so much! 🙂

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      You’re welcome. Thanks for reading!

  4. Hallie Jenkins

    Excellent advice! I personally will put down a book that has an explicit sex scene, unless the rest of it is just so good that I can’t put it down. Even then, I don’t read the scene I flip to the next chapter. I also love the keyword idea!

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Very cool. I hope it helped you with your stories!

  5. PursueWisdom

    @brandon-miller

    Thanks for this yet another helpful writing article!
    (And like all the other above who mentioned this, the keyword is a GREAT idea. Gives me more focus to revert back to when I’m lost on writing romantic relationships).

    Would you think Heathcliffe – Catherine would be considered “harsh”? I think one of the reasons Wuthering Heights is so great is that it’s obviously a passionate love story without any explicit scenes.

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Full disclosure, my Mom absolutely HATED that story, so I didn’t read it growing up, and I haven’t added it to my library since so… I can’t help you there. @anyone else?

      But thanks for reading and I’m glad the keyword idea helped!

    • Bella D.

      @PursueWisdom I think that relationship would be characterized by the word ‘hate’.

      Both Heathcliffe and Catherine had harsh natures and were intoxicated by hate, and were probably drawn to each other for that reason. I can’t say I loved the book (no explicit scenes notwithstanding), so maybe I’m biased. Passion would fit the mold, but when I think of their relationship, I think of hate.

  6. Lady Of Chairel

    Thank you for this! As most everyone has mentioned above, the key word tip sounds wonderful: I will definitely give it a try! I also appreciate your highlighting how couples need to change and rely on each other–kinda giving the entire relationship its own character arc! All in all, an extremely helpful article! 🙂

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      “giving the entire relationship its own character arc”
      yeah
      I should have said that in the article. 😛
      Good words. Thanks for reading!

  7. Ariel Ashira

    Ooh, this was SOOO good! Thank you, Brandon! It really helps.

    Reply
  8. Julia Nelson

    Thanks, Brandon! Great advice! 🙂

    Reply
    • Brandon Miller

      Sure thing! Thanks for stopping by!

    • Brandon Miller

      I figured you’d be down for that.

  9. Kendra

    This type of post is so needed for writers of today. Books with romantic scenes that get into anything more than kissing make me stop reading them, actually. Such as with 1984 by George Orwell. As soon as Winston and Julia began a relationship (if one can even call it that), I hated it because it was completely based off of sexual attraction and getting their needs met in that way. So… I slapped the book shut and sent it packing back to the library. XP

    I agree; romance should NOT be forced between two characters. They need to be obviously perfect for each other (like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy), and it needs to be shown how they can’t do without the other. (And THEN the author can go and kill one of them for a drastic plot-twist! >.<)

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment! I agreed with all your points and I shall definitely keep this post in mind when I'm writing any romance. 🙂

    Reply
    • PursueWisdom

      @kendralynne518

      Ahh! Yes, I completely agree with you about 1984… I’ve never tried to read the entire thing yet, but someone I may try to do so again if I think I can “handle” it. Perhaps there’s something to be gained. But have you read Animal Farm? It conveys ALL the points made in 1984 in a much more, ahem, appropriate, and succinct way. I loved it. 🙂 The cartoon is great, too!

    • Kendra

      @pursuewisdom
      I’m glad you agree. That’s true, there are probably some valuable lessons to be learned from it. 🙂 Yes, I need to read Animal Farm! I’ve heard lots of good things about it from people and I fully intend to pick it up… sometime. 😉

  10. writefury

    Awesome article! Great job, man -thumbs up-

    Reply
  11. Taylor Clogston

    Interesting points! I like the keyword idea. I think it probably applies to side character relationships in general. I will have to give it some thought.

    Looking through the comments first, I was pleasantly surprised to see a reference to “Hester-and-Tom…” and was disappointed to see it not a Tom Swift reference =P

    Oh, and you might want to check up on your personal website. Looks like a temporary page is squatting there in Chinese.

    Reply
  12. Coralie

    Our culture today is so wrapped up in shock factor and guilty pleasure and lust is a huge part of that, I think. Sex sells. So people keep using it.

    It’s crucial to depict the other elements of relationships. And it’s crucial to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy, moral and immoral relationships, too. There are so many other sides to a relationship than simply sex. And I really appreciate how you take the time to dive into examples of ways romantic relationships can be portrayed outside of sex.

    Excellent points, all. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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