Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the interaction between two lovers became graphic? Or 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 love-struck 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 green light.
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.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 8, 2019. Updated October 4, 2021.
Raised on C. S. Lewis and matured (to whatever extent) on Tolkien, Brandon Miller is a huge fan of Christian speculative fiction. His favorite stories artfully bend physical reality to reveal spiritual realities that apply to all realms, kingdoms, districts, and solar systems (including our own).
When not writing fiction, Brandon spends his time landscaping the great outdoors, sportsing, or romancing his all-star and lifelong coauthor, Megan.