When my publisher asked me to write this post, I was in the middle of writing a love scene in the novel I am currently working on. When I say love scene, I do not mean a scene in which two people make love, although that may be part of it. I mean a scene in which the spark is lit, the click occurs, that moves two people into the mysterious state we call romantic love.
Since Musings had given me carte blanche, and since the difficulty of writing such scenes——for me at least——was much on my mind (I had already spent about five hours on an interaction that would take up no more than two or three pages in the new novel) it occurred to me that I would write about writing a love scene.
The first thing I did was to look at what I believe is the pivotal click moment in Blood of My Brother, to see how, and what, I did. This is it:
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Why are you not married?”
Isabel watched as Jay’s beautiful gray eyes turned inward, surprised at his reticence. He drummed his fingers on the wooden arms of his patio chair, as if giving the question more weight than she intended, much more.
“I was married once,” he said, finally. “For a short time.”
“My parents died in a plane crash.”
Isabel said nothing, not realizing, until this moment, that Jay had been a puzzle from the start. And here was a key piece of that puzzle floating in the air toward her, its contours handles she might grab and hold onto.
“When?” She asked, finally.
“Fifteen years ago.”
“And you left your wife?”
“She left you? Are there children?”
Jay did not answer immediately, but neither did he look inward or drum his fingers. When he turned to face her, Isabel saw the pain in his eyes, and regretted asking her initial question.
“I was dating her. When my parents died I married her because I was afraid of being alone. She wanted children. I immediately had a vasectomy.”
“That must have hurt her very much.”
“It did. She left.”
“Did you love her?”
“Now you have lost your friend.”
“Were there other women?”
“Yes, a few.”
“Did you love any of them?”
The whole conversation had taken on a life of its own, the reins, Isabel realized with a start, held by her heart, not her head. There was a precipice ahead, but she knew somehow that it was too late. She would not be able to wrestle the reins back in time. Perhaps she did not want to.
There is a man, there is a woman. Each is flawed. Each has secrets. How are those flaws and secrets revealed, and how does revealing them open a heart that was, only moments before, closed? Rereading what I had written about Jay and Isabel confirmed for me that, to credibly portray love, at any stage, the rules of the craft must be applied with a brutal strictness.
The first: Show don’t tell. They fell in love, they had sex, just don’t do it. What they said, what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what their eyes revealed, the movement of their hands, these are the elements that go into building a credible and hopefully dramatic love scene.
Second: Less is more. Refraining from touching, though wanting to, says an awful lot about longing and fear of rejection or of intimacy. The brushing of fingers along the back of a hand can be as powerful an expression of desire as a long deep kiss. Minimalize, let the reader fill in the blanks. After all it is her or his imagination you are, as a writer, trying to excite.
Third: Context and timing are all. Jay and Isabel had been thrown together by a series of emotionally shattering events. Raw, their defenses stripped away, they had to decide whether to reveal their secret hearts, and risk more pain, or conceal them and remain alone and isolated, but seemingly safe. The events in question have come before, that is, the reader knows about them. He or she is there and ready when the die is cast. As to secrets, there are two things a writer can do: leave a trail of clues or not leave a trail of clues. The reader of Blood of My Brother will find no clues to the one secret Isabel thought she would never reveal. You will cross the Rubicon with her.
I’m ready to go back to that love scene now, so thank you, Elizabeth, and thank you, readers of Musings of an All Purpose Monkey, for helping me find a clearer way by going back to the basics. When the novel I’m working on comes out, we can all judge how I did.