Friday, November 12, 2010

Romancing the Blog - The *S* word


We are talking about sex on the writer's alley today.

Any questions?

No, no, no, not like technical, high school health question stuff. (You can all say a big *phew* here!)

How about this question: How do we, as Christian writers, deal with sex in our novels?

I think we can all agree that a fictional detailed version of the actual act is a no-no. We can also, I presume, agree on the fact that the condoning of the act outside of marriage is a no-no too.

What we can, and should have, in our novels is this:

Sexual Tension.

For fun, I looked on the oh-so-reliable Wikipedia for a definition. (No, I did not Google it for obvious reasons!)

Here is what I found:

Sexual tension is a social phenomenon that occurs when two people interact and one or both feel sexual desire, but the consummation is postponed or never happens.

It is a common feature of plot and characterization in works of fiction. This longing is often suggested by incidents of intimacy; for instance, when two people or characters are alone, are physically close, but desire is never explicitly expressed.

I LOVE this definition... it even mentions fiction novels! How about that! And for the Christian novel, where our characters, for the most part, are waiting until marriage to "consummate," this type of tension is normal and needed.

Without this tension, there is no romance.

Now, don't get me wrong. Romantic love isn't all about sex. But it is a part of it. And if the tension is absent from your romance novel, readers will be able to tell, and most won't like it very much.

What does sexual tension in a Christian novel look like?

This can vary greatly depending on the author, as well as the author's audience and publisher.

It can be something simple like:

Luke sat in the chair next to Maggie, and when he stretched out his lanky legs under the table, his knee brushed her skirt, making her heart throb at a wild pace. (from Maggie Rose, by Sharlene MacLaren, my current read! Love it so far!)

Sometimes a simple, accidental touch can invoke tension.

Or it can be a little more pronounced like:

He walked faster.

He was a pastor, a man of the clothe, someone whom others looked up to and yet... He wanted to touch her, to fill her eyes with longing.

He walked faster, still.

He wanted her in every way that a man could want a woman. God forgive him.

This time he broke into a full run.

(from A Lady Like Sarah, by Margaret Browley, a book I highly recommend!)

I like this because here is a preacher, someone who should "have it all together" and even he is tempted. And what does he do? He flees temptation. A great lesson to learn! When the going gets hot... leave till you cool down. :-)

It's like chocolate. Wanting it isn't bad. It's having it that creates the problem. (i.e. my waist-line that refuses to recede anymore!)

Or, it can be very obvious like:

Jack's mouth found mine, and we fell against each other. It felt so good to be touching someone. Him. He rubbed his thumb over the button at the nape of my neck, the only button on my dress, but it didn't open. I pulled back his T-shirt from his pants and slid my hands up his back.

"No," He said, and shoved me away. "That's enough."

I slapped him.

(From Home Another Way by Christa Parrish, not an a-typical romance but an intriguing and thought-provoking novel that again, I highly recommend!)

I really liked this for a couple of reasons. First, he is a Christian and she is not. He is also a pastor. (Is this a theme?!?) There is some backstory that makes this even more interesting, but I'll not give that away. Second, he shoved her away like she was a hot potato. And she kinda was. Third, she slapped him. Now THAT is some tension, folks!

How much is too much?

This is a question I cannot answer for you (beyond what I mentioned as no-no's earlier).

Every author is different. Every publisher is different. And the audience for each novel is different. All of these 4 things play a huge part in knowing what is acceptable.

Personally, I use the M factor. My mom. If I'm so embarrassed by a scene that I don't want my mom to read it, then I know I've probably gone a little far. This won't work for everyone, but my mom and I have read Christian romance novels for a long time, and have very similar taste, so this is an instinct I can trust.

You'll also find many people VERY opinionated on the matter. Judges in contests can be opinionated (I've had a LOT of 'this wouldn't fly in the CBA' comments) but ya know what? So can reviewers. Francine River's OH SO popular and time-tested novel, Redeeming Love, has 18 one-star reviews. (It also has over 700 5 stars...) But one of the themes of those 18 low reviews (and probably some of the 2 star ones I didn't read too...) was the amount of sexual description in the novel. One even said, "This is pure, unadulterated porn."

Julie Lessman, another fav author of mine, also has some fun reviews as well. My favorite (from my brief glance through her amazon reviews) was one that said, "I find it hard to believe this was a Christian book," when the review almost directly above it said, "I am sorry I wasted my money on this book. I didn't realize that it was a Christian book. I started skipping over all the Bible verses and all the preachy parts about what God would want. It became just too nauseating, too much!!!"

There are quite a few others I could name, but suffice to say: YOU CAN NOT PLEASE EVERYONE.

The only one you should really worry about pleasing is God.

Discussion: Do you have any self-imposed limits on how to handle sexual tension aspect in your writing? Do you tend to like the sweet romance... or the more edgy? Any examples of authors who do a good job at creating this tension between characters without stepping over the limits?


Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Sigh...I absolutely LOVE Castle and the tension between Beckett and Castle. is excellent.

To me, it's all about the tension, the build up, the anticipation. I love the almost kiss, the brush of a hand, the pushing back of a wayward curl. It's so much fun to write!

When I write, I think about my 18 year old daughter and how far I'd want her to read. I like edgy, but not overboard. Kinda more like Julie Lessman.

You know, throughout time, people have been dealing with the same romantic/sensual feelings. We all feel that pulse pounding attraction and have to deal with it. So why not show that type of battle in our books. The feelings are not wrong, it's how we act out on them that gets us into trouble.

Excellen, Krista!!!!

Krista Phillips said...

EXACTLY, Sherrinda!

Kav said...

LOL love the MOM factor! I like both sweet and edgy but the romance has to have substance which means the characters have to have really connected on an emotional and spiritual level to reel me in. I love a slow build -- a bit of reluctance on either the hero or heroine or both. I love getting inside their heads, feeling what they're feeling at that accidental touch or when their eyes meet or they share some unexpected laughter or....Sigh...I guess what I'm saying is that the sexual tension starts way before a romantic scene. In a really good book (IMHO)it happens at the very first meeting.

I loved your example in A Lady Like Sarah -- FANTASTIC book -- I keep checking to see if something new is out yet by the author. Anyway -- what I like about that example is that it acknowledges desire exists. It's not the desire that is taboo in a Christian romance, it's the crass world view of it that we don't want. Desire is very much a part of the Lord's plan for us, but we need to respect it and honour those we love by using it wisely. That's where a Christian romance differs from a secular one.

Pepper said...

Whew...did someone turn up the heat around here?

Great post, Krista. (taking a drink of a glass of very cold ice water)

I'm with Sherrinda - I'll probably use my daughter as a gauge for 'too hot', because my mom would blush at a kiss :-) She's super sweet in a nunish sort of way.

and I LOVE 's' tension in books. It can say SOOOO much about the characters and the situation. In my contemp Here To Stay, my hero is an actor with a shady past, so his goal is to treat my heroine the right way. Which isn't so easy ;-)

A Lady Like Sarah was a great book to show a story that has intense romantic tension, but keeps it PG rated.

I also think that the intention of the author plays a BIG role in what/how we write. If our intention is to push the envelope in Christian fiction, then I think our aim is REALLY off. If our intention is to write a good story that glorifies God in a REAL way - then that's a much better purpose and guide for our writing.
Just my two cents.

back to work

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Krista, I LOVE that--the Mom factor! I've thought about that, too. It was a challenge in my last story because the couple was married, reuniting after several months and the rules were different then. I was concerned for a long time that it was going too far--not by actually scenes but by what was implied.

But I love sexual tension! Sweet or edgy, though like Sherrinda said, sometimes the build up and anticipation is the best.

Julia M. Reffner said...

Definitely thought provoking post! I so agree with Pepper here :)

I like Julie Lessman's philosophy passion for God AND passion for romance. I think if the passion for God comes first there is going to be great sexual tension...but the romance is going to be about more than just that. Whereas I think in many secular romances that's all there is.

Sadly I think there is a lot of "edgy" as trying to push the envelope...As Christians we are called out of the world. I like real-life fiction that glorifies God. I also think we should be sensitive to readers...we don't want to put anything in there that makes someone stumble just for the sake of "edginess."

Angie Dicken said...

I have thought about this one alot after hearing an agent speak about romance in CBA versus the mainstream market...she said, "Romance will only be considered in the mainstream market if it has the "s" factor...if it's clean romance, forget it." After talking to my husband about it, he said.."That makes sense, people read romance to get a sexual jolt." UGH! I have been really careful now when I write a romantic scene. I don't want that to be something someone takes away from my writing. It's such a fine line...

Anne Lang Bundy said...

Though the sexual tension which leads to marriage is present, my novels emphasize the sexual tension within marriage. Christian romance seems to often end with a wedding, on the note of "happily ever after." I see the wedding as the place where the real sexual tension begins.

Wendy Delfosse said...

I think we really search our consciouses and let the Holy Spirit guide for the how much question. I do think Song of Songs can apply though in that don't awaken love love idea... Even without writing sex scenes how evocative you make that tension is something we should watch as Christians. Lust is a dangerous thing - Matthew 5:27-28 - and we should be cautious not to put a stumbling block before our readers.

Julie Lessman said...

Ooooh, GREAT post, Krista -- on one of my favorite subjects, no less!! :)

My favorite Amazon 1-star review is the one that calls my writing "scum reading," which did make me laugh (eventually!) because you have to admit, that phrase is pretty creative. But it makes me wonder if this person lives in a cave in Tibet, away from this amoral society that's sinking its teeth into our young women today, sucking all morality out with its gospel versus God's. I just think that sometimes the Church is called to go into the trenches to win back some souls, becoming all things to all people for the sake of Christ.

I LOVE what Anne said too: "I see the wedding as the place where the real sexual tension begins."

Oh, AMEN TO THAT!! I have more sexual tension between my married couples than I do my single ones because life DOES go on after marriage, and it ain't always Ozzie and Harriet, you know??? Besides, as a Christian married woman for over 30 years vs. a Christian single woman for 28, I have learned WAY more Biblical lessons through my experiences in marriage than I did as a single person, so those are the lessons I try to infuse into my books ... along with a healthy dose of romantic tension, of course, to sweeten the pot. :)


AimeeLSalter said...

I'm laughing because your 'line' is your Mom, whereas mine is my aunt. My mother and I have both admitted to reading things (and enjoying them) which we later decide are unwise. My aunt, however, has boundaries that choose wisdom over curiosity. When she says to me "is this really necessary?" I know the answer is probably no.

A wonderful gift of God's to have people out there we can trust as barometers for this crucial issue.

Great post!