I’ve talked about writing sex scenes before and my issues with vulgarity, but today I’d like to focus on the sex scene’s annoying younger brother, the ALMOST sex scene. Have you ever read a book or watched a TV show and two characters are starting to go at it, and then somebody walks in, or they have a change of heart, or break an aquarium (New Girl, anyone??), and for whatever reason, they don’t have sex? Well this is the scene that I’m talking about, and in some ways, it can be trickier than the sex scene. You don’t want to throw this scene just anywhere in the plot, and there needs to be a reason for it.
I have written so many of these that it’s almost painful. But there always seems to be a reason for it. In my fantasy YA novel, both of my characters are in love with each other and just aren’t saying it, and in a moment of extreme vulnerability they start to get physical, only for one to realize that it would be wrong and they stop. I don’t think I had them stop just because it was a YA novel and I wanted to keep it tame—I think the moment brought the characters to a breaking point where they had to admit their feelings or they couldn’t move forward. With my current WIP, the reasoning is a lot easier—it’s illegal for my characters to have sex. But that doesn’t mean that the scene itself is just thrown in there. Yes, you need a reason for them to stop, but you also need a reason for the scene to exist in the first place.
So why would you want to include this sort of scene? Why have your characters start to get intimate and then get interrupted or decide not to?
I think the main goal in any scene like this is frustration—for the characters and the readers. It’s pretty obvious why your characters will be frustrated. You may be thinking that you never want to frustrate your readers—but in this case, a little bit is ok. Frustration can build suspense when it’s not overdone. If you tease the reader, then when the sex scene actually happens it will be more satisfying than if it had happened already. They will be on the edge of their seats waiting for it to finally happen. But it can be so easy to overdo it.
I used to watch soap operas. I know, I can hardly believe it either. But I bring this up because I remember a couple on one who kept almost doing the deed, over and over again, but it never actually happened. And the tension was fine at first—you know, the will they, won’t they? I would be very disappointed if these characters weren’t in an episode. But after a while it just got silly. The tension fizzled out. I didn’t care anymore. Then one of them died and the show was cancelled two episodes later (I’m not kidding). And they never did it! Forget about frustration, it just didn’t even seem realistic.
So I have a rule for the almost sex scene—you can only have one. That’s it. Just one. What’s that? You want two? Well, you can’t. Why? Because you want your readers to care.
I think one scene is all that your readers are going to put up with. That’s not to say you can’t have several scenes with sexual tension—that’s absolutely a must if you want your readers to believe that your characters are attracted to each other. But if they actually make a decision to get into bed and it doesn’t happen, the reader will be disappointed. A little disappointment is ok—if the book was perfect and happy then it wouldn’t be very interesting, would it? But if you offer the same exact disappointment twice, the reader won’t trust you anymore. They might skip ahead to find the juicy part, or, God forbid, stop reading altogether.
So if your characters are interrupted or change their minds, if they end up in this situation again, they’d better go through with it. You can only string along the reader for so long before the suspense becomes disappointment.