One of the most difficult kinds of scenes to write well in a novel or short story is the love scene. Perhaps this is because of the great similarities most people experience in their own love lives which writers draw the models of scene and incident from. The reader may in this instance say, “Yes, this is verisimilitudinal, but so what? It doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know about love.” In other cases, the reverse may be true: the reader may say, to the author’s best efforts, “Yes, but I don’t know anyone this has ever happened to, and I don’t believe in it, and that’s that!” We all judge some kinds of endeavors on our pulses to a certain extent, and this is especially true of the literary love scene. We expect to be titillated, involved, enlightened, and validated, all at once, and while scenes which can do all of these things at once happen along only too infrequently, two or three out of the four qualities we look for are often what we settle for, or even one, if it’s strongly enough expressed. The truly gifted writer tries for emotionally intense and/or sexually intense narrative, inspired dialogue, and sometimes finds a way to throw us a curve ball or two when it comes to our expectations about being validated in particular, especially as demanding readers; I’ll explain what I mean.
First as to emotionally intense narrative: as James Thurber said, “Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.” There is a double entendre here in the sense that not only does Thurber refer to the drama of interpersonal relationships being expressed in fiction, or face it, sometimes even the melodrama, but also being Thurber (whose work once was accompanied by a cartoon with his wife morphing into his house, ready to swallow him up) with an emphasis on the word “through,” as in “finito!” or “over and done with.” The implication is one of much sturm und drang for the reader to make his or her way through, and the enjoyment thereof depends to some extent on how much the ordinary reader enjoys seeing things worked out to their logical conclusion through many an ordeal. Will the lovers end up together or apart? is the question, but as in many another case, the journey is the essence of the experience, the conclusion just not as important. The reader may even breathe a sigh of relief after a sustained experience with this sort of narrative, or feel like giving himself or herself a pat on the back for sticking with it. A really good writer of course ameliorates these feelings with the quality of his or her writing, but there’s no denying that the more intensity the experience has, the more demands it makes of the reader’s skills and tolerance. Often with a fiction of this kind, bloggers following a readalong will write in with quibbles with the way the fiction ended up, lovers together or lovers apart, with less emphasis on the way they got there (which is really what often writers in this mode want to emphasize) than on how it ended up plot-wise. The feeling seems to be “I put up with all that hooey, the least the writer could do is throw me a bone of a happy/melancholy ending!”
Another path a writer may take when writing a love scene is to focus heavily on the dialogue and let the winds blow where they may, assuming that the reader responsive to punctuation and conversational tags will get the gist of the tennis-match-like verbal drama just fine. As Elizabeth Ashley said, “In a great romance, each person basically plays a part that the other really likes.” The reader watches two characters doubly, not only as each is to and of himself or herself but as they are in combination, to each other when they are playing the roles of lovers. In this case, it’s not the fictional participants who have to like the parts they are playing in relation to each other, it’s the reader, whether the reader hopes for weal or woe for them. The reader must assent that yes, that character can actually be imagined stepping forth from his or her own interior cave of subjectivity to make that remark to the love interest in the given situation, and that the love interest would respond as cited. Again here, it’s a question of verisimilitude, but possibly people in fiction say weirder things than they do in real life or than they are content to hold themselves accountable for, because on the basis of no statistics whatsoever but only on that of a certain experience of fiction, I’ve noticed that characters’ dialogue is often used to “up the ante”dramatically whether or not the characters actually ever do anything astounding or not.
There is again the sexually intense narrative, and it is this sort of narrative which hints that it lurks hidden behind the other two forms above, and for which we often read though we are most often disappointed of its appearance. How many times have you been reading about two characters engaging in displacement activity described in an overwrought narrative, or jawing away at each other passionately about some topic which both have really invested with deeper significance than seems called for, however sincere they might feel they are being, however sincere for the moment you might even feel they are being–how many times have you wished they would just grab each other and exchange passionate embraces, and get it over with? As Proverbs 7:17-18 says, “I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning.” This sort of narrative, though rewarding, raises the ante in the sense that once the characters and the readers have been sated (and unless you like reading pornography, you will get sated fairly quickly with two or more characters who are always successful at their “grappling” the others to themselves), some misfortune has to befall them, to part them permanently or temporarily so that the writer can feel that he or she is carrying on the business of actually writing literature and not writing trash.
In most love scenes, there is probably a combination of the three kinds of writing listed above, or at least two of the three. It strikes me, though, upon reading a thought sequence by a character in Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not… (the first volume in his tetralogy Parade’s End) that there is from this combination an emerging fourth kind of love scene, a love scene which encompasses not only the submerged or hidden sexual scene and the two others, the dominant emotionally intense narrative and passionate dialogue, but a kind of love scene which engulfs the whole being of the novel (perhaps now I am speaking thematically, however). With indirection, we are given the character Valentine Wannop’s thoughts about her married (and physically Platonic) love Christopher Tietjens: “….[I]n these later days, much greater convulsions had overwhelmed her. It sufficed for Tietjens to approach her to make her feel as if her whole body was drawn towards him as, being near a terrible height, you are drawn towards it. Great waves of blood rushed across her being as if physical forces as yet undiscovered or invented attracted the very fluid itself. The moon so draws the tides….The day of her long interview with Tietjens, amongst the amassed beauties of Macmaster furnishings, she marked in the calendar of her mind as her great love scene. That had been two years ago; he had been going into the army. Now he was going out again. From that she knew what a love scene was. It passed without any mention of the word ‘love’; it passed in impulses; warmths; rigors of the skin. Yet with every word they had said to each other they had confessed their love; in that way, when you listen to the nightingale you hear the expressed craving of your lover beating upon your heart.” This reflection upon an earlier scene is yet another kind of love scene, an emergent fourth, for the original scene she is reflecting upon contains a sort of emotionally intense narrative so ratcheted up as to incorporate sex as a feeling in the air, so strong it is, and the dialogue is its manner of conveyance (I know you think I’m cheating by not selecting a scene which includes actual sex, but Ford doesn’t write much of that in my experience of him–The Good Soldier and now this tetralogy–but prefers to give reflections of reflections and reflections upon reflections of what has happened behind closed doors). This would be an example of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” except that in this scene itself, Valentine is not tranquil, but is disturbed by her recollections, made to feel other feelings than those that would be most comfortable. And this is a kind of love scene experienced by one person alone when recollecting the emotion of a scene in which both emotional and sexual intensity are present behind a totally socially unexceptional ordinary dialogue, an unexciting “English” sort of social dialogue, using the word “English” now as the writers of England have often in modernist literature used it, to mean socially unadventurous, though for true real-life adventurous conversation on an intellectual level, the English are often hard to beat.
I have peeked ahead in the tetralogy (this is a spoiler alert, so be warned, those of you who plan to read it); in my exasperation with the fact that Valentine and Christopher are still Platonic lovers by the end of the first volume, I find to my surprise that they are still together at the end of the book, though that’s all I know. His wife Sylvia had cheated on him from the beginning even in the first volume, so with an ordinary reader’s sense of justice, I was hoping that he would ditch the bad bride and take up with the constant girlfriend. Still reading in the interim, I’m not sure if there are other love scenes of a more traditional nature, but this sort of odd love scene, what I have called the “emergent fourth” in which a person alone recollects so intensely a past love scene that he or she encapsulates the whole thematic content of the novel–which is also about war–in its opposite (for love and war form a sort of opposition), this is the source of the fascination I feel with the four novels now, and which will, I feel, keep me reading until the end. And for four connected novels, that’s filling a tall order. I remind myself of something said in The Little Prince: “The essence of things is in the unseen world,” or words to that effect. Certainly, the unseen world has a real force and existence in Ford’s tetralogy.
2 responses to “Several approaches to writing a love scene–emotionally intense narrative, dialogue, sexually intense narrative, and a different possibility….”
Ford leaving the nitty gritty to one’s imagination? I imagine that such a thing was a product of the times, as it wasn’t the regularly done thing to have descriptive sex scenes in books.
I very likely see myself letting the reader ‘choose their own sexual shenanigans’ by having it occur outside of the narrative.
Ford’s technique may have been partly a product of the times, but one has only to oppose some concurrent love/sex scenes from Hemingway, a contemporary of his, to see how far he might with a fair amount of safety have gone. Henry James said that you could scare people (in writing a ghost tale, for example) much more effectively by leaving a lot to the imagination; I take it yours is the same tactic for sex scenes.