Monday, November 11, 2013

Starting with a bang

When I first started reading romance, which was back in the good old days of the early nineties, I picked up a novel where the hero and heroine had sex in the first chapter.

I don’t mean they met, felt this fierce instant attraction and gave into it. I mean the book started with a sex scene in media res. It was incredibly off-putting, because rather than being caught up in their story I felt like a voyeur watching two complete strangers get it on.

The best part, though, was that they didn’t know each other’s real names and wore masks all through the ordeal (well, it was an ordeal for me), but at the end of the chapter they parted sadly because the heroine was married.

And even though I was a newcomer to romance, I knew right away that the man was the heroine’s husband, because otherwise we’d get into the ickiness of adultery. So that ruined what little suspense there was for me. Plus, it made me wonder just how obtuse the heroine was, since even after having sex with her husband in a later scene where he said the same words Masked Lover did during sex, she never once suspected they were the same man. He had to fill in the blanks for her on the last page.

The entire experience must have affected me more profoundly than I realized, because every romance I’ve written since then has had the hero and heroine having sex only after they’ve gotten to know each other to some extent. Of course, in most of my stories, the main characters start out with good reason not to trust each other. And I’m not writing erotic romance where the sex needs to start early and happen often.

The other thing about starting off with sex is that I like a high level of smoldering will-they-or-won’t-they tension. And if they have, then something needs to separate them or prevent them from proceeding to the happy ending. I know there’s going to be an HEA, but as long as it’s not blindingly obvious from the first chapter on, I can enjoy the story. So for all those reasons, I didn’t think I’d ever have a sex scene before, oh, chapter five or so.

But while I was toying with plans for a new book, I came up with a idea that demanded sex at the start. I liked it so much that I wrote the scene right away and then came up with a story for what happened next.

To make it work for me, though, the characters had all their clothes on at the start, just before they met each other, and I spent a paragraph or two on what they hoped to get out of the encounter. Very different things, hence the conflict. And what drove them apart at the end of that scene wasn’t something they could overcome easily.

Starting with sex also sets the tone for the rest of the book. It’ll seem odd if there’s a sex scene at the start (even if there’s coitus interruptus, which I used) but that’s followed by a long stretch with nothing steamy. If you begin with a lightning attraction and people acting on it, you’ll need to be consistent in your (implied) promise to the reader — even if it’s clear that the book isn’t erotica or an erotic romance. I had to think of ways the characters could get together again during the course of the story. That’s not going to be easy for them, given that they both ended up on a warship sailing into dangerous waters and hammocks, IMO, were never meant for sexytimes.

So this isn’t going to be easy for me either.

But it’s good for me to try a change from what I usually do, and the chemistry between the characters is drawing me in. I think I could pull this off, and it will be fun to try.


Maria Zannini said...

You'll never know until you try.

I've read two books where the sex starts at the beginning and although the story recovered by putting it back on track later on, the beginning didn't work for me. I had no empathy for the characters since I didn't know them.

In cases like this, I think a strong voice would help immensely.

Marian Perera said...

I'm also, technically, not starting with sex. Although it's in chapter 1, I want to begin with the hero and heroine meeting and getting to know each other at least a little - as you said, to build up empathy for the characters.

Of course, there's less time to do that when the sex is happening in chapter 1, so everything before the sex has to work very well.

Kami said...

BTW, in many old sailing vessels, they didn't always have hammocks and only hammocks. Their beds sometimes had flat, hard boards, on which they had mattresses, and they were draped around with cloth for privacy.
Cute historical side note: Sailors were often kind to each other, and while in port, when rousing sailors, they would sometimes be given extra time in bed if they had a 'wife' (not always but everyone played along) with them, presumably so she could make herself decent before emerging. To prove that they had a wife with them rather than use that as an excuse to sleep in, the woman was sometimes required to put her foot or leg out. If it was a nice, shapely leg that could be assumed to be attached to someone of the feminine persuasion, the extra time was granted.