Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Passion Is In The Details

I am a big fan of the use of sensory details in writing. Particularly when writing romance in order to convey passion and create a sensual atmosphere, even aside from love scenes. These exquisite details can infuse a story with intensity and immediacy which both raises the story to a higher level and allows your reader to swept away, along with your characters.

As a writer of erotic romance, I get great pleasure out of writing, and reading, sensual and erotic stories and enjoying the authors’ abilities to sweep ME away with sensuality. Sensual not just in the sexy sense, but in the five senses sense.

The most frequent use of a sense, and probably the most natural, is the use of visual description. What our characters or the narrator see. Descriptions of physical appearance, clothing, setting. Certainly they add a wealth of detail to a scene and help our readers visualize the bed on which our couple is entwined, or the beach they are laying on, or the meadow in which they are embracing.

To add extra layers of intensity and immediacy to an erotic scene – indeed, to add eroticism to any scene - sometimes all it takes is a judicious use of sensory detail. Sound, touch, taste, smell – combine it with visual detail you can create an erotic panorama that will titillate and arouse your reader from the mind, on down, no matter the level of heat in your tale.

A terrific example of the breadth of sensory detail and the way it can be used to masterful effect in erotic writing, can be found in the latest Cleis Press anthology edited by the prolific Rachel Kramer Bussel. Passion: Erotic Romance for Woman (Cleis Press, 2010) contains a marvelous cross-section of writing styles, but even more intriguing is the use of sensory detail that sets each story apart from the next, and makes each stand out for it’s own strength of atmosphere and passion.

“Autumn Suite” by Suzanne V. Slate is a stand-out. It is impeccable in the seamless blend of music and sexual passion. The imagry of one lover’s cello, and a droplet of sweat, envisioned as a tear; touch and sound echoes throughout the piece when juxtaposed with the physicality of lovemaking. The entire story reads like a sonata.

Sound is used to great effect, too, in Wickham Boyle's “The Cherry Orchard” (a marvelous story simply for its genesis in the Chekhov play) with laughter and screams, before the author moves into sections deftly incorporating taste – from food itself, to the tastes of sex rendered in gastronomical terms.

In contrast to both of these more lyrical stories, the earthy “Crave You Close” by A.M. Hartnett instills eroticism into an environment of family fights and the taste of burgers and blueberry shakes. Lizzy Chambers’ lusty, yet tender, “Riding Wild Things” brings the reader into the unexpectedly sexy and immediate world of rodeo riders, and lovers who ride more than bucking broncs. You can practically hear the lovers' moans in this story!

And I was intrigued to discover Ms. Bussell’s own story, aptly (for the purposes of this post) titled, “Five Senses”, in which she breaks down her voluptuous scene of seduction and surrender into segments, each addressing one of the senses. It is a lesson in itself on writing eroticism via sensual detail.

What is erotic? What sense most conveys eroticism to you? What sensory description arouses you?

Is it the words depicting the feel of a drop of a lover’s sweat dropping to his partner’s flesh and trickling down to mingle with her own? Maybe a description of the tastes of a delectable dish being shared between lovers – before they share their bodies’ flavors? Or the rendering of the sight of a zephyr breeze ruffling a lock of hair that lays upon a pillow as someone sleeps in the aftermath of passion? Perhaps the sound of a sonata as it accompanies the lovers’ timeless dance of love?

Or perhaps it is, instead, the deft rendering of a scream of passion echoing through a country night as hands pound the roof of a caddy; or the building crescendo in dancers’ bodies as they engage in foreplay via a raucous two-step?

Creating eroticism in a romance of the less graphic and sweeter variety may seem a contradiction. But it is not. A sensual atmosphere of passion can be created without the use of four-letter words – or acts.

Imagine, if you will, the effect of a woman’s simple sigh and all it can convey to a reader, as a man takes her in his arms. Create the wealth of emotions in a woman as she watches her lover's hands – the delicate movements, the touch of a caress – as he plays a game of chess, and treat your reader to her anticipation as she craves the touch of those hands – on her body. Perhaps you can convey the heat a lover feels when he registers the delicate scent of his lover from her abandoned scarf as he touches the silk to his nose; as he recalls their last caress before parting company. Share with your readers the depth of emotion welling within a couple as they sit in the symphony, the languid notes of Beethoven’s Pathetique washing over them – drawing them back into their embrace beneath a moonlit sky as their bodies swayed to the melody composed by love.

How fleeting, how simple: the touch of a fingertip against hungry lips; a heated gaze across a crowded room; the sound of a whisper humming along phone lines; the taste of a lover’s skin in a brief kiss upon a cheek.

It can be poetic or raunchy, graphic or gripping, dramatic or light-hearted, earthy or ethereal. It can even be subtle! Using sensory details in creating erotic scenes can compliment the sex and send the story soaring.

Why not give it a try? Pick a sense, any sense … and let your imagination run wild.


  1. You are absolutely right. The main complaint I have with most pornography is that it is NOT erotic.

  2. To me, what's intriguing is the marriage of sensory detail to these particular characters. A musician who is more sensitive to what he hears, and describes what he's thinking in musical terms, a poet who uses beautiful language, and a cowboy who probably does not. Sounds like the book you're describing accomplishes this. It's harder to use character specific details rather than universal ones, but when done well, makes the story much richer.

  3. See also:

  4. Milton, I believe that is one of the primary differences between erotica and porn. To be erotic something must arouse not just the physical, but the emotional - making it a melange of impressions and sensations that connect the two.

  5. Carly - that was one of the wonderful things about this book. The description was absolutely true to the characters. It is a wonderful exercise to ensure that the description is appropriate for the character - think how absurd it would be to have one of the cowboys expressing passion the way the poet did!

  6. Thanks for the link to the review, David. Having just heard about the NY Journal, I was pleased to get the chance to read it.

  7. Thank you - great post. You've inspired me to go back to the pages I wrote today and add more sensory stuff. Especially smell!

  8. Nice Post. True an erotic scene should be comprised of several senses (something many of us forget) but there must also be a balance. Too many senses or too much of the same will make it seem more like a soap opera - over the top. Too little and your story will be more in the style of a comic book - short, to the bone, responses and details.

    That balance depends on how comfortable the author is about writing such scenes and their own personal style of writing.

  9. I always love to hear that I've reminded someone of the power of sensory detail, Jeanine! Sometimes so little can be so powerful!

    As someone who is constantly aware of sensory input (don't know why?) I love to read a scene that just rivets me - whether it is erotic romance, historical fiction, or anything else.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my post.

  10. Donna - your words are so very true. It can be a fine line between too little, just right, and way over the top (rather like Goldilocks' experience!). I always remember an historical romance I read (and remember I'm a lover of the steamy stuff . . .). I got to the end of the book and realized that there had never been a love scene, as such - so wonderfully did the author maintain the sensual atmosphere and sexual tension that I did not even notice! And that is saying something. Thank you for visiting.