Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Write From Your Soft Parts

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Feb• 13•13

©Jessica P. Morrell

Tears are words that need to be written.” – Paul Coehlo

          Church scholars are uncertain about the identity of Saint Valentine. The confusion exists because there are several  Valentines who are linked to February 14. It’s commonly accepted that is that he was the bishop of Terni; he was beheaded in Rome because of his faith and buried in Terni. It was observed that birds started mating on the anniversary of his death and that this is why he became the patron saint of lovers.

As the holiday approaches, let’s ruminate about writing about love and, relationships. Let’s get it right. I’ve read love scenes that had me sweaty, yearning, and stirred with emotion. I’ve read love scenes that were about as romantic as Naugahyde upholstery. In a dumpy diner.I’ve read stories where relationships are sparked like dry tinder in August. They begin with a chance meeting in, say, the produce aisle. The couple shares a joke over a cabbage and next thing we know, they’re bonded and bonding, if you get my drift. Not to mention cooking together. No in between stages or trials. Kiss, kiss, bang, bang.

The problem is that readers want to experience a couple’s emotional chemistry and also want to participate in the ups, downs, and travails of love. You, writer friends, need to write about a special and always-mysterious bond that exists between couples. But love isn’t always sublime, especially on the page. It’s often not the solace we all crave, that soft place in the world we all need. You need to delve into the difficult parts of love; expose the graceless, the awful, the words that cannot be taken back, the horrible emotional purgatory of not knowing if your love is returned in the beginning stages of a relationship.

When a romance is prominently featured in a story both characters will have an acute awareness of the other. The story exposes their vulnerabilities and because of this, write from the softest, most vulnerable part of you. Write from the times when you were crying in the dark alone feeling like the last person stranded on a faraway planet. Now that’s not to say that you cannot write from your happy memories, or that your characters cannot make it to the altar. Or the bedroom. For example, write from the memories of joy and awe when you first met a newborn. But love always stems from a deep-held need for acceptance and belonging. And those feelings make us vulnerable. Writing about love requires that you put your own emotions into the scenes and create a tender double edge and sometimes a jagged edge.

Science has identified the human need to connect, belong, and bond. Like many instincts, these drives hearken to long-ago times when humans stuck together to increase their odds for survival. Hunting, traveling, fighting, all work better in a group. A group provided possible mates, which then provided children. But the truth is that cooperative tribes, happy families, sweet, lasting relationships can be found more often in books than in real life. So you gotta give readers what they long for.

Which brings us back to writing about love. Since these days badly-written porn passes for literature, you might be tempted to steam up your story with naughty and daring sexual exploits. This supposes that we all want to peer into not only the bedroom, but a room of forbidden appetites. But love comes in so many forms. Only you can decide to risk writing a sex scene that ignites like fire spreading or if you write best from your comfort zone.

It can be helpful to think back to the moments when you first experienced love or a blinding crush. You might want to play the music of that era or find other ways to bring on potent memories. A boy in high school shattered my heart and my longing for him was a physical ache. I dreaded passing him in the hallways, clutching his new girlfriend. The one I was convinced was prettier than me. He was a tall wrestler with crooked teeth and curly dark hair, with no interest in reading or writing, my life-long passions. I was already an editor who wrote angst-blooming poems trapped in a world without operating instructions. It was misery and luckily we were doomed from the get-go. My high school boyfriend turned out to be a much smarter and kinder person.

In fiction start the relationship with a foundation based on back story, an inciting incident, or a believable set up. Is the relationship based on friendship? {Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger)} A misunderstanding or adversarial meeting? {When Harry Met Sally}Adversity? {The African Queen}After the set up with outcomes dangling, trust fragile; then build in sexual tension. Next, stir in complications and reversals such as miscommunication, lies, separation, or betrayal. But remember that readers always long for the release of that initial sexual tension and sexual tension is tied to conflict.

Whatever weight a romance plays in the story, respect your readers who spend time with your characters. Give them what you’ve promised. If you’ve promised a romance, bring it on. If you’ve established a steamy, passionate dynamic, deliver it with damp sheets included. If the characters are drama magnets, stir in extra heartbreak. Readers expect some form of change: The characters change, the situation changes, or leads to disappointment or tragedy. If your story doesn’t deliver what the opening promises, then your readers won’t return for your next story.

Writing about love is difficult because words can seem inadequate, sexual tension is difficult to portray and love scenes are action scenes with lots of, uhm, moving parts. Always a tricky proposition. When you write avoid the clinical, instead set the mood for yourself. Play music, light candles,{and for the ladies} spray perfume, slip into fabulous lingerie and tippy heels. Then write from the heart.
Here are a few more tips:

  • Always know how your character’s last relationship ended.
  • Create warring emotions in your characters. Desire and doubt. Or logic versus longing.
  • Take your characters into new emotional territory. It’s okay if it’s awkward.
  • Know the characters’ motivations: lust, culminating love, desperation.
  • Work hard at just the right dialogue — not too much, heavy on subtext. Feature power struggles, challenges, capitulations.
  • Emphasize the senses, especially touch. Feature contrasts.
  • Avoid creating sex scenes happening in unlikely moments — such as when your characters are running for their lives.
  • Use sex as game changer.
  • Write love scenes that seem to exist outside of time.
  • Skip the purple prose and corny euphemisms.
  • If the romance is a subplot, plan the emotional nadir at the end of Act Two. Hitting love’s rock bottom adds emotional depth to the story.
  • Use language that your characters would use.
  • Read the Modern Love column in The New York Times. These tales of the heart are required research.
  • Write for appropriately for the genre. Horror, suspense, thrillers need varying levels of realism in the romance subplot. Is it used for relief of tension? To prove the protagonist is human? To expose the protagonist to more danger?
  • Last and not least: Do not defy gravity.

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  1. Dan Newland says:

    Another extraordinary piece of writing, about writing, Jessica. Always a pleasure.

  2. And this is exactly where the story should end. It should cut to credits, and the music should be triumphant but soft. Your last image should be of the young girl and the handsome poetry-writing boy frozen in a movie kiss. You should brush the popcorn off your lap and leave the theater smiling because everything worked out the way you knew it would. You can leave remembering that time when you were young and lovely, and things like that could happen.

  3. […] And here’s another story of the “Orthodox Saint Valentine” that might interest you. And for my writing buddies… if you’re interested in writing love stories, or just including some good romance in whatever kind of stories you write, you might enjoy Jessica Morrell’s post from last year, “Write From Your Soft Parts.” […]

  4. “Church scholars are uncertain about the identity of Saint Valentine. The confusion exists because there are several Valentines who are linked to February 14. It’s commonly accepted that is that he was the bishop of Terni; he was beheaded in Rome because of his faith and buried in Terni.”

    Well, Jessica, may God forgive you because you too “…are uncertain about the identity of Saint Valentine”. I refer to the icon you posted here with your article. This is NOT the Saint Valentine of which your article refers. This is in fact the New Russian Martyr St. Valentin Sventitsky of Moscow. It is a unique icon since there is only one in existence which our Hermitage had commissioned years ago and remains in our possession. I would like to know where you obtained this digital copy so I may correct them as well. You shall see my copy of this digital icon along with our articles about this Orthodox Christian martyr.http://hermitage-journal.blogspot.com/2012/10/commemoration-of-saint-valentine.html

    • Why I am making a big deal? Because this misuse of the Russian icon is spreading throughout Facebook. I had to chase down three occurrences for correction. There are more out there I just do not have access to them. So better to go to the source. Appreciatively, +Father Symeon

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