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Eighteen questions to ask your story

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a romantic soul, but my readers will want romance"

Dear Jerusha; I have interest in my novel from an agent who has sent me very comprehensive editing notes. One of her broader comments was that the novel would appeal to female readers, who would expect a more romantic approach to my main protagonists' relationship. She wants me to show the sexual tension and electricity, flirting etc. that accompanies a new love. I agree that it will improve the novel and make the way everything goes wrong towards the end more heartbreaking, but I'm not a romantic soul and am long past my sell-by date. I had carefully avoided the romantic scenarios, hence my plea for guidance. If you can go one step further and advise me how to portray sex scenes, which are even harder, if you'll excuse the pun, than romance, then that would also be a huge help.

One of the sexiest - in a romantic way - passages in all literature, as far as I'm concerned, is the moment in Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night when Harriet, who is busy not-knowing that she's fallen in love with Peter, watches him as he's reading. It's the most beautifully written physical observation of the side of his face and, without there being a single adjective or abstract noun about how she feels or what she's thinking or what she guesses he's thinking, you absolutely know all those things. And then he looks up, she's "instantly scarlet, as though she had been dipped in boiling water", and he looks down again, attention riveted on the manuscript, "but he breathed as if he had been running". And she thinks, "So, it has happened. But it happened long ago... But does he know it? He has very little excuse, after this, for not knowing it", and she, and he, and so the whole relationship, have all changed. [Emma notes: Jerusha may not be quoting quite correctly, as she's in the Antarctic without a copy of the novel; I received this answer by paw of an obliging polar bear who was on the way home from a holiday there.]

Everything that powers the next stage of the emotional plot is here, conveyed not explicitly - the word 'love' is never mentioned - but in the way that each character sees and reacts to the other one. It works partly because that minute observation is something that we don't often pay, except when we're in love: it's character-in-action, which, as we all know, is the bedrock of both plot and story. It's also powerful because it evokes the physicality of the characters, which is so important in a highly-charged sexual moment, although not at all in sexual terms. It's also there in what I call the choreography: who looks where, who catches whose eye, the relationship of bodies even if the characters are sitting in opposite chairs, the physical detail, especially of the kind we don't notice most of the time. (I remember years ago saying to my sister, of someone who I'd just met in a work context, "He notices me", and I was certainly noticing him, before we allowed ourselves to acknowledge a flicker of what was going on).

But it needn't be a sexual charge: you can also convey the emotional or intellectual intimacy of a relationship which is getting closer: how they speak to each other, finishing each other's sentences, or not having to finish their own to be understood; the moment when one character shows they remember or care a little bit more about the other; the moment when one breaks the other's personal space to reach out not necessarily to take a hand, but perhaps to do something quite domestically intimate, or to help the other practically. Nor need it be a set-piece, like the scene in Gaudy Night: it can be a single phrase about how her finger-tips press into the pit of your palm; about how for a moment when he looks at you there's a kind of heat between your shoulder blades; about how a stranger in the pub is wearing his aftershave. Blushing is the obvious option but needs approaching with caution, like any standard gesture: from wringing hands to shaking fists, it's horribly easy to use them to signal (=tell), rather than evoke (=show), attraction, or embarrassment, or whatever.

But, as the Harriet-and-Peter section makes so clear, it's not just about evoking emotions convincingly: they also need to be working with the plot to propel the narrative convincingly. This is not as hard as you'd think, if you're already clear in your head about the structure of the relationship's development, as I think you are. When are the big changes? What happens to shift them closer to each other, and what happens when they've got closer, and when it starts to go wrong? Then it's a matter of finding actions (gesture, gaze, choreography, speech, thought directly quoted or evoked in free indirect style), to embody those shifts: literally, bring them to life in your characters' bodies, eyes, feelings and minds.

And the same is true of scenes which are specifically centred on sex, whether they're romantic or the absolute opposite. There are particular issues, as I was discussing in Writing Sex and Ringing Tills, but the real key is still 1) understanding the emotional shifts in the scene, 2) understanding what this narrator would and wouldn't say/think/understand, and 3) centring your decisions about what to write, and what to leave out, on that understanding.

And, of course, how you write it is part of the intensity of the human-ness of the scene. It's not that you should flip the 'flowery' or the 'moon-june' switch on your prose; as ever, voice/style needs to be rooted in character in action. It's a terrible cliché that you only hear nightingales when you're love, but if you think in terms of that heightened awareness of the senses, which comes with heightened emotion, then using it to heighten the mood of the writing makes sense. (Though the heightened awareness of some things can give you tunnel vision about everything else: hence the crashingly awful line but true insight at the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral, about not noticing that it's raining). So the right words will happen if you're really imagining the characters fully in the right actions. And it's not just love or desire that can be worked in this way (my definition of a romantic novel would always embrace large emotions of all sorts) because fear, or grief or scorn or anger, can also heighten sensory experience: particular details, significant actions.

Finally, I've asked Emma's permission to post her hommage to the Harriet-Peter moment, from The Mathematics of Love. It's a piece she often uses for readings, since it embodies many of the themes of the novel, but it's also a - perhaps the - key moment in that relationship. It's 1976, Anna is 15, and Emma made it easier for herself by giving Anna a camera. Or rather, Theo gave it to her...


Theo was sitting on one of the big sofas with a thin curl of steam rising in front of his face from his cup.

I looked at my camera. It said I had a few frames left. ‘May I?’ I said, picking it up.

He nodded. The light from the window stroked his cheek, and caught on his lip where it touched the cup as gently as a kiss. I got one of him stooping his head to sip coffee, and then another of just his hands.

His shirt was unbuttoned at the top and the edges of it sprang open so the white cotton collar stood away from his neck, away from the sinews and muscles and the tough, brown skin where the tendons lifted to the sides of his skull. The fine silver stubble that glittered in the light had grown since that morning, hours showing there like years did in his face. Years of talk and silence in the grooves from nose to mouth. Years of looking in the fan of light-cut creases at the corners of his eyes. Years of seeing in the pinch between his brows and the lines that ran like telegraph wires across his forehead, full of too much knowing. I looked and looked, and in my hands the shutter snatched at what I saw, but I wasn’t sure whether it caught what he had seen, or what his seeing had done to him.

His hands still cradled his cup. It looked small and white and breakable.

My film was finished. I laid the camera in my lap and started to rewind it. When I looked up Theo was watching me. He smiled, and I would have smiled back only something in my chest – something deep inside the cage of my ribs – started to grow. It wasn’t really happiness, it hurt too much for happiness, only I didn’t have another word for it, not for the strange, soft balloon that I felt swelling up and filling my chest and my belly and my throat, and bursting out of me at last, in a great smile that went on and on like crying.