“How Can You Read This? There’s No Pictures!”

Or, Can you call it romance when there is no sex? 

Or, Sex and novellas.

As I’ve said before, I love writing novellas, and I also enjoy them as a reader.  The form does carry with it some problems for romance writing, though—specifically the question of sex or no sex? 

I have blogged before about sex in romance in general, and my take on it is that it needs to serve the plot; it can’t be gratuitous but must be a significant part of the characters’ emotional journey.  In most romance novels (though by no means all), sex fits quite naturally into the process of falling in love, just as it does in real life. 

Novellas are a bit of a different beast, because they are often telling a different kind of story than novels do.  See, when you’re only writing something a fourth to half as long as a novel, you generally have about that same percentage of plot.  Sure, plenty of romance novels deal with the extra space by including subplots, either of different characters or a different story than the basic falling in love plot, so in some cases the novella is simply a purer form of the novel:  the most basic version of the story, with all the distractions torn away.  But some novellas deal with the space constraint by telling a different kind of story–for example, covering only the culmination of a story that has been building for months or years for the characters. 

Suppose you have a novella where sex legitimately serves to further the characters’ relationship and is not simply there as dessert once they have resolved their conflicts.  Is it to be presented in the same form as sex in a novel?  What I mean by this is, do you write the same sex scene for the 30,000-word novella that you do for the 80,000-word novel, or do you shorten it a bit?  After all, a good 10 pages of sex (about 3000 words) in a 300-page book is not a huge chunk of the page space, whereas it is a much bigger percentage of a 100-page novella.  Basically, do you keep the percentage the same, in which case the sex gets about 1100 words, or do you keep the sex the same, in which case it goes from being 4% of the story to 10%?

This is a question that I have not been able to defnitively answer.  For one thing, my first two novellas were both stories that could not contain sex because they covered the declaration of love followed by the betrothal–sex had no place in the emotional development–so I haven’t had to face this question as a writer just yet.  For another thing, I have read novellas that do both, and either way can work (or something in between).  It really just depends on the story, and the space constraint of the author.

One really lovely thing about digital publishing (and self-publishing) is that I don’t have to worry about space constraints so much.  If I were writing a novella for a publisher’s collection, for example, I might have been told I have 25,000 words, no more, and maybe I need 24,000 of them for the story.  By necessity, then, if sex is added in after the story is written then I only have 1000 words for it.  Since I am only writing for myself, I can take the old English teacher approach to an essay topic and “write until it’s finished.”

If sex is such an integral part of the characters’ emotional bonding that it gets into the novella to begin with, then maybe it is a full tenth of What Happens, anyway.  And there is a great freedom in that ability to simply tell the story.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reflections on Romance, Writing

2 responses to ““How Can You Read This? There’s No Pictures!”

  1. Great post! I think if something is key to the plot no matter how may words you have, you can always get it in. In fact word constraints can ultimately be a real test of creativity. For example sex does not have to be played out in paragraphs, one sentence could be just as sufficient and even more powerful if the right words were used don’t you think?

    • “one sentence could be just as sufficient and even more powerful if the right words were used don’t you think?”

      Absolutely*, and if you are dealing with a space constraint it might inspire you to find those words in a way that having the freedom not to worry about length would not do.

      (*with the caveat that if you are specificially writing erotica or erotic romance, using that one sentence versus something longer might undercut the “point” of the story, if the eroticism is meant to be the focus….)

      Thanks for dropping by!

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