"Let's talk about sex, baby."
Specifically, bad sex. In romance novels.
I'm not talking about badly written sex, where there are 3 legs and 4 mouths but only two people. That's the sex included in the now-defunct Bad Sex in Fiction Award, whose entries are, to this day, some of the funniest things I've ever read.
The bad sex I'm referring to is less awfully written and more just plain awkward. The kind of sex scene where the friction of skin against skin produces sounds more often associated with whoopie cushions than making whoopie, or the pressure of trying to make each other feel good overshadows the moment and makes it impossible for one or both partners to finish, leaving them frustrated in more ways than one. Bad sex also includes sex scenes featuring a character whose body works differently than their lover expects, but the character is too afraid to explain and so watches helplessly as their lover tries moves that feel as good as grass clippings on bare feet.
This kind of bad sex doesn't turn up often in romance novels. As a genre, romance isn't known for its awkward romps. Quite the opposite. Romance novels with sex on the page have anywhere from 1-7 (and sometimes more) sex scenes, and the implication is that all of those will be good sex scenes.
And who doesn't want to read about two or more people having a great time in the bedroom? It feeds the need for comfort and surety so many of us look for in romance novels. We want to live in a pleasure-forward world populated by people who want their partners to have as much fun romping as they do.
But while I love writing and reading sex scenes rife with physical connection and characters whose shared ability to glean each other's needs rivals a psychic's, there is something pretty magical about a scene where the connection between the main characters that exist outside the bedroom gets lost in translation as soon as the clothes are off and the sheets are down.
Because that scene necessitates a conversation between the characters. They have to talk; there's no other way they can learn about what each other wants and needs in bed (unless they're psychic or telepathic, and even then, one could argue that using those powers to glean a partner's desires without their consent is morally grey). And as they talk, the characters open up to each other and expose the emotional wounds they'll slowly reckon with and get past as the story moves forward.
This talk brings them closer. It advances their character development arcs, because in confronting their needs and desires, they'll make links to the needs and desires outside the bedroom that have been misunderstood or left unfulfilled. This honest, open conversation forms a bond far stronger than simultaneous orgasms can sew, and that bond makes the discord embedded into the third act, or Phase 3, as Gwen Hayes calls it, even more heartbreaking.
And the key to mending that heartbreak? Good sex, which can serve as both a happy ending in the bedroom and the book.
So if you want your next book to stand out, consider adding some bad sex. After all, it's far more difficult to forget bad sex than good, and if your goal is to write memorable books, then a blundering bonk might just be the key to your next bestseller.