Quick Reminder: Still one book left to win in the Carrie Ryan comment contest!
Relationships & Intimacy
I'm going to start with the credits. Desmond Morris, a behavioral scientist studying why couples divorce or stay together, first described the twelve steps of intimacy as a way to explain the progression from "Who the hell are you?" to "I can't live without you." (My words, not his.)
I believe Linda Howard was the first to present his research to the romance writing community.
According to Morris, the steps do NOT have to be taken in order, but stronger relationships are likelier when they are, and when couples give themselves time to bond before progressing to the next level.
Morris's research shows that women, specifically, resent being rushed (ie, having a man grope his way into the "grabby boob" phase before the hand holding phase.)
Time to bond can take anywhere between five minutes and five years, depending on the circumstances and depending on the couple.
Interestingly, the couples in his study who repeatedly revisited all twelve steps in order, reinforcing the progression, tended to enjoy longer relationships.
The 12 Steps and Writers
Pretty obvious what this means to you in terms of real life, but how do the twelve steps of intimacy affect you as a writer? As with any craft advice you hear anywhere, remember these two things:
* Know the "rules" before you break them
* There are no true rules, only suggestions
DO NOT marry yourself to the twelve steps in such a way as to confine your characters to some preordained, artificial progression. Instead of two people swept up in the dance of love, they'll look like two robots dipped in water.
Always, always, always keep your characters in character. If your hero is the grabby-boob type, so be it. And if your heroine responds with a swift kick to the---well, he'll learn his lesson.
PLEASE DO let the twelve steps remind you of the the small things that happen on the way to the big things. Even if your hero and heroine hit the sack in Scene One, chances are good (especially if they just met) that they don't just shuck clothes and slide Tab A into Slot B.
Chances are exceptional that they'll follow most of the steps instinctively and naturally on their own. Your job is to show the reader.
The first nine steps can be done in public or in the bedroom, but the latter three are most often done in private. As mentioned earlier, these can be done quickly, just a few moments each, or they can span years. It's up to your characters.
Step 1: Eye to Body
Hero sits in the corner, nursing a Cuba Libre, when across the smoky room, empty beer bottles clang to the floor as a group of women climb from their stools to the bar and begin to dance. Two of them are wearing barely there come-get-me clothes, but the third--the one in jeans and sneakers--has a body that undulates to pulsing beat with a rhythm that matches his own.
Sometimes it's just a glance. Sometimes the glance turns to a stare. Sometimes the gaze starts at the top/toes and takes its time roaming the length of the body. Sometimes the first look leads to an exchange of phone numbers, and other times it leads to a dismissal until next they meet in different circumstances.
If this were a Harlequin Desire, for instance, in the example above, the hero might be CEO of a Fortune 100 company and the sexy thang in running shoes might be the secretary who thought he was out of town.
The two things to remember are: Show the reader whether or not attraction occurs, and why. Why=details. He notices her sex, age, size, shape, personality, how she carries herself, how she moves. Maybe the selling point is she's got that shake-yo-booty thing down cold. Or maybe she takes one look at him and decides against, because the size of his muscles indicate he'll spend more time in the gym than
in with her.
Also remember this moment can be just as powerful if the POV character is on the receiving end of the prolonged once-over or the casual dismissal. How does this affect him/her? Is he uncomfortable? Angry? Aroused?
Step 2: Eye to Eye
Let's say they don't run each other off, or at least not yet. They've seen each other and, like it or not, they're intrigued.
Suddenly--oh my God!--they're caught looking. No matter how many people are in the room, for a second it's just the two of them, locked together by the magic of eye contact. Eye contact can be heady flirting, in and of itself.
I asked a friend of mine how she met her husband. She said the first thing they noticed about each other were their looks (this isn't shallow--it's life) and found the other attractive. By chance, they kept showing up at the same social events over the course of weeks. Rather than approach each other, they kept making eye contact across crowded rooms. She'd be caught staring. Or she'd catch him staring. Each time, the one who was caught would look quickly away... then just as quickly back, only to find the other person still looking. And so on. By the time he introduced himself, a whirlwind romance was a foregone conclusion.
How does this relate to our hero and heroine? Show the reader what is happening and how the POV character reacts. And remember not to cross the creepy line! If some burly stranger fixes her with an expressionless stare like a woodsman on the hunt for deer, ew. Heroine wants to be the focus of sweep-me-off-my-feet interest, not fear-for-my-life aggression.
Assuming he doesn't come off as scary or rude, how does she respond? Does she hold his gaze? Look away? Flutter her lashes? Wink? Smile?
Step 3: Voice to Voice
Heroine catches hero staring, and responds with a half-smile and a lick of her lips. Hero plunks down his Cuba Libre and prowls over to where heroine undulates on the bar. One of them says, "Hey, sexy."
Is the hero speaking? Does his voice come out a low rumble, like thunder before a storm? Or is his voice high-pitched and uncertain, crackling over the words like a teenage boy in puberty?
Or is the heroine speaking? Is her voice smoky and smooth, like a '30s jazz singer? Or does she have a thick, nasal accent and a loud, wet lisp, spraying the word "sexy" all over the front of his shirt?
Assuming neither person's voice chases the other away, where does the conversation go from there? Highspeed banter with carnal subtext? Blatant sexual overtones? Strained, keep-it-casual comments on the weather? Low, intimate murmuring? Awkward/charged lapses in conversation?
For strangers, the first conversation is often a get-to-know-you phase, touching on topics ranging from names, careers, likes and dislikes, to hobbies, habits, opinions pastimes, etc. Don't forget to show the reader what the characters do and don't admit, and how their responses--or lack thereof--affect the POV character.
Step 4: Hand to Hand
The music fades. Heroine stops gyrating. Hero lifts his hand, palm up, a silent offer to help her down from the bar.
Do her fingertips smooth across his skin in a soft caress? Do her nails scrape across the sensitive skin of his palm, much the way he imagines them skating down his naked back? Do her fingers lock around his wrist rather than his hand, as she leaps down like a boy scout out hiking? Does she bat his hand away, muttering she can do it herself, and slide off the bar with a disgruntled expression?
Either way, hand to hand is their first taste of physical contact, and their first act of trust (or mistrust, if she refuses him). Up until this point, either person could change their mind and walk away without causing confusion or hurt feelings in the other. Once the body contact line has been crossed, however, bonding has begun, if only at a small level.
Hand to hand contact can blossom into hand holding, an indication of a deepening relationship.
Regardless of the intent or level of the body contact, don't forget to show the reader the POV Character's physical and emotional reaction.
If the heroine places her hand in hero's and squeezes, how does he react? Does he squeeze back, tossing her a flirty wink? Does he touch her hand to his mouth, savoring the feel of her skin against his lips? Does he drop her hand in horror, thinking hand-squeezing is a sure sign of neediness and a harbinger of shrewdom to come?
Step 5: Arm/Hand to Shoulder
Hero escorts heroine away from the bar. Drunken, leering patrons try to pull her from him, and he slings an arm across her shoulders, protecting her from their advances and wordlessly staking his claim.
Arm/hand to shoulder can be anything from a friendly hug to ballroom dancing. Although either sort of embrace can be noncommittal, depending on the cues given and received through body language and physical contact, disengagement at this point can cause hurt feelings.
Hand holding allows space between bodies, but hugs or arms around shoulders require closeness. The closer two people are, the more intimate the contact can feel.
Picture two people hugging. Are they belly-to-belly, feet interlocking like puzzle pieces? Or are they hunched over, backs curved in an A-frame, clapping palms to backs as they carefully ensure no further contact can occur, even accidentally?
Hand/arm to shoulder is non-casual physical contact. Hero didn't sling his arm over her shoulder on accident--he meant to do it. She didn't lose herself in a bear hug on accident--she meant to do it. Don't forget to show the reader whether the body contact works out as planned and how the POV Character reacts to it.
Step 6: Arm/Hand to Waist
As hero sweeps heroine from the smoky bar to the twilit street, his hand coasts down from her shoulder, tracing the curve of her back. His palm glides from the base of her spine to her waist. His fingers splay across her hip, nestling her closer against the warmth of his body.
Physical contact has now become a sexual embrace. (Hero would probably not have pulled this manoever with, say, the garbage truck guy.) He is physically drawing her closer. With this kind of proximity, they can enjoy softer words, each other's scents, intimate dialogue, the feel of body against body.
This stage indicates growing familiarity, increased comfort, and escalating emotional response. Show your reader all of this through body language, conversation, physical response, and internal dialogue.
Step 7: Mouth to Mouth AKA Face to Face
They reach an intersection. The walk light flashes green. Heroine takes a step toward the street, but hero spins her to face him. She looks up in surprise and suddenly her eyes are right there, drinking him in. Her breath is right there, feathering against the stubble of his jaw. Her tongue is right there, wetting her parted lips. Her mouth is right there, asking to be kissed.
What now? Does he claim her mouth in a searing kiss, gazes locked, mating his tongue with hers in blatant imitation of a carnal act, desire lighting his skin afire? Does he rest his forehead against hers and close his eyes, murmuring an apology for being unable to continue because she reminds him too much of his dead wife? Does he lean in and rub the tip of her nose with his before sucking her lower lip into his mouth and nibbling playfully?
Often, this step combines many previous steps into one. He's noticing her body, gazing into her eyes, murmuring love words (or bedroom talk). His hands are locked on her hips, grinding her body to his, while her hands twine around his neck, fingernails scraping the skin below his shoulders.
Whether this is the first kiss or the hundred and first, fireworks are going off all over the place and it's your job as the writer to show the explosion to the reader in such a way as to make the reader feel the emotion right along with the POV character.
Step 8: Hand to Head
Heroine fingers, once splayed against Hero's back, now slide up the hot skin of his neck and into the clipped softness of his hair, toying with the wind-whipped locks. Hero, for his part, locks onto Heroine's long ponytail, wrapping his hand with the fall of blonde hair, and forcing her mouth even tighter to his.
This, even more than kissing, is an act of physical intimacy and a symbol of deepening trust. Protecting the head is instinctual. Allowing another free reign is indicative of submission to desire.
Although it can make both acts more powerful, this step does not have to precede sex nor take place during kissing. Perhaps she strokes his hair while dancing, or he slides his hand down her hair fanned across his pillow when she wakes up next to him in the morning.
Step 9: Hand to Body
Whether this step is exemplified as hand to breast or a foot massage, a high level of trust is required.
This is often the moment Hero and Heroine cross the line between kissing and pre-sexual foreplay. Typically, the body part(s) being touched is one not exposed in public, indicating a great deal of intimacy.
Step 10: Mouth to Breast
Undeniably sexual in nature, the act of licking, nibbling and/or suckling indicates sexual desire, deepened trust, and a high level of emotion.
This step typically includes partial to full nudity, as well as some combination of the previous steps.
As a writer, don't forget to show the reader what the POV character is seeing, thinking, and feeling. Is he dying to knock boots with this wild-haired vixen? Is he straining like hell to keep his starving eyes and aching hands away from his best friend's fiancee?
Step 11: Hand to Genitals
Indicative of high levels of trust, this step is a huge act of bonding.
How do your characters react? Is this a culmination of their dreams or further proof they're the kind of person their mama always said they were? Do they stop before either reaches satisfaction? Do one or both experience an orgasm? Or do they move on to:
Step 12: Sexual Intercourse
This stage represents the highest level of bonding and the pinnacle of trust. Both parties expect to gain and give pleasure. Intense physical sensation flood the senses and bonding is at an all-time high.
As always, show the reader! What is the POV character thinking, feeling, saying, doing? How does the other person look, smell, taste, feel, sound? And most importantly... what happens afterward?
YOUR TURN: Have you seen this or a similar progression used/abused in writing (or, I suppose, IRL)? When reading, what makes a couple's path to physical intimacy more/less believable to you? Are there any steps you feel are dwelled on overmuch? Are there any steps you feel are often missed? Do tell!
Monday, July 2, 2007
Quick Reminder: Still one book left to win in the Carrie Ryan comment contest!