Why fade to black doesn’t work for me. Except when it does.

I finished Susanna Kearsley’s The Shadowy Horses a few days ago and I started thinking about “fade to black” or “bedroom door closed” books.  As a generality, I prefer my fictional bedroom doors wide open and the lights left on.  But I started to wonder why that was – and why some books which do fade to black work really well for me.  And here’s what I came up with.

I think there are two aspects at play during a sex scene in a romance (as opposed to erotica) – there is (often) something physically arousing about it and there is something I’m going to call, emotionally arousing.  I can’t say I’m immune to the physical “symptoms” of a well written sex scene but for me, the bigger payoff is in the emotionality.  I think very often the sex scene creates a “shortcut” to the emotional arousal I’m seeking – the heightened emotions which are often present being key here.
Fade to black books, with only kisses (and few kisses) do not usually give me the emotional arousal I’m seeking when reading romance.  What causes this emotional arousal?  Well, it can be kissing or handholding, the hand on the small of her back as they walk, her hand in his (or his in his for that matter).  It might be internal dialogue or conversation (conversation is the better of the two) where the couple’s emotional connection resonates (“When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”  Jamie to Claire in The Fiery Cross – although The Fiery Cross is in no way a fade to black book of course.).  In a sex scene it can be the desperation of one to physically connect to the other, the primal claiming of “mine”, a more tender or reverent loving after a crisis perhaps, the delight one partner takes in the body of the other, the care taken in ensuring his/her satisfaction – the physical display of the emotional connection.
I read the gamut from fairly tame to the erotic.  Susanna Kearsley’s books are on the “fairly tame” end of the scale.  I’ve read (well, listened to) 3 of her books at the time of writing this post and in each book, the emotional payoff for me has improved.  The Rose Garden was the first I read – I enjoyed it quite a bit but I thought that the romantic relationship was a bit rushed and underdeveloped – in other words, there was not enough of that emotional arousal I’m seeking.  In Mariana, there was more, but it was mostly toward the end of the book.  In The Shadowy Horses, the romantic aspects began early in the book and I found it much more satisfying.  (There are other reasons I read.  I have come to be a big fan of Ms. Kearsley’s books and nothing here is intended as criticism of her writing style as such – it is more that I’m exploring my reactions to it and why.  Susanna Kearsley writes beautiful lyrical prose usually with detailed (but never boring) historical information which fascinates me.  Frankly, I don’t think explicit love scenes would fit within the books she writes – so I’m not asking her to start writing them.)In thinking about The Shadowy Horses in particular, I pondered why that book held more emotional resonance for me than the earlier ones.  They are all pretty much fade to black – certainly not explicit.  But in The Shadowy Horses in particular there was a satisfying amount of touching, kissing, longing, even a bit of desperate clinging to one another – which caused my emotional arousal to spike in that satisfying “red zone”.  The zone where my heart rate speeds, there’s a little “zing” in the pit of my stomach and my romantic heart sighs a little.    Where a book can fade to black or be less than explicit but still give me the emotional climax I’m after, I tend to enjoy it.  Where it is lacking, I do not.
Sean Kennedy’s excellent Tigers and Devils is a m/m romance between a closeted gay AFL (Australian rules) football player and an out and proud gay man set in Melbourne.  It is not in the least explicit –  but emotionally, I found it entirely satisfying.  There was plenty of affection – verbal and physical and the emotional payoff level was very high.
I said in my recent review of Katie McGarry’s Pushing The Limits that the is no consummation of Noah and Echo’s physical relationship.  There are no explicit scenes.  There is plenty of making out and of Noah respecting Echo’s boundaries no matter how much he desires her.  The reader sees his desire in his physical interactions with her and also in his speech and thoughts.  This is another book where I found my emotional arousal satisfied.
Kristan Higgins’ Catch of the Day is a book where this didn’t occur.  I enjoyed the book but there was nowhere near enough of the emotional payoff for me.  As a comedic contemporary fiction piece it worked very well.  But as a romance?  Not so much.  There is barely any of the hero, Malone.  He hardly speaks and, as the book is told in the first person POV of the heroine, we don’t know what’s going on in his head either.  For much of the book, the couple aren’t together so there isn’t the physical affection, loving looks or courting conversation that I look for.  (Others of Ms. Higgins books have worked much better for me as romances however.)
On the other hand, Shannon McKenna writes very steamy explicit books.  They are like crack to me.  The plots are generally over the top and the villians pretty one dimensional  and super-eeeevil but the heroes are devoted to their heroines and their devotion leaps out of the page.  The sex scenes in a McKenna novel can be physically arousing as well, but the emotional payoff comes from the hero’s total devotion, his admiration of her beauty, even, strangely, how he gets hard and stays hard for hours and hours because SHE turns him on so much.   Lisa Marie Rice books have the same kind of thing.
KA Mitchell writes m/m romance.  The sex is explicit and frequent.  But, the sex serves the emotional story arc. The characters develop and deepen their emotional connection through physical intimacy.  It’s just hotter. (oh, boy, is it).  But it is as emotionally satisfying to me to read a KA Mitchell book as a Sean Kennedy.
In Cara McKenna’s Curio, Caroly and Didier bond almost entirely through sex.   But the emotions conveyed in those encounters warm the cockles of this little romance reader’s heart.
In some ways, I think books containing more explicit sex scenes more easily satisfy my emotional arousal requirements – I’m looking for evidence they can’t live without each other (or at least, don’t want to).    In a romance novel where the couple don’t spend much time together, I’m unlikely to get that emotional payoff unless there’s some explicit sex (where I might get a big punch of it – which *might* satisfy).  The fade to black books which have worked for me are generally ones where the main characters are frequently in each other’s company and there is plenty of (taken) opportunity for the author to show me the developing emotional connection between them.  Another factor which usually weighs in is the length of the book (- how much time to I have to reach my peak? :D).  In the examples I’ve mentioned here the bedroom door closed books are long – over 400 pages, which means there is more time for the emotional punch to develop.In many of the tamer romances I’ve read, there isn’t enough of that emotional connection for me and the book therefore fails to satisfy as a romance.  I have not come across all that many fade to black books which do satisfy me but the ones that do, do so because they are able to convey that emotional connection in other ways and frequently enough in the course of the book that I’m able to reach “emotional climax”.

9 comments on “Why fade to black doesn’t work for me. Except when it does.

  1. Tam

    " I can't say I'm immune to the physical "symptoms" of a well written sex scene but for me, the bigger payoff is in the emotionality. "This exactly. I'm all for a good explicit scene, but it can be done without if you feel that connection and KNOW they are getting freaky behind closed doors. The times it doesn't work is when you wonder if they just nodded off behind the door because it was all kind of bland. I just read an m/m which I'll review next week which is witty, and has tons of atmosphere, great characters, great secondary characters and despite the banter between the two main characters, I wasn't entire certain they ever had sex. It was so fade to black it wasn't until they'd been together 7 or 8 years and the mentioned cuddling and the one guy was embarrassed that I realized they truly did have sex. I thought they must but … So while I liked the book and will give it high grade, it's not for the romance so much as the overall book. If you said how is it has a romance? Eh. Because I never felt that they connected on more than a best friends level, but obviously they did. I presume. :-)Also annoying is an explicit sex scene when you get the impression they'd both rather be watching TV. It's the emotional connection most of us romance readers are seeking and having sex alone does not equal emotional passion, lord knows erotica has proven that (which also has its place when the mood strikes).

  2. Kaetrin

    My favourite sex scene in a novel isn't sexy at all. (I had a whole section about it in the original version of this post but I deleted it because it was tl;dr and was veering off topic.) But, that sex scene was all about the emotional connection of the characters and I go back to it again and again when I'm looking for a quick "fix". 🙂

  3. Marg

    Excellent post Kaetrin!I am happy reading both fade to black and open door books. Both have a time and place.One thing that I do find myself thinking about whenever I am reading erotica is why, when that is all about the open door, do I often find that there is no emotional arousal and therefore it is in now way as satisfying as a well written sex scene in a really good romance novel.

  4. Chris

    You soooooooo made linkity with this one. :)Whether a story is explicit or "fade to black", the emotional aspect has to work for me. I've read well done "fade to black" stories and not even noticed they weren't explicit until after I was done reading! And I've read explicit stories and skimmed sex scenes in an attempt to find plot and emtotional connection.

  5. Mandi

    This is a really excellent post. You nailed it with – 'emotional arousal'Because that comes in many forms. You mention Tigers & Devils, when the one hero reaches out his pinky finger very casually to the other hero, that was it for me. I 100% didn't need an explicit sex scene.Kaki Warner does a nice job with fade to black too in her westerns. They have such great chemistry and she brings out the emotions, I don't need sex.But like you state – KA Mitchell or Cara McKenna – they use sex so well to play off emotions. I never get tired of reading their sex scenes because they are so integral to the character growth.So I it all comes down to HOW the author portrays the character's emotions…

  6. Kaetrin

    @Marg I read erotica only very rarely – I'm all about the HEA/HFN so I don't get much out of it usually. 🙂

  7. Kaetrin

    @Chris – I made linkity!! My life is complete 😀

  8. Kaetrin

    Hi Mandi – yes, and there are really explicit books which even though they may be marketed as romance and have a HEA, lose me because there isn't enough emotional connection to satisfy no matter how much hot sex there is. And yes, that pinky scene in T&D *sigh* 🙂

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