Writing About Kissing

I took a week last week "off," and it was glorious. The only way I could convince myself to get back to work today was by deciding to finally write this blog post about kissing. Not real kissing, but fictional kissing. I've been thinking about fictional kissing for a while now because, let's face it: I'm a young adult author, and all of my books have fictional kissing in them. ((Also, there is a lot of fictional kissing in my next two books. Much more than in my first two, so that's another reason I've been thinking about fictional kissing so much.))

Then I read a book called The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George and I thought, damn, that is the best example of fictional kissing I've ever read in a YA novel. And because I'm a writer, I started to poke at what exactly made that fictional kissing scene so good. Why did it work so well? That made me pull out other YA novels that I remembered also contained excellent examples of fictional kissing, in order to dissect them from a writerly perspective. And I discovered that there is quite a variety of fictional kissing, from which we can learn some lessons. ((As always, writing "rules" are made to be broken. These aren't rules; they're observations, and there are always exceptions.))

[SPOILER WARNING: In in this post I discuss kissing scenes in The Difference Between You and Me by Madeleine George, "Goblin Fruit" by Laini Taylor, and Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare.]

It's So Bad It's Good

Madeleine George's The Difference Between You and Me is about two girls, Jesse and Emily, who come from very different social circles and political beliefs, yet find time to make out together once a week in the library's bathroom. Emily narrates the chapters from her perspective, and it's in her very first chapter that we get to the kissing scene that made me sit up and take notice. It begins, however, by describing a very bad kiss, with her boyfriend, Michael:

"When me and Michael kiss, it's like I'm making out with a cut cantaloupe. He is the wettest, squishiest kisser on the planet. He's so cute from a distance, you know, he's such a good-looking guy, like a male model practically, but then when he goes to kiss me it's like all the muscles in his face go slack and his lips get all spongy and loose and he opens his loose face and sort of lays his spongy lips all over me and drools his melon-juice spit into my mouth. It's horrible. I don't mean to criticize him, I'm sure lots of other girls would think he was a totally amazing kisser, it's just … sometimes I have to pretend he's getting too powerful and intense and I push him off me, but really I'm pushing him off me because he's getting too disgusting."
The Difference Between You and Me, pages 20-21

Things that I love about this kiss:

  1. Voice: Emily's voice is hilarious. There's such a wonderful combination of grossed-outness and bizarre pride in her voice. She thinks Michael is a horrible kisser, but she takes time to praise Michael for how attractive he is. This says so much about Emily, who continues to date Michael even while she's secretly making out with Jesse.
  2. Simile used very effectively: How perfect is the cantaloupe simile? I'd guess that most people reading this scene have eaten cantaloupe (or melon) before. That means the reader is right there, instantly, in Emily's memory. You know exactly how kissing Michael feels to her, and I bet you all just went, "Ewww!"
  3. Contrast: This kiss sets up the next kiss that Emily describes, which is far from disgusting to her.

The Kiss That Makes Your Knees Weak

A few lines later, Emily describes kissing Jesse:

"When Jesse Halberstam kisses me, she's really focused and really intense. She puts her hands on the sides of my face to hold me where she wants me, or she winds her fingers up in my hair and tugs it tight, and somehow, just by the way she touches me, she makes my mouth open, she makes my eyes close, she makes me breathe faster and faster until I feel dizzy and I think I might black out. Sometimes when she's kissing me, I swear to God, the edges of my body melt and I become sort of part of her. Sometimes when she kisses me I forget my own name."
The Difference Between You and Me, page 21

Why does this kiss work?

  1. Feelings: The focus is on Emily's feelings. How the kiss makes her dizzy, how it makes her forget her own name.
  2. Contrast: This kiss has the benefit of being contrasted with the horrible one with Michael. Clearly, Jesse operates differently. Where Michael was sloppy, Jesse is focused and intense. Michael drools, but there is no drool here.
  3. Power: Emily's physical experience is definitely referenced, but rather than focusing on her mouth — which is where a lot of kissing descriptions tend to center — it focuses on Jesse's fingers tugging her hair and drawing a response out of Emily ("she makes my mouth open, she makes my eyes close"). This description brings up something that appears over and over in effective fictional kissing scenes: power. Not necessarily in a Fifty Shades of Gray way, but every time two people come together in a kiss, there is a physical and often emotional negotiation going on. Who is in control? Who is totally swooning? Are they both completely bonkers for each other? Or is one less bonkers than the other? This relationship negotiation occurs in every kiss and without it, the kiss can often feel flat.

The Deadly Kiss

That power negotiation comes to bear most obviously in kisses that aren't meant to be good for the character involved. In Laini Taylor's beautifully written story "Goblin Fruit" from her collection Lips Touch, Kizzy encounters a gorgeous man who, she discovers, is not exactly looking out for her best interests. He is a goblin, or perhaps a fairy — the kind who puts on glamours and seduces young girls. The wolf in sheep's clothing. But what does Kizzy (and isn't her name so perfect?) do when she discovers this?

"Kizzy knew, but she willfully unknew it, and the plangent voices of the dead were lost to the drum of her hot blood and the tingle of her ready lips. She wanted to taste and be tasted.

She didn't reach for the knife. Heavily and hypnotically, with her soul flattening itself back like the ears of a hissing cat, Kizzy leaned in and drank of Jack Husk's full, moist mouth, and his red, red lips were hungry against hers, drinking her in return. Their eyes closed. Fingers clutched at collars and hair, at the picnic blanket, at the grass. And as they sank down, pinning their shadows beneath them, the horizon tipped on its side, and slowly, thickly, hour by hour, the day spilled out and ebbed away.

It was Kizzy's first kiss, and maybe it was her last, and it was delicious."
— "Goblin Fruit," page 54

Here we have a truly deadly kiss, and several things are going on:

  1. Character revelations: Kizzy knows that Jack Husk isn't good for her, but her desire for him overrides her desire for safety. This shows that Kizzy is complicit in her own demise — which tells us a lot about her.
  2. Describing the mouth is almost always disturbing: There is something overwhelmingly lush and simultaneously off about this kiss, and I think that comes from the description of Jack Husk's "full, moist mouth, and his red, red lips," which Kizzy drinks from. What does that sound like? A bit vampiric, no? If there's one thing I strongly believe to be true about fictional kissing scenes, it's that physical descriptions of lips and the mouth in action should largely be avoided … unless you want to make the reader feel a little squicked out. And that's exactly what Taylor has done in this scene.
  3. Anticipation: This kiss comes at the very end of a 41-page story, which means there were 40 pages of buildup before it. Throughout the story we get to know Kizzy and her urgent desire to be kissed, but she isn't kissed until the very last page. "Goblin Fruit" is about the power of wanting something deadly — in Kizzy's case, this kiss — and every word that comes before the last line is used to aim us toward that moment when Kizzy kisses Jack Husk. Creating this sense of anticipation in the reader is one of the best ways to make a fictional kiss effective.

The Thrill of Anticipation

The Queen of Making You Wait for the Kiss is, in my mind, Cassandra Clare. In Clockwork Angel, Tessa Gray meets Will Herondale on page 35, but it isn't until page 290 that It Happens:

"Her whole body ached; she ached as if there were a terrible hollow emptiness inside her. She was more conscious of Will than she had ever been of anything or anyone else in her life, of the faint shine of blue beneath his half-closed lids, of the shadow of light stubble across his jaw where he hadn't shaved, of faint white scars that dotted the skin of his shoulders and throat—and more than anything else of his mouth, the crescent shape of it, the slight dent in the center of his bottom lip. When he leaned toward her and brushed his lips across hers, she reached for him as if she would otherwise drown.

For a moment their mouths pressed hotly together, Will's free hand tangling in her hair. Tessa gasped when his arms went around her, her skirts snagging on the floor as he pulled her hard against him. She put her hands lightly around his neck; his skin was burning hot to the touch. Through the thin wet material of his shirt, she could feel the muscles of his shoulders, hard and smooth. …"
Clockwork Angel, pages 290-291

Some things to note:

  1. Escalating tensions: From the very first time that Tessa sees Will, you know she finds him attractive ("He had the most beautiful face she had ever seen." — page 36). What happens between page 35 and page 290 is a series of escalations that (hopefully) makes the reader become invested in bringing the two of them together.
  2. Kissing is about more than the mouth: Will's mouth is described, but only before the kiss. After the kiss begins, the mouth is not described. Instead, Clare describes Tessa's encounter with Will as a whole person—hands, arms, body. Kissing uses the whole body, not just the mouth. (At least, good kisses!)
  3. Physical specificity: There's nothing I hate more in a kissing scene than vagueness; that sense of pulling a gauzy veil over everything. Kissing is usually not a vague experience — and if it is, there is a reason for that vagueness. ((Drugs? Bad memory? The main character didn't want to be in the moment?)) Therefore, kissing scenes shouldn't be vague, either. But you do want to avoid making a character's physical actions sound like a medical textbook. A good trick for doing that is to choose part of the body to describe (preferably not the mouth) and describe it from the perspective of one character. In this case, you have Tessa's experience of touching Will's shoulders through the "thin wet material of his shirt." Specific! But not clinical.

In Conclusion

Whether a fictional kissing scene is effective can be a matter of debate. Some of it does certainly depend on the reader: whether they're invested in the couple, whether they like romance, whether they like the writer's style. But there are some things that I think every effective kissing scene has in common:

  • They reveal something interesting about the characters involved.
  • They acknowledge that a power dynamic exists between the two kissers.
  • They're specific without being clinical.

What do you think makes a good fictional kiss?

What makes a good romance?

I've never considered myself a romance reader, but lately I've been thinking a lot about what makes a romance work. This is because there is a romance in Huntress, and initially, it totally did not work. Over the course of several drafts I had to fix it. I started out by reading a some YA romances (they shall remain unnamed). The problem was, they didn't grab me at all. Many of them are about a girl who instantly falls for a sexy/moody/hot boy, and right away that leads to a couple of problems for me.

First, I found that the girl often fell for the boy on first sight — just because he was cute — and his attractiveness was described in quite a lot of detail. A lot of people like to read exactly what a character looks like, but I don't. When a character is supposed to be attractive, I don't want to know too much about how they look, because chances are, that look isn't going to work for me. Everybody has their own personal tastes. But in a lot of these novels, the boy is described so exactly that little room is left for the imagination, and I think that a lot of romance is actually about the imagination: anticipation, hope, longing.

Second, the boy's personality never seemed to live up to their physical attractiveness. I found that the boy was often so in love with the girl that most of his personality seemed to be enmeshed in the girl — in keeping her safe, in making her happy, etc. As a reader, I want the characters to have separate and distinct personalities, and I want them to do things. I also am not a big fan of boys being overprotective of their girlfriends, or of girls yearning to be sheltered by their boyfriends. Frankly, that's a turnoff for me. I feel like romance — real and fictional — should be about thinking bigger, taking risks and doing more.

So. Where did that leave me? I started to think about and read adult novels with romance in them. I thought maybe I was just having an aversion to teenage romance because of its rose-colored glasses, fuzzy focus nature. ((Obviously not all YA romances are like this. Many of them are awesome!))

While I've never read much romance of the bodice-ripper variety, I realized that many of the adult novels I enjoy do have romance in them, but they tend to be more in the romantic suspense category. Mary Stewart, for example, with her fantastic Nine Coaches Waiting, or any of Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels' dozens of gothic romances. Romantic suspense gives the characters something to do while falling in love with each other. This is something I really need, as a reader (I'm just predisposed to enjoy mysteries, I guess).

I also reread Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters, which is not strictly a romance, but it sure is brimming with love (and lustiness). Rereading that novel showed me that a successful romance is all about the build-up — a kiss is meaningless unless the reader is primed to want it. It's all that foreplay, frankly, that drives it home.

This may be why a lot of love-at-first-sight tales don't work for me. I need to have an emotional investment in the characters in order to identify with their desires.

Waters also is relentless in her intense description of the physicality of romance. Her characters always seem to be shaking when they get close enough to touch their love interest; their feelings become manifest in their hands, in their faces, in their voices. This is something that I have had a hard time doing in my own work, because I'm so afraid of being too melodramatic. Reading Waters actually made me feel a lot more free about layering on the emotion, because you know what? First love is totally melodramatic. It's excruciating and overwhelming and amazing, and Waters is brilliant at describing it.

I was eighteen, and knew nothing. I thought, at that moment, that I would die of love for her. — Tipping the Velvet

Reading Persuasion by Jane Austen was also eye-opening. I was surprised by the amount of sexual tension Austen could build with her quite reserved prose. There was one scene in which Anne Elliot is being attacked by her nephews, and Captain Wentworth comes and plucks one of them off her back while not saying a single word to her. This scene followed after chapter upon chapter of build-up in which Anne was constantly thinking about Wentworth and his proximity to her. So when he was so close — and, yes, when he saved her — I actually thought, "Oh my god! He almost touched her!" (swoon)

One of the YA books I read that really did work for me was Laini Taylor's Lips Touch. I read the first page in a bookstore and practically fell over. Her prose was so precisely designed; so elegantly suffused with emotion.

The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood. The girls with hungry eyes who pray each night to wake up as someone else. Urgent, unkissed, wishful girls. — Lips Touch

It's been so interesting to read these books and think about how to evoke those feelings in my own writing. I think that I was always taught, in English class and in writing workshops, to avoid overwriting. I've always had a kind of paralyzing fear about it — a fear that I would somehow slip over the edge and become a hack. So I tend to be reserved in my fiction, afraid to overstep the bounds of good taste. ((Which, obviously varies for everybody. Nobody has a lock on what "good taste" is; it just seems that way.))

This may be partly because in my personal life, I've always been intensely emotional, and I've had to learn how to deal with those emotions in a healthy way. One of those ways is writing: I have reams of journals, poems, letters, etc., completely covered in purple prose.

So, what makes a good romance? For me, it's the courage to spill all those blood-and-guts moments out onto the page in a way that the reader recognizes as real. It's not about how hot some boy is. It's about taking the yearning and desire bubbling inside, and turning it out, laying it out in the open, so that a reader can drink it all up, and understand with their gut why that character loves another.