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I know this question is inherently subjective, but I'm asking it in the case that there are universal traits of a romantic scene that makes it cringy. Now, I guess this question can be applied to all kinds of romantic scenarios, but my difficulty is with on subset of romantic scenes: the physical ones. I can easily set up romantic tension and have romantic dialogue without it seeming cheesy or otherwise cringy, but when it comes to kisses and making-out, I have a feeling what I'm writing is cringy. Now, let me specify what I mean with cringy.

Sometimes, I feel like my descriptions of a passionate make-out is alien and disgusting. Like I'm describing intricate structures of tissue interacting with each other in sticky, mushy ways. The feeling I fear I'm creating with these scenes is perhaps approximate to the feeling you felt reading that last sentence. Now, this is not a product of me not having experience what real-life making-out feels or looks like, in case anyone were going to suggest that as a solution. I think it might be more a product of lack of reading these kinds of scenes. I don't read any erotica, nor do I read a lot of drama, so the romantic interactions in the already few books I read is minimal. I am also an ESL writer, so that might contribute to the issue.

Other times, I feel like the stuff I'm writing is cringy due to it being cheesy and perhaps a bit cliché. It's not like I can remember a concrete example of whatever sentence is causing the problem being used in another place; it's just that the writing seems familiar and tired.

Finally, sometimes I feel like the descriptions get overly erotic, but in an unintentional way. I have no problem have a bit of erotica in my book because sex is an essential part of life and human interaction, and as such, it definitely has a place within a lot of narrative. Thing is, when I'm describing two people kissing and it feels like their facial appendages are having an orgy, then that's erotic in a way that's cringy, at least to me.

So... are there any methods of writing these kinds of scenes without it being cringy? I feel like this is a common issue but it's perhaps quite difficult to tackle. Whatever advice you have is very welcome.

EDIT: I forgot to mention, my current WIP is not a romantic story. It is a Western, but there's of course some drama amidst all that action, and there happens to be a little romance within that drama.

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  • A little comment section debate on the side for any who bothers to participate: There should be a tag for "cringe", as it is a common and highly undesirable sensation that is felt by many readers when reading a book. Cringy writing takes all kinds of shapes and forms and I'd say it is an essential component to bad writing. What do y'all think? – A. Kvåle Aug 7 '20 at 17:54
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    The way to suggest new tags is collect a sizable number of existing questions that would benefit from this tag, and use that to explain the need for a new tag in the Meta part of this side. Then ask for votes and comments there. – Llewellyn Aug 7 '20 at 18:57
  • @Llewellyn Interesting, I'll see if I can do that. It'll be hard to look for posts that could use a "cringe" tag though. Perhaps a rule of thumb is that if I have to look for posts that'd benefit from such a tag, then the tag isn't really needed? If so, perhaps I should just regularly check out new questions and see if a good enough portion of those questions would benefit from the proposed tag? – A. Kvåle Aug 7 '20 at 19:17
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This is an extremely good question and I would love to offer some advice from other writers I've found helpful! If you are ESL or new at writing romance scenes, your initial romantic scenes definitely have a high potential for being "cringe," and it's often difficult to pinpoint exactly why or where you went wrong. It's usually not because you aren't skilled as a writer - it's just because writing effective romance scenes is really, really hard.

This isn't a definitive list by any means, but here are some common mistakes I've found in romance writing that can lead to a scene becoming awkward or cringe-inducing rather than interesting and exciting.

Your romance scenes might be cringe-inducing because:

You forgot what readers are here for

Here's something that is worth keeping in mind when you're writing romance - unless you're specifically setting out for purely erotica, the vast majority of people don't read romance novels for the erotica. It's a fun bonus, sure, and a well-written kiss or intimate moment is exciting to read about, but that's not what readers are there for.

Why? Because they want to read it for the romance! The drama! The suspense! Will they get together or won't they? Will forces drive these two star-crossed lovers apart? That's what you want to focus on. Your reader wants to play a game with you of "will they or won't they?" and be excited to see where the romance goes next. They're not in it for the physical details, so if you focus on that part of it too much, your writing strays from exciting romance and becomes pure erotica, and it starts to get a strong hint of cringe.

You focused too much on the physical, not the emotional

Don't focus on the anatomy when you're writing a kiss or intimate scene. Instead, focus on how each character feels. How does this kiss make them feel? Why is it meaningful or special? What's unique about it? Is each character a good kisser or do they fumble or struggle? What conflicted feelings and emotions are going through each character's head? Those details are what make a scene good and engaging, not where the lips or hands are going - although those details are still worth including just to give the reader a good picture of how things are going.

You wrote the scene purely because "it needed to be there"

If you are writing a romance scene and you feel like it's cringe, or like it's not really fitting the story and the characters, stop and figure out why. What are you missing? Are these two characters not close enough or well-established enough? Did you not lead up to the moment clearly enough or build up to it and foreshadow it? Solve that problem first, and then try writing the scene again and see if it flows easier. There are many examples in media of romances that readers thought were established too quickly or weren't given enough thought and depth - think Rose and Finn in Star Wars, to give a slightly controversial example - and that often leads to unwanted "cringe" when the characters have romantic scenes together.

You are writing for the wrong audience

Another honest truth is that if you are writing a particular type of romance - let's say, an explicit mature romance that goes into great physical detail, or a gay romance along the lines of Call Me By Your Name, or a twisted, messed-up romance along the lines of Gone Girl or 50 Shades of Grey - you may find that people cringe at your writing simply because you're writing for an audience that isn't them. When you write romance, make sure you make it clear what kind of romance it is and what audience it is designed for, and think about what kind of reader you are aiming the story at. Market your book clearly and pay attention to how other romance books in your genre write their romance scenes. Try to match that.

Do you want a mature audience or a teen audience? Do you want the audience to be comfortable with an LGBT romance? Is it a Christian romance? How explicit does the novel get? Establish that right away so you can make sure your story is right for your reader, because if there is a mismatch, that can often be the reason for that unwanted cringe factor. If you are marketing your book as a young adult romance, and I pick up your book and discover it's much more explicit than most young adult books on the market, I probably would cringe at it too.

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  • I'm a bit confused at your second point; focusing too much on the physical instead of the emotional. Aren't emotions supposed to be shown, including during romantic interactions? As such, isn't the only way to show the characters' emotions during the kiss or making out to show how they kiss, i.e. how passionately or how reservedly, etc.? It's not like you can just say "they kissed", and then go on about how they were feeling as this was happening. That's just telling their emotions. – A. Kvåle Aug 7 '20 at 18:49
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    @A.Kvåle In writing (which is not really a visual medium), "showing" emotions may be less of a description of lips or other anatomy touching, and more a description of feeling flushed, or a character's heart racing, etc. – Jedediah Aug 7 '20 at 18:56
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    @A.Kvåle This is a prime example of why 'show don't tell' is at best spurious and at worst terrible advice. Whose perspective is the story being told from? If we are in the head of one of the kissers (either in first person or third), you can totally show/tell us their thoughts and feelings. Not by saying 'She was really happy', but by actually saying what she's thinking, in her own words. – DM_with_secrets Aug 7 '20 at 19:01
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    @Jedediah This might just be due to me lacking a wide range of words and phrases, but I feel that showing emotion through lines like "their heart raced" is so cliché and tired. Therefore, I tend to show emotions through the symptoms of such phenomena, like a fast heart beat causing fingers to shiver. I let actions, mannerism and physical signs show my emotions, instead of describing things like a heart racing, because I feel like it's too cliché. I feel like people will be annoyed the second they read it, which might be because maybe I get a little annoyed the second I read it (and write it). – A. Kvåle Aug 7 '20 at 19:11
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    If these scenes make you cringe, then don't write them. Just have the main character think about them afterwards. Perhaps he just smiles as he rides his horse away. Perhaps she thinks of when he'll come back. – NomadMaker Aug 8 '20 at 3:56
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Genuinely erotic writing isn't about fulfillment, it's about frustration, about the rising helpless obsession of people who haven't yet come together. That's why the key to most romance writing is figuring out how to keep your protagonists apart, not how to bring them together.

In the event, however, that you do need to write about actual sex, remember that it's both taboo and overwhelming for most people, so that's what the subjective experience of it needs to be for most characters. Talking about it obliquely, through metaphor, indirection, symbolism and double entendre is actually a more accurate subjective depiction of the topic. The direct and clinical rendering --superficially accurate --actually feels more artificial, because it doesn't match most people's subjective experience of sex.

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  • To the first point: Ideally, it will feel like the characters (and readers) have "earned" the scene. Keeping the characters apart doesn't have to mean star-crossed lovers, either. It could be anything from a long-distance relationship, one or both working overtime, or their small children making it hard to find the time/energy for sexual activities. When they finally get that evening off or just make time during lunch break, it'll feel much more rewarding. – Llewellyn Aug 11 '20 at 18:30

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