Tuesday, February 17, 2015

YA: All The Sexy

I want to tackle something that might be a bit awkward one-on-one, and I'll come right to it:  If you write YA and you want your main character to kiss someone, then you'd better not infuse any adult sexuality into the scene.  Especially if it's your character's first kiss ever.  Or even second kiss ever.

Nobody does this on purpose.  The truth is, though, that if you've ever had sex, then you've got an entire personal arsenal of sexual habits and responses that are alive and well in your unconscious mind.  So when you sit down to write that sizzly smooch scene between two sixteen-year-olds, it comes out infused with Stuff-Sixteen-Year-Olds-Wouldn't-Think-Or-Do.

Hear me on this one.  I get that some sixteen-year-olds (and even younger) are sexually active.  I get that, yes, sometimes the sexual experience of a teenager would make a married thirty-five-year-old blush.  But that's not what I'm talking about.

I'm talking about INAPPROPRIATELY ADULT SEXUAL RESPONSES in teen kiss scenes.  And I've read quite a bit of it--not only here, but in my editing work as well as in published novels.  And it frustrates me, because it is so incredibly inauthentic.  It screams I-am-a-grow-up-writer-trying-to-sound-like-a-smoochified-teen.

But it's easily fixed.  How?  By becoming aware of the fact that you, as a grown-up sexual being, have experienced things that your fifteen- or sixteen- or seventeen-year-old protagonist hasn't.  (Unless you've written her that way.  And again, that's not what I'm talking about here.)  By reminding yourself that TEENS ARE NOT EMOTIONALLY MATURE, so they therefore cannot be sexually mature, either (experience and maturity are not the same thing).  And by stepping back and asking yourself, "Would my character say/think/do this?  Or is this something that I would say/think/do?"

I've broken it down into some typical behaviors in order to make this a bit easier:


Yes, groaning is generally an involuntary response to arousal.  But folks.  A young girl (or guy) who is having a first kiss IS NOT GOING TO GROAN INTO THE OTHER PERSON'S MOUTH.  None of this "I groaned without realizing it."  Groaning may be involuntary, but it's also a conditioned response.  Even if a teen is feeling aroused (and a first kiss for the never-before-kissed? THIS IS NOT THE TIME FOR AROUSAL), she is likely not going to be confident/experienced enough to groan.

Now, if your never-before-kissed heroine is passionately kissed by a boy who has sexual experience, then it would be believable if he might groan as he deepens the kiss.  Or something.  But if this happens, you've got to put yourself in the shoes of the never-before-kissed heroine.  As in, Oh my gosh, he just groaned.  What does this mean? Am I doing something wrong?  Because, folks, SHE JUST DOESN'T KNOW.  Seriously.


Yes, some people do this.  Some people like this.  But again, we're talking about teens here.  And unless your main character is ALREADY SEXUALLY EXPERIENCED, or is growing in this experience as part of your story, then bites do not belong in first- (or second- or third-) kiss scenes.  Again, it screams This is a kiss written by a sexually mature person.  A girl kissing her first boyfriend isn't going to fantasize about biting him, and she isn't going to gnaw seductively on his bottom lip.  SHE DOESN'T KNOW THESE THINGS.  And she isn't trying to arouse him -- she is LOST IN THE KISS and HOPING THAT HER KISSING IS GOOD ENOUGH FOR HIM.


Honestly, I don't want to know much about what tongues are doing in a kiss scene.  There are ways to write about French kissing that aren't graphic enough to make me feel like I'm gagging on my own saliva (or on someone else's).  But that's a personal preference thing.  One thing about French kissing, though, is that it's not exactly a skill you're born with.  So if Jane and Johnny are having their first kiss, probably the tongues need to keep to themselves.

Here's the thing (cue dramatic, Authoress-is-about-to-get-personal music):  My first kiss was a French one.  As in, MY FIRST KISS EVER.  I was 15.  I knew nothing about kisses, and I was MADLY IN LOVE WITH THIS BOY.  (He was 17, experienced with girls, and a druggie.  Do I sound like a contemporary YA heroine, or what?)  And when he did that THING with his tongue, my first thought was Omigawd he's French kissing me! and my second thought was Omigawd I don't know how to do this!

Yes, I remember it like it was (almost) yesterday.  I did not "deepen the kiss" or "explore his mouth with my tongue" or "groan".  I freaked out on the inside.  And afterward, all I could think was, "I hope he kisses me again so that I have a chance to do it right."


So, yeah.  If you want your heroine's first French kiss to be believable, let her experience it on her own level.  Not on yours.


A girl who may have a few kisses under her belt, but who has never had sex, is not going to press her thighs into her guy while he kisses her, or wrap her legs around him if he lays her down somewhere.  Again, these are learned behaviors.  Even if you're writing your characters toward an inevitable sex scene, you've got to be realistic about how your protagonist is responding in situations she's never found herself in before.  And the younger she is, the more this is true.

You've got to step back.  You've got to say, "Okay.  If this were twenty-thirty-forty-fifty-something me, I would wrap my legs around him and groan while he kissed me.  But my protagonist is sixteen and this is their second kiss.  So what will SHE do?"

Mind you, I'm talking about KISS SCENES.  Sex scenes are a whole 'nuther topic, and one that I'm not going to broach, simply because I personally don't write them.  They don't belong in the stories I write, and that's just the way I roll.  Kisses are something else altogether, though--I LOVE writing kiss scenes.  In fact, if I get a scene just the way I want it, it's not unusual for me to sit there and reread it half a dozen times, just to relive the moment over and over.  (Is there such a thing as a kiss dork?)

So there's my I'm-saying-this-as-tenderly-as-I-can advice for you today.  Give your teen kiss scenes all the romance and sparkle and sizzle and breathlessness and angst and urgency that you can--but keep your grown-up sexual self out of them.  Then, and only then, your teen kisses will be truly authentic and believable.

And by the way, I love you.  Always wanting better things for you; always hoping to give you food for thought that will improve your writing.

Now go rewrite that kiss. :)


  1. Oh, wow, I'm so pleased you've addressed this. Nothing kicks me out of a developing romance faster than seeing a 35-year-old woman's response to a 17-year-old boy. You've explained this perfectly.

    The other thing I keep seeing is a 15-year-old girl who's never been kissed or fallen in love being super turned on by catching a glimpse of an inch or two of the guy's stomach. Maybe, but it's another one of those responses that seems learned. I'd buy intrigued, curious, embarrassed, attracted, but not hot and heavy steamed-up.

  2. Great post! I agree, while there are always exceptions, YA is largely about "firsts" and even the most mature girls still have that learning curve. Often that maturity is balanced with total 180 moves like freaking out over a celebrity. I think the best YA captures both extremes, and sometimes within the same character.

    I know a million times over that New Adult as a genre isn't just sexy YA, but it can't be overlooked that OFTEN we are seeing in NA more explicit or sexier situations than YA, and for that reason, it bothers me when people refer to a category as YA-slash-NA. I've seen this in contests (not yours, btw), and it's bothersome because if NA is a separate category with more adult level themes, it then needs to be separate. This post addresses exactly why. It's not that sex is bad and can't be in YA, but HOW sex is handled and approached is different. Regardless of whether adults read YA, the intended audience is (and should be IMO) teens.

  3. Excellent post and comments! I agree! Even though I am 52 I still remember those awkward first kisses and lack of confidence. I still have journals from my teen years that help me get back into a teenager's head.

  4. Well. The things you learn as an adult.

  5. Whoa! Am I ever glad that I write MG!

  6. I realized from the comments on my entry and your post that my scene was too mature for the MC's age. Strangely, that kiss is only one of two between the characters, and the second one is WAY more chaste. I think I got a little too excited when I wrote this scene. It should have more awkwardness and less sizzle. My critique group didn't even catch this, so thanks for setting me straight!

    1. Hey, Liz -- I have no idea which entry was yours, but I want to say YAY!!! Because this is the whole reason I write posts like this -- so that people will look at their own writing, see if my words apply, and then GROW. So thank you very much for sharing this!

  7. Great topic! Thanks for this. Awkward is the key. Some YA I read makes me blush.

  8. I commend you for talking about this. And I whole heartedly agree!

  9. Thanks for the post. Very insightful. I've noticed that a lot of books I read seem to have a really hard time convincing me that the romance (especially when it gets to kissing scenes) rings true. I think this might be part of it.

  10. Love this. Spot on.

  11. Thank you! This bothers me as an adult, but it bothers me more when a teenager tells me she stopped reading a YA book because it was too sexual. I think it has a lot to do with the reasons you listed. A lot of them just can't relate and aren't ready to go there.

  12. Great post. I don't think I've ever made those mistakes, but not because I knew better, just because I got lucky. Good to know.

  13. I find a good resource for being able to deal with doubt in this area is to ask oneself, "Would this happen in a shoujo manga?" Why? Because a your average shoujo manga series will take you through 45 to 75 chapters of naïve, heart-pounding, OMIGOSHOMIGOSHOMIGOSH scenarios of "almost" kisses and "almost" hugs before the payoff: the one, maaaaaaybe two fairly chaste kisses that appear in the entire series--and during that kiss you feel like you're flying. You're biting your nails, blushing, squeezing your pillow, because this story has managed to reduce you to an inexperienced teen in the midst of her first love. Granted, these scenes are often interspersed between larger-plot scenes, but that makes it rather great, too.

    1. Manga and some of the teen targeted anime are really good examples of this! (perhaps minus and spastic animal sidekicks) :)

    2. And a lot of Kdramas! *high five* (Also, why is it that in kid-apropos manga/anime it's the spastic animal sidekick that's the perviest?)

    3. I have never read manga, but this sounds like a PERFECT example.

  14. This is fantastic and so, so helpful. I'm opposite of you in that I see kissing scenes as monsters hiding in scary closets waiting to POUNCE AND DEVOUR YOU ALIVE. I have a first-kiss scene I've been putting off writing for weeks. Literally, since January. I think this has helped me begin picturing it in my head, full of awkwardness and insecurity. I can do this. *breathes* *begins writing*

  15. Hahaha I love the first comment on this post. 'Nothing kicks me out of the story more than a 35-year-old woman's response to a 17-year-old-boy.' Gah!

    I like this post. That is all.