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Afterglow: the Real Power Behind a Literary Sexual Encounter

by Mitchel Whitington


Afterglow may sound like some component of a romance novel, and it usually is, but it also one of the most powerful elements of a written sex scene. Simply defined, afterglow is the activity that occurs immediately following the sexual encounter. Your characters may be cuddling, kissing, arguing, or leaving - you may find out that the sex itself isn't as important in your story as what happens afterward! It is your chance to give the readers a deep, personal insight to the characters involved. That's easy to state outright, but the best way to understand the power of afterglow is to look at a few scenes that use it. For example, consider the case of two characters, Matthew and Alison. They've just made love, and the scene picks up...

With a slow, deliberate motion Matthew rolled over. He was lying next to Alison, their bodies touching, their deep breathing almost in synch.

She smiled, exhaled, and whispered, "My God, was that great, or what? Matthew, you are magnificent."

Matthew sat up and swatted her on the thigh. "So the ladies tell me, doll. You seen the zapper for the TV over there?"

Glancing around the room, he picked up a remote control off of the nightstand and snapped the television to life. With only a few clicks, a football game filled the screen. "Damn! They're only into the first quarter, and Dallas is already behind!" He pulled a cigarette from a pack beside the bed, lit it with his sterling silver lighter shaped like a woman's body, and exhaled a cloud of smoke into the room. Without missing a single play on the screen, he took another drag and said, "Hey, why don't you make yourself useful and go get me a beer?"

Alison stared at the ceiling for a moment, heaved a sigh, and rolled out of bed to fetch his request.

He cut his eyes over sharply. "Hey, don't cop an attitude just because I want to catch the game. Don't worry, I'll do you again at half time. By the way, when we're done, you're gonna have to take a cab home. I feel like drinking some serious beer tonight, and I don't want to get busted out on the road."

"Wonderful." Alison plodded toward the kitchen.

Don't you have a strong opinion about Matthew at this point? How about Alison, putting up with his attitude and behavior? Keep those opinions in mind, but consider a slightly different ending to the same love scene...

With a slow, deliberate motion Matthew rolled over. He was lying next to Alison, their bodies touching, their deep breathing almost in synch.

She smiled, exhaled, and whispered, "My God, was that great, or what? Matthew, you are magnificent."

Matthew sat up and touched her gently on the thigh. He looked into her eyes for what seemed like an eternity, and then in a low, soft voice said, "I'll be right back."

He disappeared through the bedroom's doorway, while she lay there staring blissfully at the ceiling. In only a moment, he appeared again. His left hand was balancing a wooden tray with two fluted glasses and a bowl overflowing with strawberries. In his other he held a bottle of French Champagne. "I thought that a few accessories to the evening might be in order."

Setting the tray on the bed, he stroked her hair, then poured them each a glass of the sparkling wine. "Just something to get our energy back up." He handed the glass to her, and softly clinked his against it. "I also brought some fruit for a snack."

Taking a strawberry in his fingers, he touched it against her lips, then trailed it slowly down her neck. "Oh, and if we're going to be drinking this wine, it might be wise for us to stay indoors." He reached out and kissed her forehead. "I'm afraid that you're going to have to stay here for the evening." Matthew lightly drew the strawberry between her breasts, and continued downward.

"Wonderful," she gasped, then lay back and closed her eyes.

You come away from this second scene with a much different idea about Matthew and Alison, even though the fact that they had sex didn't change. As you might be able to tell, no matter how much forethought and detail you put into the actual description of the coupling between the two characters, they can be defined in greater detail by their actions when the big event is over.

But don't add an intimate encounter in your story just for the heck of it - think of a sex scene much like you'd think of a backgammon game between two characters. Just like there's no good reason to have two characters sit down and play an ordinary game of backgammon without explanation, there's probably no good reason for them just to have sex - unless you can use it to further the plot or develop the characters. An ordinary backgammon game becomes very important if an argument ensues afterwards, and one character shoots another with a .44 magnum. By the same token, a sex scene is crucial to your story if you use it correctly - and afterglow is the perfect mechanism to employ. To carry the comparison even further, if you were having trouble writing all the drawn-out details of the backgammon game, it would be enough to set the game in motion, then pick it up at the interesting part after the game. The same applies to sex scenes!

Many writers are intimidated by writing about the mechanics of sex - I know that I am. Most of the scenes that I've tried to detail sound like something right out of Penthouse Forum: "Carrie screamed loudly as Rodger thrust his throbbing missile of love into her silky passage of warmth..." Well, you get the idea. The turnaround in my crafting of intimate scenes occurred when I attended a session on romance writing at a conference where the entire focus was "afterglow."

As the speaker wove her tales, I immediately saw the potential power in the prose. After all, the moments immediately following the lovemaking session are when the characters are most vulnerable, completely raw. They've just shared the ultimate personal experience with each other, so all pretense is stripped aside. What happens? Does the guy fall asleep, the girl start to cry, or do the two catch their breath and go at it again? Anything is possible, but the one fact that is certain is that their behavior will expand the reader's view of their character.

If you're having trouble writing your sex scene, just leave out the act itself! Get them into bed, or onto the kitchen floor, or in the front seat of the 18-wheeler, and give the reader a sentence or two to let them know what is happening. From that point, jump to the afterglow scene and start working your literary magic.

Think back to the two examples at the start of this article. In the first one, it would be extremely easy to picture Matthew going out to rob a convenience store later - he just seems like that sort of fellow. Would the second-article Matthew do that? Of course not! In fact, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that he later revealed that he had written a love poem for Alison. And in the first example, why in the world would Alison put up with such behavior from her lover? If I were to act like that after a romantic interlude with my wife, I'd find myself sleeping out in the back yard. Perhaps that version of Alison has a weakness that she has to overcome later in the story.

There are a thousand ways to portray the same two characters in the exact same situation. Their actions not only told you more about them, but also painted a mental image of the surroundings that they were in. In the first example, you probably envisioned the pair in a cheap apartment. The scene for the second Matthew/Alison in your mind's eye was most likely a lush, romantically lit bedroom with candles all around. Let's look at one more alternative to the scene:

With a slow, deliberate motion Matthew rolled over. He was lying next to Alison, their bodies touching, their deep breathing almost in synch.

She smiled, exhaled, and whispered, "My God, was that great, or what? Matthew, you are magnificent."

Matthew rolled into a ball, and put his fist against his mouth. "It was okay, then, Madame?" he asked timidly.

Alison sat up, stood, then straightened her leather corset with a loud snap. "Oh, it was fine, Matthew. But I would think that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company could do much, much better." She snatched a riding crop from the nightstand, and stuck him sharply across his thigh.

"Mistress Alison!" Matthew gasped in pain, "Please!"

"Oh, it's going to be a long evening for you, my little executive. I hope that you are planning on spending the night here in my dungeon."

Matthew drew into a fetal position, and whimpered, "Yes, Mistress. As you command."

"Wonderful." Alison smiled confidently, and selected a wooden paddle from the implements hanging on the wall.

I've used the same basic setting - the conclusion of two people having sex - for three completely different scenes, and in each one you get a very definitive feel for the characters. Never once did I describe the mechanics of the sexual encounter, yet in the afterglow scene you had a preconceived notion about it by the time that you finished reading. Afterglow is that powerful - quit worrying about writing sex, and use its afterglow as a mighty tool in your writing!

2005 Mitchel Whitington



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