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Welcome to the first in a new series of essays on writing! Before We Go Blog will be featuring authors talking about their craft and experience of writing the stories we love to read. The first essay is from our own Dani Finn, who’s here to talk about, what else? Smut.

Writing on Writing: The Smut Arc

Dani Finn

Everyone knows about plot arcs, character arcs, and romance arcs. We talk about them all the time. They’re how a writer builds a story, a character, or a romance. There’s usually a beginning, a middle, and an end, or stated another way, a rising action, a climax, and a conclusion, to each type of arc. There’s a lot of variation, of course; it would be boring if every story had the same structure. But there has to be an end game, something you’re working toward. What is the main thing that happens in the plot? What is the most important development for the character? And for a romance, how does the couple end up together, and what does their relationship look like at the end of the book?

For open-door romances (and perhaps the same could be said to some degree for closed-door ones as well), there’s another kind of arc that’s of equal importance, and which many authors give a lot of attention to: what I call the smut arc. How do we progress from that first kiss to whatever the culminating physical/emotional act is, and how does that progression interact with the other arcs in the story? Though the smut arc may mirror the romance arc to some extent, it can progress more quickly or more slowly, depending on the nature of the characters, their relationship, or the events in the larger story. And you can bet that many romance authors have a vision of a particular scene they’re writing toward, including advanced choreography and even dialogue, long before the plot shenanigans and accumulated emotional momentum have pushed their lovebirds to the blessed moment.

There are many types of smut arc, but one popular type in romantasy is the slow-burn, with a single sex scene somewhere around the 70-80% mark in a book, often followed by a less detailed one near the end. The arc will typically go from furtive glances to kiss to something a bit more—often interrupted by plot shenanigans, because we do love to make readers wait—perhaps with several stages of increasing but not-quite-there-yet intimacy before the plot and emotional pieces all fall together. Only then can we reward the readers (and, let’s be honest, ourselves as writers) with a nice steamy scene where the physical and the emotional combine with the full weight of the story and the characters’ arcs in euphoric rush that makes it all worth it. Once we’ve reached this, ahem, climax (hopefully not just the one), we typically have a bit of plot to untangle, and usually another scene at the end, which the Very Best Romance Writers™️ give us in full detail. I kid, of course—sometimes the story just wants the one scene, with the promise of many more to come off page in the Happily Ever After of our imaginings.

For books with multiple scenes, smut arcs can take many forms. There’s the sex-at-the-50%-mark formula, which usually comes with one or more scenes after, each different and more intense as the plot and emotional stakes ratchet up. Sometimes you get a fast burn, with sex early on, then something keeping them apart for a time before they can get it on again, which keeps the reader (and the characters) on edge. And who doesn’t love a little sex-in-the-first-chapter-but-it-doesn’t-mean-anything-does-it? Which can lead to a lot of fun emotional and physical entanglements as the book progresses. The possibilities are endless, and as a romance writer, this is one of the most interesting parts of the craft.

I want to talk about how I’ve approached it in several of my books, and why. You will find no significant plot spoilers, but you will find a few smut spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.

Unpainted by Dani Finn, a Weirdwater RomanceIn Unpainted, my arranged marriage fantasy romance, I paired Aven, a bi man who’s only slept with men before, with Tera, an aspec woman who’s had sex before but never really seen the appeal. Both have made their peace with the marriage but have understandable trepidations about the sex. Tera decides to engage an intimacy consultant, who teaches her to assert gentle control, and Aven was chosen in part for his gentleness. The smut arc is one of Aven’s total physical submission to Tera, in baby steps from their first awkward encounter to the scorching final scene, which I had envisioned from the moment I conceived of the story. It begins with cunnilingus, which Aven has never tried before but likes more than he ever imagined, and moves slowly from there in a series of daily scenes of increasing variety and intensity, all led by Tera’s growing confidence, interspersed with island honeymoon adventures.

By the time they return from their honeymoon, Aven is smitten and ready to be owned, body and soul. Tera doesn’t feel quite the same way as Aven, but she comes to care for him a great deal, and eventually she’s ready to take the final step (and no, I don’t mean simply intercourse—they’ve gone there and beyond already). Of course, that’s when the fantasy shenanigans kick in. I wanted to put the characters—and the readers—absolutely on edge, then make them wait a little while longer, just as Tera does with Aven so often throughout the book. So, when the fantasy plot is resolved and it’s time for Final Smut™️, we get to go out with a proper bang. Tera and Aven engage in a variety of sexual acts throughout the book, but the last one is special, not just because it’s a new and intense physical act, but because it comes at the pinnacle of their emotional connection, hopefully sealing the deal made with the reader when the couple first saw each other naked and unpainted in that awkward early scene.

Cloti's Song by Dani Finn, a Time Before RomanceIn Cloti’s Song, my poly fantasy romance (coming February 28 and now available for pre-order), I take a very different tack. That book features a married throuple in their 50s, and it literally begins with a threesome and ends with a foursome. The smut arc is like a rollercoaster that starts with a 100-foot drop, so you know that whatever happens next, you’re in for a wild ride. But after the initial drop, the smut scenes within the throuple are a fairly consistent, almost background occurrence, like dinner table conversation: whoever’s around at a given time might bang, or not, depending on what’s happening, and it’s only described in detail if it has emotional weight given what’s happening in the larger plot or the romance. But there’s another smut arc looping through there: the one with Cloti and the love interest.

Without giving away too much, Cloti takes a lover (with the permission of her spouses) and eventually brings him home to share. The progression of that intimacy with Cloti from attraction to kiss to more and more is a very different thing than the smut with her spouses, but it affects the spousal intimacy in interesting ways as she shares what she’s done with her lover through her magical abilities. Jealousy and yearning kindle renewed fire in the marital bed, and as the larger plot goes wild, the smut arcs intertwine in complex and (I hope) rather entertaining ways. With four characters, each with different relationships to each other, emotions and attraction entangle with trust and mistrust due to <redacted plot details>. The first foursome scene is just as complicated as you might imagine, and entirely different than the one we end the book on, both in terms of what happens physically and how the characters interact emotionally. How they fuck and how they feel are connected, but they are not the same thing. The smut arc and the romance arc are the vines and the fence, but at a certain point it gets hard to say which is which.

As an avid romance reader, I love to see how authors handle the interplay of the physical and the emotional, how they weave these elements into the character and plot arcs. Sex in books is not empty titillation, though I love a good thrill as much as the next person. It shows us characters at their most vulnerable in ways we simply can’t get at any other way, and I believe we should appreciate the value of a good smut arc in helping the many moving parts of a romance come together in a mutually satisfying way.

Read about my favorite smutty reads from 2023 here!

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