10-point Scale for Judgment Calls

In a recent discussion launched by Leta Blake, several of us discussed writers who complain in a simplistic way about “too much sex,” especially in Romance. Others on the thread asked for sensitivity about a reader’s (or writer’s) desire not to be judged for their preferences and desires to avoid stories that prove to be triggering or personally distasteful.

I’ve longed for a broader set of measures for books than 5 unranked stars. I have to read a lot of both positive and negative reviews — and the online sample — to guess the quality and author direction for the story. I most want that level of information when choosing a Mystery, because the AlsoBot and ‘Other Titles Like This One’ don’t meet my needs on most retail or review sites.

But today we were talking about sexual situation in Romance. So here’s the evaluation scale I wish I could find when choosing  a story, and that I apply as a writer while deciding what belongs in a particular story. (And I bet this won’t display well on a mobile device).

Scale
1  . . . . . . .    3  . . . . . . . 5
1. Story Sets & Meets Western Reader Expectations
Uh, No . . . . . Familiar   . . . . Yes, creatively
2. Main Character Has Agency
Limited, . . . . Tries/ . . . . . .  With real intelligence
complains        needs luck
3. Female Role Portrayal (in m/f stories)
Norman . . . . . Female . . . . . .  Asserted with agency 
Rockwell         "tamed" @ end
4. Romantic Development & Human Relationships 
Subpar . . . . . T.V. . . . . . . .  “I know all
(cartoon)        quality             these people”
5. Race & Gender-Identity Attitudes & Inclusivity
Neolithic  . . . Liberal  . . . . .  Enlightened
6. Explicit Sex
No . . . . . . . At key . . . . . .  +1 each chapter
                 plot points  
7. Safe Sex
What's that? . . Negotiated . . . .  Explicit & taught
8. Agency in All Sex
Rape  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  100% positive choice
9. Sexual Detail (if present)
Emotional  . . . Deeply . . . . . .  Detailed 
only             sensual             biomechanics
10. Trigger Notice, if needed
None . . . . . . Fair hints . . . .  Explicit
And 2 genre-specific ratings:
 
11. Sex in Historicals
Honorable Bede . Cosplay,   . . . .  Real sex,
does romance     unexamined mores    real history
 
12. Sex in Paranormal or Fantasy
As sexy as . . . Cosplay  . . . . .  Complete universe,
The Hobbit       for ‘realism’       creative mores

Notes:
1. Satisfying Western plot structure elements include: Character, Setting, Conflict, Resolution plus pacing and expected tropes for each specific genre.

The reader should be able to expect what kind of book this is in early chapters, and that expectation should be met consistently through the middle and end. As the very basic example, a sweet romance doesn’t introduce surprise sex or violence that alters tone.

This is not to say that some books don’t or shouldn’t experiment. If there’s an experiment, the reader should know soon into the story whether to agree to participate in the experiment.

2. & 3. Romance has now struggled with role and agency for 40 years.
For example, some “historicals” solve these problems with time-travel: send a 21st century woman back. Lots of romances compromise role and agency at various points in the story, especially in the resolution. When I read, I’m looking for agency and role awareness to be built into the narrative viewpoint, not just struggled with as a plot point — with no exceptions for historical romance, which must place agency in the appropriate social context.

4. Some readers/critics consider realistic characters as key in the demarcation of genre versus literary fiction. However, that’s B.S. Many romance writers concentrate specifically on creating life-like characters and showing realistic relationships.
But I’ll state the obvious: how well the writer succeeds is a key evaluation point for many readers.

5. I’m not suggesting that every story must always include some politically appropriate variety and messaging. But it’s an area of consideration in evaluating a story.

6. Since some time in the late 80s, a Romance that includes sex scenes without sex being a story focus will include a scene at 10%, 50% and 90-95% story points, as part of how the romantic parties come together.

This has been true for long enough, that readers of sexy romance have this “reader expectation.” If such a reader wanders into a story that has a deeper sexual focus, a typical response might be: “This story has too much sex.”

It’s up to the writer to set reader expectations about the kind of story to be told in the description and early chapters.

And I understand that some Romance writers are under contract to write stories to specification. I’m sorry.

7. & 8. The zipless fuck in Fear of Flying isn’t even a fantasy in the 21st Century. Further, if the goal is “realistic characters,” then a romance that includes sex has to include negotiating safe sex.

Further, there isn’t a scale between rape and choice.
A story or trope can wrestle with “choice” being negotiated or ignored in a relationship, but it’s still rape. I believe this principle applies in historicals, also. Making the decision to choose can raise dramatic conflict. Not having choice? Then it’s rape, however “sweet” the HEA or whatever the fantasy trope.

9. The “emotion to physical” range  relates to what kind of story it is.
If it’s heavily plot driven—like a mystery or a suspense story—then you’ll typically see writers emphasizing emotional encounters rather than explicit sexual details. Again, a writer who wants to reach the desired audience needs to give the right signals early about what kind of story is being told.

10. The scale:
[1] Unpleasant surprise—no notice in the description or in the literary structure or the book’s packaging that warns the reader the nature of the kinds of triggering scenes in the story.
[5] The book’s description and literary structures let an astute reader know that trigger scenes will be present.
[10] Explicit warnings through:

—Literary structure: the way that you know in a movie when the hard, bad, scary stuff is coming.

—Description: you’d know before you went to the movie because of its poster and the movie’s tag line.

I’m going to use two examples that aren’t Romance.

  • In any James Ellroy novel, you know it’s going to be dark, detailed, and dangerous. You know it in the first two paragraphs, and you know that the intensity will escalate from there.
  • In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I regret reading), two scenes are out of character with the rest of the kind of story’s genre and tone. Larsson created a female character with agency who was extremely private—then the first detailed sexual scene he presents is a multi-page rape, betraying both his own character and the reader who believed that the story was a mystery/intrigue. The climax similarly overwhelms the climax of the mystery story with a torture porn sequence. Both scenes are cases of authorial bad taste where editorial guidance was either discounted or not courageously offered.

So: More ideas about how to describe and review a Romance with regards to the nature of the story and any sex involved? Please leave them in the comments! I want to evolve this more precisely and then try it against my own books.

 

About anniepearsonOK

Author of the Rain City series, managing editor of Jugum Press, and writer/project manager for eclectic technical communications projects.

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