In Search of the Perfect Kiss—Lesbian Fiction Edition

perfect kiss lesbian fiction

What makes a perfect kiss? As a lesbian reader, there’s nothing I love more than a perfect fictional kiss. But having to write a good kiss? That scares the hell out of me.

Kisses—especially first kisses—are hard to write. They make your characters vulnerable. A kiss conveys intimacy, emotion, sensuality. It’s often a turning point in the plot. And because every writer who’s ever picked up a pen has already written their own scenes of pashing, smooching, and tongue-wrestling, how do you make it original and avoid cliché?

So, I asked myself: what are my favourite kisses in lesbian fiction? And what are the qualities that make for a truly great kiss?

The perfect kiss: Tenderness

“We sat in silence for a while, with Esther’s cigarette a sharp red circle moving in the car’s darkness. She put out the light and turned towards me. I leaned into her, fearing her knowledge, her toughness—and then I realised her hands were trembling. Through my blouse, I could feel her hands like butterflies shaking with respect and need. Younger lovers had been harder, more toughened to the joy of touch, but my passing woman trembled with her gentleness. I opened to her, wanting to wrap my fuller body around her leanness. She was pared down for battle, but in the privacy of our passion she was soft and careful. We kissed for a long time.”

This is Joan Nestle in A Restricted Country, writing the sweetest account of a one-night stand I’ve ever read, with a Puerto Rican “passing woman” called Esther in the 1950s. I love this scene for the trust and intimacy between two near-strangers, the sense of armor being shed. At a time when lesbian life meant harassment, rejection, and violence, Nestle describes a small miracle: the fact that women continued to make each other feel beautiful and give each other pleasure and joy.

The perfect kiss: Passion

“Her mouth was chill, at first, then very warm—the only warm thing, it seemed to me, in the whole of the frozen city; and when she took her lips away—as she did, after a moment, to give a quick, anxious glance towards our hunched and nodding driver—my own felt wet and sore and naked in the bitter December breezes, as if her kiss had flayed them.”

Poor Nan! We readers knew her longing for Kitty, the flighty music-hall star, was doomed from the start—but how we hoped we were wrong. There’s a reason why Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet is a classic, and it’s partly because of her gift for combining swooning Victorian melodrama with frank and authentic writing of the body. Nan is so vulnerable here, her feelings and senses laid bare.

The perfect kiss: Heat

“I might’ve tried to reply, or wanted to wriggle away, but I couldn’t hardly, because she was holding me down and covering my mouth with her lips, her kiss, and one of her long, sleek legs was sliding up between mine, so that my belly had begun to shake. Escape was even harder when she slipped her fingers under my panties. ‘Take yo’ drawers off, sugar babe?’”

This is from the marvellous Cleo’s Gone, by Gwendolyn Bikis (in The Persistent Desire, ed. Nestle), a tale of sexual awakening, as a college student falls hard for a butch delinquent with a wicked sense of humor. Cleo’s style and swagger have the readers squirming in their seat, waiting for that first clinch and what follows. The story manages to be ferociously sexy without shying away from some hard truths: in a poor neighbourhood—“ugly, dirty, and way too noisy”—these young women don’t even have a private place to kiss for long.

The perfect kiss: Transformation

“Alison responded, wrapping her arms around her, and Natalya deepened the kiss. In that moment she knew immediately why she’d never done this before.

This was intimate. So frighteningly intimate. Part of her wanted to recoil. To run. To tear her flawed, human skin off and disappear and never be seen again. It was more powerful than anything in her existence. It filled her senses. It ripped down her walls, every last one of them she’d painstakingly built for three decades. The sensation ricocheted through her body, leaving her weak.

Natalya did not do weak, her brain protested feebly.”

You have to be intrigued by a woman who’ll have sex and assassinate a gangster on the first date, but who shies away from a simple kiss. The dark heroine of Lee Winter’s Requiem for Immortals is cold, commanding, and savagely sexual. Nothing frightens her—except the impossible idea of connecting with another person, of feeling something for real. Could this embrace with Alison—a woman she was sent to kill—turn Natalya’s clean, lethal world upside down?

Sometimes a perfect kiss can change everything.

Copyright picture above: unsplash.com

The Taste of Her - Vol 1 and 2

Jess Lea lives in Melbourne, Australia, where she started out as an academic before working in the community sector. She loves vintage crime fiction, the writings of funny women, and lesbian books of all sorts. Jess can be found writing in cafes, in parks, and in her pajamas at home when she should be at work. Jess’s debut books are two volumes of erotic short stories for Ylva, The Taste of Her, Vol. 1 and The Taste of Her, Vol. 2.

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4 Comments

  1. Aj September 11, 2018 at 21:20 - Reply

    A crucial issue (and a few books to add to my lovely pile). A well written kiss is a great thing, I’m so sick of mouths or lips being crushed together and tongues “dueling for dominance”. One first kiss I really love is from Clare Ashton’s ‘The Goldman’s’
    “Please look at me, beautiful Abby.” Abby’s heart cantered in her chest. She couldn’t bear to see the effect of her confessions. She reluctantly opened her eyes and found not a friend, but a woman who regarded her with deep longing. Jude’s lips parted and she pulled Abby achingly close. “What are you doing?” Abby murmured, her head swirling with anguish and confusion. “Falling for the one I already love most of all.” And she kissed her with a touch as delicate as the flowers she’d brought.”
    I don’t have it to hand but the end of Jennifer Fulton’s ‘Fair Play’ has a great kiss (not a first kiss admittedly but a new departure for the characters.) I’m also a big fan of Lee Winter’s literary kisses, Maddie & Elena’s passionate and impatient first kiss is a particularly good one.

    • Jess Lea September 24, 2018 at 10:32 - Reply

      Thank you – and I must definitely follow up on that Ashton novel. Sounds lovely. And I share your concern about tongues “dueling for dominance” – it conjures up some very strange visual images indeed!

  2. Cristina September 12, 2018 at 10:12 - Reply

    Enjoyed how you discussed great kiss scenes from your perspective as both a writer and a reader. (I subscribe to the belief that good writers are avid readers.) Especially since you’ve written erotic stories. It’s likely harder to write erotica well in comparison to romance—although both are hard to write well, therefore that yardstick is being measured in millimeters rather than in feet—because what is considered erotic is often more narrowly defined for a reader than what is considered romantic. So, gaining insight into your thoughts on the subject of great kiss scenes and getting intel on some good books to pick up is a treat.

    For me, a great kiss scene needs to reveal character and, hopefully, a truth that’s character-specific or universal or both.

    (And contain beautiful writing.)

    (And be lovely.)

    (And be emotional.)

    (But, most importantly, emotionally true.)

    A kiss scene is great when I’m not really registering the actual act itself, at least not entirely on a conscious level, but rather I’m being pulled into the undertow of the emotions and sensations surrounding the kiss. It’s when the writer has, quite frankly, made me desperately want the kiss to happen, and for it to last forever when it does happen, because the build-up was so tortuously delicious or deftly heart-wrenching. Or, I was completely wrapped up in what the kiss meant for both characters, which can be different things, and so the actual moment surpassed expectations due to that meaning.

    Because I’m such a Nerdy McNerdpants, subsequent readings of impactful scenes flips the brain switch to analytical. Which brings me to Sarah Waters. You hit the nail completely on the mark when you said —> “We readers knew her longing for Kitty, the flighty music-hall star, was doomed from the start—but how we hoped we were wrong.”

    Yes, all of that!

    I think one reason why I went through that process is due to how Waters writes what she writes. Damn great characterizations and deft exploration of feelings. But also: her sentences carry heavy weight in her narrative by accomplishing more than one task.

    I mean, that cold motif alone.

    It so reveals character though description.

    Both Nan’s and Kitty’s.

    Readers might be so captivated by how that kiss affects Nan so as to miss, in that moment, a possible augur of demise. And, if readers register the signs throughout the narrative, then, like you’ve stated, in our hearts we want to be oh-so-wrong about it. But it’s foreshadowed all over the language Waters uses in the description of the kiss and how she moves through the language she uses—even as the moment, like you’ve stated, is passionate for Nan. Waters travels from “chill” to “in the whole of the frozen city” to “the bitter December breezes.” No matter the amount of warmth Nan feels from that kiss or how she qualifies that warmth (ascribing it the highly passionate quality of being the only warm thing in the entire city—yeah, she’s in love), it’s within the context of surrounding cold motif imagery (coldness is not normally associated with romantic love or passion) and it’s short in duration (Kitty “took” the kiss away in order to “give a quick, anxious glance” as opposed to “pulling away slowly from the kiss in order to breathe.”) The kiss leaves Nan exposed; her lips are “wet and sore and naked” as if they had been “flayed.” Flayed is an immensely revealing word choice. Is it good to be flayed by a kiss? When it’s passionate. Like you’ve said, Nan is being stripped bare emotionally; she’s vulnerable. She’s moving through her desires and her need for more. That’s passionate. But… eventually, she will be stripped bare of Kitty’s affections, through an act of human coldness, and thus become flayed in another way.
    That kiss scene is beautiful not only in the musicality of how it’s constructed—lots of commas, several dashes, and a semi-colon—but also in how it leaves Nan feeling aware but also unaware.
    And, that’s just one sentence. Passages before and after that kiss scene were also steeped in imagery and metaphors about the cold—including the dialogue—like, with the Thames beginning to freeze over as a backdrop, Nan proposes a hypothetical question about taking a daring, romanticized walk out onto ice if the river were frozen. And Kitty’s answer is revealing. (Psst… super secret sauce recipe: the hypothetical ice = their relationship.)

    (Ah, sorry if that was tangential.)

    (Or spoilery.)

    (Yikes.)

    (But, wait, there’s more!)

    (Of my rambles.)

    (Not potential spoilers.)

    (I hope.)

    Lest I forget to spill all the beans, I also dig kisses that are a bit on the rom-com cute-n-goofy style. Those types of kisses might not arrest the heart & soul with the same intensity as their more emotional counterparts, but a giggle or a smile whilst reading can elicit that eventual reader heart swoon and endear the characters to the reader. Melissa Brayden often writes good rom-commy cute-n-goofy kisses into her books. In “Kiss The Girl” she offers one when the mains first kiss (this passage is a bit into the kiss already):

    “[Brooklyn’s] lips clung to Jessica’s, holding on to the last lingering moment of what had been an end-all kind of kiss. All parts of her were fully engaged, and she wasn’t finding the necessary access to her brain cells. When their lips parted, she found Jessica’s eyes. “Whoa,” she said quietly.
    Jess nodded. “Yeah.””

    That’s all types of cute-n-goofy gal kissing, from the missing brain cells to the call-and-answer “Whoa” & “Yeah,” but I dug it. And wanted more of it.
    Because it’s character revealing. Jess matches the way Brooklyn dorks it up with the “whoa” with her “yeah,” so you instantly see their compatibility in more ways that just the kiss. And, it leaves lots of room for Brayden to chart their romance progression from cute-sparks to burninating-up-the-dayum-sheets.

    Lastly, (I promise to shut up soon) I think one easy-not-easy way to make a kiss scene original is to hammer home what’s beneath the surface much more than you describe the lips-touch-where-motions. I mean, ya kiss with ya lips, nothing original there. So, give me all them emotions your characters are feeling before-during-after a kiss in a way that only they can feel them. Wanna see that Tenderness, Passion, Heat, and Transformation this article describes. That’s where the originality lottery’s won!

  3. Jess Lea September 24, 2018 at 10:38 - Reply

    Oh wow – these are such generous comments and they give me a heck of a lot to reflect on! But I definitely think you are right about character development being at the heart of a good kiss. As you say, the physical logistics are mostly pretty standard! It’s what goes on emotionally, intellectually and socially that makes it memorable. And yes, Sarah Waters always gives so many layers of thoughtful and beautifully written prose, which is why her books are often better the second time around…

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