A few years back, I published a blog post on First Kiss scenes (go here to see the original post). I thought it was time for a follow up…
A story doesn’t need romance to be a good story, and honestly, in those cases where the author has clearly shoehorned a romance in simply because they feel there needs to be one? Just drop it! A nicely written platonic arc is just as satisfying. That said, a well-crafted romantic arc can be a pleasure to read, whatever the genre or subgenre. And a key convention in romance, even when it’s not the main focus of the story, is of course THAT moment. I’m talking about the kiss.
Usually THE KISS is the peak of a character’s emotional arc, the crescendo, the singing chorus of angels. The first kiss scene is often written in a way that’s supposed to sweep a reader away, helping them dive into that storm of feelings. But there’s merit in the quiet moments, too, in kisses that are perfectly understated and perfect for it. Most of my examples are from YA (or YA-adjacent) novels, simply because teenagers and first kisses tend to go hand-in-hand (or, uh, mouth-to-mouth?). But hey, adult characters get to play, too!
(SPOILERS for the following books: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe; Mister Impossible; In Other Lands; The Ship of the Dead; Nettle & Bone)
Ari and Dante (Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Sáenz)
This is technically the characters’ second kiss, but the first one that actually matters! This is a book full of short, understated moments that hold a world of feelings in very few words. It’s a masterpiece of how to say a lot with a little, and so it stands to reason that Ari and Dante’s kiss scene would be equally as quiet. I have so much love for this scene, it feels so real and manages to hold so much tension. And that last sentence? Perfection.
“Try it again,” I said. “Kiss me.”
“No,” he said.
“No.” And then he smiled. “You kiss me.”
I placed my hand on the back of his neck. I pulled him toward me. And kissed him. I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And he kept kissing me back.
Declan and Jordan (Mister Impossible, Maggie Stiefvater)
Another Stiefvater book (see Five First Kisses), because I love her Raven Cycle world so much! This is from the second book in the sequel Dreamer trilogy, and the oldest Lynch brother Declan is with Jordan in her studio. She’s painting a portrait of him. Their relationship has been building to a point of inevitability, and the kiss scene is only really surprising in that they haven’t kissed before. I love the way Stiefvater builds the romance in as just another layer of Declan-and-Jordan, one aspect of the complexity that is a human relationship of any sort. Also, art.
She kissed him. He kissed her. And this kiss, too, got all wrapped up in the art-making of the portrait sitting on the easel beside them, getting all mixed in with all the other sights and sounds and feelings that had become part of the process.
It was very good.
Elliot and Luke (In Other Lands, Sarah Rees Brennan)
I absolutely adore Elliot Schafer, he’s an amazing character with a brain (and a mouth) that just never stops. So when golden-boy Luke Sunborn corners him right before a battle, it feels only right that Elliot would not allow his thoughts to take a backseat to his emotions. This one brings humor into the moment, too, which is right on point for Elliot. And who says kiss scenes can’t be a bit funny?
“I’m so what? Are you actually about to insult me right before you go off to war? Oh, I don’t believe this, you loser—”
He did not get out another word past “loser”, because Luke crossed the floor, took Elliot’s face in his hands, and kissed him.
Wow, Elliot thought. Wow, Sunborns are very grabby.
Magnus and Alex (The Ship of the Dead, Rick Riordan)
We meet genderfluid shapeshifter Alex Fierro in the second book of the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard Trilogy, and Magnus is immediately smitten. So when they finally kiss in book three, you’d expect some fireworks, no? Instead, Riordan gives us this little gem of a scene while Magnus and Alex are trying not to freeze to death on the ice. Honestly, it’s very much how I would probably react if I was focusing on not dying instead of paying attention to my crush…
Then, before I even knew what was happening, she kissed me. She could have bitten off my mouth and I would have been less surprised. Her lips were cracked and rough from the cold. Her nose fit perfectly next to mine. Out faces aligned, our breath mixed. Then she pulled away.“I wasn’t going to die without doing that,” she said.
Magnus’ reaction post-kiss is priceless:
“Well?” She frowned. “Stop gaping and let’s move.”
Marra and Fenris (Nettle & Bone, T. Kingfisher)
Sometimes, a non-kiss can be just as powerful as a kiss. And in the case of Nettle & Bone, an amazing fairytale with the most understated of slow-burn romances, this definitely holds true. This scene is the story-closer, taking place after the villain is soundly defeated and everyone is heading off on their version of happily ever after. So you’d expect a bit of fanfare when Marra asks Fenris to stay with her instead of parting ways. Instead, we get the following. (Also, in case you’re wondering, yes, Bonedog is in fact a dog made of bones. And he is a Very Good Boy!)
“I think I’d like that,” said Fenris.
Marra sagged with relief.
She had been so focused on what he might say that she hadn’t quite expected what he might do. So it came as a surprise when he wrapped both arms around her and put his lips against her hair. “I think I would like that very much,” he murmured.
“Oh good,” said Marra against his neck. And then she would have kissed him or he would have kissed her, but Bonedog decided that they were wrestling and jumped up and barked soundlessly at them both.