Short Scene Critique: Born into Darkness


Meant to be a sneak peek into a Carina editor’s brain, and critiqued by a different editor each time, we’re going to post these critiques twice a month as long as authors are willing to let us use their work and people remain interested.

The idea here is to give you a quick insight into how we might look at a manuscript as it comes across our desks on submission. We’ll strive to be critical but not mean. Because it’s only about 600 words, 2 pages at the most, the amount of feedback is necessarily limited—we don’t have access to more than a couple of pages!

New as of March 1, 2018: instead of first-pages, we asked authors to submit one of four types of scenes: an action scene, a sex scene, the black moment or the first meeting between protagonists. This opportunity was still limited to 400-800 words, but it provides both authors and those following these critiques with an opportunity to see editorial feedback deeper into a book.

It’s important to note that this manuscript was submitted specifically for the purpose of critique on the blog, we do not/will not use random submissions so no worries we’re going to pull your piece out of our submissions inbox and critique it.

The next opportunity to submit a piece for critique will be open soon, so please watch the blog or our newsletter for more.

This month’s editor providing critique is Carina Press freelance editor Ronan Sadler. 



This was submitted by the author as a sex scene.

Author A described this manuscript as a fantasy romance with an arranged marriage between “a storied knight, weary from a lifetime of war and terror, and an unloved orphan princess.”


“Let it out, love.” Matthias held Avelina tightly as she sputtered against him, her despair shaking loose.  When she quieted, he pushed tendrils of dampened hair behind her ear and lifted her chin, searching her vacant expression, for answers. Anything.  Are you still in there?  “Wife, I’m here.  Right here.”

Her eyelids fluttered, red eyes darted back and forth, then locked fiercely with his.  She kissed him, softly, then feverishly as she shifted her weight forward in his lap.  Grief and desire feeding them, their tongues hungrily danced together.  His blood caught fire, roaring through him, and he hardened fervidly against her leg.  Matthias turned to lay her down, but she resisted, breaking her lips from his.

“No.” Avelina pushed away his arms and he froze.  Shit.  Her eyes were wild as she straddled him, planting her knees firmly and lifted her shift over her head, her plump breasts spilled freely.  Ok then.  His tongue eagerly found their soft flesh, teasing her nipples lightly, then hungrily suckling them.  She gasped and squealed, making his blood throb harder, painfully within him.

Matthias’ fingers traced through the curls between her legs.  She was slippery wet and his fingers slid right into her.  There she is.  She sharply cried and rammed her hips down, her warm flesh tightening around him as he stroked within her.  That’s my girl.  She grabbed his face, pulled him to her mouth and bit his lip.

“Woman!” He winced, tasting a faint metallic hint of blood.  She pushed her tongue back into his mouth, mimicking the rhythm of his fingers inside her.  He found her and she shook against him, whimpering against his mouth as her body sharply arched in response and went limp.

Matthias smiled, pulling his britches to free himself.  She raised onto her knees and shifted, sliding down easily onto him.  Her warmth enveloped him, squeezing him.  He moaned as she slowly glided back and forth, pushing his chest until he lay back on the bed and she moved on top of him.  His hands locked firmly on her hips.  Christ he had missed this.  Her. 

Matthias opened his eyes to watch her and he saw them – fresh tears falling heavily against the shadow that had spread across her face.  She moved purposefully, harder, loudly, no longer lost in their embrace.  Instantly he became painfully aware of the loose skin underneath his thumbs, the rippled marks that pushed furiously against them.  The emptiness behind it.

“Sweetheart, no.  Come here.”  He pushed himself up, gently wrapped his arms around her, halting her furious pace.  He was still inside her, filling her, pulsing.  The tenseness in her body began to dissipate, the stress exhaling from her chest across his and they rested, joined in their raw and naked honesty.

I am here.

Matthias turned her gently onto the bed.  His elbows straddling her, he cupped her face in his hands, feeling the tears slide coolly into them.  Kissing her sweetly, he began to make love to her.  When her hips met his, his face dropped into the crook of her neck.

“I’m so sorry.” The words cracked, passing through his throat.  She shuddered beneath him, nodding her head into his shoulder.  His own tears fell, disappearing into her hair, as they clung desperately to one another, her small body swaddled by his.  He kissed her cheek, the saltiness of their mixed tears crossing his lips.  Fire smoldered within him and he arched forward, spilling his seed deep inside of her.  His heart felt full, thudding loudly, but her silence pulled at it like a leaded weight.

* * *

The Critique

I love the premise of this manuscript, and I think this particular scene is a great example of the character work a sex scene can do. These two characters are coming together on the eve of war for the first time since a miscarriage; this scene is going to be a turning point in their relationship.

The vacancy of Aveline’s expression says a lot about her grief, but I think we need another beat in the scene before we jump to the sex. I want her to be present in this scene, and I want Matthias to know and care that she is. Since this is an arranged marriage plot set in a medieval/fantasy world, I want to know that Aveline is in to what’s happening, which means we need a bit more of her agency and a better read on her emotional state in this moment. Becoming remote is a very common response to grief, but having Aveline be vacant in this moment distances us from her emotions and her sexual agency. In fact, if your manuscript has dual POV, it would be more effective for this scene to be from Aveline’s point of view. She is the character with the most at stake in this scene, so I would like to be in her head for it if possible. It will make her emotions and reactions more immediate, instead of filtering them through Matthias’ perceptions.

Matthias refers to her as “wife” and “woman;” while I think this is intended to convey a sense of period through linguistic choices, it ends up being distancing. These don’t feel like intimate words for a beloved. It would be much more effective if he uses her name, or an affectionate nickname that has meaning to the two of them. This will demonstrate Matthias’ vulnerability to the reader, and to Aveline.

Because this is a sex scene that is so weighted with grief and character conflict, I’d like to see a slower build up to the sex (maybe a couple of sentences), where we focus on the emotions of the moment and how they are being expressed through the characters’ physicality. Right now we sort of jump between emotions and physicality, when the most effective way to write this is to have them intertwined.

There are a couple word choice issues that are throwing me out of the scene here, and the sentence structures that rely on a lot of adverbs or sequential verbs to convey a sense of flow and movement instead end up feeling a little repetitive. There are also a great many moments where the narration breaks into Matthias’ internal monologue. These moments really break up the narration and throw us out of the flow of the scene. Moving the narrative distance around every paragraph is a little jarring to the reader. Instead of using these asides to show us his feelings, use the narration and his actions to express his emotions.  For example, how does the fact that he’s missed her shape his engagement with their intimacy? How does it inform what he feels and does in this moment?

I loved the last line here, “but her silence pulled at it like a leaded weight.” This expresses so much about the characters’ emotions and their intimacy, and it’s a great way to end the scene.


Would I keep reading? Definitely. I want to see how Matthias and Aveline negotiate their grief and loss together.


Do you have questions about my feedback or the First-Page Critique program? Your turn to add constructive feedback for the author in the comments section! Or email 

Authors entering their work for critique can choose to have the blog post comments open or closed. Comments are open, so please utilize them to ask questions or to offer your own critique, but please remember to offer useful criticism. Comments will be moderated and deleted if not deemed to be useful or appropriate.


3 thoughts on “Short Scene Critique: Born into Darkness”

  1. Rebekah Simmers says:

    Thank you so much for such detailed feedback on this scene. As you mentioned above, this is definitely a turning point for these characters and one that is very important to me as a writer as well. I truly appreciate the breakdown and advice – it will be extremely helpful as I move forward.

  2. Elise Elliot says:

    These mini-critiques are really incredible! The feedback is detailed and useful; I especially love the point about sex scenes doing character work. Great advice.

  3. Marci Johnston says:

    I get the vibe the writer is trying a little too hard here, trying to be too “writerly” and it works against the scene. As with all writing, it’s a matter of opinion and taste but this would not be my cup of tea.

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