Monday, January 21, 2008

How To Write... Sex Scenes

The first in an occasional series considering various technical aspects of our literary craft

My headline for today has, I suspect, lured you here under false pretences. I've only ever written one sex scene, and that of a very indirect sort. It's not a branch of literature, in general, that I admire. This arises not from prudishness but from a perception that such scenes very rarely add anything--beyond risibility--to the reader's immersion in the fictional world.

The first question the writer needs to ask is "do I really need a sex scene at all?" The writer is creating a construct, an imaginary world, by choosing which details to set in front of the reader, and which to omit, or imply. Introducing a sex scene is therefore a conscious choice by the writer. There are many ways of conveying to the reader that characters are in a sexual relationship; there's no need to depict the act unless it adds something to the reader's experience.

A sex scene can be justified, it seems to me, for one or all of the following reasons:
  • the relationship depicted is the central point of the novel
  • the scene is revelatory of one or both (or more--orgies are within the scope of the discussion) of the participants' characters
  • it provides an emotional counterpoint to events immediately before or after the scene
  • it provides comic relief
Let's assume that you've decided that your story does need a sex scene. Your next choice is the kind of language you are going to use. Do you prefer euphemisms and oblique metaphors? Does the sea pound against the shore? Is your heroine carried along on a surging tide? (This approach frequently deploys nautical imagery). This method will at least avoid offending your grandmother, but if you want sidle up to your sex scene in such a peripheral manner, why have it at all?

At the other end of the scale, do you prefer anatomical precision? There is a comparatively limited gamut of what can be put where, and in what sequence, but at least this tactic avoids coyness.

Analysts of the sex scene will be interested in how the author chooses to refer to what Jack Vance called "the frontal member". From this one choice, the tone of the rest of the scene will follow. The choices are (with variants, of course):

He, Him
As in "she felt him inside her, a pulsing warmth etc etc etc". Under this approach man and member are one, indistinguishable and indivisible. The point of the scene may be to demonstrate precisely that fact about the protagonist's character, but more usually it's a default setting for the writer who's keen to display sex on the page without the indelicacy of listing the anatomy involved.

Medical terminology is occasionally used to avoid the oblique obscurity above. Unless the writer is trying to convey a clinical and emotionless coupling this is unlikely to be successful.

Slang terms--there are of course others--are often used to convey an earthy immediacy, and can deliver anatomical precision with emotional intensity. The main danger here is that the language is so alien to the voice of the rest of the story as to jar.

There is an annual 'Bad Sex Award' "to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it". In this latter aim it appears not to have succeeded--indeed there is a perverse kudos to winning it--but it does illustrate that a bad sex scene stands out with priapic prominence from its surroundings in the way that, say, a bad fight scene would not. Your sex scene may be fully justified in its context, but if you can't write a good one, you are still setting yourself up for an embarrassing failure.

In creating the illusion of a fully realised fictional world in the reader's mind, the writer is making a series of choices about the scenes to present. Your reader will fill in any gaps you choose to leave. When considering a sex scene, more than anywhere else, you should ask yourself whether you can do a better job than your reader's imagination before reaching for the literary Viagra.


Faye L. Booth said...

Ah, the joy of selecting synonyms for body parts! I would add an extra possibility on for those who use 'he', 'him' etc for the penis, though - namely that the character isn't one for whom explicit references to the names of certain body parts come naturally. My second novel hasn't gone public at this point, of course, but the contrast between Molly's view of the male anatomy and Lydia's (Lydia being Book Two's protagonist) is very distinct. Isn't it strange how one finds oneself giving a great deal of thought to the strangest subjects?!

On the loosely-related note of grandmothers reading one's work, apparently my Nana's racing through CTM, and "can't put it down"! The mind boggles...


Tim Stretton said...

Excellent point, Faye. I'm sure there's a cracking David Isaak post about point of view in this context somewhere!

I wanted to avoid citing particular writers in this blog entry--since most references would be uncomplimentary--but CTM is an example of how to write about sex well. Firstly, the sex is central to the novel and it themes, so none of it's gratuitous, and secondly you've tied it in so neatly to Molly in her social and historical context that it reinforces rather than slows the narrative.

Perhaps grandmothers are more broadminded than I give them credit for!

Faye L. Booth said...

Thank you kindly. I try my best! (I was about to quote that line from Blackadder about getting one's breath back and then trying again, but it seems a tad unprofessional, so perhaps not.)

I've been really pleased with the positive reception CTM's had from older readers. My Mum made a good point about it, actually - namely that the older generations of today were around in the 1960s and 70s, so perhaps we don't give them enough credit for their ability to adapt to changes in the way society views certain things!


Unknown said...

I once wrote a very raunchy novel. An editor of romantic titles (in the process of rejecting it, obviously) told me that the only good bits were the sex scenes. Apparently it was highly unusual for a writer to get the sex right and not the plot, dialogue or characters.

I think this says something meaningful about me.

Faye L. Booth said...

Aliya - reminds me of a conversation I had with the lovely Diane at Magna. During the course of the conversation, we discovered that our birthdays are not that far apart, and Diane said, "Oh, so you're a Scorpio, then? Explains a lot."

Why do people keep saying that to me?!

Tim Stretton said...

In a 'certain kind' of fiction, realistic plot, character and dialogue are seen as unwelcome distractions from the core business of rutting... a decent agent could surely have sold the book!

David Isaak said...

I dunno, Tim--I had an agent tell me that a book of mine had "too much sex and drugs (not that I object in principle to either)..."

Hey, c'mon--the book was set in 1969!

I love writing sex and violence, largely because it is challenging to make them fresh and, as you say, of one with the book.

I think sex is far easier in first-person, because it solves the 'naming of parts' problem; you just use the narrator's terminology and it ought to be of a peice with the voice.

Third person close (or subjective) tends to be similar. But I can see that when you get into third person with a lot of distance the options present some real problems! (Though if I recall, Stephen King's book on writing has a few really offbeat examples that seem to work.)

And, yeah, Faye does write good sex.