Someone who heard I had a writer blog asked me if I was an expert. Hell, no. I’m not even that knowledgeable an amateur, but I do have opinions. Some are more ranty than others. Please, when you read my posts, remember that although I’m not Stephen King or Strunk and White (or Strunk OR White), I love to read as well as write. I want to share what I’m learning, and I love to talk about what grabs me in a book or film and what doesn’t.
Speaking of grabbing, who doesn’t love a great sex scene? I’m not talking about emotion or love; I’m talking good old-fashioned crazy hot getting-down-to-it SEX, baby! A good sex scene is like a wolverine, seldom seen but fiercely commanding respect when it surfaces.
They’re harder to find in some genres than others. I find them in horror frequently, but not so much in thrillers. You’d think with all those guns going off and the threat of death behind every corner that people would be boinking right and left, but no, they don’t seem to.
I’m staying away from romance altogether with this post. Since I haven’t read much of it, there might be some lovely scenes I’m not aware of, but I’ll leave that for someone more familiar with the genre.
A writer with delicate sensibilities might choose to skip over the act entirely. Margaret Mitchell certainly implied it in Gone with the Wind, but alas, no one knows just what Scarlett and Rhett got up to behind that door after he carried her up the stairs. You can argue that it’s better for the reader to use his/her imagination, but I think if the scene is well done and is part of the narrative arc, it takes nothing from the story and can even enhance it.
In examples, I’ll try to stop short of describing actual sex, for the sake of readers who are uncomfortable with that.
How to balance telling too much with not enough? The best flow smoothly with the narrative, without reaching up from the page and shaking the reader: “Hey! I’m a sex scene! Hope you enjoy me!” Some ways glitches happen are:
- A change in the character’s internal point-of-view. It’s distracting when the writer suddenly switches from, say, a hard-bitten POV to a softer focus within the same character.
Braun finished his rant and bit hard on his cigar, teeth clenching around the sodden stub. Schoenberg stared at him, her eyes big shiny moons in the dark office. She was no Nazi bitch, and he didn’t think she’d make it in this hellhole, with its ghostlike prisoners, cinderblock buildings and barren, frigid landscape. She belonged in some damn hothouse conservatory.
Her silken hair tumbled to her shoulders as she stood, and she smiled coyly at him, tilting her lovely head into the light from the lamp. He was borne away on a tide of love for her beauty and her determination, and he trembled as he clutched her to his bosom. She sighed, fluttering her eyelashes and capturing his heart. He was careful not to hurt her as he divested her of her garments, which tumbled in a tidy heap beside the desk, where they would make the memories that would last his lifetime.
See what I did there? Braun, a tough camp commandant, would never crush someone to his bosom or divest her of her garments. No, he’d be more forceful.
He grabbed her and she didn’t gasp, only shook. He knew she wanted him and damned if he wasn’t going to have her. She closed her eyes as he bruised her lips with his.
Couldn’t wait any longer. He tore her blouse from her body. The buttons popped off and one rolled under his desk. Gotta get that; after. Wouldn’t do to have the Colonel see it. He would find it years later in a box of things he escaped with, after the war.
From his point of view, even if he loved Schoenberg, the act would never be as romantic and fluttery as she (or the writer perhaps) would see it. Men like him just don’t think that way. Maintaining the POV won’t thrust (sorry) the reader out of the scene. Also, instead of making Braun overtly sentimental, I tried to show that Schoenberg meant something to him with the saved button from her blouse.
- Too much detail when the rest of the narrative is rather sparse. I see this one a lot. When the reader gets to the sex scene, all of a sudden EVERY LITTLE DETAIL is magnified. It’s almost as if the writer is trying to force arousal on the reader. I wonder sometimes if perhaps the writer is having more fun with the scene than I care to imagine.
An example would take so much space I won’t even bother. I don’t really need to see each and every mole, freckle, scar or drop of glistening moisture on everybody. And when the story returns to post-scene austerity, I’m left thinking that perhaps I’m reading bits of two different books cobbled together.
It’s okay to show what is happening, but please, edit edit edit. Cut as much here as you do in the rest of the book, perhaps more. I spent more time editing the sex in my book than I did the fight scenes.
- Forgetting that these are (usually) people with genuine emotions. We’ll leave the zipless **** to Erica Jong. (WARNING: profanity in that link!) Most characters are in the bedroom, shower, under a tree or wherever because they like or love the person with whom they are having an encounter. Their emotion should permeate the scene. I want to feel it with them. A romantic assignation shouldn’t be too syrupy, but if the hero makes the heroine dream of a white picket fence and little blond babies, I want to know.
The tips of Gerald’s fingers caressed Livia’s face. She loved it when he did that. Her nerve endings were connected to her heart, and with each touch he cemented her bond to him. His hair was crisp and wiry under her hands. She held his head and kissed him. His lips were warm, soft, unbelievably so.
In his heavy-lidded eyes she saw her future and knew that she wanted this man more than any other. Berkeley the aerialist, Simpkins the hobo clown, all the others in the company, they could go to Hell. She pressed her lithe body close to his and felt how much he wanted her.
Let’s just hope for Livia’s sake that Gerald feels the same way. We could find out later, in a scene from his POV. Or, if the writer wanted to keep his emotions ambiguous, he could stay with Livia, and Gerald’s behavior can keep her guessing.
I’ve been asked if writing sex scenes is fun. It’s the same as writing any other scene. It has to fit into the narrative as a whole, and I want my reader to feel what my characters are feeling. That doesn’t mean it has to read like a letter to Penthouse. And honestly, while I might have enjoyed it the first time I wrote it, by the time I’ve finished editing I might as well be writing about cleaning the garage.
If you would like to point to examples of well-written sex scenes (or really terrible ones!) fellow writers can learn from, please let us know in the comments. Not too graphic please if online, or link to them with a warning. Thanks.