I did a signing event at a Borders last week and my good friend Tim Hallinan (The Queen of Patpong) asked a really great question: What kind of scenes are difficult for you to write?
An interesting inquiry coming from Tim, whose brilliant Poke Rafferty series depicts some shockingly difficult scenes, some involving sex abuse and torture. And he’s read Boulevard, which presents its own cadre of distorted sexual encounters and includes a variety of horrific murder scenes. So I think the crowd was expecting me to pick out a gruesome massacre and go to town.
But what came to mind, the most natural response I had to Tim’s question, was something quite different.
“The most difficult scenes for me to write are the normal, healthy, romantic love scenes.”
First of all, the person who can even find a normal, healthy, romantic love scene in Boulevard deserves a prize. My love scenes come right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The one that was really hard to write appears in Beat. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s as close to romance writing as you’ll ever get from me. And, still, even as sexy and romantic and, can I say—fucking hot—it gets, there is still an awkwardness, a sense of unexpected discovery, a fear of the unknown. For a protagonist who is a sex addict, anything that looks like healthy sex is going to be awkward and unsettling, even as he recognizes that this is how the rest of the world experiences it.
Christa Faust (Money Shot) made an interesting comment about the sex in Boulevard, saying that it was “ugly sex,” and that she loved it. Not because the sex was ugly, but because the sex was revealing. It revealed character. She said she can’t stand the “obligatory sex scene,” which often feels like authors throw them in to satisfy readers who expect to see characters having sex at specific, predictable intervals throughout the story.
The awkwardness of a sexual encounter, even between long-time lovers, even between a husband and wife, reveals volumes about the characters’ state of mind, their back-stories, religious beliefs, morality, societal influences. The sex scene is an opportunity to take the character arcs up a notch, or to reveal things that were previously unknown.
I don’t have much trouble writing the dysfunctional sex scene. But the “ooohs” and “ahhhs” of romantic sex embarrass me. I don’t want to go there. I force myself, though, pretending it’s the easiest stuff in the world to write, all the time cringing and blushing.
You’d think I’d find it tougher to write the gory details of a murder scene, right? Wrong. I really enjoy writing the gore, because I know that it’s fiction. I see it in my mind as fiction, as a movie, as a special effect. I look at the challenge of writing the crime scene in a way that amps up its potential for poetic imagery.
Here’s a scene of gore in Boulevard that I had a great deal of fun composing:
The walls were dripping mostly with the bits and pieces of what #4 shot took when blasted through flesh and bone. Brain matter, bone splinters, chunks of muscle tissue, bits of fingernail, a mosaic of nerve patterns like macabre snowflakes, strands of hair. Blood dripped and trailed over lamp shades and wooden chairs.
Doesn’t freak me out at all. It’s so over-the-top that it feels like opera—in fact, I can imagine classical music playing over the images.
Like the scene in the Peter Weir film Fearless (from the novel by Rafael Yglesias), where the airplane crashes in slow motion, and we’re inside the plane where all the terror is seen and felt, and the only sound we hear is classical music.
It’s probably the most intense cinematic scene I’ve ever encountered. It could have easily been over-done with sound effects—the screams of passengers, the tearing of metal, the wind, the flames. Instead, it’s poetry.
Imagine being able to capture that experience in words alone.
I don’t think I could ever write a truly graphic scene about a child in pain. I just don’t want to even think of that. Kids are magical and innocent and adorable in every way and, even though I know kids are suffering in this world, and I want to bring this to the attention of people who can relieve their suffering, I just don’t want to write the details. Same thing with animals. I’ve been a vegetarian almost all my life, but I can’t watch those PETA films.
So a love scene should be easy, right? But when I try, I get all queasy inside. Maybe it just doesn’t ring true to me. I mean, most of our characters have just met during the course of our stories, right? Boy meets girl. At some point, boy and girl consummate the relationship. Now, in real life, ninety-nine times out of a hundred that situation is going to be real awkward. It ain’t gonna be the way it’s portrayed in the movies. Or the romance novels. Or the porn films of Jenna Jameson. New lovers don’t always know where to put their hands, or how hard is too hard, or when it’s appropriate to scream out, or when to assume their partner is done.
One of the best sex scenes I’ve seen on film comes from Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, from the Elmore Leonard novel.
Again, the right music fills in the spaces. And the editing is extraordinary. It sure makes sex look easy. Can I accomplish the same in words alone?
On the other hand, I think I do a pretty decent job with awkward, ugly sex.
Like this excerpt from Boulevard:
He was having trouble getting hard. She noticed. She tried to force it.
“Not so hard,” he said.
He didn’t want to think of her this way.
He pulled away, closed his eyes, pressed the palm of his hand to his forehead. There was that hard, dull pressure that circled his head like a lead cowboy hat. She reached out and drew him back. He tried not to think of her as a colleague. He tried to think of her as a whore.
He grabbed her thighs hard. He saw her skin turn white where his fingers dug in. He felt his cock stiffening. His eyes remained closed as he bent over her, biting her nipples with his teeth. Her breathing grew deep and husky. She pulled him into her, enveloped him, sank her fingernails into his shoulders and back. He pushed hard and she pushed back, thrusting quickly, tightening around him.
His cell phone rang. He didn’t hear it, he was already coming. He collapsed on top of her. She lay there on the desk, her legs spread in the air, half wrapped around his waist. She was still in the moment. Waiting for something.
He lifted himself off, pulled up his pants. The office was quiet. His cum drained from between her legs. Her hand found a box of Kleenex tissues. She wiped, pulled her shirt over her breasts, found her panties and skirt discarded on the floor.
“God, it’s all about you,” she said at last.
He heard the shame in her voice. The shame of acting out. It must’ve been a new feeling for her.
“What did you expect?” he said.
“I don’t know, I thought I’d be different.”
In the meetings he was told that an addict could spot an addict. That an addict sent out a certain kind of signal and other addicts responded. It was true like that in crime, too. A pickpocket saw every other pickpocket in a crowd. The junkie knew another junkie with a look. Sex addicts sought each other out. Kennedy was drawn to him because she recognized herself in him.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry.”
“Yes, it is,” she agreed.
“Fuck you, it didn’t have to be that way.”
“So why was it?”
* * *
It’s probably more uncomfortable for people to read than it is for me to write. Hmmm…I wonder if I should be worried about that…
What about the rest of you? Is it difficult writing sex? What scenes are most difficult to write? What scenes are uncomfortable to read?