By Stephen Jay Schwartz

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.”

“It’s shameful.”

“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?



33 thoughts on “DYSFUNCTIONAL SEX

  1. Debbie

    Thanks for such an honest post. I find it difficult to write scenes that reveal strong emotions, one character to another. The words seem to inadequate, too cliche. Scenes of mourning where I want an emotional impact on the reader early on in a story or shortly after a characters intro. are difficult too. I love it when authors do this well and my fav. char. is the anti-hero. As for romance and sex, well, repeated encounters get umm, boring. Really, how many variations can I write before I'm thinking, 'hey, didn't I already write that?'

  2. Alafair Burke

    Hmmm… I'm just not a big fan of written sex scenes. I love that scene from Out of Sight, but I happen to find the words we use to describe that particular form of physical intimacy extremely clumsy. My characters have sex, but it's all pretty much off the page. A few good flirty glances, a kiss or two, and off they go away from the reader.

  3. Spencer Seidel

    Interesting post Stephen. It really made me think about my own novels. I do have plenty of ugly, dysfunctional sex in my novels, but it's all off page. I'm fascinated by the psychology of victims and about what happens to people years after some terrible thing has befallen them. This generally means that my novels are never about the act, but the aftermath of the act, if you follow me. This is certainly true in Dead of Wynter, and I suppose mostly true in a novel I'm writing now.

    Writing is like acting, don't you think? The best scenes, sex, love or otherwise, are those we truly lose ourselves in and let ourselves feel to our core.

  4. Robert Gregory Browne

    There's nothing more boring that Tab A/Slot B sex scenes. Like any scene, they should be about emotion—whatever that emotion might be.

    I don't have a lot of trouble writing sex scenes, but I don't often write them and when I do, they're brief. Most of the time—emotion or not—sex scenes just interrupt the flow of the story. Less so in books than in movies. My eyes glaze over in movie sex scenes. All I can think is, yeah, she looks great in the buff but get on with the story already.

    The scenes I hate writing are action scenes, which, I suppose, are cousin to the sex scene.

  5. anonymous

    I think well written sex scenes are important if you have set up a relationship between two characters whether between a man and a woman or a man and a man or a woman and a woman. It is a good place to reveal character, morality, fear, personality,etc., as you have said. How much more vulnerable can a person get than when he is naked and exposed? So since the reader cannot SEE this vulnerability you have to WRITE it and that is where you hand the reader what is in the mind of the characters. Poorly written sex scenes makes the reader feel like they don't contribute to the story or the tension. They are embarrassing and boring and a reader just wants to skip through and get back to the action.

    The scenes that are hardest for me to read are really strong psychological and physical torture scenes. They frighten me and make me react viscerally. I BELIEVE them. Greg Iles is a master at that sort of gut wrenching scene. You Murderati have talked about this before. Suggesting that the author (and I don't mean Iles here) is enjoying his work too much. I never thought about it that way before. But maybe it is true. That there is a salaciousness to some of the more gritty scene writing. That less detail and mere suggestion can leave more to a reader's imagination which then gives the reader control over his personal comfort level with violence and sex and whatnot.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Rob – funny that you should compare the action scene to the sex scene, but you're right. I get the same feeling. I often stumble through the first and second drafts of the action scene, knowing that I just need to get my character from point A to point B with a series of obstacles in the way. How do I make that unique? Can the description of a car chase ever read as good as the car chases in "The French Connection?"

    Spence – I'm also fascinated by the psychology of victims…I think it's a running theme in my work. I'm especially interested in the psychology of victims who become addicts of one sort or another. I'm absolutely intrigued by addiction issues and how a "noble" person reverts to becoming a slimy, creepy user in search of drugs or alcohol, or whatever his addiction requires.

    Alafair – I suppose I could allow my love scenes to happen off-the-page–it might actually be a relief for me. But it seems essential in the Hayden world to explore them in full view of the reader, since these scenes are so important in the protagonist's inner journey. We can see if he's making progress or falling back based on his sexual encounters alone.

    Debbie – I love writing the very intense, emotional scenes. These are probably the most satisfying for me to explore, and they are the antithesis of the action scene. I love capturing the moment when someone realizes their life has suddenly changed, that things aren't at all as they thought they were. I've got a few good moments like that in my current WIP, and the rest of the story hinges on them. All the character motivation springs from these moments. I can't wait to jump into those scenes.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Anon – yes, that's actually a criticism I received from a reviewer regarding Boulevard–that I had crossed the line with blood and gore, and I should realize that sometimes less is more. I understand his critique, while at the same time I can defend it in Hayden's world. Hayden is a grizzled veteran of the LAPD elite homicide unit (RHD) and he's seen a lot of gruesome stuff. Yet, through the course of the story, he becomes freaked out by what he sees, by what the antagonist is capable of throwing his way. I felt it was important to give the reader the same experience Hayden was having and I felt it would be a cheat if I "pulled my punches" when it came to this. I also look at the films of Quinten Tarrantino and I think, yes, they are bloody and ultra-violent. But they work for me. The violence is part of the world he creates, and they are part of larger issues in his films. So, I don't focus on the violence, I focus on the world of the characters and I accept that they live in a violent world.
    I'll have to read some Greg Iles.

  8. Louise Ure

    Oh man, I'm with you, Stephen. It's easier for me to write a rape scene than a love scene.

    I'll never forget the note from my editor on a draft of Liars Anonymous where, alongside a short "romantic" scene between the two protagonists, the editor asked "Do we really need this kind of brutality here?" Brutality? I'd thought it was love.

  9. Chuck

    Hi SJS:

    From a novice, I actually kind of enjoy writing sex scenes. For me it helps me know my characters better. As a person who did his dead-level best to learn as much as I could (firsthand) about the subject, I think it's fun to surprise the reader with a guy who might be a little non-trad in bed, or a gal who likes hot wax.

    I like reading them too. Ken Follett does a great job with sex, as he so exuberantly discussed at TF.

    I'm right with you on kids. Can't do it, don't want to read it either. I can handle kids in peril, but not actual violence against them. Remember the climax of Eastern Promises? With two young ones at home, I couldn't even watch. Yikes! I'm an animal lover as well, and in my MS that's out on submission, I did use the dirty trick of a dog being shot. It was tough to write, because I kept picturing my Chocolate Lab…

    Great, thought-provoking blog today. And Peter Weir…a frigging master.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise – is that the same editor who you blogged about a while ago? The one who gave you the most absurd suggestions? That post still makes me laugh…and cringe. I hope I never have to deal with an editor or copyeditor like that.

    Chuck – I am in such awe of Peter Weir. He's a genius. I could watch "Witness" every day of the week. I'd sure love to see what he would do with Boulevard. And I'm with you on those last scenes of Eastern Promises. In fact, that's probably the only part of that movie that didn't work for me, because it felt like a cheat, like a bit of a cheap shot. It worked for the story, I mean, I can see how it works in outline or treatment form, but as a whole it seems to remove me from the realism of what proceeded it. It felt like the writer or director was saying, "Okay, how do we raise the stakes here?" Otherwise I thought the film was great.

  11. pari noskin taichert

    I haven't written a loving sex scene on stage yet. I wonder what that says about me? Maybe that I think it's private. But in a long-ago manuscript, I had an emotionally violent sex scene and that was no problem at all; it just didn't fit in a "cozy." <g>

  12. anonymous

    Let me clear something up about what I said earlier. I am not opposed to sex and violence. Hell, I read crime novels for krystsake. I am not saying that an author should dumb down any of the action or intensity of a crime. Bring on the rape, kidnap, murder, fear, agony………it's all good. I am just saying that it is sometimes HARD for me to read. If I believe it and it is making me cry, sweat, cringe or cower under my sheets…….then hasn't the author done a good job? An author can be as graphic as his story needs. I am just saying that some torture and psych thrill stuff is difficult for ME to read and go on about my day la-di-da. Hey. Cruelty is part of the genre. This is MURDER we are talkin', yeah? Spillin' the blood and sprayin' the brains etc. It's scary stuff. But not as scary as sex, right? ; – }

    Greg Iles writes about Natchez, Mississippi and his books are REALLY long. But I'll say this about all of them…….he may write an 800 page book but every damn page is a turner. I can read him all night long and curse the dawn when I haven't been able to finish in one sitting. His Devil's Punchbowl was a cringer for me because it dealt with animal cruelty as well as human. Read all of his stuff. I think you'll like his style.

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Yeah, Anon – I totally got your point of view on the violence and stuff. I wasn't suggesting that you shared the same opinion as the guy who critiqued Boulevard.
    It's funny how I forget how intense a scene can be for others to read–especially when I'm having fun writing it. My wife sometimes tells me that a scene I wrote really freaked her out and I'll think, "oh, yeah, I guess that was kind of edgy, huh?"

    Pari – how was your scene emotionally violent, as opposed to physically violent? Sounds intriguing.

  14. Dudley Forster

    Straight from the newbie department, the thought of writing sex scenes scared the bejeebers out of me. Hell, if my wife is in the car and there is a sex scene on the audio book I blush and she laughs at me. But then I looked at the way I feel about sex. Sex isn’t just the physical act, good sex is the rawest, most intimate connection two individuals can have. We live out our lives in these shells and spend a great deal of time either trying to express to others who we are or trying to hide the same. For me sex that belongs on the page has to revel in that discovery. I don’t care if it’s the couple’s first time or they have been together for sixty years. I don’t care if it is consensual rough sex or bubbles, roses and three hours of foreplay. It doesn’t have to be explicit slot A/tab B, but it must be a tearing down of walls, letting the other person in. If it is not that, if just about the orgasm or just about what one person can take from the other than I won’t put it on the page. I’ll take the Alafair route.

    I have written my first sex scene, and I got to cheat a little. Writing an urban fantasy mystery you get to fudge a lot. In my case the sex involved a ghost and it was all done with auras. It was still raw sex, there were multiple orgasms, but it was all about giving to the other person, about, to use a trite phrase, becoming one, no walls, no reservations and by that act the characters grow. And not a single insert tab A into B

    I have no problem with violence. I have already written very violent scenes, including a soul rape. I envision no problems with writing violence up to the level of Karen Slaughter or Tes Gerritsen's books. While Mo Hayder’s the BIRDMAN turned my stomach, I could write at that level. BTW I don’t see necrophilia as any kind of sex, just a perversion that uses a corpse to masturbate. There’s one topic I am not sure I could write about in any detailed way, child abuse. Especially pedophilia, I am listening to BURN by Barr and she goes as far as I could go as a reader. That said, again with the urban fantasy copout, in my world children’s souls are highly prized.

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Um . . . it was written in first person. The victim had been drugged, didn't remember much of the incident itself, so there was the horror of the realization — the testing in the hospital — and the discovery of something left behind. 'Nuff said.

  16. tess gerritsen

    I used to write romance novels, and I totally agree with you. Writing about violence is easy; sex is hard. And as you point out, writing about normal, happy, loving sex is the most difficult of all. It's not that we can't picture it in our heads. It's that we're terrified of being accused of purple prose. And then there's all that messy stuff about body parts. Whaddya call it, exactly? The proper anatomical name or the euphemism? And is it a euphemism that makes people giggle?

    I've made my life infinitely easier by avoiding writing those scenes as much as possible. And when they do have to be written, it's two paragraphs, tops. Get it over and done with, and then on to the next crime.

  17. billie

    Interesting post and comments. I think if you're writing a book where the character's sexual self is a major part of the story, then you have to allow the reader to see that on the page. And if the sexuality entwines with dysfunction, I'm not at all sure how you'd explore the character's growth (or lack of) without following the character into the shadows, so to speak.

    The three adult novel mss I have all deal with characters for whom sex is a major issue, in different ways. There were parts of one book that were really hard to write, where things went dysfunctional to the degree I didn't want to go there and write about it. And I resisted, but the character did what she had to do. Although difficult to write, it was not at all hard to read after the fact. Once it's on the page it belongs to the characters more than to me.

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love sex scenes in books, love writing them, love reading them – if they're sexy, which not all are. In fact the only shorts I write, besides the one, are erotica. I love stories that reveal character JUST through sex.

    I feel like a broken record saying this, but I don't read or write torture or rape. Don't, won't.

    The hardest scenes to write are action scenes. I always bite the bullet and get them done, but I almost always skip over them when I'm reading.

  19. Allison Davis

    With Hayden, and I've now read Beat (and thanks so much), and sex in these books is a character — mostly counter to Hayden. So, save for the love scene in Beat, which was difficult and awkward to read (in a good way ) BECAUSE of Hayden's addiction, it takes the form of the bad guy in a bizarre way. In Boulevard, the sex was on the street, related to crime and there was a disconnect with the reader from the sex. Not in Beat. It's right there in your face — part of the crime, part of Hayden's motiviation, it's all about sex.. I think all of that would have been difficult because the line gets very blurred between the addition and the love. Some strong stuff to read like drinking Irish whiskey.

    Writing like that is more about the writing being exposed and vulnerable — it's hard writing — than it is just writing about sex. But also, writing about relationships and their intimate moments and making it real AND necessary to the story is an art. I like the sexual tension in the Julia Spense-Fleming novels — because it is necessary to move the story and becomes part of the story. Like the sex addiction issues that Hayden has. So it has be part of and move the story or otherwise, it's just sex. In which case, more fun to do than to read about.

  20. toni mcgee causey

    All sex scenes are action scenes.

    Well-written sex scenes are about the characters in crisis, learning to trust, or become vulnerable, or learn something about who they really are in this moment and how their choices are either smart–or not. It's not just about the emotion of the moment, but what those choices say about who they are becoming in the story.

    Action scenes mirror sex scenes — a character's learning about his or her strength, about who they are in a crisis… learning about his or her vulnerability and how their choices have been smart, or not.

    At the end of both types of scenes, the character needs to be in a more dangerous place – more vulnerable, with more, now, to lose.

    Any action or sex scene that doesn't raise the stakes is a wasted opportunity.

  21. Dudley Forster

    Another thought, too much sex can kill a book . I used to love the Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series until she made a left turn into soft porn. Not just soft porn but kind with just enough story to hold the book together. Reminds me of the old X-rated movies of the 70’s were there would be just enough story to be socially relevant to meet free speech standards. Oh and Alex if you have not tried to read one don't, they contain violent sex. Werewolf sadomasochism with tools and knives, rape, etc.

  22. Ray Rhamey

    Had you ever noticed that in the first four paragraphs plus the first line of the fifth that you used "hard" four times? Sorry, that's just the editor in me noticing an echo.

  23. Mike Dennis

    Stephen, the sex scenes in BOULEVARD totally propelled the story and helped define the character. That's what sex scenes should do. Anything less, and out they go.

    At least, that's the way I see it.

  24. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Damn! These comments are all oh-soooo good! I love the dialectic! I love the discussion!
    I want to respond to everybody, all at once, but my day won't allow me to sit that long.
    God…such great observations!
    Keep 'em coming, guys! I'll try to jump in when I can!

  25. Catherine

    Stephen I think your post just set off an interesting writing exercise for me of what type of sex I may or may not be able to write about.

    I find rape difficult to read. My personal reaction becomes stronger if it does not add to the story or explain something about the characters in some way. If I feel as though a writer is writing rape in a trivial way I'll just stop reading.

    I think detailed assaults against children, bringing the reader into a moment by moment shared experience with a child is abhorrent too. I know too many people that suffered as children to read explicit child violence. As this has been a too real part of what i know of the world, I can handle it within the context of a greater story arc, off page.

    On a much lighter note, I did have to laugh at the imagery that came to mind with Rob's slot A into slot B sex comment.

    I thought, oh yeah IKEA sex, so banal you can flat pack it.

  26. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Catherine – I'm glad my post got things going for you, got you thinking about this. I didn't really think about this until Tim asked his question. The more I think about it, the more I feel I can't write about a child in jeopardy.

    Mike – I absolutely agree with your assessment of the nature of sex scenes.

    Ray – tell me about it. I realized that as I was re-typing the selection for my blog. Makes me wonder where my head was during the copyedit process. I should've caught that.

    Dudley – thanks for stopping by. Y'know, I don't think I could handle the werewolf rape scenes either.

    Toni – if you're still out there, I just want to say….fucking brilliant. I LOVE what you're saying. I'm with you ALL the way, and I dig how you put it!

    Allison – thanks for what you said…it's so cool that you are one of the very few who have read Boulevard and Beat back-to-back. I love your perspective.

    Alex – I'm with you, as always.

    Billie – I like how you ultimately leave the decision to your characters. It's out of our hands.

  27. anonymous

    Fine Allison……….rub it in our noses that you have ALREADY read BEAT. And how many MORE of you are out there smirking!!!!!!

    I am dying here. What? We have 6-7 weeks now for the rest of us pitiful
    'readers' ?

    Really feeling the NEED right about now……hear me Stephen?

    ; – }

  28. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Tell me about it, Anon. Allison must have some secret magical powers to be able to get an early copy.
    Truth is, my publisher gave me four "bound copies" of Beat, and I gave out three of them selectively, keeping one. It's a pre-ARC, so it looks like it was just printed from my word doc file. The ARCs were sent only to the media–I didn't even get one. Not one! My publisher didn't save ONE for the author!
    Of course, if I had to choose, I'd rather every ARC land in the hands of a journalist or influential bookstore buyer than sit in my home library. I suppose it's just the state of the industry that so few were printed in the first place.

  29. lil Gluckstern

    I had a busy day yesterday, so I'm late to the party. I'm just a reader, so I have to say that purple prose bores me, whereas gutsy realistic, what it's really like sex scenes grab me as so much did in "Boulevard." I like the intensity of a book when all descriptions fit, when they are in service of the character and plot, and the whole experience of the "story." I don't mind if I am made uncomfortable if it helps to describe what the character is going through. I can't wait for "Beat."

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