Let’s Do It Like They Do On The Discovery Channel

by JT Ellison

Let’s talk about sex.

Face it, writing an effective sex scene takes talent. There is no more common denominator in life. Sex literally makes the world go round. Every single person on the planet is the product of a sexual liaison. Most of us pursue coupling with unflagging enthusiasm. In our society, sex is at the same time revered and venerated, feared and glorified, used for power and influence, celebration and procreation. We as writers must tackle the subject, and we do so in wildly diverse ways. On screen, off screen, doors opened and closed, implied and flagrant. So why is writing a sex scene so damn difficult?

My theory is we are so close to our characters, and sex is such an intensely personal act, that dropping your thoughts, fantasies, experiences onto the page can be either painful or liberating, or both. There’s a huge contingent of erotic writers who capitalize on their imaginations for the pleasure of their reading public, and I say more power to them. Romantic suspense has a massive following, both for the intensity of the stories and the disbelief suspending romanticism that finds women in heightened situations with mind-bogglingly handsome men who in turn rescue, reward and pleasure the oftentimes repressed, depressed and feminist heroines. Pure romance, well, that speaks for itself. Who among us doesn’t want to have the dark stranger ride in on his white horse and sweep us off our feet?

But what about the darker side of life. How does sex fit into mysteries and thrillers?

Sexual tension is a brilliant device for both examining internal fortitude and driving the story along. The act of sex on
the page is an immediate and unflinching psychological examination
a character. Are they loose? Fast? Impotent? Frigid? A serial
monogamist? A one off slut? Happily married and desperate to get back to their spouse and kids? Literary fiction often covers this territory and the minefields therein, utilizing weeks and years to uncover the motivations behind their character’s sexual relationships. But when you’re writing a book that takes place in a twenty-four hour time frame, the character’s actions are paramount. It’s difficult to examine life’s biggest driving force when the world is about to end, and we genre writers find ways to, ahem, do it.

Sex and the mystery is the topic of many a panel discussion. There’s no shortage of lust just because things aren’t going so well. It’s the sex after the funeral phenomenon; we all know that when the going gets tough, the tough go to bed. It’s the variety of manners in which we handle these scenes that interest me so much. When a writers decides to open the bedroom (bar room, bathroom, kitchen floor) door, a reader can be shocked by the proclivities and neuroses of a protagonist, cheer their prowess, boo their selfishness. Notwithstanding the act itself, finding deeper understanding of a character’s motivation is rarely laid so bare. The fragility, humanity, or pure assholeness of a lead can be fully examined if they are naked. 

For me, writing a series with two characters who are in love AND face life threatening situations on a daily basis, finding a happy medium is difficult at best. I think it strains the credibility of my characters lives to have them drop trou in the midst of a murder investigation. Just imagine Taylor and Baldwin walking away from a particularly horrific crime scene: "You know babe, there was something about that girl with her throat cut that made me incredibly horny." I don’t think so. If anything, the last thing they’d want to do is have sex, even the life-affirming kind that we mere mortals might succumb to.

Yet when you have two extremely attractive people who are a couple, who banter, flirt, drink, despair, want, and sometimes even act quite inappropriately, and there isn’t even an allusion to sex, the reader feels shortchanged. It’s like handing the reader the keys to the kingdom and then saying, sorry, the moat is clogged up and we won’t be re-opening until 6:00 p.m. tomorrow.

No matter what, I refuse to have sex be a gratuitous tool, something to just fill space. I don’t have a sex scene in my first book, I do in my second. The reason I waited was twofold: I wanted the readers to know Taylor and Baldwin without the specter of what they do in their bedroom before I jumped into the deep end. They are definitely together, certainly sexual creatures, but there is a delicious irony to the fact that they aren’t hopping in the sack every chance they get. Actually, they suffer from pre-coitus interruptus, are stymied by events and don’t have another chance because they are professionals doing their jobs.

By the second book, the tension has grown, and when it does finally culminate in a physical scene it’s so fitting to the story that if they didn’t do it, the reader would be shaking their head and saying "huh?" It was the first on screen sex scene I’ve ever written, and I had so much fun working that scene that I wonder why I never tried before. It’s a perfect allegory for the story, rough and intimate and . . . vertical. Nothing can ever be easy for my characters, so why would I give them candles and silk sheets?

I’m not saying one way or the other is better. I just do my best to be true to my darlings.

Unfortunately, the sexual revolution hasn’t entirely conquered fiction. The male protagonists are practically encouraged to plow a swath through their female compatriots, but we women have to be more careful, making sure that the sex is meaningful and preferably within the confines of a relationship, or two. If there’s a female lead who unabashedly screws her way through a book and isn’t labeled, I don’t know of her. But I’d like to shake her hand.

To that end, there are definitely characters I want to see bed their co-stars. Reacher and Rain? I mean, come on. Lee Child and Barry Eisler both deserve academy awards for their ability to, um, evoke a moment. 

So let’s get down and dirty, Murderati style. My question for you… who is your favorite genre sex scene writer, and what’s the best sex scene you’ve ever read?

Wine of the Week:

Should we eschew the wine this week and go straight for the Courvoisier??? No? Okay then, let’s do something decadent, rich and decidedly sexy. We’ll go to the makers of an old favorite of mine, Grand Marnier, and travel to Chile, a dark and devilishly diverse land with handsome purveyors of fine wine. This one has been described as voluptuous and silky, fitting for today.

Casa Lapostolle "Clos Apalta" 2001

(Thanks to the Bloodhound Gang — their very naughty song THE BAD TOUCH inspired this week’s title!)

30 thoughts on “Let’s Do It Like They Do On The Discovery Channel

  1. Tasha Alexander

    Hmmmm….I’m going to need caffeine before I answer your questions. Plus I need to pull out books to find the right scene and my books are in a scattered heap right now.

    Thing is, different things turn on different people. What makes me crazy might draw nothing more than a shrug from someone else. So I tend to prefer sex scenes where raw details are left to my imagination. I don’t want the door closed all the way, but just give me enough so I can fill in the blanks myself.

  2. J.B. Thompson

    Having had the pleasure (ahem) of reading (and writing) a few of these intimate moments, I’ll chime in here.

    Two writers I can think of have written sex scenes that impacted me enough to at least remember them – one was M.J. Rose (THE DELILAH COMPLEX). The scene I read evoked the intensity and intimacy of sex without ever actually describing the act itself.

    The other writer I remember writing pretty decent sex is romance/romantic suspense writer Rachel Gibson – I’ve read two of her books so far (SEX, LIES AND ONLINE DATING and I’M IN NO MOOD FOR LOVE), and they both had great sex in them (more than once, I might add).

    Interestingly, in two of the three books, the sex involves cops. Is this a testament to the fact that our on-page heroes are human and have human desires just like the rest of us? Like Taylor and Baldwin, who are truly a dynamic couple (believe me, folks, I have first-hand knowledge of this), they’re not just cop-machines going through the paces of dealing with death. They’re people, with lives, and as JT said, live people are sexual beings – used effectively in settings like this, sex can be an outlet or release, a way to deal with the stress of their jobs, as well as affirmation of the relationship.

    Excellent post, sister!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Okay, I have to admit Lee Child is good.

    But all time best genre sex scenes? Anne Rice. Swoony kinky.

    And Stephen King is no slouch himself, actually. Really some hot stuff over the years.

    I think sex is practically required in our genres. It’s all part of the adrenaline thrill. Everyone might die at any second, so why woudn’t you be up against the wall with just about anyone?

  4. Amy Andrews

    Without a doubt – Jennifer Crusie. She does bad sex particularly well. You know, the kind we can all relate to. Messy and awkward and new and just never going to work but Jesus – you’re rooting for them anyway. No pun intended.

  5. Jason Pinter

    Hands down, the hottest sex scene I ever read was in TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE. When Mitch Albom comes over to Morrie’s house on that final Tuesday…I’m tingling just thinking about it.

  6. pari

    Remind me to tell you about my panel at LCC Seattle. Later I found out it was the “sex” panel. That’s how hot it was . . .

    You know, I don’t like sex scenes as much as I like foreplay scenes. Too much detail just bores the heck out of me.

    But I’ll check out some of the authors mentioned here to see if I’ve been missing something hot. I’m especially interested in Mitch Albom . . .

  7. Jacky B.

    Vicki Hendricks – – – “Miami Purity” you can take your pick.

    A lot of people thought Walter Mosley was too over the top with “Killing Johnny Fry”, crossing the line into porn. Me? The only problem I had with it was, after a while it became too repititious. The scenes lost their impact. But, he was writing about sexual obsession.

    I write noir, and sex is integral, but while I get fairly graphic, I like to space out my sex ( and my violence) judiciously. Impact wise, less can be more.

    As crime writers we have a free voyeur’s ticket to all the bedrooms, backseats, and brothels our charcters frequent. Might as well put it to good use.

    I agree with Alex, when people ARE up against it, they tend to GET up against it.

    Nice post JT.

    Jacky B.

  8. Allison Brennan

    JT, are we on the same wavelength here? I wrote about the sister topic–violence–over at Romancing the Blog.

    Truth is: we’ll never please all the people all the time, but every great story has a great love story behind it–whether or not sex is graphic or implied.

    Considering I write fairly dark romantic thrillers, I get it from both ends (no pun intended)–I have mystery readers who complain about the sex in the books, and romance readers who complain that the books are too violent.

    For me, sex has to be integral to the story. In a short time frame like you mentioned, it can be difficult to plausibly develop a relationship while also catching the bad guy. This is why I love, love, love reunion stories where the hero and heroine are forced to work together for a common goal and through it, regain something lost.

    But it has to fit. In my last book, I had 48 hours to find the hero’s sister before she was killed live on the internet. Hmm, I don’t think the h/h would be in bed when they’re supposed to be finding Lucy! But after the sister is safe, relief sex.

    Sex and romance remind us that even when bad things happen, life is still worth living and worth loving.

    All my books tend to only have one major love scene. My upcoming book has two. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. And it does say alot about the characters and their relationship. Hmmm.

  9. Louise Ure

    Put my votes in the Vicki Hendricks and MJ Rose ballot boxes.

    And Denise Mina can write sloppy, ugly, urgent sex scenes.

    I’m fine writing violent sex — rape, abuse, molestation — but haven’t yet dared do the big “isn’t this fun” sex scene for one of my protagonists.

  10. Lori G. Armstrong

    Thanks Karen. There’s a very hot, very explicit sex scene in Shallow Grave and we’ll see the response it garners.

    We must all be on the same wavelength. Craig Johnson (The Cold Dish) and I are doing a panel on Sex and Violence in mysteries at South Dakota Festival of the Book the end of this month.

    Is it just me, or don’t you love gratuitous sex? I love love love the thought of lust so rampant the characters are dropping trou and damning the consequences, guns and clothes and inhibitions flying. For those naysayers who find it unrealistic, hmm…guess they’ve never experienced adult hormonal surges on that powerful level and I find that…sad.

    I think if you write cozies and the violence is off page, it’s logical the sex should be behind closed doors. But if you write about the dark side of life, glistening entrails and serial killers and describe everything violent in vivid detail? And you balk at writing equally explicit sex scenes? Dude. That’s cheating. Foreplay is fine, but at some point we’d better see the pay off.

    And it SUCKS that male characters can bang any number of females in a single book, but if a female character (not the obligatory girlfriend or token bad girl, but the main character) beds more than one guy? She’s called a slut or a whore or worse, an unrealistic character readers can’t connect with – which totally boggles my mind. The female can act just as heroic, have the same set of ideals and morals as her fictional male counterparts, but she’s held to a different standard? Oh right, women aren’t supposed to like sex. And if we do, god forbid we admit it.

    Here’s where I’ll piss people off. Men who write a decent – not an outstanding – sex scene are deified. Women who write outstanding – not ordinary – sex scenes are vilified…or snarkily called “romance writers” by their mystery peers and that is patently unfair.

  11. B.G. Ritts

    I’ll take MADAME BOVARY’s ride in the woods with Rodolphe — of course, the RYAN’S DAUGHTER realization of the scene does a lovely job of heating it up.

    I prefer scenes with extended foreplay and think the idea of ‘heavings’ and ‘throbbings’ is best left to individual imagination. However, that doesn’t mean I refuse to read fine, graphic detail… Anyway, I’ll go with Barry Eisler and M.J. Rose.

  12. Will Bereswill

    Wow, sex scenes. I used to laugh at my wife for reading the female porn otherwise referred to as “Romance”. Then when I wrote my first sex scene, I was asking her for some of her books.

    I’m with Tasha. No gory details, door is almost shut with only a slight crack to peer through.

    And, the Bloodhound Gang. First time I heard that song was in the disco of the Carnival Fantasy on my way back from the Bahamas. There was a young couple dancing and I swear I was getting hot just watching her move. I had no doubt what was on their cabin schedule for later that night.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Um, Lori, how do you REALLY feel? I sense you’re holding back . . .

    I think you’re right, though. It’s about reader expectations. Explicit sex and violence don’t fit in cozies. But we write pretty dark and if I’m going to show the worst that people do to each other, I’m going to show the best that comes out of it–love.

    You know, Lori, no one was criticizing Stephanie Plum for sleeping with Ranger in book 7 (or 8?) . . . even though we know her heart really belongs to Joe. But there is a HUGE double standard. I remember my favorite unpublished book of mine where the heroine slept with two men BEFORE meeting the hero. The sex wasn’t explicit (implied). I got slammed by contest judges. But I still love that book.

    BTW, Louise, I found your comment fascinating! Writing about violent sex (i.e. crimes) comes easier than a love scene. Interesting.

  14. billie

    Funny – I checked in this morning and thought “oh, no – my novels have way too much sex in them if one time per book is in any way the norm!”

    Now I feel better reading Lori’s post.


  15. JT Ellison

    Hi All!

    I swear I’m not purposely ignoring you. Well, maybe I am, but it’s for a good cause. 1 chapter to go to finish book 3, I’ve had the internet off today. Fascinating discussion, thanks to everyone for chiming in.

    Louise, I am so with you. The intimate stuff is horrifically difficult, but the crime related sex isn’t hard for me at all.

    I agree about MJ, and Vicky Hendricks — suffice it to say Cruel Poetry made a trip with me and wow, that’s some sexy stuff. And

    Alex is right, Anne Rice — goodness personified. She makes me want to date a vampire. Oh, Laurell K. Hamilton too. Her Anita Blake series, talk about hot. But again, straying outside crime fiction you find lots of naughty stuff.

    Allison raises such a good point and is no slouch in the “Honey, WHAT are you reading? You’re flushed.” category.

    Lori, I can’t disagree. It is patently unfair. I would love to see a girl hailed and not judged, given high fives. SEX and THE CITY did a great job of that on television. Chick lit does a decent job. Why can’t we have it in mysteries?

    And wow, are we all just loose today or what?

    I wish some more boys would come talk about this. Are we women the only ones that see this bizarre double standard? Why do you guys think it exists?

    Back later. Wish me luck. Almost there…

  16. toni mcgee causey

    Okay, Lori’s and Allison’s are two of the best lately.

    If you haven’t read Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, you are missing one freaking laugh-out-loud, somehow violent-yet-funny sex scene (the couple’s first in the book).

    I kinda don’t care if the book has details or not — it’s going to depend on the style of the writer, the tone of the material, and whether or not there’s specific detail about the other action in the story to match the action in the sex.

    Sex scenes are just action scenes. As such, they better have a story point, there should be some sort of realization which spins the story into a new level / direction, having some consequence.

  17. JT Ellison

    Forgive me, but Yaaaaaaayyyyyy!!!!!!!!The first full draft of book 3 is DONE!!!!!

    Toni, you’re right. Sex scenes are just action scenes with soul. I think we need to tattoo that one on our shoulders.

    I’m off to open a bottle of wine and celebrate. Y’all have a fabulous weekend!

  18. Will Bereswill

    Let me relate this to a popular TV show. Gray’s Anatomy. The opinion is that most of the female interns Meredith and Yang are sluts. Okay that’s harsh, but those were my wife’s words. Karev, the guy intern, is a jerk and he sleeps around. George is the one with morals. Izzy is a sweetie, but she has slept around.

    So, lets take Izzy. Whe has been around, but I don’t consider her a loose woman. Karev sleeps around and the way he treats women (people in general) he’s an ass.

    I’m not sure I’m making any sense.

  19. JT Ellison

    Will, you are making sense. Isn’t the lead male character (McDreamy) having an affair, and is beloved by all?

    Double standard, much?And thanks. It does feel good.

  20. Amy Andrews

    Oh yes to the sex scene in Agnes and the Hitman. It’s a great scene. In fact Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer (Robert Doherty) do a Sex and Violence workshop together. To quote them – she’s sex, he’s violence.I’ve just written a scene where there’s really angry, almost violent sex.NO way is my ed going to let me have it….sigh.

  21. JT Ellison

    Amy, you never know. If it’s right for the characters…

    Actually, what started all this thought was a panel I’m on at the So. Festival of books called Sex and Violence: Is Too Much Ever Enough with the most lovely and talented authors: Tasha Alexander, Marcus Sakey and Robert Hicks. If you’re in Nashville Oct. 12-24, it should be fun.

    I’m curious to see what the answer is.

  22. simon

    I try to not show too much leg when it comes to sex in my stories. My mother is likely to be reading. It makes for awkward dinner talk.

    “Breast or thigh?” Mum will say. “Oh, yes, you like both, after that last thing I ready of yours, my lad. Now go face the wall and keep your hands where I can see them.”

  23. Lori G. Armstrong

    But George has slept with…his wife, Izzy, that one nurse and Meredith. And he has morals?

    Meredith has slept with McDreamy, the orgasm guy, the vet and George…and she doesn’t?

    See what I mean? Women are judged more harshly – especially by other women. Guys don’t care. They hope all women are sluts.

    Congrats on finishing the book JT.

  24. Will Bereswill

    I agree about George. HOWEVER, he slept with Meredith when he desperately loved her. I wouldn’t count that one. His wife was, well, his wife. Still morally sound.

    The nurse that gave him syphilis. Okay, I’ll give you that one. Of course she got it from Karev. Hmmmm.

    With Izzy he was blind drunk. Didn’t even remember that one. Not really morally sound.

    Hey, I said I thought Karev was a sleezeball.

    And Izzy slept around a bit, Karev, George, Denny. ANd I don’t consider her slutty.

    AND not all men hope women are sluts.

  25. Jacky B.

    Oh, I’m sorry. Thought this was Murderati, a writers blog. And, todays subject was sex in mystery / crime fiction.

    Guess I messed up, got the Gray’s Anatomy fan club blog instead. Who’s a slut. Who’s not. Blah, blah, blah. It’s TV!

    I run into strong, SEXUAL, female characters in many books, and the double standard is usually applied by characters who are being portrayed as weak and insecure.

    Strong women (in fiction, and life)laugh in the face of the double standard. They dance to their own drummer, and when they do, they don’t do the box-step, they boogie! More power to ’em.

    Jacky B.

  26. Fran

    And here’s a small voice from the other side of the fence, quite literally. Since I Bat For The Other Team, as it were, and most sex scenes are written about and for all the rest of y’all, as long as the writing is true and the characters are real and I can relate on some level, I’m right there with you, and they work. If it’s sex as filler, I find myself skipping the steamy parts looking for plot, and that’s true of gay sex scenes in crime (or any other type of literature for that matter) as well as straight sex scenes. There’s got to be a reason and I have to believe. Then I’ll follow you anywhere.

  27. Barry Eisler

    Hey, my favorite subject… 🙂

    Not sure about the real prevalence of double standards. I don’t think I have one myself, but I suppose no one has every looked in the mirror and seen a double standard bearer looking back.

    Most people seem to like the sex scenes in my books, but I’ve received plenty of email from people who’ve taken offense. There are lots of reasons people will react negatively to a sex scene. A double standard is potentially one of them, but it’s also possible to see a double standard when the reaction is driven by something else.

    For some reason, I’m reminded of a joke I heard recently:

    Q: Why did ancient cultures sacrifice virgins to the gods?A: Hey, you don’t think they were going to get rid of the sluts, do you ?

    JT, congrats on finishing #3!



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