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