sex, action, conflict

by Toni McGee Causey

So, let’s talk about sex.

Hard? Easy? Demoralizing? Uplifting? Inspirational?

No, not the act itself. You’re on your own, there.

I’m talking about scene construction.

Ten or so years ago [according to my Measuring Whatchacalit, my highly scientific measuring device] [hey, I don’t make these things up, I just report them], sex scenes weren’t all that common in thrillers and mysteries. I’m not entirely sure why not [though I suspect someone will enlighten me in the comments if it was anything more than the culture of the times], but the genres were pretty well focused on the crimes, the will-they-survive it [thrillers] or the who-done-it [mysteries], and if there were sexual components of the story, the moment of the act was generally kept off-stage. It is ironic to me that the two genres which  had an intense laser-beam-like focus on the violent details of characters’ lives often shied away from a major component of what it is to be a human: sex. Emotional entanglement, vulnerability, machinations, not wanting to be alone, or pushing people away… using people, being used, heartache, longing, requiting, destructive, or satisfying, sex plays a huge role in life, but was generally relegated to behind-closed-doors.

Not so much anymore.

Things, they are a’ changin’.

Just the fact that the ITW included a panel the first two years [and I presume this year as well, though I missed it] on how to write sex scenes in thrillers and mysteries is an indication of how the genres are crossing boundaries.

It’s about time, really. When you think about what you can do with a character during a sex scene, how exposed they are [mind out of the gutter people], you realize it’s a significant tool for developing the idiosyncratic uniqueness of that individual. Sex is chaos and a fulcrum of pressure all at once, and character under pressure = story.

How a person responds to sex–to the option of having it, attitude, history, vulnerability, willingness, expertise, frankness–on and on–create useful story reasons for delineating the act itself.

Which of course begs the questions as to how much to describe, are there any general consensus of what’s "acceptable" and what’s not, what kind of language, and so on. We had a terrific panel discussion on this topic with a really terrific audience at RWA this weekend. Our panel title was "Sex and the Single Title" and included publisher Matthew shear [St. Martin’s Press], Roxanne St. Claire, CJ Lyons and moderator Jordan Dane. Some of the general opinions about what to do and not do for successful sex / romance scenes might be of interest here, so I’m summarizing. [I would love to give individual attributes as to who said what,  but I will screw that up since we overlapped. Also, there are a lot of other great writers who’ve taught us or blogged on this–too many to name here.]

One: think of any sex scene as an action scene [and I do know Jennifer Crusie said this very well on her blog at some point]. Every single scene you write has to have some sort of conflict, whether implied or overt, and that means the sex scenes as well. If the scene can be taken out of the story without changing the story, then it’s gratuitous and a waste of space. Sadly, it’s also a wasted opportunity.

In the arc of a story, people have wants and needs and vulnerabilities and self-protection and goals and motives and all of these things have to come into play in a sex scene. The scene should be about action–not just desire. Choices, not just romantic notions. Exposure, risk. The two people cannot possibly want the exact same thing in the genera sense of their world. Sure, they may both want an orgasm right then, but however immediate that desire and however it may momentarily supersede their other goals, those other goals are still in motion and should run as an undercurrent to the action of the scene. Those other goals / wants / needs are subtext to each and every action.

Two: things have to get worse. Great sex is fine, everyone can go at it like bunnies, but you have to remember that this scene is a tool to tell the story, and the story is about conflict and rising stakes / tension.

Three: sex scenes have to reveal something about the characters–whether it simply expands [deepens][you try to think of a verb that doesn’t have a double entendré here]–we need to know more about the characters involved after the sex scene than we did before. What is equally important is that they have to learn something about themselves and/or each other and this knowledge should be relevant to the outcome of the story / the creation of their character arc.

Four: the sex is about these characters and their specific reactions. That means that if these characters are funny,  there should be humor. If they have control issues, that should come into play. Their personality should shine through that moment, and if it doesn’t, then the scene is generic. If someone could lift that scene up and put it in another person’s story, then you’re missing the characters’ personalities and their specific problems / needs, which should be feeding your story.

Five: the language you use should be in sync with the rest of the book. Period. Do not over describe–get to the heart of the emotional response, the risk, the consequences. Set the scene, sure, give it personal flavor, but just like any other action scene, make your point and get moving to the next scene. If you stay too long, people get bored and will start skimming. Conversely, if you’re going to write a sex scene, don’t be chicken–write the scene. If you can write graphic violence, if you can write about a mother’s heartbreak at the death of her child, if you can write about an employee killing his or her boss, and give these things the dramatic conflict and detail to make the point, then why wouldn’t you do the same for the one act that exposes the character, both physically and emotionally?

There’s more… we covered a lot of ground, but I think this is a good point to ask you all for talking points: do you include sex scenes? Do you prefer not to read books that have them? Don’t care? and please add to the pointers above… I’m on my way to a meeting and as you read this, I am flying home. I’ll check in from the airport though [have a new nifty travel computer], so I’m very much looking forward to this discussion.

19 thoughts on “sex, action, conflict

  1. Lori G. Armstrong

    Great points, all of them, Toni, wish I could’ve been there.

    Since I straddle two genres, erotic romance and medium-boiled mystery, I wrestle with this question because I’ve found that mystery readers usually won’t follow me to romance. But some romance readers will follow me to mystery. I don’t do much cross promo.

    Why? Readers are savvy. They know what they like. I think the most ridiculous/sad thing is authors who try to pass their books off as “romances” by including a sex scene–usually crappy–hoping to tap into the large romance market and then practically in the next breath, they’ll admit they don’t read romances or haven’t for several years. Or they’ll tailor their the description of their books to whatever crowd they’re trying to appeal to. It amuses me to hear disgruntled readers get pissed off when a book does not deliver what was promised–“My book has steamy sex scenes” and it’s a single paragraph in the middle of the book. And quite a few authors who are trying to appeal to everyone on the planet for marketing purposes, will get an absolute look of horror on their faces if anyone suggests their book should be shelved in romance. But…but…I’m a thriller writer! Oh, and that’s different than romantic suspense…how? Yes, I’m touchy about this subject because I have seen this attitude from both sides, especially from folks who don’t know I write erotic romance.

    So, yes, I include sex. I have an explicit sex scene in Shallow Grave that’s well beyond the norm in mystery. I had one mystery reviewer complain I must’ve been confused and thought I was writing an erotic romance and hopefully I’d get back on track with the next book. Huh. Was that supposed to be an insult? I’ve also had a romance reviewer complain I had too much story and not enough sex in one of the erotic romances. Again, hard to take that as an insult.

    For me, the book I’m working on, whether an erotic romance or a harder edged mystery is always about relationships. In romance, the story is about the characters relationship to sex. In mystery, it’s about the characters relationship to violence.

    And if I’m going to write about the worst things in life; vicious murder, deceit and pain, I also want to write about the best things in life; great sex, true love and happiness.

  2. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Causey,

    Good topic! I think part of describing the scene vs. describing the violence has to do with the character. In my WIP, the murder scenes are done almost matter-of-factly, because the killer is pretty cold. The violence isn’t a release for him, it’s a means to an end. And a sex scene (other than to develop character, which I’ve done in other areas instead) doesn’t really suit the protag and his wife in this one.

    Worse, my next protag is an assasin who is extremely careful about leaving any trace of herself anywhere, so it doesn’t make sense for her to do something where there are so many variables (okay, substances and DNA) that she can’t control. The fact she avoids it like the plague is character, but she has to deal with the longing, the loneliness.

    I’m not prudish, I just think how it’s described should be in line with the character. Connelly normally uses few details because the act itself is a sidebar for Bosch, and less important to him than the crime. Eisler is a little more detailed (though still pretty tame) because John Rain is detail-oriented. I mention those two as examples where it worked for me. One where I was a little disappointed was Brian Freeman’s IMMORAL. Now don’t get me wrong, the book was wonderful and the characters great. But the first sex scene he wrote, even in a book where the crime involved sex and the whole damn world was gritty, was over the top for me. It felt more like I was reading a descriptive script written by a porn screenwriter than a sex scene in a book. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed a bit much, because it pulled me out of the story, and I’ve always heard anything that does that is a big no-no.

  3. Pat Brown

    I also write erotic stories and mysteries/thrillers. I used to tone down the sex scenes in my more mainstream books but slowly have been moving away from that since the sex is often integral to the subplot. My big issue is that I write gay characters. Women have little problem with this, but men can be another story.But I have to write what’s true to the story. In my current WIP there’s very little sex, mostly because that’s the core of the subplot between the two main characters. In the first book, when I had a chance to revise it, I expanded the sex scenes because, again, they were integral and I thought the first book was lacking since I didn’t go beyond the bedroom door out of fear of offending.

  4. Bob Morris

    While I almost stopped reading your fine post at the very beginning — the mention of a measuring device and sex had me going turtle — I thank you for neatly summing up the views of the panel and tossing this out for discussion.

    A quick story: After my first book came out, I got a call from my mother, who is 82 and lives in a small town in Central Florida. The book was getting plenty of good reviews, but we all know that the only review that really matters is Momma’s. She said: “I loved the book. All my friends bought copies and we went out to lunch and talked about it and they loved it, too. But …”


    “There just wasn’t enough sex,” she said.

    My 82-year-old momma.

    Since then, I’ve tried to stick more sex into my books. All because of my momma.

    But you hit the nail on the head, Toni. You can’t just stick sex in. It has to reveal character, it has to advance the plot. And that’s the rub. Or, perhaps, the rubbing …

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni – yet another great post. I agree totally that sex scenes – like any component of a good story – have to serve a purpose within the boundaries of your particular plot and character structure. I think you nailed it there [stop sniggering at the back!]

    When I sat down to write THIRD STRIKE, the first scene that formed in my mind was the sex scene. [So, what does that say about me, Louise?] I knew this scene was pivotal to the story, to the development of my heroine, Charlie, and to the difficult relationship she has with Sean. And the fact that her disapproving parents just happened to be in the hotel room next door …

  6. toni mcgee causey

    great points, Lori — I was hoping you’d comment here since you have the experience in both genres.

    And I understand the need for labels for some uses… so a reader will know what area of the store to search, etc., but at the same time, I’m both amused and frustrated that we writers apply the labels so diligently and with such self-identity, when in actuality, we are many things to many people and you’d think that sensibility would cross over. I am a daughter, friend, lover, mother, writer, sister, boss and employee to just name a few and these roles and identities are all wrapped up in one package. I’m mostly just Toni, but that doesn’t negate the other aspects. I think novels cannot be all things to all people and they are doomed if they try, but I also think that sometimes we jettison parts of what we are because they don’t seem to be the popular or more “acceptable” thing and then we miss out on being unique.

  7. toni mcgee causey

    Jake (and please call me toni), I think you have well-thought-out reasons why the sex scenes wouldn’t work for you, which is a good sign. You’re keeping the characters’ needs and wants forefront, which is a good sign of strong writing. 😉

  8. toni mcgee causey

    Louise, you crack me up…Blake Snyder [wrote the terrific book on structure called Save The Cat] said yesterday that just like he had to learn how to get voice onto the page and make the characters sound different, he had to get their uniqueness into the sex scene, because it was the characters who were having sex on the page, not him.

    I am [pretty] sure you think of what you do for your characters because that’s the kind of stories you write and anything light and fluffy wouldn’t belong in that world. Unless you’re missing a few neighbors and have a lot of new flower beds that we need to talk about.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    Zoe, I think that’s going to be a very funny (and frustrating) situation for Charlie, esp knowing her history with her parents. Can’t wait to read.

    I am off to catch a plane… will check back in on the layover.

  10. R.J. Mangahas

    You make some pretty good points here Toni. If sex is going to be brought into a story (or movie) it should play some sort of role, either revealing something about a character or to move the plot forward. If it’s just for the sake of putting it in, well, there’s always the back room.

    I’ve always wondered the same thing myself too: Why is it that some people have no problem with graphic violence yet they shy away the second a piece of clothing hits the floor.

    When I write, if sex is relevant to the story, I put it in, but I try not to linger on it too long. It’s the same thing as taking paragraph after paragraph to describe someone’s wardrobe and hair.

  11. Karen Olson

    You can’t make all readers happy all the time. I write books with single women in their thirties. Now, she can have sex, but it’s a fine line between having sex with the steady guy and jumping into bed with the hot steamy guy she’s just met. Do you want her to be a slut? No. Because then you’ll get emails. But if there isn’t any romance at all, readers might ask why not?

    I think writers just have to go with the story, the characters, and decide from there how much sex, how much violence, and, along those lines, how much cussing in a book. Because those are the things that seem to get the most criticism one way or another. And readers just have to trust the writer isn’t being gratuitous with any of those things.

  12. Fran

    Okay, one of my pet peeves about sex scenes in mystery/thrillers is that our protagonist and his/her lust interest do their thing and then they — one or both — get the call to go to the scene. So they jump up, get dressed and rush out.

    And when they get there, no one sniffs and grins and says, “You rabid sex-monkey, you!” Or looks at both of ’em with their tangled hair and drying sweat, squints their eyes and says, “Hmm, really? You two?” which would be a great way, I think, to blow someone’s cover if they’re trying to keep things under wraps.

    It knocks me right out of the story. Every time. If they’re not gonna smell like hot, sweaty sex, then would it break the literary bank to say they jumped into a quicx shower? I’m just askin’.

    You’re right, Toni. Double entendre’s hard to avoid here. 🙂

  13. JT Ellison

    Ah, my favorite writing topic.

    I wrote my entire second book around a single sex scene — also the first sex scene that was non-violent and between my protagonists. It was a blast to write, and now I have an easier time of it. Sex is the ultimate way to show who your character is.

    Travel Safe, T.

  14. Robin Burcell

    I’ve done romance and mystery and I can say that the key is if you can lift the sex scene from the book and it reads perfectly fine without it, then you haven’t done your job as a writer. At that point, it would be best to “close the bedroom door” on the scene.

    Toni, darn it all! I didn’t see you at RWA! Of course, I wasn’t really there. Just stopped by the hotel long enough to meet up with my editor, then left, but I did run into a few people in the lobby. Wish I could’ve seen you! Saw Alexandra and Robert, though. It seems that everyone was having a great time!

  15. toni mcgee causey

    Thanks, everyone — I got back and got slammed with catch-up stuff, but the comments here were great.

    RJ, it’s a little EeePc, like Pari had talked about a couple of months ago, except it has the 9″ screen and has windows xp on it, word (basic, but will do everything you need) and a couple of other things. Only down side is its limited hard drive, and I’m not used to the small keyboard. However, I bought one of those silicon roll-out jobbers and it did pretty well. ($30) The whole thing was so lightweight, I could put it in my purse. My husband uses it on his job sites, so it’s pretty tough.

    Robin! I’m so sorry I missed you there. It was a great festival — though I’m convinced I need to sleep for two days prior just to be able to handle all of the activity.


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