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.