This Post Is About SEX and VIOLENCE

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Got your attention with that, didn’t I?

The idea for this post originated with a message I received from a writer who wrote to Faith with a question about writing sex scenes. Faith sent her friend to me, which felt a little like being the Dad whose eight year-old kid comes running into the room saying, “Mommy said you should tell me about the birds and the bees.” But that’s kind of beside the point . . .

The writer in question asked, essentially, how do I write a convincing sex scene without it becoming gratuitous and nothing more, without it being one step removed from tasteless porn.

It’s a terrific question, one that actually goes far beyond sex scenes to encompass any sort of action — magic, fights, battles, murders, sex, and all the other stuff that keeps our readers turning the pages of our books.

Let me say here that I haven’t written many sex scenes for my books. A few, yes, but it’s not like I write erotica. And I’m not going to give you fifteen synonyms for male and female genitalia. You can do that sort of research on your own, and, as I say, I’m not an expert on any of this. Recently, though, I wrote my most graphic and intense sexual encounter, and I was surprised by how well the scene came out.

And the key was this: it might be a sex scene, but the scene is not about sex. It is entirely about character, about emotion, about sensations. Put another way, what makes a good sex scene work is point of view. It’s not body parts, it’s not a matter of finding yet another poetic way to describe lovemaking. It’s certainly not a matter of simply describing a series of actions. Do that and we’re going to wind up with something that does sound like soft porn, or, taken to the opposite extreme, we’ll find ourselves with a scene that reads like an instruction manual.

Instead, what we want to do is put our readers into the mindset of (at least one of) the characters experiencing the sex we’re describing. That may sound obvious, but one of the mistakes I see quite a bit when reading the work of aspiring writers is that they divorce their narrative from their characters when they put them in the bedroom. Maybe it’s because these are not always the most comfortable scenes to write, but suddenly all the great character work they’ve done up until this point vanishes.

When we approach the scene from the point of view of our character, the sex scene becomes something other than gratuitous or mechanical. Instead, it becomes a scene about the experience of the people involved. Is this a pleasurable encounter? Is it awkward? Frightening? Maybe it’s no big deal to our lead character. Maybe it’s everything. The point is, when it’s about the characters instead of about the sex, all those problems that can make a sex scene not work go away. The scene can still be erotic, it can be sensual. It can be totally hot. Just as long as it also deepens character and furthers our plotting, it can be anything else we want it to be. As in real life, written sex is best when it’s meaningful, when it’s something more than an exercise in titillation. And anticipating a question: yes, our characters can have meaningless sex — happens all the time in literature. But the meaninglessness of the sex can actually be quite meaningful when it comes to establishing the feelings, motives, and attitudes of the characters involved.

And all of this is true of other scenes in our books as well. Go back and read A.J. Hartley’s post about battle scenes, which includes a link to one of the battle scenes from ACT OF WILL. The battle scene itself is good — nice description, good action sequences, tight choreography. But what makes the chapter really work is the voice. Will is describing this battle to us in first person. He is conveying not only the sequence of events but (far more important) his reactions to them — his fear, his recognition of his own cowardice and incompetence and inadequacy, his anger at having been put in this situation in the first place. Those are the things that keep us reading and that make the battle something more than a recitation of occurrences.

Again, I can’t tell you how often I have read manuscripts for writers’ workshops and found that as soon as a scene turns violent or action packed, character work ceases. Remember Vernor’s Law — all scenes need to accomplish at least two (and preferably all three) of the following: 1) Providing background information for our readers; 2) Developing character; and 3) Advancing plot. Action scenes (and sex scenes) might not be the best places for working on background. But they absolutely should be about developing character AND advancing our narratives.

None of this should be terribly surprising. Character is the key to much of what we talk about here on Magical Words. But taking on fight scenes, sex scenes, battle scenes, etc. can be incredibly intimidating. I remember the first time I tried writing a sex scene for Children of Amarid: it was my first book and I had been going along pretty well, paying attention to character and motivation and all that other good stuff. And then the clothes came off and I kind of panicked. All of a sudden my characters were like something out of a bad movie. It took my editor reminding me that these were still the same two people they had been a few pages before to get me to approach the scene properly. Actually, I had much the same experience with a few of the action sequences in that first book. Characters who had been young and unsure of themselves were suddenly fighting like Chuck Norris. And again, it took my editor reminding of who and what my characters were supposed to be to get me to write the thing properly.

It’s odd, really. Few of us have been in battles or fights to the death — it makes some sense that we should have a bit of trouble writing those scenes. On the other hand, most of us who are adults have had sexual encounters — perhaps many of them. Writing bedroom scenes should be easy, right? But they’re not. Sex is intensely private; we are at our most vulnerable in those moments when we are most intimate. That, I believe, is the root of the difficulty. It is also the secret to writing those scenes well. Our characters are most vulnerable at those moments, too. Their emotions are right at the surface. As writers, we have to use that to our advantage. Emotions, feelings, and, yes, sensations: those are the things that turn writing that might be detached and ineffective into something memorable, erotic, and moving.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the research is lots of fun.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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32 comments to This Post Is About SEX and VIOLENCE

  • Gaaaack! (covers face, laughing) You *could* have mentioned that the friend was a guy, writing the scene from a guy’s POV. Which I have not done in 20+ years.

    Anyone under the age of 18 hide your eyes so your parents don’t sue me for the rest of this.

    I do want to point out that (despite anyon’e feelings about an author) LKH writes the most wonderful sex scenes in the fantasy /erotica biz. Her Anita Blake books 6 – 8 should be recommended reading for any writer wanting to write great sex.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    A very interesting post. Thank you. And a good reminder of the importance and USEFULNESS of sticking with our POV character. 😀

  • Faith, you’re right. Should have mentioned that. I will say, though, that the sex scene I recently wrote — the one I said was the most graphic and intense I’d ever written — I wrote it from a woman’s POV. Very challenging. And at the risk of straying into double entendre land, it was a fun scene to write and incredibly satisfying when I finished it. I agree about LKH. Very effective sex scenes. Rachel Caine does them well, too. That said, our own Catie Murphy might be the best at it in the genre right now.

    Hep, thanks. Yes, POV is everything — the nexus of character and plot.

  • Jaqueline Carey is another author who writes sex extremely well in terms of characterizing each encounter. Thus far I’ve not needed to write sex in anything I intend to publish (we will not speak of the fanfiction), but when I get to that point, I will be dissecting Jaqueline Carey’s writing.

  • Thanks for the recommendation, Lauren. Haven’t yet read JC’s stuff, but have had every intention of doing so.

  • englishpixie

    Another great resource is an essay by a very highly respected fanfiction author (do I get kicked out for bringing up fanfic? I hope not! Say what you like about fanfiction, but while there’s plenty of dross there’s some absolute gold, too.) Though the essay uses a lot of male/male sexual relationships as examples, she’s super insightful and I’ve really found this essay applicable to pretty much any intimate scene. I hope others get some use out of it too!:

    http://trickster.org/res/howtowrite.html

  • Good job with this post, David. It’s a tough one because of all our hang-ups. It’s weird, too, since sex should be something rather simple to write about it. We all do it, or at least, imagine doing it. It’s built into our DNA. Like eating, sleeping, breathing. Yet, for many, many reasons — personal, cultural, historical, etc — sex is such a jumbled, twisted mess. And that is something we can use to our advantage in writing. What better way to create conflict than tapping into that mess? Lots of good character and plot can come from a sex scene, but I think too often writers use sex scenes for titillation or to bring together the lovers. It can be so much more.

  • Approaching this from the romance side of the fence, where I’ve written most of my sex scenes – the *characterization* is indeed the basis for a successful scenes. All category romances (the short, “grocery store” Harlequin romances that are published six a month, every month) have sex scenes, ranging (according to the line) from “sweet” to “spicy.” One aspect of categories that makes them different from most other genre writing is that head-hopping is expected, indeed encouraged. That makes for some educational scenes, in terms of writing — authors have to be very aware of how the sex affects the character who is narrating at that particular point in time.

    So, for writers looking for additional how-tos… (Some of the lines, such as Blaze, even use common slang for body parts. Most of them, though, still use euphemisms for key genitalia.)

  • EnglishPixie, thanks for the link. There are good tips there, and I think it’s worth noting that the author makes essentially the same point: Be true to the characters. Keep them in the scene by grounding the experience in their emotions and reactions.

    Stuart, I agree. There is a lot that can be gained from these scenes, if only the sex didn’t get in the way. And I’m not trying to be glib. We all — writers and readers — carry so much baggage into these scenes that it becomes fare more challenging than it ought to be to make the scenes work. Thanks for the comment.

    Thanks, Mindy. I’m sure you’ve written far more of these scenes than I have, and so I appreciate your perspective. I would say that for our genre, even during an erotic scene, we should follow basic rules of POV and not resort to head-hopping (and I know that you weren’t advocating taking that approach, but were merely describing what readers are likely to find in those sources) but having said that, yes any source you can find that will show how different authors have handled these scenes would be valuable.

  • Thanks for the enlightening post.

    As a reader, looking at the scenes that had the most impact for me,
    the sex scenes fulfilled the growing heat that was developed
    up until that point. They also, more importantly IMHO, had significant
    impact on character development and plot later on. The love interest
    may die, may be deceptive, may need rescuing, and the sex scenes were
    referenced to add drama to those plot lines.

    I’ve also read some books that used them poorly. Sex one day after meeting
    the love interest, leading to immediate ‘true love.’ Bleah, that means the
    protagonist is a shallow slut.

    I rather like battle scenes where the protagonist and friends get their
    asses kicked, as that can really lead to character growth and motivation,
    hence plot development. Having loss in the climax battle scene is also
    good. Especially if the book is part of a series. It’ll get me reading
    the next book.

  • David – yep – you interpreted what I was saying correctly. I definitely wouldn’t advocate head-hopping in speculative fiction novels. I pointed it out in category romance as a useful tool for authors trying to get a grasp of how sex can work as an expression of character, because of the way that the characters describing the sex changes in category romance.

    Now, if I can just make sure my mother understands that, when my first category comes out in August 🙂

  • Thanks, Roxanne. It’s enormously helpful to hear what things readers find effective and what things they find off-putting. Great comment!

  • Right, Mindy. Best of luck with your Mom!!

  • Interesting topic…

    I’m going to go on a small tangent. Roxanne pointed out the character who meets the guy, sleeps with him near immediately, and that sex leads her to believe he is her true love. She noted this makes the woman a “shallow slut.” I have no objection to the “shallow” part–indeed that does suggest a lack of depth. My problem is with the word “slut.” In the context of what we were discussing Saturday with Ed’s sexism in sci-fi and fantasy, I find the use of the word “slut” interesting. “Slut” is inherently negative, and entirely and inclusively (perhaps exclusively) about the woman’s sexual behaviors. A woman who has multiple partners, and therefore is bad, is a “slut.” In this example, we don’t know if the woman has multiple partners, only that she chooses to engage in sex in a timeframe deemed “fast.” Is the man who slept with her a “slut” too? I didn’t notice anyone bothering to call the guy who behaves the same way as a “slut.”

    I also don’t have a problem with a book that uses promiscuity to show problems in character–indeed multiple partners CAN be negative. My point here is that the word “slut” gets thrown around a lot. It’s fine to disagree with a person’s decision to have multiple sexual partners, but the word “slut” immediately labels a woman as sexually damaged goods, less worthwhile than a non-slut (or virgin, depending on how extreme the pov), and acceptable to degrade, look down on, etc. It also does not chastise men for similar behaviors. The statement wasn’t “they’re both shallow sluts,” it was just “she’s a shallow slut.”

    Would the same language have been used if the character had been male? Probably not. And we don’t have the same kind of language for promiscuous men. As a woman and a feminist (forgive the repetition), I think we should be careful with language, especially damaging language like “slut.” (Which hints at Hep’s comment on Ed’s post about unconscious bias).

  • I actually thought that my scenes in the MS were a bit too much, but after my wife showing me several scenes in other romance novels, and my romance reader betas telling me not to change a thing, I pushed that fear to the back of my mind in that dark, forbidding closet labeled, pessimism. Yeah, I know it’s quite full and is propped as shut as I can get it, but what can ya do… I seem to do a decent job at sex and violence. Guess I have my male/female, yin/yang essence fairly balanced. 😉

    And I agree with David’s last line. The research is the best part. 😉

  • “Sex is intensely private; we are at our most vulnerable in those moments when we are most intimate.”

    I find writing sex scenes, even simple intimacy, to be extremely difficult. My YA MS has turned out very chaste, even after I punched up the romance. The new “fun” WIP I’m working on *will* have those, however, so it’s time I learned. Thanks for this post and the great discussion it’s sparked.

    And I couldn’t agree more with Daniel about the research. 🙂

  • Emily, you’re right. And this does feed right into what Ed and others were saying on Saturday. The promiscuous male is rarely described in such negative ways (though thanks to Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, David Vitter, John Edwards, John Ensign, Tiger Woods, and a host of others, this seems to be changing). Language is powerful; it both reflects and shapes attitudes. And in this case, as in so many others, our language, colloquial and formal, has a deep and long-established gender bias. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Daniel, I find myself worrying that this new scene I’ve written is too much. But I also know that I want it to be intense and erotic, and so I’m trying to balance my own self-consciousness with what I think the book needs. Hard to do. Glad to hear that you’ve found the right mix.

    Laura, glad that this proved helpful for you. Writing this stuff is difficult. I’ve been trying for years and years and I’m still learning. But the best way to get it right is to keep doing it. And that goes for the research, too.

  • The very idea of writing a sex scene scares me, but at some point, I’m sure it will make for a stronger story between my protagonist and his love interest. Thanks for pointing out the characterization angle, David. The reminder that “these were still the same two people they had been a few pages before” helps a lot.

    Like Daniel, I’m also lucky enough to have an English major wife/alpha-reader who reads romance. I’m sure she’ll keep me on track.

  • Pea-Emily, I always go with slut puppy for a bed-hopping guy. Or, for a guy who sleeps around in the JY books, Ricky-Ho. 🙂

  • D.R., I know what you mean when you say that it scares you. And it really is something to be practiced. Hide the files from the kids, maybe even from your spouse. But practicing makes it easier when you write one for real. Best of luck with it.

    Faith, Emily, lots of terms come to mind: all of them probably too crude to list here. But I do think that people are far less accepting of male bed-hopping than they used to be. It’s a crude measure, but consider the evolution of the James Bond character. The promiscuous guy portrayed by Sean Connery is no longer viable at the box office. The new incarnations are quite different.

  • In my defense, I didn’t apply a gender indication to “shallow slut.” 🙂

    Most of the promiscuous folk I know aren’t shallow and wear the ‘slut’ label
    with pride. And even folk who aren’t promiscuous but dress to express
    their sexuality often adopt the word. As an example, much fun
    was had by all at the Seattle Slut Walk yesterday… http://slutwalkseattle.com/

    I do find characters who use their promiscuity as a tool for power, such as
    Richelle Meade’s succubus Georgina Kincaid, quite intriguing and a fair bit
    more realistic. Someone can be promiscuous for many reasons…a fear of relationships,
    a healthy and progressive view of human sexuality, a desperate hunger for sexual energy to stay alive or
    a dissociative response to sexual abuse.
    All of those can be rather interesting character elements.

    Especially if those reasons are challenged throughout the course of the book, due to
    love, supernatural venereal disease, whatever. Hmm, that brings to mind a potential epic fantasy based on
    the Odyssey, perhaps a search for the golden sheepskin condom.

  • I enjoy writing sex scenes. I find them rewarding and fun. Now.
    A long time ago, a writer friend tasked me to write a love scene multiple times. First, he had me write it once from each POV. Then he started playing what if. What if this were their first time? His, but not hers. Hers, but not his. What if they had been married for 10 years? What if she had been raped recently? What if he knew/didn’t know? What if he was angry about something that happened earlier in the day? What if she didn’t know?
    Each time, I wrote the scene twice. Each time it was different. Each time it was easier and better. And each time I was forced to explore not only what the POV character is doing, thinking, feeling as it relates to the sex, to the level of intimacy, to the circumstances leading to the scene, I had to consider the cues he/she received from the partner and interpret them within the prism of each POVs own experiences.

  • Razziecat

    Lynn, that sounds like a great idea! I think I’ll try that as a writing exercise. I found that the hardest part about writing a sex scene was that it felt like I was intruding. I got over that, with practice. And wow, it’s tricky to make a comment on this subject without a lot of inadvertent puns!

  • First off, great post, David. My experience writing sex scenes is fairly minimal. My hero and heroine were struggling through a rocky reuniting. Thinking back, I definitely could have played off the sexual tension more, it’s currently as none existent as their physical contact. I’m guessing I shied away from it like some new writers skip the action.

    As for violence, I’ve been told I write great action scenes. I didn’t always. When I stopped choreographing every feint and riposte, every twist of the writs annd dip of the shoulder, when I really got into the character’s heads, the action scenes sort of wrote themselves. The payoff for a well-written action sequence is the same as it is for a great dialog, steamy sex scene, or any other scene, the story moves forward. If done right, the reader should empathize more and care what happens next. I write a fair number of fights in my stories, but when they happen, they happen for a reason. Action for the sake of itself is like over-gratuitous sex scene or frivolous dialog, it brings the story to a halt.

    Anyhow, I’ll put sex and intimacy on the back burner and see if I can spice things up a bit going forward for my characters. If the story calls for it, of course.

    Cheers,
    NewGuyDave

  • Roxanne, you’re right, you didn’t. “Slut” usually is applied to women, but your post didn’t specify. I think you’re right about characters who use sex as a weapon or a way of gaining power — they can be totally fascinating, and will definitely spice up a story. There is so much an author can do with sex as a narrative tool. And I love that story idea!

    Lyn, what a fantastic set of exercises! I love those, and will have to give them a try at some point. Thanks for sharing those with us. Terrific stuff!

    Razz, yeah, try writing an entire post without giving in to the temptation to turn everything into a sophomoric joke! Very hard, especially for someone as immature as I am….

    NGD, thanks. “…the story moves forward.” Yes! That’s the whole point. Your approach to the action scenes is exactly what I was talking about. Yes, the choreography is important, but the thoughts and emotions are even more crucial. Thanks for sharing your experience, Dave.

  • ajp88

    “That’s what she said!” Forgive me but I think a collective giggle was well earned.

    Anyway, I knew going into my WIP that sex would play a big role in the scenes of some of my POVs. I have one who has to keep his preferences hidden (and kills to keep the secret) so I hope the character progression is justified and well executed in the scenes.

    This may be sharing too much but when I started the book I did not have any real research to inform my writing. That has since changed and I can attest to the fact that the research is definitely helpful. The scenes I’ve written and polished now are, I think, much better than they were: the characters’ actions and thoughts are more believable; feelings before, during, and after are less paper-thin; and the moments are just more interesting in general.

    Thanks for another great article. Sidenote: anyone else primarily write in their public coffee house of choice? Is it not ridiculously uncomfortable to write sex scenes in such a place? Or is that just me?

  • “Sophmoric joke”. That’s what the sex panel turned into at ConCarolinas. Then again, by that point it was after midnight …

    I’ve started typing up my notes from the con in my blog. It’ll be *fun* when I get to that panel. 😉

  • You know… I just got swallowed alive yesterday by work and THIS is what I missed? Figures…

    Seriously though, this is a sensitive topic, and you’ve handled it brilliantly. Well done, sir. Well done, indeed.

  • AJP, I can imagine that I’d feel uncomfortable writing certain scenes in a public place (including the scene I describe in the post). I’m sure we’re not the only ones. I’d at least sit with my back to the wall, so that people weren’t reading over my shoulder…. Thanks for the comments.

    Laura, yes, con panels on sex tend to get pretty silly. Ask Misty and Faith about the one we did at WorldCon in Colorado, I believe.

    Edmund, thanks for the comment and kind words.

  • David,

    This is about as clear as I’ve seen guidelines for sex scenes spelled out. It makes me want to go write a sex scene. (Flips through current outlines…) No sex scenes? No wonder my stuff isn’t selling!

  • dougmeeks

    Good guidelines. I felt compelled to mention that LKH indeed had some of the best in 6-8 and then in most people’s opinion became overdone (I am being REALLY REALLY kind here) and the series descended into something much more akin to porn than UF or PNR.

  • lhefner007

    Ok just so I can save poor David on this subject. I was the one that asked Faith about the sex scene. I didn’t want the scene I intend to write to come off too preverse or make it sound like it was boasting. All the stories I read the scenes are from a female POV. I’m not a female nor is my lead character…. ergo the question to Faith.