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