Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sex and the Novel

If the sex scene doesn't make you want to do it - whatever it is they're doing - it hasn't been written right. --Sloan Wilson

Sex; we all love it. In fact, it's the reason why we're even here at all (yes, like it or not, your parents had sex at one point in time). With that fact being evident, why is it still that some writers are so hesitant to go down a road we're all pretty much familiar with? I believe the reason lies behind the fact that sex is one of the hardest of human interactions to capture as far as believability is concerned. Writing about sex is difficult in that it's hard not to make it sound hokey. Everyone has their own definition of intimacy and what they believe is sensual or just plain sadistic. For some people, even the simple act of kissing in public is seen as completely taboo, while others think nothing of climbing all over each other in plain sight. Like most things in life, the key to writing a sex scene that successfully falls somewhere between ho-hum and whips and chains lies with balance. There's a fine line between being too raunchy and incorporating a necessary amount of detail to make the scene believable without completely turning your readers off (no pun intended).

For me, writing about sex is still one those areas that makes me blush. Although I'm getting better at it and am currently outlining/working on a book that is going to pretty much require the insertion (these unintended puns are writing themselves) of these scenes of intimacy, I still can't help but think to myself, what if my parents, siblings, pastor, 7th grade math teacher, neighbor, friend's dog, monkey's uncle, read this? If you're like me and this crosses your mind when you're writing, the best thing to do is just tune out that little prude inside your head and realize that you're an adult and all of those aforementioned individuals are no strangers to the topic of sex (no matter how much you wish to God they were). Turn off all your inhibitions and listen to the muse who guided you to write the story to begin with. After all, creativity shouldn't be marred by restrictions and just because you're writing about a shameless hussy, doesn't mean you too are one.

I think we can all--or mostly--agree on what makes for a good sex scene.  But what makes for a bad one?  What turns a scene from believably romantic to utterly vomit or laugh-inducing?  The following examples are my 6 don'ts to writing sex scenes in novels:

Avoid the cutesy body part names and adjectives: Trust me, unless your readers haven't matured above the age of twelve they aren't going to find descriptors such as man meant, one-eyed willie, junk, lady flower, passion rod, oyster, clitosaurus rex, lady pocket, love portal (my personal favorite), the promised land, or adjectives such as glistening, throbbing, heaving, moist, wet, suckle, lick, slobber, graze, or pant the least bit appealing ( I apologize if this portion of the post offended anyone--trust me, these were the tame ones).

Delaying or avoiding them altogether--One of the worst things a novel can do is hint at an attraction, go one step before the deed is a done deal, and then completely avoid it altogether. I think we've all read those novels where we find ourselves really pulling for the protagonist and their love interest. In my case, I know there have been numerous times where I've chanted in my head "Kiss her, kiss her dammit; oh for the love of God, just go for it." Or, on the flip-side, "Just do it now and get it over with." The latter of these statements is obviously not something you want your reader to think as it can mean the story isn't flowing as nicely as you intended. Sure, a measurable amount of tension should exist between the characters, but that tension shouldn't drag on through the entire book. Granted, your characters shouldn't immediately jump into bed together, but there's only so long your readers will allow the teasing to continue before they begin to feel played.

Less porn, more romance--Just because you're writing a sex scene doesn't mean you need to take notes from "Letters to Penthouse" to make it more effective--however, if you want a good laugh they're great material (or so I hear). Real passion comes from the heart and should be captured with equal amounts of grace and dignity in your writing. It isn't staged and it most certainly isn't vulgar. A true love scene is best written effortlessly without a lot of thought or interruption in flow. In essence, it should come to the writer naturally without having to resort to the usage of methods of contortion or colorful dialogue.

Does it move the plot--Like every other scene in a book, the purpose of any love scene should be to move the plot along and better the story. This is where outlining comes in handy. Are you writing the sex scene for the right reasons or is it just to entice the reader? Does it make sense with the story that these two characters are now bumping uglies or was it just an afterthought conceived by you as a means of adding a little zing to the plot? If you honestly can't answer these questions in the affirmative, then you may want to reconsider including the scene entirely as it may stick out for all the wrong reasons.

Sex isn't boring--There's a trick to finding that point between classy and just plain boring. Just because you aren't resorting to bondage and "Who's your daddy," verbiage, doesn't mean the sex has to be boring. To the contrary, a well-written love scene can be exciting.  It will leave you wanting for more from these characters; what they're future will be and if they'll end up together when everything is said and done. Get inside your character's heads. What are they thinking? Are they into it or are they pondering other things during the act--like whether the sky blue or teal drapes would go better with the decor in the living room, or whether they should make McDonald's or Pizza Hut for dinner. Capture your character's feelings and raw emotions and run with it. After all, if your characters aren't into the scene then you can hardly expect your readers to be either.

Is it a story about sex or story about love--There's a clear delineation between love and sex whereas sex does not equate love. To me, it's imperative to separate the two when writing. What are you trying to convey with your story? Is it a romance or are the sex scenes present specifically to illustrate promiscuity, destructive behavior or desperation/  If you're writing a love story, then the sex--in my opinion--shouldn't be prevalent as I believe too much in that type of situation can be somewhat of an overkill. For example, I adore The Time Traveler's Wife. It's incredibly well-written and a wonderful illustration of love conquering an incredible amount of pain and turmoil. But, with that said, after a while I began thinking to myself, Enough already. There are other ways to illustrate love and, although sex is one of the more entertaining ways, your characters should really explore alternate routes to take to prove their feelings for each other.

Because I believe seeing examples of what to and what not to do to be beneficial, I've included links to sites featuring novels that reflect love scenes done beautifully and those done so very, very wrong (lets just say I was slightly traumatized when I read those excerpts dubbed the recipients of the Bad Sex Award). Believe me, if you have any doubt at all about your writing abilities, those excerpts will give your ego a slight boost.

Sex scenes done oh so wrong

Bad Sex Award

Literary Sex is Such a Turn-Off

Sex scenes done so write

NY Journal of Books 101 Best Sex Scenes Ever Written

Blog: Jessica Barksdale Inclan

As always, feel free to shoot me a comment as to your thoughts on this topic. We all have our own points of view and I always appreciate reading yours.

A while ago I joined Goodreads (and by "joining" I mean I made an account and pretty much abandoned it).  However, I do plan on picking it back up and will hopefully have a review of Switched (and possibly Torn, as my Kindle is telling me that I'm 90% of the way through it) from the Trylle Trilogy by Amanda Hocking for my next post.


James Garcia Jr said...

Hi, Sara. I had to fight the urge to laugh aloud several times. My wife was starting to cook dinner, and although I desperately wanted to read to her what you had written - my teenagers were close by. *snaps fingers*
You are exactly right about this topic, of course. Well written/well done.
Have a great week,


D Rotterman said...

"Bumping uglies?" That's a new one on me.

Your article is well written and I agree with it for the most part. I'm writing a book called "The Honeymoon Odyssey," and found my newlywed characters quite amorous. Writing about their loving adventures without merely implying it became a challenge I'm not sure I responded to well. Doing it without sounding like a cheap porno scene may be the most difficult part of writing. Along with that, we are opening ourselves to the world. Tricky business.

Thanks for the thoughts and ideas.