Monday, February 3, 2014

Let’s Write About Sex

Or not.

Where do you stand on the topic of literary sex scenes? Some readers avoid it like a dread disease while others run towards it with wild abandon. Most readers are somewhere in the great in-between, a pinch of spice at the appropriate time makes for a well-rounded story, but it’s not the whole story.


I engaged in a very long internal debate about adding sex scenes to my novel, The Last Prospector. There were some strict mandates I needed to follow, self-imposed mandates all. But I set out to write a story that would satisfy me as a reader, so one of those mandates was every word, every scene had to propel the story. For the most part, sex in books is just scenery, it rarely moves the story forward and this was a problem.

Erotic fiction is everywhere lately, courtesy of Fifty Shades of Grey.  (I haven’t read 50SOG and don’t intend to. It’s not a judgment of sex or kinky sex, I’m just plain old not interested). Since publishing isn’t afraid to ride a trend to the bitter end, now there are a plethora of sexually themed stories out there. However, what about novels that aren’t technically about sex?

Whether or not to include sex scenes in a novel is a personal choice. This is the story of why I chose to do so. Being born in the early ‘60s put me in a position to watch the birth of the sexual revolution. Over the decades, it seems we keep coming back to square one. It’s an ongoing struggle and all so unnecessary. If we could all just get over ourselves and realize there is no “stronger” sex, no “superior” gender, we could stop expending vital energy on futility.

So when I set out to create my own world, I eliminated the futility. Women and men of Solstice have equal rights to everything, from owning property to soldiering, gender is rarely considered a factor in worthiness.  Being a hard core pragmatist, I understand the financial value of sex. To that end, the Daggered Rose, the whore’s guild, was conceived and became a major player in the Song of Solstice. Not only is it the most powerful guild in the land of Solstice, it’s run entirely by women. Men are not allowed to profit from the sexual acts of professional whores.

Since some of the main characters in the series belong to the Daggered Rose, I started wondering if there should be sex scenes in the novel. At first, sex was just alluded to in the story primarily because of the above mentioned mandate. But it was one of those lingering, nagging questions. Was it hypocritical to have an abundance of prostitutes but no sex?

In the end, the decision was yes. If my characters were to come alive as fully realized people, every once in a while there should be a little nooky. Writing sex scenes wasn’t titillating or exciting for me, it was actually kind of stressful. Finding the balance between too little and too much combined with the need to make those scenes propel the story took all the romance out of the endeavor.
 
It took me some time to realize that I shouldn’t approach the sex scenes as being about sex, but rather relationships. Not necessarily long term, committed relationships, but the relationship between two people in that moment. Those small, intimate moments do propel the story because they inform the characters, give them context and provide more storytelling possibilities down the road.

Having said all that, I still don’t think every adult story needs to include sex for sex’s sake. One of my favorite authors ever was James Michener and his works rarely referenced physical passion. What matters is context–does sex belong in the story?  

I’d like to know what you think, both the readers and writers. When does a story call for sex and when does sex in a story turn you off?

Cairn Rodrigues is a former professional chef who found that keyboards offer fewer cuts and burns, so she turned to writing. You can connect with her on Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, GoodReads, and at her blog.

29 comments :

  1. Welcome to the Blood-Red Pencil, Cairn!

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  2. Welcome aboard, Cairn! Your post is a great opener for February's theme. To answer your question, I choose not to read books that contain graphic sex scenes. This doesn't mean I think sex should be banished from the printed page; however, it should hold a valid place in the context of the story—and it should not be detailed in my opinion. (I'll discuss my reasons in an upcoming post.)

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    1. Thank you Linda! Most often, the stories I choose to read don't have much sex. We agree about validity so I'm looking forward to your post.

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  3. Always an attention grabber, even these days. There's a great difference between writing sex as erotic fiction, where it's clearly an essential, and including it in a story. I include it only if it's relevant to the story I'm telling. Gratuitous sex is just that; gratuitous. I treat the topic of sex in the same way as I treat all other aspects of storytelling: does it add something essential to the story? If not, leave it out.

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    1. Since my book is the first of a series, the sex scenes don't show themselves as necessary to the plot until farther along in the story. I do hope people will continue on the Solstice journey with me so they can see the entire scope of the story I want to tell. Thanks for reading!

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  4. Hey, what's going here? Is BRP turning into the Masters and Johnson of erotic writing? Just kidding ... I will grudgingly admit it's a topic worthy of discussion ... just keep it clinical ... and let me know when it's over, okay?

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    1. LOL. We'll keep you posted. Should be over by the end of February.

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  5. Like so many things in storytelling, I find that descriptions of sex become a metaphor for what's really going on between the characters under the surface: What else do they want from each other, or from themselves? What are the struggling with in the larger story? Are they searching for home? For belonging? Do they fear being a victim? Or long for power? Are they running from something? If we write about sex knowing the undercurrents hidden within it, it can move plot and develop character without being prurient. Your sex scenes sound as if they do those things, Cairn.

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    1. That's it exactly Cara! Those undercurrents propel the story and tell a smaller story about the characters involved.

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  6. Sex scenes, scenes with graphic violence, scene of descriptions -- no matter what the scene, there needs a reason for it to be there. As a romantic suspense author, my books must develop the relationship between hero and heroine, and there (per reader/genre expectations) be the HEA at the end of the book. Falling in love is part of the story. And that first experience between two consenting lovers is something that forges the bond between them. Lovemaking shows a vulnerability, a commitment. Each character is opening the door for rejection at that point. (And, in most of my romantic suspense books, it's close to 200 pages into the book before they've "earned" that right to be together.)

    How much of that happens on the page is up to the author. The vocabulary choices are up to the author. The reader can skim or skip if being inside the bedroom is troublesome. I've had comments from readers who say there's too much, and comments from other readers who say there's not enough. Write what you're comfortable with, and write what's right for the characters.


    Terry
    Terry's Place

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    1. The violent scenes weren't (aren't) all that easy to write either, for me anyway. But, again, I couldn't back away from what makes me uneasy. Violence is not a language I speak fluently, unlike sex which I can talk about with great ease. But the chapters involving sex or fighting are always the most challenging. Since the entire series is already mapped out in my head, there are chapters in upcoming books that I'm already getting angsty about writing. But I committed to writing the whole story of Solstice, not just the easy parts. Once the series is finished, it will have been worth it though, especially the angst.

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  7. This has certainly opened a discussion that is so helpful on a lot of levels. As writers, we do need to be aware of what is gratuitous and what is integral, or organic, to the story. I had an editor for One Small Victory who wanted me to add a sex scene in the story, despite the fact there were many reasons that should not/could not happen. She thought it would add reader interest and possibly sell more books.I told her that was not a valid reason to add a scene. That is true for scenes of graphic violence, as well. The story and the characters should dictate what happens on the page, not marketing trends.

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  8. For me personally, the tension lies in the longing, the wanting but not getting. Once a couple has hooked up, meh. I'm a grownup. I've had sex. I don't really care about the choreography of how other people have sex. I was not installed with the voyeur gene I guess. I flip past that just like I flip past drawn out battle scenes and violence. For me a sexually charged scene is between two people, clothed, wanting so desperately to touch one another that they ache and not being allowed to for whatever reason holds them back. Or a couple who has been together but are struggling, who want and need to reconnect but are finding it difficult to find their way back. I hate gratuitous scenes of any kind and laugh my butt off at some of the scenes portrayed in movies that defy physics. I get bored with the idea that every man and woman wants the same kind of man or woman: alpha male plus damsel in distress or alpha male/alpha female, both supermodels. My logical brain thinks sex between total strangers is just stupid and dangerous. You don't let a stranger in your front door or take them for a ride in your car. I'm probably the minority. I also think modeling is important. A steady diet of unrealistic expectations could skew a few impressional brains, making young girls take chances they shouldn't and being unsatisfied because they can't find a man who doesn't exist. As Terry O'Dell so eloquently says, men are not women with chest hair. :)

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    1. It's great to see so many people getting in on the discussion. I love reading all of your opinions, they give me a better perspective on writing future adult scenes. Thank you!

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  9. I agree with Terry Odell - in that I also like to have that "first" scene with my H/H after the emotional connection to express/show(?) their physical affection. Writing these scenes are such a challenge. I think each sex scene, if used, should be different than the other and there should be a reason to include it. Most troublesome is finding the right language balance from clinical to the over dramatic "He sheathed his sword of love" silliness.

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    1. I so agree with everything you said, Katherine. I have a male protagonist who is excruciatingly polite and will not use euphemisms for anything including body parts, especially nothing vulgar. So that leaves me with clinical language or possibly a hint of foreign expression. It's not easy to write!

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  10. I think you hit the nail on the head with "relationships," and moving the story forward. Not just sex for titillation's sake.

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  11. Several years ago, you couldn't have gotten me interested in romance novels under any circumstance, not even ones with as much layering as Nora Roberts'. When a Regency novel fell onto my Kindle in the form of a free read, I was entranced with the incredibly tight and witty dialogue. That got me reading more Regency, and then spicier versions, and finally modern romance titles. Maybe there was a desensitization process for me, I don't know, but I'm completely comfortable with body parts and graphic descriptions now. I also feel the most interesting love scenes explore the many moods and circumstances of the protagonists which adds to the character development of each. I think the best romance writers can do this brilliantly, and I've read novels in the past year that really impress me. Writing intimacy is very difficult. I'm pretty much on the same page with Cara and Terry on this topic - but I'm nonetheless amazed that I'm writing romance myself, and enjoying it much more than anything else I've every written. It's really the first time I've been passionate about writing, a thought I find very amusing all things considered.

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    1. Romance is such a broad term and can be expressed in many wonderful ways. This morning on Twitter, someone called me deviously subversive. It was better than getting a dozen roses! One of the things I like most about The Last Prospector - and the series - is the bromance between Prospector and Tonyo. There are many strong, platonic relationships in the series, but they all have a romantic aspect. Truly romantic fiction, for me, lies in the quirky and offbeat, the unexpected is a romance I can get enough of!

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    2. I've come to that conclusion, Cairn. Watching someone get dressed can be sexier than undressing - and I've written that into my story. Because... who would have thought? Just as an example. I'm challenging every assumption I've read and asking "what if" this were different than what any of us expect to read at this point? Sometimes there isn't a good answer, and you just have to passively agree to the mundane. That's life right? Other times, trying to think outside of the box makes for some really interesting scenarios.

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  12. Thanks for this. I have no experience writing sex scenes, and few of the books I read include them. I do, with Diana Gaboldon's series, wonderfully written as it is, I now skip the sex scenes. They have a great sex life. I get it. I don't need to keep reading about it.

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    1. Even if you never intend for other eyes to view it, maybe you should try your hand at one. It could be an invaluable experience.

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  13. My debut is about body image, so like you Cairn, it would make no sense if I didn't go there. How we feel about our bodies greatly affects our ability to achieve intimacy, in bed and out of it. Had I skipped this aspect it would have felt that my exploration of the theme was incomplete.

    That said, it doesn't mean I have to show the whole act. What was fun for me, since the two characters involved are dancers who are regularly around each other with little clothing on, was to go from their workaday world, where body parts are regularly and pragmatically shared as a way of creating art, to the moment that everything changed and titillation was suddenly possible. Yep—great fun!

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    1. "Yep, great fun!" A big ditto from me. That's exactly what I'm having writing about these imaginary people. And you know what? They're having great fun too. :)

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  14. I have two sex scenes in a novel I wrote, years ago - one is basically an underage date rape and uncomfortably graphic; the other is consensual, loving, protected love-making. It's a much more comfortable scene - both as a writer and a reader. And that's as it should be. My editor and about a dozen beta readers voted to leave both scenes as is, and I did - figuring my urge to expunge them wasn't entirely true to the characters or their story. But would I "go there" again, in another mainstream novel? Probably not. I'd hint at more, lay less bare on the page.

    Same thing goes for profanity, though, too - if you can't speak honestly for your characters, in THEIR voices, not yours, than maybe you shouldn't be writing that particular story. If they want or, more importantly, NEED to use the f-word, then you shouldn't balk just because you or your grandmother would blush.

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  15. I don't care for graphic sex scenes in books, but that's just my personal preference. I have lots of friends who enjoy reading them. If a book is to be a romance and not an erotica, the sex scenes should contain more than physical descriptions. They'll also depict what the participants feel inside.

    Morgan Mandel

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  16. I like to read a lot of sex stories. But i only choose the quality ones. This book is going to be a popular one.

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  17. I have one short sex scene in my book Breakthrough. But I use this as an opportunity for a female assassin to try to kill my MC. So it's not there just for the sake of having a sex scene.

    And like yourself, I racked my brain on whether to use it or not. But that's the way the story unfolded, and I went with it.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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