Friday, February 14, 2014

Scintillating Sex or Subtle Suggestion

It has been said that love makes the world go ’round, and many of us still believe that. Back in 1955 (for those who are old enough to remember), a romantic Frank Sinatra ballad compared love and marriage to a horse and carriage, stating in both cases that they were inseparable. Is that true? The world has changed a lot since 1955.

Books, too, have changed since 1955—or maybe not so much. A trip back in time reveals that explicit sexual content in poetry dates from ancient Greek and Roman works. Seventeenth century England produced its share of erotica; it seems the English were not quite as stuffy as we’ve been led to believe, at least not behind closed doors. Fast-forwarding to the twentieth century, we find Henry Miller’s candidly sexual Tropic of Cancer, first published in Paris in 1934 and banned in the U.S. Its ultimate publication in the States in 1961 resulted in an obscenity trial and a 1964 Supreme Court decision that it was not obscene. Harold Robbins’ first novel, published in 1948 (well before that Supreme Court ruling), challenged the morals of staid society with its blatant sexuality. He was followed by Jackie Collins, Danielle Steel, and others who have capitalized on their readers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for having their senses titillated by words on the printed page.

Where does that leave us in 2014? Should our novels sizzle with scintillating sex, or does subtle suggestion appeal more to today’s readers? It’s a matter of taste…and it seems ample proponents on either side of the fence create potential sales for an author. Personally, I prefer subtle suggestion because I feel like a peeping Tom when I encounter a graphic sex scene in a book. For example, this partial scene from my updated novel (scheduled to be released in April 2014) conveys an implication but is not explicit. The couple here is struggling through a crisis that threatens to end their marriage. Communications between them have plummeted into the depths of accusations and silence.

Again, she laid her hand lightly on his back. His even breathing stopped. For a few seconds, it seemed he didn’t breathe at all. Then he turned to face her.
     “Are you all right, babe?”
     “I . . . I think so.”
     He stroked her cheek.
     Her hand glided over his shoulder. His arm slipped behind her back and pulled her closer to him. Laying her head on his chest, she let the warmth of his caress settle over her like the down on a newly hatched chick.
     “What’s going on?” His velvet tone soothed the raw edges of her heart.
     “I don’t want to lose you, Will.”
     “I’m not going anyplace.”     
     “You’ve already gone. I sent you away.”
     “I keep coming back.”
     “I’m not a good listener. I need to work on that.”
     “We both need to work on that.”
     “I’m so scared. Every day, the chances of our children coming home safe get less and less.”
     “I’m scared, too, babe.”
     “You are?”
     “You better believe it.” He kissed the top of her head. “But holding you like this gives me hope.”
     “It does?”
     “If we pull together, we can brave any storm that comes along. We have to believe that.”
     “We have to believe a lot of things, don’t we?”
     Her eyes filled and overflowed. Then Will was kissing her face, and she was kissing his. The dampness on his cheeks had not come from hers.
     “I love you, Will.”
     “I love you, too, babe. And I love our kids. They will come home. Mark my words on that.
     “I’ll try. I promise I’ll try.”

Holding her close, he nestled his face into the softness of her hair. The gentle whispers of her breathing and the warmth of her sleeping body against his penetrated a corner of the cold fear that gripped his heart. More than anything, he wanted to believe what he’d told her. But he couldn’t. He’d seen too many cases to fool himself into thinking Haley and Mali would come home safe. It was just a matter of time until they got the bad news. Then what?

I would call this a love scene rather than a sex scene. What would you call it? How do you handle sexual encounters in your writing? Do you prefer to read books with scintillating sex or subtle suggestion?

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at www.denvereditor.com.

13 comments :

  1. I call it a scene of intimacy. There are many ways to write sex or love or romance. It can be hot and passionate, gentle and warm, or tender and loving. I like them all, written them all.

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    1. I'm comfortable with the "intimate" scene here, which is why I wrote it this way. It never occurred to me to call it a "scene of intimacy," however; I rather like that term, Polly. Thank you. :-)

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  2. I agree with Polly that this is a scene of intimacy. This type of verbal and emotional intimacy is important for moving into the physical intimacy, and sometimes that is lost in a story that leaps right to the physical.

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    1. Verbal and emotional intimacy defines characters and gives them depth. Hopping into bed after barely more than a "howdy-do" may show action, but it often does little to move the story forward.

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    2. I would disagree with that. It depends entirely on the circumstances in the story.

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  4. Can't spell this morning. I'll try again. :) I like this kind of fade out rather than explicit. This is a married couple rather than strangers, too which adds poignancy. I am curious about the POV switch. Do you switch between the two characters throughout or is it in omniscient?

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    1. The book has multiple points of view; however, they are always separated by a double space, and the reader never wonders whose POV it is. Instead of 1 protagonist, this novel has 3. Will (the husband in the excerpt) is 1 of the 3. Secondary characters also have POV scenes, which are vital because of the multiple threads of the story. So far, all my stories are complex enough to require multiple POVs.

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  5. I much prefer the intimacy of the scene from Treacherous Tango to blunt in your face writing that leaves nothing to the imagination. My personal choice is not to read books that make me feel as though I somehow crossed a line into someone's very personal and private erotic space. I choose to avoid authors who take me there even when I love their writing. Thankfully, plenty of wonderful writers prefer the subtle rather than the salacious.

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    1. Yes, I've walked away from books by good authors I thoroughly enjoyed in the past because they've included graphic sex scenes in their more recent novels. I used to get the Reader's Digest condensed books because the editors deleted those explicit scenes without affecting the story. It's been years, however, since I've gotten one of those condensed books — don't know if RD even produces them these days.

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  6. Definitely a love scene with no sex - I wouldn't even say the sex is implied really. Also, I'd change alright to all right. ;) Thanks for sharing this. It' an intriguing teaser, Linda.

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  7. I agree with Polly's terminology. I wouldn't call this a sex scene, although the love clearly shows through. I don't have trouble writing sex on the page, but I noticed that when I was listening to my narrator read my audio books, the sex scenes were much harder to listen to than to read or write.

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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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