Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

CRAFT: Writing the Dreaded S-E-X Scenes, part 1

It's lame to start with an excuse, but get over it. This is only part one because I'm getting ready to go on a trip (for work--not pleasure) and haven't had time to pull together all the references I wanted for this article--er, blog.

As some of you may have guessed many of my blogs on writing are meant to encourage *me* or help me work out some kind of issue I'm having. I don't actually have any issues with s-e-x (why am I writing the word like that? Because I don't want all the Internet search engines to think this is a p-o-r-n site, that's why) but on the whole, I'm bored when I read about it. What goes through my head at the point in the book where "this sort of scene" happens is (variously):
  • If I want titilation, I'll go rip off my husband's clothes. Get on with the action.
  • You can't possibly make me believe that a normal human being would have s-e-x at this point when they: a) have a crazed murderer/monster/serial killer stalking them just feet away; b) the man and woman don't even like each other and haven't stopped yelling at each other since page 5; c) are doing it on a rug/rock-strewn ground/other really uncomfortable place that's totally hard on the knees/back/elbows; and c) have no bathroom facilities for washing up afterwards (okay, this last is my own issue, I'll admit that)
  • *Wince* throbbing manhood? Oh, my *wince* this is just embarassing to think someone wrote this, and someone else edited it, and a whole lot of someone elses published this!
  • When are we going to get back to the action?
  • Oh, the heroine regrets this? Well, duh. Then why did she do it? Is she not an adult? Is she not in control of her own actions? Okay, now really when are we going to get back to the action? Flip, flip, flip, oh, here we are...

Think of the s-e-x scene as a fight scene. The first thing they have in common is that if they go on too long, even though you think it's exciting, it stalls the plot or real action in the story. That's right. Even the most exciting thing, if too protracted, gets to be a drag. There are only so many right fists to the jaw and judo throws a hero can do before readers start flipping pages. There are only so many laves of tongues a reader will endure before they get bored.

So, keep it short and exciting. That's sort of a broad point, but it's a relatively easy one to make, before we get to the harder parts. Ahem. Focus, please. Now, you're all prepared, right, to make this scene short and intense so that the action moves right along and you don't stall. Because that's the other problem with so many love scenes. It's also why you will find hundreds of articles about how to pick up the tension post-coitally. It's because a lot of authors have long love scenes that bring the tension and entire story to a screeching halt.

So, I would ask you to think about it this way. If you were editing something, say, a manuscript and there was a scene in it which stalled the story to the point where you had to figure out how to restart it after the scene is completed, would you leave that scene in the book? Why would you leave a scene in a book that kills the action and tension? You wouldn't. Now, a lot of people are screaming at this point, that this is a love scene so they have to leave it in! S-E-X sells! Yes and no. Lots of books sell without it, or with the actual "doing it" taking place off stage. It's a lot worse to have a book stall in the middle which gives the reader a convienant place to stop reading, than it is to not have s-e-x in the book. For many of us, that's even a relief, because the physical actions don't really propel the story any further and it's an unwanted digression. However, there are some exceptions where it does become, if not necessary, than at least helpful.

So, you want your scene to accomplish something and not be so protracted that you lose your readers. What to do, what to do... Well, you already know one thing: keep it short. Let's look at the other way(s) to keep your scene from stalling out. (One way. The other ways will be in the other articles I write on this subject, sometime after I get back from the frozen north.)

Don't do anything stupid. Don't have them make love when Jason, Michael Myers, and Jack the Ripper are standing outside the door conferring on the relative merits of dismemberment versus simple throat cutting.

And decide what the scene is going to accomplish. Because of the nature of s-e-x, this is going to have to be something emotional (much as that may make many of us very uncomfortable). It is not, however, about lust. So let me say that again. It is not about lust. The scene should be about one of the components of the conflict between the man and the woman. This man and woman, the ones in the book (not the generic Man vs Woman, Mars vs Venus thing).

When you know what the scene should do in terms of the characters and their journey through your story, then make the scene accomplish it. It's that easy.

Here's one example. It's from The Knight and the Rose by Isolde Martyn. In this story, the woman has been completely abused by her husband and now has a distaste for s-e-x (sorry, but I really was serious about avoiding Internet censors). Martyn has shown us very graphically the character's torment at the hands of her husband, but now we have a new guy on the scene. A kinder, gentler guy. However, we know the heroine, Johanna, really does have this problem. It's not going to be quick and easy for her to get over it. There are a few scenes leading up to the one I have below, where the hero, Gervase, woos her, so this scene comes on page 307 (in my copy of the book) so it's not at the beginning. Johanna is already beginning to slowly get over much of the abuse thanks to the previous wooing scenes...

"I--your hand is like ice."

"Warm it for me. Breathe on it." He held his palm to her lips. She complied. His mouth curled in a smile. He bent his fat to hers again, his lips urging hers to part for him while his hand moved to touch the tip of her right breast. He did not grab like Fulk had done. [Note: Fulk was her abusive husband - already we have a reference and understand why this is an important and necessary scene.] This man's touch was gentle, tantalising, teasing.

Johanna began to feel the magic. Sensations swirled with the casing of her hips. She was trying to fathom how it was possible that by caressing her nipple to a pieak, he could unleash a sense of softness between her thigs. Then she gave up the labour of thought and surrendered to the feelings flowing through her.

"That is wondrous," she murmured.

"You like it? Welcome news. We may progress further."

He stroked a finger down over her belly and drew battle plans across her skin; sorties and forays took place.

"Hmmm." She would have purred, had she been a cat. "I shall go to sleep if you do that much longer." His fingers tormented her breast again and she wriggled.

"This next part is important. It could take a while but you will enjoy it, I promise. Lie still." His fingers slid over the nest of hair between her legs. She tensed. He stroked the hair, soothing her and then slid his whole hand between her legs to palm her. Surprisingly the feeling that he was setting a hand of ownership upon her stirred her pleasurably and Johanna, who had sworn never to let a man's hand near her thighs again, was astonished at her own reaction. Then he parted her and began to gently caress her.

She tightened her defences instantly against him.

"No, you are becoming too intimate," she protested, pulling at his wrist to stay him.

The remark was somewhat late but he complied. "Then you will never know. It is your decision."

"Very well, a little longer then."

It only goes on a few more lines, but you see the point. This scene was the next step in his seduction of her (I mean that in a positive sense) because she needed to be seduced. Her reaction when she "tightened her defences instantly against him" was critical and necessary. She did not just forget all the previous abuse. What woman could? This made it believable and a necessary next step in her recovery. In fact, Gervase is intelligent and sympathetic enough to know he needs to help her first and he actually walks away from this scene unfufilled, himself, although Johanna is quite satisfied.

This book makes the love scenes take the normal small steps, petting, kissing, almost-did-it, did-it, which make them a believable sequence and not only are they believable, but they are critical to Johanna's journey from scared, abused woman to a strong woman who can once again enjoy all aspects of life. In other words, these scenes were necessary steps in the character's journey.

That's all I have time for tonight. I have to pack.

I'd love to know what makes s-e-x scenes work for you and why you do or don't include them.

1 comment:

Gina Holmes said...

Great post. I don't include them. I think titillation for the sake of titillation is porn not literature. I like drawing out a love scene and the buildup of sexual tension somewhat but showing the actual sex-no. I like the way Francine Rivers handled it in her fantastic book, Redeeming Love. I couldn't imagine doing it better.