Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Sunday, February 26, 2006

CRAFT: Writing S-E-X Scenes, Part 2 - Tension

I'm back from the frozen north and ready to tackle the next part of this subject: writing s-e-x scenes that don't make you wince or just flip over them.

Disclaimer: Remember, these posts are my opinions and only my opinions. I say this because too many people think I'm trying to write rules. I'm don't write rules. I'm pointing out things that worked for me as a reader and writer. Your mileage may differ.

So, tension. Tension, tension, tension. This particular piece of the puzzle actually should have come before my previous post, because it's about leading up to "it", although in a way, it is also about "it". Because I don't believe describing "it" in glorious technicolor detail is all that exciting. It's what leads up to it that is exciting. Yet another reason, in my opinion, to either just keep leading up to "it" or interrupting "it" or shutting the door on "it" because that way, you can keep the tension going. Think of it this way, there are any number of guys and gals who flirt, manipulate and seduce each other with great excitement, only to lose interest once the conquest is made and they've gone to bed with their target. The old, "I'll call you tomorrow" syndrome.

This is true of a great many readers, too. It's the chase that is exciting. That's why they call it tension, or s-e-xual tension. Once you have s-e-x, the tension is released.

I'm a big fan of coitus interruptus, particularly when it occurs right before the actual deed gets underway. However, this may be because I truly like to make my characters suffer for what they eventually get--off camera.

So, how do you do this tension stuff without sounding idiotic or sophomoric? I have to admit that I throw away a lot of books because they handle this so poorly. I'm so sick of all these longing glances and throbbing/wet/hot body parts, and on a seemingly unrelated topic, I have to tell you that if I read one more book where either the hero or heroine has green eyes, I'm going to vomit. Please avoid adding gratuitous unusual characteristics to your characters hoping to make them more attractive.

I'm going to say this once, and once only: Green eyes are a cliched joke. This is the sort of thing that gives romances a bad name, because the authors try too darn hard to make their characters over-the-top, uniquely attractive. For crying out loud, stop with this already! And I'm particularly sick of things like a hero/heroine who is of Oriental/Spanish/Native American/African American extraction and yet has green eyes! Stop, stop, stop with the over-reaching cliches to make your characters unusual. Please. I'm begging you. I'm not saying that it isn't genetically impossible, I'm just saying everyone is doing it and I'm sick of it.

I had to get that off my chest because it really was making me crazy. I long for a hero with nice, normal brown eyes. Or gray eyes. Or blue eyes. I don't even really mind green eyes, if they genetically go with his appearance just not when they are due to over-reaching for the unusual.

People can be attractive with quite normal physical attributes.

Now that I've reduced my tension, I'm going to briefly go through a masterful example of s-e-xual tension created by Theresa Monsour in her book Cold Blood. This is a great suspense and I highly recommend it (and hope I'm not going to violate any copyright laws with what I put below). One of the things I like about this book is the great s-e-xual tension and the restraint with which she presents this. She's one of the few authors I can read now that do this well, don't make me wince, and don't include long-winded s-e-x scenes that bore me and kill the plot's momentum.

Enough flattery. Her lawyers ought to now be happy enough to let me get by with the few quotes I've included below.

What makes s-e-xual tension work? Well, it isn't wet panties or an embarrassing bulge in the pants. It is how it happens in life. There are two ways the magic can occur: barely perceptible, growing slowly over time; or wham! Both ways are valid and we've either experienced both ourselves, or know others who have.

For many of us, it may be a sort of unperceived thing that just hit us, all of a sudden, wham-right-between-the-eyes. This seems to happen a lot to co-workers, who are working with someone closely and may either get along, or not get along, until one day you're working late and your eyes meet over that pizza you just ordered because you know you're going to be there until midnight to get that project finished, and wham! All of a sudden you realize how attractive your co-worker really is.

This is kind of what happens to Paris Murphy and Duncan. Their relationship starts out a little strained, with both sniping at each other. Paris thinks Duncan may be a dirty cop who either has taken drugs in the past or is still taking them. The tension between them is done so subtly and with such grace that you don't even realize it is happening until it hits you when Paris realizes how attractive Duncan is.

So here's the way Theresa Monsour does it. This is not a complete analysis, nor do I try to include all references, I just selected a few to show you the gradually heightening tension.

He wore an oxford shirt with sleeves rolled up, dress pants and a tie--Christianson ordered all his commanders to wear ties--but his clothes looked as if Duncan had slept in them for a week. He had sneakers on his feet. Murphy recognized the brand. Pricey running shoes. The tread was worn. Did the slob actually exercise? The blazer he'd brought to work was on the floor next to his desk and there was a dirty stripe across the back; he'd run over it with the casters of his chair.
She got a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had Yo-Yo [note: Murphy's nickname for Duncan is "Yo-Yo"] cooked up some theory and sold it to the cops up north? Duncan craved being in the middle of all the action. She hoped he hadn't dragged her into the middle with him.
She wanted to bolt out of the chair and tell him to go f-ck himself. Leave the room. Slam the door behind her. He'd love it, though. A big scene in the office.
"It's not our case."
"Not it is. Get your butt up there, Potato Head." [note: Duncan's nickname for Murphy is Potato Head and it really irritates her.]

Okay, what did we learn from that scene? I chopped out some parts because while they were important to the plot, they were not critical to how she is working to create the tension.

The scene above establishes Murphy's view of Duncan, that he is a slob and loves to create scenes. This drives many of her actions. But the real jewel is highlighted in green. Monsour is inserting a small idea that Duncan isn't the complete slob/waste of air that Murphy thinks he is, and Monsour is doing this from Murphy's view, so Murphy knows this, too.

See what I mean? No overt drooling or hard, throbbing things in anyone's pants.

Next bit.
Her cell phone rang while she was loading her bag into the Jeep. She pulled it out of her purse. "Murphy."
Duncan: "...Every time you pick up the phone you sound worse than the last time."
She silently cursed his perceptive ear.
... She appreciated Duncan's concern, but wasn't ready to spill her guts about anything personal.
She wondered if she could run her theory by him. ...

Hmm, he "might" exercise and he's perceptive. And Murphy is starting to think about running ideas by him. No heaving bosoms and longing glances, but something positive is going on here. Now, we are a little unsure if Murphy's just seeing him as less of a jerk and bonding with him as her boss, or if something a little more is going on here, mostly because she's seeing someone else at the time (although we don't care much for the current boyfriend). So again, we're taking slow, easy steps. The sort of steps that occur in real life. That's what makes this work. It's not over-the-top.

Next. [I've skipped a few more scenes that build a bit more on the positive, but I think you've got that idea now.]

"Sorry," he mumbled. "Been saying that to you a lot lately." He took his feet off the desk and stood up. Unbuttoned his left shirt cuff and started rolling up the sleeve while he talked. "I take it Mason is the one slipping us the copies of the treads and prints."
She stared at his left arm. No tracks. "Yeah. Erik," she said distractedly. ...
"What time should I pick you up?" He unbuttoned his right shirt cuff.
"Seven," she said. "Cocktails and appetizers at seven, dancing at eight."
"Dancing, huh? I better warn you. I'm a damn good dancer. Better keep up." He rolled up his right shirt cuff. "Where's it at?"
She studied his right arm. Again, no tracks.
He sat back down, rested his arms on the desk and caught her studying them. A tight smile stretched across his face. "You heard that bullshit story, too." Her mouth fell open; she didn't know how to respond. "I'm surprised you swallowed it. A smart cop like you. How long would I have lasted on the streets if I was doing that shit? Who fed you that crap? Your new boyfriend? Tell Mason he can kiss my ass."
She stood up. The cordial meeting had turned ugly. "My turn to say it. I'm sorry." She picked up her purse, threw the strap over her shoulder and turned to walk out. She put her right hand on the knob, pulled the door open a crack.
He bolted out of his chair and was right behind her. Pushed the door shut with his right hand. "Not so fact," he said in a low voice. "That hurts, Paris. That really fucking hurts. We worked together."
She kept her back to him. ... She said again in a low voice, "I'm sorry."
He planted his left hand on the other side of her. "Well 'I'm sorry' ain't gonna fix it."
They were standing too close. She felt trapped. Wished there was someone else in the office. At the same time she noticed he smelled good. Irish Spring soap and a cologne she recognized but couldn't place.
She turned and looked at him. He was genuinely hurt, and she felt bad. For the first time she noticed he had blue eyes. Not dark blue like hers. Light blue. Then she silently berated herself for noticing his eyes. Noticing his scent.
With her facing him, he suddenly realized how close they were and it seemed to embarrass him. He quickly took his hands off the door and lowered his arms. Took a step back from her. Folded his arms across his chest. "My record speaks for itself."
She couldn't keep from looking in his eyes. Bloodshot. Angry. Incredibly blue. If Jack was young James Caan and Erik was old James Dean, Duncan was Robert Redford after a rough weekend.
That's when she realizes it. Oh, she's not in love, but she's now fully aware of him. I'm not a big fan of dropping the names of actors in by way of describing someone - it has a tendency to date your writing. Nonetheless, this scene does double, triple time to advance the plot (for the sake of brevity, I cut out the plot-related stuff), make her aware that Duncan is NOT a drug addict like she thought, and finally, to make her aware of him as a man.

This scene was unbelievably full of sizzle. You don't get the full effect because you don't have the full context, but it was incredibly full of tension.

After this, Monsour has Duncan come pick up Murphy for their undercover "date" and Murphy gets to see him dressed up and realize how physically fit he really is, and how good he looks. Their relationship progresses step by step from there, complicated by her old boyfriend.

I highly encourage you to buy the book to see a primo example of how to do this development of a relationship and turn up the sexual tension in a realistic way. In fact, you might buy two copies so you can mark up one with a highlighter. *Grin* Now that ought to make the copyright Gods happy enough to overlook my "stealing" of Monsour's scenes!

What are some books you've read with good examples of s-e-xual tension?

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