Making Smiles: Writing sex scenes outside the erotica and romance genres

Absolute Blank

By Trina Talma (Banker)

“One thing you can be sure of: antiques and sex are scary,” muses Jonathan Gash’s womanizing antiques dealer, Lovejoy. “Which one’s more frightening than the other, I don’t really know, but they run it close.”

For many writers, of course, the answer is easy: sex is scarier. At least, writing about it is. For romance and erotica writers, the sex scene is usually a requirement for the story. Sex can be an important part of stories in other genres as well, and learning to write about it can be an important part of your writing education. But before your characters start “making smiles” (my favorite Lovejoy euphemism), there are a few things to consider.

Making Smiles

Necessity

As George Michael once put it, “Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” But this doesn’t always hold true for your characters. The most important thing to ask yourself when you consider writing a sex scene is, “Is this necessary for my story?” Does it advance the plot? Does it help develop the characters? If your answer to these questions is “no,” skip it. Don’t throw sex into the plot out of a desire to make the story “more interesting” to your readers, or in an attempt to make the story more saleable. Discerning readers will recognize gratuitous sex for what it is, and will be less likely to respect your work.

Think about sex scenes in your favorite books or movies. Can you as reader or viewer recognize the reason(s) why they were included? When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know whether they should “get together”—or why they shouldn’t. Although we’re concentrating mainly on writing novels or short stories here, it can be instructive to look at movies as an example. A lot of beginning writers these days unfortunately seem to get their ideas about storytelling from movies and TV rather than from books. For example, you can hardly watch an action movie these days without being presented with at least one gratuitous sex scene. Some of them are well done, certainly (though I’m having a hard time bringing one to mind), but do they need to be there? Except in the sense that they give us a little breather from flying bullets and car chases, the answer is usually no.

Fortunately there are fewer examples of gratuitous sex scenes in literature, probably thanks mainly to editors who can spot the problem and get rid of it. It’s too bad Clive Cussler didn’t have one when he wrote about the encounter between his manly action hero, Dirk Pitt, and lovely scientist Dana Seagram in his book Raise the Titanic! The scene mainly seems there to prove that every married woman (represented by Dana) secretly longs to have an affair with another man; true or not, that has little to do with the rest of the book. Cussler should be especially ashamed of the way he begins the scene: “‘Dirk, Dirk!’ she whispered urgently. ‘Nothing makes any sense any more. I want you. I want you now, and I don’t really know why.'” The movie version of the book is even worse: Dana simply says, “Take me now!” While that sort of dialogue may be appropriate for a romance novel, it doesn’t belong in the action-adventure genre. And as the sex itself has little impact on either character (see the section “Did the Earth Move?” below), the scene comes off as pointless.

In the Mood

The most memorable sex scenes are those that create a suitable mood for the scene. In the movies this can be done with lighting and music, but in writing you don’t have those options. You can set the tone for a sex scene the same way you can for any other scene: the characters’ surroundings, the weather, the time of day, etc. All of these contribute to the mood, whether it be serious, comic, or somewhere in between. Setting the right mood can help define your characters and their relationships to one another, serve as symbolism, and even foreshadow future events.

We’re all familiar, from movies and TV, with the “angry sex” scenes: the hero and heroine have utterly loathed each other through the entire story, then suddenly, in the middle of a heated argument, they start tearing each others’ clothes off and rolling around on the floor. Events taking place before the sex can be as important in setting the mood as those taking place during it. Again, this will depend largely on the characters’ relationship with each other. If they’ve never seen eye to eye, having them argue before sex is just part of the whole experience. They may argue afterward too, which would probably be more realistic than having them suddenly agree on everything because they’ve had sex. I’ve never written an “angry sex” scene myself, simply because I find them clichéd and unrealistic in movies and TV shows, but that’s not to say they can’t work given the right combination of characters and circumstances.

In The Doomfarers of Coramonde, author Brian Daley sets a mood of love in wartime, in a scene between Vietnam veteran Gil MacDonald, who has been transported from our world to another, and the Lady Duskwind. In her bedroom they are interrupted by an alarm announcing a sighting of the evil sorcerer Yardiff Bey and Gil, ever the soldier, forgets seduction to deal with the threat:

“I have to go,” he said. “This changes things. We’ll be awfully busy before long.” His thoughts were already on how they might counteract this disadvantage, make it work for them.

He moved to the door, and she felt a chill breeze that didn’t come of night airs …She didn’t want him to go out just now, to order the affairs of battle and let warm possibilities become cool.

Duskwind quickly changes Gil’s mind:

…Her skin was amazingly warm and the scents of her, the perfume at her throat and the exotic, unnameable aroma of her hair, made blood beat at his temples.

He kissed her harshly even as her fingers found the buckle at his waist. But she pulled her head back.

“Softly, my friend,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m no rough soldier’s woman. The night stretches ahead; shall we squander it in impatience and haste?”

The two find not only love, but also a respite from the terrors and exhaustion of war.

The fun part about setting a mood is that the details can vary as much as characters themselves do. In Jonathan Gash’s book, The Grace In Older Women, from which the quote at the beginning of this article is taken, we first discover our hero Lovejoy in the middle of a hurried sexual encounter in the woods, with a woman he’s hoping to seduce out of some valuable antiques. Readers familiar with the character will recognize this as typical behavior. Later in the book, Lovejoy is summoned to the bedroom of a wealthy client, where he watches her eating pastries in her bed. The always-starving Lovejoy can’t decide which is more seductive: the lady or the food:

God, but the grub was tantalizing. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Roberta cut herself a slice of some chocolate-covered thing …I heard myself moan with lust. Roberta, I noticed, as she started on the new slice, was slowly shedding her nightdress …Her breast appeared. She ate on, baring her shoulders …Her eyes closed, ecstatic at the taste. Her tongue flicked her lips …It was marvelous to watch her eat, except the word eat sounds too indelicate for the way which the morsels were chosen, inspected, and elegantly assimilated into that beautiful mouth. To think it actually became part of her, a total act of union. Like watching osmosis to music …It was beautiful to watch the selfish bitch eat while I starved to frigging death. Then the covers parted slowly to admit me.

There wasn’t a single crumb in the bed!

At last, he chooses the lady: “I abandoned all other appetites in appeasement of the great human hunger.”

The Not-So-Dirty Details

When it comes to the sex scene itself, you have two choices: close the (literal or figurative) door and let the characters have their privacy, or stay and find out what happens. If you’re writing a short work with a word limit, you’ll probably want to skip to the aftermath to save some literary time. If your sex scene is part of a novel, you may want to take the time to explore things more fully.

To a large degree your choice may come down to your comfort level. A fellow writer confesses to having written sex scenes in coffeehouses—although she says she writes “really small.” Other people prefer to be behind closed doors, while still others cringe and blush at the very idea of writing about sex. If you find yourself in the latter category, yet still think your characters should have sex, your best option is probably to leave your characters alone in the bedroom. Time and practice may change your mind; you might try taking a plunge and reading some erotica for a look at how other writers deal with sex scenes.

Before I wrote my first sex scene, I was definitely in the cringe-and-blush category. This was partly due to my own inexperience with writing about sex, and partly due to the question, “What will people think of me when they read this?” But I struggled through, wrote it, and revised it several times until it said what I wanted it to say. Meanwhile I read sex scenes that other authors had written, both in erotica and in other genres. I still prefer privacy when I write about my characters having sex, although I write anything better when I’m left alone. These days, though, I no longer worry about what readers will think of me when they read my sex scenes—unless they’re thinking I’m a bad writer!

Speaking of bad writing, it seems that the area of sex leaves itself wider open for language pitfalls than almost any other subject. Your choice of language will depend on your genre and writing style, and hopefully will continue in the tone that you began to set before the sex scene. It will also depend on your level of comfort with the subject; it’s fairly easy to tell when a writer at any level of expertise is embarrassed to be writing about sex. One writer I know did a very good job of setting up her sex scene, but the act itself was described as “engaging in the exercise of love.” (Unique euphemism, but it sounds like they’re having sex at the gym.) Fortunately there is a wide area to tread between clinical descriptions of genitalia on the one side, and the purple prose of heaving bosoms and throbbing “manly organs” on the other. Many writers outside the erotica and romance genres choose to let their readers know what’s going on by implication rather than direct description, but avoid awkward euphemisms that can spoil the mood. In The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence details the marriage consummation of Tom Brangwen and his bride, Lydia:

…She was soothed by the stress of his embrace, and remained quite still, relaxed against him, mingling in to him. And he let himself go from past and future, was reduced to the moment with her. In which he took her and was with her and there was nothing beyond, they were together in an elemental embrace beyond their superficial foreignness.

Others choose to be more explicit, like V.C. Andrews in Petals on the Wind:

…He was slippery and wet with sweat. My legs were raised and clutched about his waist and I could feel the terrible effort of his restraint …Then he groaned and gave up.

Hot juices spurted forth to warm up my insides pleasantly five or six times, and then it was over, all over, and he was pulling out. And I hadn’t reached any mountain high, or heard bells ringing, or felt myself exploding—not as he had. It was all over his face, relaxed and at peace now …How easy for men, I thought, while I still wanted more.

For your own work, it’s your choice.

Consistency of tone and style with the rest of your story or novel is an important consideration. A thriller, for example, should not suddenly turn into a rapturous exploration of the wonders of love. Your hard-boiled-detective narrator should not start spouting Shakespearean sonnets to his one-night stand (unless he’s not really as hard-boiled as he seems). The better you know your characters and the more you develop your own style, the easier this will become.

Did the Earth Move?

What comes after sex can be more important than what comes before. This is a good place to further explore the relationship between your characters, especially if they’re having sex for the first time. In the movie When Harry Met Sally …, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters rush off soon after sex to share their guilty feelings with their best friends. In the example from V.C. Andrews above, the narrator is clearly left disappointed by the sex. F. Paul Wilson, in The Keep, presents the thoughts of both Magda Cuza and her new love, whom she knows as Glenn, after their first sexual encounter. First we see Glenn’s point of view:

…it was wrong to let her care when he didn’t even know if he would be walking away from here, Perhaps that was why he had been driven to be with her …He couldn’t afford to care now. Caring could distract him …And yet if he did manage to survive, would Magda want anything to do with him when she knew the truth about him? …He did not want to lose her. If there were any way to keep her after all this was over, he would do everything he could to find it.

While Glenn worries about the future, Magda’s emotional response is more immediate:

Joy.

That’s what it was. Magda had never imagined how wonderful it could be to awaken in the morning and find herself wrapped in the arms of someone she loved. Such a peaceful feeling, a safe feeling. It made the prospect of the coming day so much brighter to know that there would be Glenn to share it with.

In most cases your characters’ lives will have to go on after they have sex, and it is up to you to decide how much of an impact their liaison will have on the rest of the story.

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique opportunity in exploring the impact of sex on their characters. In invented worlds, the characters having sex may not be men and women; they could be elves, ghosts, alien species, even machines. Characters of different species may find themselves in an uphill battle when contemplating—or committing to—having sex with each other. Fans of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will be familiar with Buffy’s travails in her relationships with vampires Angel and Spike. In Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, the life of the narrator, Jane, is changed forever when she falls in love with, and loses her virginity to, a “better-than-human” robot named Silver. Kati, the heroine of James Glass’s Shanji, finds that she can’t overcome the bigotry of a man who discovers her true nature during sex:

…His hands pushed against her shoulders as she reached climax; she lost his mouth at that instant, and what came from her was not a woman’s cry of pleasure, but a deep, rumbling growl that went on and on.

She opened her eyes as the growl subsided, and Lui-Pang was still straddling her, eyes wide and staring …his chin was covered with blood from a wound in his lip.

“What have I done?” he said, looking terrified. “What was I thinking of? I should have known, I should have—oh, I can’t! I just can’t do this! We are not—alike!”

Non-human characters are bound to have different morals and sexual habits than humans. They may even have more than two genders. Exploring what happens when they have sex with each other—or with humans—presents a challenge for fantasy or sci-fi writers, one that they have met in many different ways.

Afterglow— er, —word

Like any other part of your writing education, learning to write about sex is best accomplished in two ways: read what others have written, and keep revising your own writing (with the help of other writers’ critiques) until you feel you’ve done the best you can. Sex scenes provide some interesting challenges for a writer, and they can also bring the rewards of adding depth and dimension to your characters and plot. It’s up to you to decide how far you and your characters will go, but getting there can be fun.

Final Poll Results

Member Site of the Month: Meet Trina Talma a.k.a. Banker

Conundrums to Guess

TC: Describe yourself (or your site) in five single words.

TT: Eclectic, introverted, thoughtful, strange, blue. Some of those words describe me, some my site, and some both.

TC: Tell us about your first website.

TT: My first site was on AOL. It had my journal, some stories, an FAQ list for a cats newsgroup I belonged to, and bits of pieces of news I found interesting. Later it included a “pregnancy primer” I wrote during my first pregnancy.

TC: What’s the last word or phrase you did a search on?

TT: According to my Googleometer (I just made that up) it was “The Young Riders.” I was looking for an episode guide for all the episodes I’m putting on DVD.

TC: Do you hand-code your pages or use a program?

TT: I use the template code. I know a tiny titch of HTML, but nowhere near enough to do a whole web page.

TC: What’s your favorite form of potato?

TT: Lefse, with margarine and sugar. I also like raw-fried potatoes, but haven’t had them for a long time.

TC: Describe the perfect pizza.

TT: If it’s for comfort food, I like extra cheese and black olives. If I’m looking for more excitement, it’s pineapple and jalapenos.

TC: Name your poison.

TT: Margarita (which was also a cool song by the Traveling Wilburys, you should know).

TC: What’s the last creative writing you’ve done?

TT: I often do some creative stuff in my journal/blog; I’d say at least 50% of the better entries are made up. I’m trying to get back into the groove of working on actual stories, but right now it’s a combination of not enough time and not enough inspiration. My muse has been on extended leave.

TC: What are three essential things in your writing space?

TT: Paper, my Dr. Grip pen and the stereo. (I suppose I need a desk and chair too, but I could write sitting on the floor if I had to.)

TC: Tell us about one of the first things you remember writing.

TT: I have an actual diary page I wrote when I was 7 years old and on a train trip to New York. I also remember writing a short synopsis of Heidi when I was in first grade and drawing a picture to go with it.

TC: Who was the first person to encourage your writing?

TT: I had some very good teachers in high school and college who led me to believe I actually showed some talent. I plan to dedicate my first book to them. It was a good thing I had them, too, since no one in my family thought writing was a particularly clever career choice.

TC: Describe your current mood in one word.

TT: I’m working on “relaxed,” since I finally finished reading the ezine submissions this morning.

TC: What one thing is guaranteed you laugh?

TT: The element of comedy I find most important is surprise. I hate the previews for sitcoms where they show the same line over and over; by the time I watch the actual show, it’s not funny anymore.

TC: What was the greatest invention of the 20th century?

TT: There are so many to choose from, but what springs to mind first is the PC. So much of my work and recreation revolves around mine; I can’t imagine living without it.

TC: What is your favorite word? What is your least favorite word?

TT: Favorite: Abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz. It is so a word; ask Big Bird (it’s pronounced abkeedefgeejekelmanopkerstooviksez). It’s my favorite because you can make so many other words from it. Least favorite: I can’t think of a word I don’t like, but I really hate it when people misuse or invent words, and then say that since everybody else is doing it, it must be proper usage (like using “impact” as a verb).

TC: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? What turns you off?

TT: It’s hard to pinpoint, because usually it will be something very small that inspires me. A phrase, a picture. Often something in the natural world. What turns me off? People who say or imply that I’ve made wrong choices about how to live my life, just because they aren’t always conventional ones. I shouldn’t care about what they say — even if they are my “loving” family — but I do.

TC: What is your favorite curse word?

TT: Lately I’ve been visiting with a good old German one: “scheisse.” I like the way it rolls off the tongue, and the kids don’t know what it means.

TC: What sound or noise do you love? What sound or noise do you hate?

TT: I like nature sounds – birds, waves, etc., but also manmade music. I HATE the sound of my children screaming.

TC: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? What profession would you not like to do?

TT: I used to think about doing something in the animal care field. But overall I’m pretty happy with my post as writer/mother/TC editor/SimCreatrix (bow before me, puny mortals!)

TC: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

TT: “Come in.”

TC: Where do you call home? Are you there now, and if not, where are you?

TT: I think of “home” as a relative term; the house I live in has never felt like a home to me despite the fact that I’ve lived here for eleven years. That’s mainly because I never chose to live here, and also because of some of the people I have to live with. I have an imaginary home in my mind (and my blog) where I live with a much different group of people, and actually have some say about what goes on there. One of the long-standing regrets of my life is that I can’t live there in reality.

Trina’s site:

:: brain dump ::