Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Sexing Up a Scene

Occasionally I cheat by putting a scene with sex in a story, which I know should be played out and I don't play it out. I find writing about sex of any sort very difficult. I guess I am from the old school that liked seeing the bedroom doors close in a movie. Or even dozens of doors if there was real ardor. Remember that.

But right now I am reworking a story where the editor said, "You got to show not tell this." He's right because a lot hinges on what happens.

Writers: do you find this difficult? What kind of scenes are hardest for you to write.

Readers: do you feel cheated if a sex scene never really is described?

24 comments:

Dana King said...

Most sex scenes bring the story to a dead stop. They're okay if they tell something about one of the characters it would be hard to convey otherwise, but in general I like--both as a reader and writer--to leave as much to the imagination as can be got away with. I'm no prude; I juts think it's more effective, and efficient, storytelling.

Dave Zeltserman said...

It depends on the voice, the story and the market. If it's purely gratuitous than it's going to turn off readers, but if there's a reason for it, such as advancing plot, character, mood, theme, etc. than it should be there. My most sexually explicit scenes are in Pariah. and all of them needed to be there, all conveying different information. Vicki Hendricks has written some tremendous novels and short stories that are highly sexually explicit, none of it gratuitous, all necessary.

Thomas Pluck said...

Personally I keep it extremely minimal. Eroticism, like horror, is best played out in the reader's mind in my opinion. I like the "closed door" as well, the yearning and teasing works better if done well. Of course sex scenes convey character. Doesn't mean they are necessary, but they don't have to be.
What's truly necessary to a story, really? You can edit most scenes out, and turn it into a haiku, but what's the point?
I like cagey sex scenes. The act itself rarely requires description. The dialogue, the nuances, the stuff that matters is just like any other scene. Explicit sex has its place, like Dave said- depending on the voice.
One of the least sexy and most explicit and explanatory sex scenes I recall is from Willeford's Miami Blues between the ex-con and a woman he thinks he's picked up. Willeford teases us into it- she's a knockout and he's an athlete- and then it's pathetic, weird, and thankfully brief and nondescript once it happens.
Gah.

Kieran Shea said...

Patti: Weren't you at NoirCon when Christa Faust basically said cutting to a billowing curtain and open window was a cop out? We're adults and we're all human. I say go for it. If you go too far, the editor should lasso you in...

Dave Zeltserman said...

expanding a bit on Thomas's Willeford example a sex scene can convey a lot of different things, such as disgust, desperation, hopelessness, horror, etc., as well as equivalent feelings on the flip side. If all it is, though, is sex, than it's going to be just gratuitous. How much detail you should be using all depends on voice, story, character, etc.

Chad Eagleton said...

Just to echo some of what’s already been said: what I leave in depends on the story and the market, and, as far as whether or not it’s “necessary” to the story, have to back Tommy 100% on his “what’s necessary” statement.

For my personal preference, I’d always much rather read something—it doesn’t have to be a move-for-move description—than nothing at all.

The thing that no one has mentioned so far is that a sex scene is one of the hardest things to write without it being laughable or just painfully bad.

RkR said...

I am of the opinion that sex scenes are very, very rarely necessary to any story or novel. I think sex, at least graphically portrayed sex, should be the first exception to "show me, don't tell me" rule. I mean, come on...

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think it is probably necessary and it is not a "true" sex scene. It is closer to an assault scene and explains what comes next. The way I originally wrote it was to fade away after a few sentences to what came next. But it was a cop out. I didn't write it because I didn't like to think about it. I get jittery every time I sit down to fix it.
It's like I am too much "the character" not to experience it myself. Note to self: stay away from physically dangerous men in future stories.
I need a stiff drink to see this through.

Al Tucher said...

I think that if the scene furthers the plot, then it has to be there. If it reveals character, it can earn its way in.

A good book on the topic is THE JOY OF WRITING SEX, by Elizabeth Benedict. Her most valuable insight, for me, anyway: "A great sex scene doesn't have to be about great sex."

I suppose I couldn't write about Diana if I found sex scenes difficult or distasteful. (Although many of my stories contain no sex at all. Instead they focus on Diana's hard-earned understanding of human nature.) I find descriptions of people and places much more difficult, and I begrudge every moment I have to spend on them.

Anonymous said...

What else can you say but "it depends"? If you read Lawrence Block's Getting Off (as by Jill Emerson) it is about a woman who is on a quest (so to speak) to track down and kill every man she has ever slept with. Some of the sex scenes involved are graphic, others less so, but in the context you wouldn't call them gratuitous.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, I have that book on my kindle, Jeff.
Al-you do a great job of telling what you need to and not something just to titillate, which is no small achievement given the profession. Will look for the book.

Todd Mason said...

One of my two better stories...an award nominee, Claude Lalumiere made of point of saying it was the best thing he published in his webzine LOST PAGES when it was a webzine...is extremely explicit but not at all erotic, by intention. Nothing like rape, however.

Yes, if you have a story that hangs on the nature of the assault, some description of the assault is going to be necessary...and the story might well benefit by how disturbing you find the writing, if you can find the right balance for it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Good point, Todd.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Although I might just be more prudish than my writing might suggest.

Deb said...

I'm in the less-is-more camp. That said, I think I have different expectations for different genres. I enjoy the occasional romance novel and, in general, the sex scenes are relatively explicit. However, for the most part, sex scenes seem to stop crime/mystery novels cold.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

In Irving Wallace's THE SECOND LADY, there is a graphic description of a sexual encounter between the KGB agent and the US First Lady he has kidnapped. The agent wants to know how the First Lady makes love to her husband, the President, so he can convey it to the Russian spy who has replaced her in the White House. The real First lady knows what the agent is up to and deliberately misleads him in bed. Unfortunately for her, the agent knows this too and instructs the impostor to do exactly the opposite of his experience with the American president's wife. I thought the sex scenes, not crude and vulgar in any way, were necessary in the context of the plot. I wonder how many people remember this pulp novel.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Nope. I absolutely do not feel cheated. The fact is, I would much rather use my imagination.

Fred Zackel said...

Back in the 1940s, Dash Hammett waylaid one of the two writers who together comprised Ellery Queen, saying, “Mr Queen, will you be good enough to explain your famous character’s sex life, if any?” Let us not forget all the racy sexy stuff in "The Maltese Falcon." Scandalous! But Hammett wouldn't play the sap for us!

Anonymous said...

Deb, my wife agrees with you. When she reads romance novels she wants the sex scenes to be explicit. Otherwise, what's the point?


Jeff M.

Dyer Wilk said...

Interesting that this subject should come up because I have a story forthcoming at FFO that begins with two people in the throes of whoopee-making. In my case, I kept things pretty minimal, not only because of word-count limitations, but because I figure most adults know what goes where and don’t need to be reminded that boys have a pee pee and girls have a body part with monologues devoted to it.

I suppose that’s just the way I write though. I like subtext. I like being able to use my brain to fill in the gaps when I read. If I can write a story about murder without using the word kill, then I can write a story about sex without using the word penis. Of course it all depends on the story and the effect I’m trying to achieve. I never rule anything out completely. Either way, I won’t feel let down.

The hardest thing for me to write about is sexual assault. I’d avoid the subject altogether if I could, but it’s so prevalent in our society that I can’t really escape it. Writing about it, I suppose, is my way of trying to deal with it. It’s tough though because I try to write from a point of character, to avoid stereotyping and dehumanizing. And, unfortunately, that sometimes means having to put myself into the mindset of horrible people. The upside is realism and honesty. The downside is me getting depressed and pissed-off that these folks are running around free when they should be in jail. Still, it would be worse for me to dumb something down to the point where I trivialize the suffering of the people who have really experienced these things.

pattinase (abbott) said...

That was it for me, it had to be described in some detail. And I was fudging it. Hope it works better now but I felt jittery for two days writing it.

Ron Scheer said...

I think people take the subject way too seriously, so when it shows up in a book or film, it's often either embarrassing or laughable.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I hope not in this one!

Richard S. Wheeler said...

What is always more interesting is the seduction, and not the plumbing.