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Author Topic: Sexuality in fiction
Disgruntled Peony
Member # 10416

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I'm working on the second draft of a story, and I've run into a snag that I probably should have expected but didn't for some strange reason. I'm writing for a character who is strongly influenced by the dual vices of lust and gluttony. During my first draft I just wanted to get things out on paper, so I jammed a whole bunch of potential scenes into one quick time-skipping montage. I realized that there's a lot of potential to show more in-depth characterization and that it would actually strengthen the story if I expand those into full-fledged scenes.

My problem, such as it is, is that at least one of those scenes would probably involve content of a highly sexual nature.

I'm a consenting adult, I'm married, and I have no problem exploring things of that nature if necessary. My problem is that I don't want to write blatant romance/pornography, because that's not what this story is meant to be about, and this could push it strongly into that territory. I don't want to limit my audience or my chances of getting the story published simply because I went into too much detail.

I suppose, essentially, I'm afraid to write the scene(s). If I dodge around them a lot of the impact will be lost, but if I write them out in detail I'm worried I'll doom myself exclusively to self-publication and the stereotype of writing NSFW material.

A big part of my fear stems from a lack of knowledge about the publishing industry. I'm interested in anything people know about how scenes of variably graphic nature tend to be approached by publishers. I'm also interested in general advice on how to handle situations like this, if anyone's been through similar situations in the past. Hell, personal opinions on how sexuality should be handled in fiction are welcome.

I know, in the end, the decision of how to handle the scenes comes down to me exclusively. I'd just like to make an informed decision, as it were.

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Different publishers/mags have different content rules, so it really depends on where you send it. Graphic sexuality does limit your options, because some don't want to read it, and therefore some won't publish it. But some do and some will, so it's not like your shutting yourself down completely.

I say write how you think it should be written. Write the sex scene, and worst case scenario is you don't get the story published. It's one story; there will be others. If you don't write the sex scene, best case scenario is you sell a story but know it's not really the story you wanted to write.

Anyway, yes it may close off some options, but your career doesn't depend on this one story alone.

Take a risk.

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In addition to what wetwilly said:

You can always write the scene and then decide if you want to keep it or delete it. Writing it out may clarify it for you and you may find you can handle the same material another way.

Ways I've read such material handled more delicately:

  • Stay completely in the character's head. Show (or tell) his (or her) reactions, feelings, thoughts rather than go into the mechanics.
  • If it's about lust, you may be able to show the predatory behavior leading up to the encounter and then figuratively close the door.

Read the way some other authors have handled it.

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I think it's premature to worry about what a publisher might think. Publishers routinely put out stuff that a generation ago would have been too racy, if it looks like it'll sell to their usual audience.

The problem is how to write a good scene.

Sex scenes are really hard to do, and even respected writers are known churn out cringeworthy results. The magazine Literary Review even gives out an annual "Bad Sex in Fiction" award. Why is it so hard? I think that for many reasons it's tricky to write a sex scene that is truly functional, that moves plot or characterization forward. For example there's the pitfall of transcribing fantasies. A daydream isn't as compelling to readers as the person having it, in fact it comes off as annoying and hard to believe.

Then there is the matter of research. Most people have some personal experience of course, but few have enough to make their observations on the mechanics of sex interesting to a wide audience. Sex scenes often come out sounding either vague, or derivative, or artificial and overwrought.

Contrast this with eating -- which is far more often the subject of sensually compelling writing. If you're writing about a feast in a middle eastern setting you can always go out to a middle eastern restaurant looking for inspiration. This kind of research isn't so feasible for most of us when it comes to sex.

But I wouldn't dissuade you from giving it a go -- writing such a scene I mean. Try to make the details and action matter to the story, and try to give the scene some significance . You don't usually include scenes of the characters taking their cars to be fixed, going to the food market, or having their teeth cleaned, even though the characters must do those kinds of things. You wouldn't write a visit to the dentist scene unless that visit somehow alters the character's trajectory.

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A study of content rating systems helps illustrate the types of content that define audience suitability: motion picture, television, video game, and adult entertainment. The Hatrack site, for example is rated PG-13 for language, violence and sex situations, and adult situations.

Many publishers have similar though unwritten rating systems from G and anywhere up to MA and beyond to the X's. What distinguishes a rating label is amount and type of potentially objectionable content for sensitive audiences. What constitutes objectionable content unsuitable for all audiences is a moving target, though for literature, less movement than for film and stage. The history of censorship is also illustrative.

For offensive language, sex, violence, and adult situations the same guiding principle as for all things writing applies: a leaven will do to raise and flavor the bread. Not too much salt or soda, nor water. Nor for adult beverage ale, too much yeast or any salt or soda, and just so much bubble and bitter hops.

Those though are mechanical considerations. The consideration of substance are aesthetic features. MattLeo mentions agency -- antagonal, causal, tensional influences -- "alters the character's trajectory"; is sublimely and profoundly transformative growth at a proportionate cost. The proverbial "They" say love and war are not so far apart, and all is fair for either, for example.

One common concept across most writing and reading consensuses about objectionable language and violent and sexual content is No gratuitous uses. If the content has no agency or is overburden, excise. Note also that the gratuitous principle applies, again, to most everything expression. A metric for evaluation of which is H.P. Grice's "Gricean Maxims," the core claim part of the linguist's "Cooperation Principle." The maxims are quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. Likewise the rhetorical principle of decorum: suit words and subject matter each to the other, to the opportune occasion, and the audience. Test potentially objectionable content for those aspects.

Lust and gluttony vices express part of the moral human condition, their selfish satisfaction of want, to me, early on in a narrative pre-positions them for likewise problem development at the same time and later. The later part is essential for personal discovery of a moral truth.

Say a viewpoint agonist easily satisfies lust and gluttony, though minor then major problems arise. For scene segments where the lust and gluttony are, say, glorified, later they must be complicated by problems of proportionate consequences that lead up to moral truth discovery: perhaps that vice is selfish conduct or that self-serving vice could serve a common good. Without lust, for example, reproduction would be too low to perpetuate a species. In moderation. Gluttony, though in excess a social and health problem, realizes gourmet consumption is both nutritional and emotional satisfaction. Otherwise, humans could nutritionally survive on twigs and algaes. Or vampires on mice blood.

The trajectory need only substantiate the language, violence, sex, situation, not to mention event, setting, and character development, and conflict and complication that entails a transformative change in the way of a personal moral truth discovery denouement.

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Grumpy old guy
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I guess it all depends on the purpose of the scene. However, you need to be able to differentiate between erotica and pornography. While pornography is concerned with, and deals mainly with the overt physical act, erotica deals with the psyche and the emotional connection between two people made physically manifest.

In other words: Pornography deals with the physical act and erotica occurs in the head; an ideal character viewpoint location.

Think of the shower scene in Psycho. All the horror occurs in the viewers mind, it never appears on screen.

When I write sex scenes I focus on the build-up (in one case this took two chapters) and the aftermath; what's the viewpoint character's reactions, memories, and feelings after the act of consummation?

Allusion is a powerful tool with which to put ideas and image fragments into the heads of your readers where, if done well, the reader will fill in all the gross details. As extrinsic might put it: an artful use of the reader's own experiences.

As an example, a fragment of dialogue from a TV show:

"And how was it for you?"
"Unbelievable, I didn't know you were so--flexible."
"And the thing with the ice?"
"Oh, God, yes! I loved it."


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Yes, that.

It's famous that Hemingway described a sex scene thus: "The earth moved beneath them."

Less is more. Give us enough we know what happened, without (gack, this annoys me) detailing exactly which body part touched which.

From Vance:

He: "I'm tired, I'm dirty, I don't know where the bad guys took the stuff, and I feel like falling into a bed and don't even have a room."
She: "That's no problem. I have a very nice room."

I see above the comparison to another appetite, the one for eating. Imagine the dullness: "He then took the fork and, twirling the pasta around it, deftly scooped it into his mouth. Then, spearing the crunchiest part of the lettuce..." Instead we'd go for the conversation over dinner, or how he felt about it, or such. Nobody wants a play-by-play of someone else's dinner, and many don't want a play-by-play of someone else's sex encounter. But we do want to know the effect it had on the characters.

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Disgruntled Peony
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Thanks for the feedback, everyone! I feel a lot more comfortable tackling the scene now. I probably won't use too much detail; the interaction between the characters is the most important thing, anyway.
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