Not that I'm at all trying to get attention with a subject title...
I've been reading quite a bit about it in books on writing, paying attention to examples in published works, and generally thinking over how I want to do it, and I decided I wanted to try writing a scene in which two characters have sex without "dancing around" the deed in question.
I originally wanted to put this is the fragments & feedback section, as I'm looking for a crit on the chapter I wrote (~4k words), but I thought there could also be a decent discussion on the issue, so I opted to post here instead. Obviously, I'm not writing a book targeted at kids -- but at the same time I'm not writing erotica (with no disrespect intended to writers of the genre - that's just not where I was going with this WIP). In my case, the point of the scene isn't to titillate (though I wouldn't be disappointed if it did so), but because it develops the relationship between the two characters and provides unique insight into how they think and act.
My questions to the assembled wisdom of this forum:
How do you prefer your sex scenes? Nonexistent? As explicit as possible? Funny?
Are there cliches that you've actually seen in published work that piss you off (or turn you off)?
Are there non-cliche things that irritate you?
Is there anything that a good sex scene absolutely needs?
And finally -- if two characters (at least one of whom is usually or always POV) get it on, and as the reader you're left waiting out in the living room, does that disappoint you?
Reader expectations and the genre's conventions play a lot into whether you should include the scene or not.
I don't have a problem with an author detailing sex between characters, but I don't see much of that in sci-fi or fantasy. Maybe that's just the genre style. Usually there's the foreplay and then the characters are in bed after the fact. That doesn't disappoint me because that's what I expect. If, OTOH, I read a romance, I expect the full scene.
I think my favorite recently was in a Bernard Cornwell Sharpe novel (different genre, I know). It went something like:
"Don't worry, I won't keep you awake." But she did.
However you do it, the only thing, IMO, a sex scene must have is this: It must be earned. Sex is the payoff for a buildup of tension between the characters in question. No buildup, no anticipation, no rooting for the characters to hook up, and the sex scene rings false.
Read a bunch of romance books. You will see good and bad ways of handling it. The terminology some of them use are groaners. In what I remember about sex scenes in science fiction, they were really not a great deal. I never lingered.
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I love a good sex scene as well as the next person, but my expectations depend entirely on the book. If the book is intended to be a fantasy romance, then pile it on. If the book is a hard core science fiction, or an epic fantasy, then a detailed sex scene would feel out of character for the tone of the overall novel. I say write it out in detail as you feel moved, to keep the spirit alive between your characters; but be willing to edit it down.
When reading sex scenes I don't want to know the details of how flesh touches flesh. I don't want a "how-to". I want to know about the emotions, the thoughts... the quivering of anticipation, the stirrings of the heart, the surprise, the amazement. It's very much like fight scenes... too much graphic blow-by-blow is boring. Use the action to forward the story or it is merely gratuitous.
I think that there was a very good discussion on this if you search for old topics. It's called "Human Sexuality in writing" (there are probably a number of helpful ones, but I came across this one in particular). If you read what Survivor writes in that discussion, I think he has very insightful opinions.
As for me personally, I don't like reading anything more than a suggestion, enough to know that it happened, and nothing more. I think I'm kind of unique in that regard, but just know that you'll always have some readers who don't want to hear about it at all, and who will most likely skip it. So I would suggest if you have this scene in a novel, don't throw any important plot information into the middle of it, and don't put it at the beginning of the book. If I encounter a scene like that before I trust the author, I won't continue reading.
[This message has been edited by Marita Ann (edited July 25, 2009).]
First off; I'm not a fan of romance novels. Never have been and never will be. I read for the action, the excitement, and a story that sticks to the idea it starts with. The kind of books I read aren't centralized on sex, and I don't expect to find it written in graphic detail. I don't mind some romance, just so it's not blown all out of proportion. When/if I come across a sex scene in this kind of book, I'll stop reading where it starts and pick the story up where it ends. I know that two characters in the story took time out to have sex. I don't have to have it thrown in my face step-by-step, and I don't miss a thing when it come to the story itself. JMO
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I guess my question is: Is what happens during sex important to the development of the characters or their relationship? Or only the fact that they had sex?
If the latter, I would set the stage so we all know what's about to happen and then skip ahead.
If something that happens during the act (not foreplay, which I think is fine, up to a point) is critical to the story. Or if something in the story hinges directly on it (like a turning point for one of the characters or the plot), then I'm fine with a certain level of detail. Not a sex manual, mind you. There's usually no need to get really graphic.
In The Ignored Prophecy, the existence of a loving, and physical, relationship is important. But not the specifics. So I've developed a kind of shorthand for them. For example, she likes to play with his tattoos, tracing them with her finger. So, I show that, maybe a kiss, then I draw the curtain, figuratively speaking, and let the reader work out the rest.
In Dreamer's Rose, when I get that far, there will be a case that is a turning point for both characters and the plot. I'll have to develop that a little further. Not sure how much, yet. If the story pivots on it, the scene has to be strong enough to support it.
My way of looking at it, primarily as a reader, is that if there's going to be page space devoted to it, the details of such an encounter better be important to the story in some way. An exception might be certain subcategories of romance or erotica where such details are the whole point, and the "story" is generally a contrived mechanism to string together the erotic scenes.
The kind of thing I can think of where it might be appropriate is to reveal some character/personality trait (maybe a hint of sadism or some sort of inadequecy), which can be done without an overabundance of detail.
Other people might enjoy a brief diversion from the story for some steamy voyeurism, as it's not uncommon to see.
I think the sex scenes are similar to fight scenes: they exist solely for the purpose of existing. I use fight scenes more often than sex scenes because they are simply more useful.
I avoided a sex scene in a story by giving the reader the marriage ritual and then the bride and groom went into an empty house and closed down the curtain door. One hour later they came out. We all know what happened in there, no need to get graphical because it would not do anything for the story. The marriage itself was a vital part of the plot.
Thanks for all the advice -- I did vaguely recall that this topic had been discussed before, but to find it I just did a search through the forums for the word "sex," and that came up with only a few unrelated discussions. I think nontrivial sex scenes can exist in a non-romance novel and not destroy the character of the work, though I've often found them to be somewhat humorous. Kelly Armstrong is a notable author who rarely leaves the reader outside the room when two important characters get it on, and though they are nontrivially detailed, they don't feel at all pornographic.
To answer a few questions/respond to various thoughts:
quote:Read a bunch of romance books.
There are many things I've done, studies I've undertaken, etc, to help my writing, and it has come a long way because of those things. There are very few things I wouldn't be willing to do to further improve. Reading a dozen romance novels may very well be one of them.
With regards to the many comments about how sex fits into certain genres better than others -- this particular WIP is hard-ish scifi, but I think it fits the character of the story. From the comments above, I'm still relatively confident that it works. It is somewhat early in the story, but the scene itself greatly develops two of the main characters, one of whom (the guy, who is also the POV here) is a virgin. His perspective and thoughts, IMO, are what make the scene: the constant struggle of anxiety and desire not to screw it up versus the holy$@&!thisisreallyhappeningohmygodohmygod. It's also the source of much humor in the scene. I definitely don't believe that this scene exists for the purpose of existing - it seemed to write itself as I was going through the natural progression of the plot. In fact, I hadn't planned on them getting together till much later.
One other reason I'm particularly attached to this scene is because it does an excellent job of fitting in to the greater theme of the story as a whole. In a nutshell, a group of college kids, most of whom are trust fund babies, sneak off in a one of their parents' ships to head to what is basically a resort planet. As far as they're concerned, it's a week of gambling, booze, and sex. Very shortly after entering the "jump" (my FTL), they realize that the ship has been set to go off the grid, and as they realize they are going to a place where their parents' money can't buy them out of anything and they have no way to go home (it is nontrivial to make the right jump, and they're off the grid, so they don't know how to get back), they are uncomfortably jarred out of their extended adolescence and forced to grow up fast.
This scene, which occurs shortly after the s__t has hit the fan and everybody knows that they are in big trouble, works both as a way to get to know how two of the characters think, and as a symbolic way of "making a man" of the character who otherwise appeared to be the most grown up.
I'll post a request for crit in the frag&feedback section. BTW - I don't want to violate any board policies: is there a min age in profile under which I shouldn't offer the chapter for crit? I'm not a big believer in censorship myself, but I'm also not a parent.
My experience with reading sex in hard sci-fi has been an unhappy one. I couldn't tell you what about it was so off-putting without going back and reading some, which I don't want to do, but I think it had to do with the emotionlessness of it. It's rarely put in there for love's sake, and often the male character mixes up the two things (i.e. if the sex is good enough, it must be love) which is not really the way I think life works. Plus it's often unbelievably kinky. Blech.
Personally, I don't write sex scenes. I try to keep my characters relatively chaste (I write mostly YA). But occasionally they get into a situation where I know the general public isn't going to believe nothing happened. Ah well. Let them think what they want to. I know the truth.
quote:I try to keep my characters relatively chaste
The vast majority of my main characters tend to stay that way for reasons other than because their author doesn't feel like writing such a scene. My YA MC enjoys 'making out sessions' just as much as the next teenaged boy, but he knows that sex (and the potential consequences) will severely derail his lofty goals, so he abstains. One of my SF MCs is simply too busy with all the obstacles I've heaps on him to even think about sex. And, the only women one of my other SF MC spends time with during the course of the story are alien, so sex simply ain't gonna happen.
Although, with my upcoming mainstream WIP, the word 'celibacy' doesn't exist...which explains why I'm so interested in this thread.
D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, 1928, untold publication numbers, banned in Great Britain until 1960. U.S. until 1959. Jacqueline Susan's Valley of the Dolls, 1966, 30 million copies sold. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower, 1972, pioneered the modern romance novel genre, sold 2.3 million copies in its first four years in print.
This may go without saying, but then again, it may not. Don't even try to write sex scenes if you don't know what you're talking about. (I say this because I suspect there are several unmarried LDS people on this forum). If you haven't had sex, don't try to write the scene based on what you've seen in tv shows, movies, other books, etc., because they tend to be wildly inaccurate. It's the kind of thing that you really can't learn about secondhand. If you want your writing to have any authenticity, I would say do not try to write sex scenes if you have never been in one yourself.
Of course, that doesn't mean your characters can never have sex, just that you probably won't be able to describe the act itself with any kind of authenticity, so drawing the curtain and skipping ahead may be the best option.
... I'm not a member of any of the groups implied in the statement above, but isn't it a little bit offensive to imply that unmarried + LDS == virgin?
I do agree that you should probably avoid writing sex scenes absent any experience in said arena, but I'd shy away from associating one's level of experience with religion or marital status. I'd especially avoid making statements about a group if I wasn't a member of the group in question...
My experience with crits is that men have a tendency to portray the women unrealistically when it comes to "romance" scenes. They have women doing things an intelligent woman would never do, like showing total lack of good judgement, being moronically stupid, being a shrieking shrew, etc. Through that I have surmised some personal issues on the part of the writer mixed up in those character portrayals. I've also seen the same thing in reverse from women writers; don't make the man too gushy and girlie. Don't even attempt a romance scene unless you approach it with respect for the gender of both parties. Your scene won't be believable if the reader can't respect the attraction between the two.
I want to take a moment to rant about the tv/movie portrayals of women in labor. It's clear to me when I see these scenes that they were 1) written by men, and 2) acted by women who have never given birth.
Some scenes do, indeed, require personal experience to portray them accurately. A graphic romance scene should in some way convey the emotions going on... the physical act is far less interesting than the stirrings of the heart taking place: the longing, the resistance, the surrender, the overwhelm.
quote:I'd especially avoid making statements about a group if I wasn't a member of the group in question...
I apologize if anybody took offense to my assuming they might live chastely.
For the record, micmcd, I am in fact a member of the group in question. ("LDS," anyways, and a former member of "unmarried LDS.") I am well aware that not all unmarried LDS people are virgins. However, unmarried LDS people are statistically more likely to be virgins than the general populace. (Yes, I am making assumptions; no, I do not have any facts to back it up.) Reading the previous posts, and knowing OSC's popularity in the LDS community, I thought of stories I have read that had sex scenes that were very obviously written by people who had no idea what sex is like, and how wildly inauthentic they were. Did I have to associate my comment with mormons? No, but I did, because that's what I was thinking about.
Seriously, do I have to be PC about this? Heaven forbid I make the offensive assumption that people might be living the principles they believe in.
quote:I'd shy away from associating one's level of experience with religion or marital status
Really? Because I'm pretty sure religion and marital status have a pretty big impact on one's sex life.
Anyone who was offended by my assumption of your virginity, let me know, and I'll email you a personal apology card.
[This message has been edited by wetwilly (edited August 14, 2009).]
wetwilly -- It's ok, I didn't mean to level the PC smackdown. I kind of figured you were LDS, as it would be fine for someone in the church to say something like that, but kind of rude for someone outside of it to say (... like if I (not LDS) said "yeah, b/c I totally know that mormons basically never do it before marriage"), as it implies you know the how people in that group live (which you do, because you're in it).
quote:I'm pretty sure religion and marital status have a pretty big impact on one's sex life.
They can be big influences, but often (in my experience) not in the most stereotypical way. I have single friends who have had way more/crazier sex than I have, some of whom belong to various churches and others who don't. When I was in high school, the people I knew who got laid the most were from church. And when I was in college, I actually knew a fair number of LDS members, some of whom were quite strict adherents to their faith, others of whom introduced me to the joy of beer, and one of whom actually became something of an outcast in her community when she came out as a lesbian. And on the other end of the backwards scale, I've known an atheist who was more uptight about sex than anyone in any church I've ever been to, and was basically too frightened to have any until she was married (was worried about the biological & emotional consequences, not so much the religious ones).
Anyhow, I didn't mean to be a jerk about it - that was just one of those sentences that set off my "careful!" alarm, as I know people who've gotten pilloried, so to speak, for less. I figured you were LDS, and therefore more qualified to make the statement, and I was aware of the popularity of OSC among LDS, so it made sense.
@Andrew_McGown - It's a provocative title, but only unfortunate if you don't have the mind of an adolescent, as my wife so often reminds me that I do.
quote:I've known an atheist who was more uptight about sex than anyone in any church I've ever been to, and was basically too frightened to have any until she was married (was worried about the biological & emotional consequences, not so much the religious ones).
That would be an interesting, off-beat kind of character for a story.
I knew an atheist who regularly attended the same church I did. The religious stuff made her roll her eyes, but she thought the "where the rubber hits the road" type of lessons taught by our pastors made it well worth her while to attend.
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quote:If you want your writing to have any authenticity, I would say do not try to write sex scenes if you have never been in one yourself.
I disagree with this statement completely. Substitute "sex scenes" with "alien culture", "murder", "adultery", or anything else in which one does not have first-hand experience.
Make it up. And if the details are beyond one's ability to adequately portray any of the acts above, then read up on it as others have suggested. Or ask someone.
However, though I'm a sick bastard with a dirty mind, I don't think sex scenes are all that important unless it's a romance novel, or erotica. It's like using gore in a horror story; a little goes a long way.
Rich, sex scenes aren't the same as alien culture and murder, because most readers will have strong first-hand memories of sex and none of (space) alien culture nor murder. Certainly, someone could try to research sex to write about it, and that might work. However, if they leave out the details common in sexual experiences, then readers will feel cheated.
I also think sex can be vital in stories outside of the Romance and Erotica genres, because they can show a great deal about the characters--how they act under pressure, how they feel about others, etc.--and it can send the plot in a different direction. That's not to say that all stories need a sex scene, but writers (with some experience with sex) who shy from writing a sex scene simply because it's uncomfortable to them could risk the emotional connection with their readers.
quote:To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.
quote:How do you prefer your sex scenes? Nonexistent? As explicit as possible? Funny?
That depends on the story. I'll accept any of the above as long as it's a natural outcome of preceding scenes.
quote:Are there cliches that you've actually seen in published work that piss you off (or turn you off)?
Every sex scene I can recall was different, as they should be.
quote:Are there non-cliche things that irritate you?
The use of food in sex creeps me out. In Elizabeth's Benedict's excellent The Joy of Writing Sex, there's an example involving eggplant that still bothers me, about a year after I first read it.
quote:Is there anything that a good sex scene absolutely needs?
The same things any good scene needs. Feeling and reaction.
quote:[I]f two characters (at least one of whom is usually or always POV) get it on, and as the reader you're left waiting out in the living room, does that disappoint you?
That depends on how important the sex is to the story. In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, most of Harry's (rather slow) sex life happens off-scene, and that doesn't disappoint me. Butcher shows us what's happening when it matters--like when Dresden succumbs to his half-vampire (ex?) girlfriend. That scene shows readers how much those characters have lost and that they are prisoners to their desires as well as to their sense of responsibility.
The best scenes, in my mind, are those that focus on emotion rather than action. That's why I don't bother reading modern-day Romance novels. If the scene is all about action, then you're probably better off ripping it out of the story.
*Edited to delete extra spaces around quotes.*
[This message has been edited by aspirit (edited August 16, 2009).]
I had a long response, aspirit, but I read your comments a little further along.
You say that any good scene needs "feeling and reaction". Sex itself is a purely physical act that may or may not have emotion attached to it. A good writer, virgin or not, can adequately portray a sex scene since it's the emotions that are conveyed to the reader, not the technical aspects of the sex act.
Actually, I think most of your last response is a good rebuttal to your own statement that a writer without first-hand experience should refrain from writing a sex scene.
I think those without experience can get away with writing a scene or two if it makes sense in the story. It's just wise to do a fair amount of research - perhaps in a book, perhaps in video form -- lest you end up with a "bag of sand" moment (re: 40 Y.O. Virgin)
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A sex scene can be an in medias res opening, one or more of the main crises of a plot, a lesser crisis of setback or letdown, a climax, or a resolution scene. I suppose a sex scene can also be a bridging scene between dramactic scenes. A sex scene can occur at any meaningful time in a story.
Amatory romance novels are prone toward resolution sex scenes, some thrillers too, mystery and spy. There's more potential dramatic meaning in a seduction buildup and fallout or aftermath, though, than in the actual sexual action.
The traditional classic romance story depends in part on a love interest that drives sexual tension, not necessarily depicting a sex scene, but sometimes with a widely recognized symbolic depiction like waves crashing on a beach during a moonrise instead.
A sex scene can be a cause or effect. It can be a calamity or a triumph or a relief from sexual tension or a reciprocal/nonreciprocal resolution of a purpose, goal, desire, etc.
Kelley Eskridge's "Dangerous Space" has one sex scene that's depicted as gratuitous, but not gratuitously depicted. It's a meaningless encounter for the participants, but meaningful to the story.
Sexual tension, a primary feature of any story with a love interest, is a significantly meaningful attribute building up to any sex scene, requited or unrequited. I doubt anyone who's postadolescent hasn't personally experienced some level of sexual tension.
[This message has been edited by extrinsic (edited August 17, 2009).]
I didn't state that a writer can't create a good sex scene, or should refrain from trying to write one, without first-hand experience. My point (in part) is someone without experience must exert more care than someone who can pull from memory.
Anyway, rich, we seem to disagree on the meaning of a couple of words.
If intense enough, a kissing scene is a sex scene. A scene with a single character can be a sex scene. An experienced person can still be a virgin, depending on the definition used.
What you mean by emotion, I have no idea. The only real person I know who doesn't feel any emotion during sex is a married man who was paralyzed physically and emotionally in a car accident. Though he regained normal external function of his body over the years, he still can't feel emotion at all.
The thing is, anyone can write the technical aspects of sex. I could have written porn easy-peasy when I was a teenager, though I had no personal experiences with it. An anatomy book and locker talk gives a person that kind of knowledge. But without first-experience, how do you know what sex feels like?
Research, yes. The kind of research that tells the writer how individuals interpret the act, not how they physically did it. With enough skill and a brilliant imagination, the writer can create the scene into more than stolen meanings.
My apologies, apsirit. I thought you agreed with the statement about having experience before writing sex scenes.
We do disagree on some things, though, and it's obvious from your "kissing scene is a sex scene" that we'll never agree. Kissing, no matter how intense, is not sex. It can be erotic, but it can't be sex.
I think there's a confusion between "love" and "sex". One doesn't need to love someone (emotion) in order to have sex. Do you think a hooker feels emotion during sex?
Anyway, I'll stop now, but just say that if there's a writer out there who doesn't have sexual experience, but wants to write about it, then by all means go ahead. Like anything else in writing, one can try to fake it, and the reader will let you know if you were a good liar.
Continuing on semantics (and I apologize if it's inappropriate to the thread): There's a difference between "sex" and "sex scene". Erotic (rather than platonic) kissing is a sexual activity in that it arouses and (however rare) can cause orgasm; thereby, it's sex. Of course, no one needs to agree with me on that.
Sex scenes aren't easy to define. I think of them as any scene that shows or implies sexual activity. That includes a scene in which characters are kissing and moving towards more by the scene break.
Do I think a hooker feels emotion during sex? Yes, unless she's trained herself to disconnect completely, and I'd think using a mask of suitable emotions would be easier. That is, she acknowledges what she needs to feel (the emotions the writer would show) and suppresses anything unsuitable (probably shown in another scene).
quote:Anyway, I'll stop now, but just say that if there's a writer out there who doesn't have sexual experience, but wants to write about it, then by all means go ahead. Like anything else in writing, one can try to fake it, and the reader will let you know if you were a good liar.
quote:We do disagree on some things, though, and it's obvious from your "kissing scene is a sex scene" that we'll never agree. Kissing, no matter how intense, is not sex. It can be erotic, but it can't be sex.
As a great man once said, "That depends on what the definition of 'is' is."
I believe Zero is referring to a character from Burn Notice who uses that saying often in response to difficult assignments.
I find sex scenes a bit tacky, not because I'm offended by them, but because I expect that out of cheap romance novels and not a sci-fi story or other specific peaces of literature that interest me. If an author is planning on going there, I would like to get a hint of it first. I guess it does depend on how detailed the scene is - I just don't see a lot of detail as necessary. These things are cheap gimmicks in movies, and I feel the same way about them in literature.
[This message has been edited by philocinemas (edited August 18, 2009).]