The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction
This book is a work in progress. A new chapter appears here each week, usually on Fridays. To see all the chapters published so far, visit the *FREE READ* page for The Complete Writer. You can buy a copy of the entire book, right now, in PDF format, or, if you like, as a paperback. For details, visit our Books page or send a request through our Contact form.
Please note: This chapter contains a scene that may not be appropriate for all readers. If you are uncomfortable with depiction of sexuality, please pass over this chapter.
Writing Sex Scenes
One of my clients was wrestling with the question of how to present a sex scene between his two favorite characters. He would swing between flummoxed (oh, no! writer’s block!) and exuberant (yipes!). Though I recognized that there’s an in-between, I also found myself wrestling: trying to explain how to handle it.
When an author addresses the sexual frolics of a story’s characters, he or she confronts a slew of challenges:
- One’s own hang-ups.
- One’s own fantasies (Even in fiction, there’s such a thing as over-sharing . . .)
- The characters’ hang-ups and fantasies
- The influence of other authors’ sex scenes (“and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)
- The sense that it is impossible to improve on some other author’s sex scene (see above.)
- Political correctness
- Resentment of political correctness
- Absence of political correctness
- Expectations of the perceived audience
- Imagined or real hang-ups of the perceived audience
One could go on at length. As it were.
We could add to the list of challenges: “The essential ludicrousness of the sex act between human beings and the difficulty of making a love scene appear less than (or more than) ludicrous.”
I try to advise, but am limited by all of the above. I certainly have written a number of very randy sex scenes, one of which, with some trepidation, I copy and send over to him as a sort of example.
This gets him past his Victorian mores and jump-starts a pretty lively exchange between the characters. But now I think the result is a bit much. Baroque, even.
When it comes to writing sex, there’s a fine line between not enough and too much; between wimpy and creepy. And as for what the readers want to read? It’s anyone’s guess.
Personally, I think the writer is better served by restraint than by extravagance, where sexuality is concerned. Tone it up. Tone it down. But make it part of the story.
As a real-life human being’s sexuality cannot be divorced from his or her experience and milieu, so a fictional character’s sex life must fit into the plot and the action. Whatever that character gets up to must relate in some way, preferably in a significant way, to the ongoing narrative.
From one of our pseudonymous authors writing as Roberta Stuart comes a passage from Cabin Fever. In that novelette, a crusty sea-salt of a lady yacht cabin hires a young man to help crew her boat across the Caribbean so that she can meet some tourists who await her arrival. At the outset, she takes him for a rich-boy frat rat looking for a little adventure, but as the story proceeds we see he’s deeper than that. The two fight the attraction slowly growing between them…until that fateful night…
When my alarm woke me at midnight, the chop had subsided somewhat. I climbed the ladder and stepped into a world transformed.
The moon was high and full, and all around me, the sea glowed as if lit from within. Millions of plankton, too small to be seen with the naked eye, hung suspended in the water. And everywhere, as the water moved and the moon struck them, they lit with a bioluminescent glow.
Pete needs to see this.
I bolted back down the ladder. “Pete!”
He sat bolt upright, and if we’d had stacked bunks, he’d have put himself out like a light. “What’s wrong?” He lunged for his shorts.
I hadn’t meant to worry him. “Nothing’s wrong. Something I want you to see, is all.”
He let out his breath. “Oh. Okay.” He rummaged for his shorts.
“Never mind that! Who’s going to see you? Come on! I bolted back topside without waiting to see whether he followed.
He did, of course. He stopped short halfway out of the hatch.
“Wow,” he breathed. He came up the rest of the way and turned in a slow circle, taking it in. “It—it’s beautiful.”
I swallowed hard. No matter how many times I’d seen it, it always got me that way, too. “Go up front and look at the bow.”
By the time I’d checked the readings and updated the log, Pete was standing braced at the front of the boat, watching the phosphorescent wave rolling away from the bow. “It’s like magic,” he said when he heard me behind him.
I sat down on the decking, and after a moment, Pete flopped down beside me, his leg warm against mine.
“Bioluminescent plankton,” I told him, a little short of breath. “The moonlight hits them and they—”
“I know.” A slow grin spread across his face. “I’ve heard of it, but I never thought I’d get to see it. Thank you.” His eyes watered up a little. “Thank you.” And before I knew he was going to do it, he leaned down and kissed me, very gently, right on the lips.
Bad idea. Terrible idea. I drew back to tell him so, and then I was kissing him, full on, my arm coming up around his neck to steady us both.
We fell back on the deck together, side by side. Our arms came around each other, and our legs tangled as we pressed close together.
Pete’s hands came up to cup my breasts through my shirt, thumbs squeezing my nipples gently. I groaned and ran my fingernails up his spine, goading him.
His tongue darted between my lips and slid away, and mine chased it eagerly. It felt wonderful, lying here on Fever’s deck with his hands and mouth on me, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
I cupped his balls through his shorts, then squeezed his hard-on. He groaned into my mouth. “I want you,” I growled.
“God, yes!” Pete reached down and freed his cock from his shorts, and I slithered out of my panties, kicking them away.
His eyes widened when I rolled him onto his back and straddled him. “Is this okay?”
“Yeah. I mean, it— Yeah. It’s great.” His cock twitched beneath me. “It’s wonderful.”
I lined us up and he slid into me, filling me. Damn, it felt good!
Pete’s hands came up to squeeze my breasts again. I yanked my shirt over my head, swung it like a rodeo cowboy, and let it fly. I thought it landed somewhere on the boathouse.
Fever pitched a little, and I grabbed Pete’s arm to steady myself. I leaned back and slapped his thigh. “Lift up a little.” He brought his knees up a bit and I tucked my heels under his thighs, locking us together. There was no way I was coming off him now, not even if we both slid right off the deck. Pete propped his hands up and I braced myself on them and began to ride.
I rode with the motion of the boat, letting it move me. Up and up as we crested a wave, then down into the trough, Pete plunging deep into me. As we bottomed out, I ground hard against his pubic bone. Then the next wave was lifting me, and I was soaring higher and higher into the night air.
Up. Down. Around. Up. Down. Around.
I could have gone on like that forever, surging and falling with the sea. But all too soon, my orgasm came crashing over me like a wave.
Like any scene in a piece of fiction, the effective sex scene does more than add spice. Otherwise you get a hot tamale with no interest other than its jalapeños. Not that we don’t enjoy the occasional hot tamale . . . but Man cannot live on jalapeños alone.
This passage echoes not only the sights and feel of the open ocean but resonates with the characters’ faltering resistance to their mutual attraction. It continues to characterize the two while it moves the plot’s action forward.
A sex scene needs to add spice. But it also needs to serve another purpose. Jalapeños, after all, are full of vitamin C.
What NOT to do . . .
My goodness, there’s some bad writing out there! Most “erotic romances” are awful: graced with dangling modifiers (some of them truly funny), typos, unidiomatic language (“grinded”; “withering” for “writhing”; and on and on), lapses in point of view, characters dissolving pointlessly in laughter, eye-glazing clichés . . .
Oh, well. Clearly literature is not what people are buying the things for.
Some erotica does display workmanlike writing, and some stories are even done with style and humor. But even those self-consciously deploy tried-and-true tropes. There’s a sameness to the things, especially where the female characters are concerned.
The female character almost invariably is said to be lonely: either she describes herself as lonely, explicitly, or some other character observes or speculates that she’s lonely.
As the story unwinds, the woman is “rescued” in some way from an unhappy relationship with a former husband or boyfriend. The male lover(s)’ sex is better, kinder, hotter, more positive all the way around.
The female character yearns for change or sometimes simply for an outrageous spree.
She often is described as feeling self-conscious or insecure about herself.
Attraction is immediate, as you’d expect in such short pieces—the characters lust after each other at first glance.
Men are described as “gods.”
Men are often described as cooking or doing some other domestic activity; this seems to be part of their appeal or at least a repeating trope.
We’ll redact some of the other observations, lest the young, the impressionable, or the tender be reading. Suffice it to say that all the way across the board, a kind of monotony reigns.
It explains why some very, very silly things rise to the top in the erotic romance genre. Like the series about the woman who gets it on with Bigfoot.
Yes. That one is said to be authored by a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the kiddies.
Erotica vs. porn
In front of me I had the work of an author who would like to publish with Camptown Races Press and whom we would like to have writing for us. After plowing through his current effort, I thought, Where’s my coffee? Toss in an extra shot of espresso, please. . .
Once again I tried, as I have tried with various scribblers in the past, to explain about writing sex scenes. This boils down, really, to explaining the difference between erotica and pornography.
Pornography is a variety of erotica, but erotica is not a variety of pornography. As author Kate Douglas wrote in her essay “Writing the Fine Line between Erotica and Porn” (published in Shoshanna Evers’s collection, How to Write Hot Sex), the term erotic means “having to do with sexual love; amatory.” Pornography is “intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” Amatory has to do with love, whereas unalloyed sexual desire amounts to lust.
There’s a difference.