So one of my clients has been wrestling with the question of how to present a sex scene between his two favorite characters. He swings between flummoxed (oh, no! writer’s block!) and exuberant (hooleeee mackerel!). I think there’s an in-between, but am not sure how to explain it. Assuming there is an in-between.
When an author addresses the sexual frolics of a story’s characters, he or she runs into a slew of challenges:
- One’s own hang-ups. (Thanks, Mom & Dad! Thanks, Favorite Sixth-Grade Teacher!)
- 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.
Oh. Ahem. Sorry! One could add: “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 him as a sort of example. This gets him past his Victorian mores and jump-starts a pretty lively exchange. But I think it’s 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 experience and his 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.
In this one, Aniel and his wife Jenna reflect on an episode in which young Tavio almost got himself killed, and which led the warlord Kaybrel to risk his own life to track him through a blizzard and rescue him. Although Tavi is scolded and punished mildly, he escapes serious censure. Aniel, however, remains skeptical.
In their quarters later that night, Jenna and Ani curled up together, warm under layers of blankets, and basked in the afterglow of their love-making. A single candle burned on the nightstand. Ani gazed at Jenna’s delicately flushed face, a wisp of hair at the temple still damp with sweat, and thought how perfect this slender, small woman was, and how miraculous it was that life had brought him to her.
“Do you think Kay will let Tavi come with us when we go up to Cham Fos?” Jenna asked. The kubna and kubnath planned to visit Bett Kubnath of Cham Fos and the exotic newcomer, Hapa Cottrite, shortly before the winter solstice and then return to Moor Lek to officiate at the town’s midwinter religious holidays. They would take the children, of course. That meant Jenna would go along to help care for them and Ani to manhandle luggage and deal with the horses and carriage.
“I dunno,” Ani said. “There’s really no reason for him to. Why should he?”
“Well, Tavi might like to see his friend Duarto. And to see what Cham Fos is like.”
“You and I won’t need any help,” Ani replied, “so it would make more sense to keep him on the job. Especially if he’s going to make the kid live at Jehm and Nina’s house.”
“All work and no play…,” Jenna said.
Ani chuckled. “I think it’s the other way around with that kid!”
She stifled a giggle. Then she ran her fingers up Ani’s muscular arm, along the collarbone, and up the side of his neck. He shivered with pleasure.
“Want to go again?” he asked.
“Could be,” she said.
“Well,” he said and kissed her shell-pink cheek, “give me a chance to catch my breath, OK?” He planted a line of exquisitely gentle kisses from her cheek to the back of her ear, then across her jaw to her lips, where he paused and savored before laying back against the pillows. She breathed a contented sigh, turned toward him, and laid an arm over his shoulder, waiting for him to feel ready again.
“Kay was kind of harsh on Tavi this evening,” she remarked.
“Don’t think so,” Aniel said.
“‘Not as much sense as God gave a donkey?’ That wasn’t very kind.”
Ani laughed aloud. “But so accurate,” he said.
Jenna couldn’t help laughing, too, but then added “Making him stay in town is pretty hard. He seemed really upset by that.”
“I’m sure. If he has to stay in the shop until Jehm knocks off, he’ll have to put in a full day’s work. That is rough.”
“He’s just a kid,” she said.
Ani fell silent for a moment, thinking about this. If Tavio was “just a kid,” he reflected, then Ani was Maire’s pet cat. What they both had seen of the wars in Socalia would make a man of a boy at any age, if it didn’t turn him into a raving lunatic. Tavi was every bit as much a toughened camp boy as Ani had been a dozen years before, when the Okan warlords were barreling around the south, fomenting trouble between the provinces and the alacaldo Consayo of Roksan, raiding towns, and burning villages. Out there in the field, Kay and his cousin, Mitchel Kubna of Cham Fos (God rest him and long may his name be honored), had rolled the dice for a tasty prize: Aniel. Kay won.
So, Ani supposed, had he. Ultimately. Jenna breathed softly beside him. Ani brushed a finger across her cheek.
“Doesn’t it strike you that there’s something odd about that story?” he said. The candle was guttering, and he spoke the question more or less into the dark.
“Well, I mean the whole thing about him supposedly leaving Jehm’s shop in time to get back here before the worst of the storm hit and then the thing coming up faster than they expected.”
“He…well, he has to walk home before it gets dark,” she said.
“Yeah, but think about it: after the first snow started to fall, it was a good thirty, forty-five minutes before this blizzard set in.
“It’s only a fifteen- or twenty-minute walk from the town to the keep. If he’d left when he said he did—when he might have some excuse for saying he couldn’t tell the thing would turn into a whiteout—then he should’ve gotten here ahead of the storm.
“Besides. Jehm’s no donkey. He wouldn’t have let the kid go if he could see a blizzard right on top of them.”
“So…what do you think happened?” Jenna asked.
“Dunno. Either he left later than he said he did—in which case Jehm wouldn’t have let him go out into a storm like this—or he went someplace on the way home.”
“Where on earth would he go? You think he has a secret girlfriend?”
“Not likely!” Ani said. He chuckled again at the thought. “No, I reckon he probably dawdled on the way back. Lollygagged up into the woods chasing butterflies—who knows?”
“Maybe the storm blew up faster there. The town’s closer to the lake than we are.”
“Maybe. It’s fishy, though. I wonder if he’s being straight with Kay. If he’s not, he surely deserves what he gets. He put his own life in danger, and Kay risked his to go get him and haul him home.”
Time to change the subject, Jenna thought. She propped herself on an elbow, found Ani’s mouth with her lips, then gave him a deep, probing kiss. She felt him catch his breath and stir beneath her hand.
“My turn to get on top,” she whispered. Her cascading blonde hair fell over their faces like a veil between them and the darkened world.
This particular scene, which at the outset wasn’t conceived as an erotic scene, uses the two characters’ love-making as a kind of frame story, an event in which the retrospective narration of other events is set.
It serves at least four purposes:
- To advance the plot.
- To characterize Aniel and Jenna.
- To introduce and explain Ani’s increasingly jaundiced view of Tavi.
- To add a little spice to the narrative.
Like any scene in a piece of fiction, I suspect 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.
A sex scene needs to add spice. But it also needs to serve another purpose. Jalapeños, after all, are full of vitamin C.