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23 September 2009

Sex as a Literary Challenge

In her recent post Pam talked about writing a seduction scene. Which got me to thinking about writing love scenes. Or to be more accurate, sex scenes, as there are certainly love scenes that don’t involve sex, except as subtext. Sex scenes are perhaps a particular challenge for the historical novelist because, as Pam said, of the need to carry "with it the feeling of its historically understood world, quite as fully as any other scene in the novel." Which includes everything from the mores of the time to contraception or the lack of it to details of clothing as it is removed (with which last issue Kalen is a wonderful resource).

When I first began co-writing Regency romances with my mom, under the name Anthea Malcolm, my friends teased me that our books started very chaste and slowly got more explicit. In our first book, The Widow’s Gambit, the characters barely embraced. In the second, The Courting of Philippa, there were more detailed kisses. (There was also a description of birth control methods when the radical reformer hero took the Silver Fork novelist heroine to a meeting put on by another reformer). In the third, Frivolous Pretence, which focused on an estranged married couple, there was an actual sex scene, though it faded to black. Our fifth book, A Touch of Scandal, had ex-lovers who resumed an illicit affair. Sex scenes were part of the story. I told my mom she had to write them. Our sixth book, An Improper Proposal, was a marriage of convenience story. My mom said, “You have to write one of the sex scenes this time.” I wrote my first draft of the scene on a day when my mom was out shopping. And (this is true, though it sounds so funny now), I turned down the screen on my computer, so I couldn’t look at the words as I typed them. When my mom got home that night, I said, “Okay, I wrote the scene. Go look at it and tell me what you think. But I don’t want to be there when you read it.”

Oddly enough, after that first scene I stopped being embarrassed about writing sex scenes. I got to find them quite a fun challenge, especially trying to make each one true to those particular characters and that stage in their relationship (my favorite, I think, is the one in Shadows of the Heart, which takes place in the crypt of a church after the hero and heroine have narrowly escaped being killed). But when I wrote Secrets of a Lady, it was quite obvious to me that after the opening interrupted sex scene, Charles and Mélanie were too focused on finding the Carevalo Ring and getting their son back to stop to have sex. On top of the fact that their relationship is so strained that Charles finds it difficult even to look Mel in the face let alone make love to her. In fact one of the reasons I had Mélanie be attacked fairly early in the story was to break through some of the distance between them so that Charles at least touches her. If you examine the book, their physical contact slowly increases through their desperate adventures in search of the ring and Colin.

In Beneath a Silent Moon, (which thematically is in many ways all about sex), Charles and Mélanie do make love fairly early in the story. When I wrote the scene, I automatically faded to black without thinking about it. I did the same with a later sex scene in the book. Despite the fact that what happens between them in the second scene is important to their relationship. They both think about the scene later. Charles even apologizes to Mélanie for it being "without thought." But I rather like the fact that it's left up to the reader's imagination to fill in precisely what did happen, why it disturbs Charles, why Mel is much more matter-of-fact about it. I’ve come full circle, in a way, from from being embarrassed to write sex scenes to enjoying writing them to liking the mystery of not showing everything. Of hinting at exactly who does what and how and what it means to them but leaving a great deal up to the reader’s imagination.

When I blogged about this topic on my own website, our own Mary Blayney said "I love writing sex scenes, but I find the longer I spend creating them the less effective they are. I think it has everything to do with my understanding of the characters sexuality which I have to admit I do not always know as well as I know other aspects of their lives."

I had thought about it in quite those terms before, but I think understanding a character's sexuality may be one of the more elusive pieces of developing a character. One can know a person very well without knowing about the intimate aspects of their life. And the historical novelist has to think her or himself into the head of someone whose sexuality is influenced by the societal pressures of another era. Depending on the era about which one is writing, one sometimes has to tease attitudes toward sexuality out of subtext in letters and journals and literature of the era (while in other eras the historical record is much more frank and explicit).

In the discussion on my website, Cate commented on sex scenes that are less explicitly detailed. "One of my favourites is Laurie R King’s Russell, who writes throwaway lines like: 'And then my husband came in looking very handsome in his suit and one thing led to another and we never got around to talking about X until morning.' (Forgive my paraphrasing, I don’t have my books handy.) It so wonderfully suits the characters of Russell and Holmes.

"I find lines like that almost more entertaining than fully-described scenes. Just so delightfully understated — and I can imagine as much or as little as I wish to on my own. I tend to write scenes like this for my own characters, but not always."

I too love the way Laurie King handles handles these moments. The throwaway lines can either be witty as in the example Cate quoted or quite emotionally powerful (as in a later scene from The Moor where Russell is upset–understandably–after having just viewed a dead body and Holmes comes in (reappearing unexpectedly after an absence) and holds her (”Holmes was always very satisfactory at determining, with a minimum of clues, what in a given situation was the required course of action.”). I also love that if you read King closely you can often figure out the physicality of a scene (say how Russell and Holmes are lying in bed) without her overtly describing it.

How do you feel about sex scenes? What makes them work or not? How detailed do you like them to be? Writers, how do you approach writing sex scenes? Do you enjoy writing them or find them a chore? How much detail do you go into? Has your approach to them changed through the years or with the type of books you write?

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20 Comments:

Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Thanks for re-visiting this Tracy -- as a writer one of the problems I have with scenes that focus on the physical relationship of the characters is what it does to the pacing of the story. It slows the story, unless you are writing a moment by moment or, like King, you can convey a lot with very few words. In the current romance market, "a lot in a few words" is not acceptable.

5:05 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I so agree, Mary. Pacing is a major reason I fade to black with these scenes now that my books are primarily suspense-driven. Ideally sex scenes are scenes like any other and move the story forward, but. especially if there's a strong plot outside the romantic relationship, love scenes can seem to slow things down (you don't want the reader thinking "why are you taking time for that when the castle is under siege/the dead bodies are piling up/your brother is missing, etc..."). I always found it particularly difficult with with later sex scenes. The first one advances the story at least in terms of the hero and heroine's relationship undergoing an obvious change. It was more of a challenge--sometimes a fun and interesting challenge--to make the later ones also reflect some shift or progression in the relationship.

10:18 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Mary goes straight to the heart of the matter. In a genre that demands STORY, but that also increasingly demands SEX, how do you reconcile the two necessities?

This hasn't bothered me as much as it might, perhaps because I started in BDSM erotica, where the story IS the escalation of transgression, of breaking down the boundaries of privacy, custom, shame. Having learned this lesson, I think I've always tried to line up my erotic scenes to raise the stakes of the relationship and push the demands of intimacy.

Except that sounds so p.c., as though the relationship were some stern taskmaster and intimacy a moral value -- as though there's no time to waste on our way to the ending. Perhaps an erotic scene should, in some way, slow things down, create a guilty pleasure for author and reader as well as characters (to me there are always at least 4 people in that literary bed). I can't say this is easy to do (or even when it works whether it's to every reader's taste) but to me there's something wonderful about giving in to desire, being overwhelmed by present pleasure even when the plot is screaming for resolution.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a fascinating concept, Pam--the reader and the writer stopping to indulge themselves in the moment along with the characters. As with so many things in writing a lot is in the execution. But as you say I also think the response would vary from reader to reader because some readers would enjoy the indulgence along with the characters while others would find it a distraction from the story (I confess I've been known to skim sex scenes, especially late in a book if they don't seem to be revealing anything about the characters or developing their relationship).

1:19 PM  
Blogger Le Loup said...

I think if the story revolves around the sex scene then it should be explicit, the more the better. If it is just part of a bigger story then I see no point in dallying in the sex act, get on with the story.
If a person buys the book because it promises sexual arousal, then I think you should give them their moneys worth.
Le Loup.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for commenting, Le Loup. I totally agree that is a sex scene is integral to the story the detail doesn't seem extraneous (one of my favorite sex scenes in "Freedom & Necessity" is quite detailed and definitely moves the story forward; it's the only sex scene in the book though).

I'm fascinated by Pam's idea of sex scenes as deliberate diversions from the plot progress. I'd love to hear what more people think about it. I'm still mulling it over. I think I may be too plot-driven as a reader and a writer to enjoy anything that seems to stop the story momentum completely.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I actually find sex scenes particularly easy to write. However, I agree with everyone that sometimes the sex scene can get in the way particularly if it is 20 pages long! Yes, there are actually authors who are guilty of that. I think the first time a couple consummates the relationship you can have a fairly intense sex scene or if the sex comes after a fight or resolving a misunderstanding. What I don't like is 300 pages of sex and 50 pages of plot. I like a little story with my sex.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Louisa Cornell said...

LOL Elizabeth. Great line - A little story with my sex. It is a fine line to walk. Hot historicals are definitely in vogue, but you want to make the sex part of the story and not the other way around. If in the progression of the romance the sex is a natural event then that's great. What I hate is when you have a sex scene inserted every so many pages because that is what is expected.

I don't mind writing sex scenes at all. In fact my store manager found out I won the Between the Sheets contest and someone explained to her it was a sex scene writing contest. She asked to read the scene so I let her. Her one question was "You've been a widow for 15 years. How can you write a scene that hot?" I just smiled and said "I have an excellent memory."

5:29 PM  
Blogger Diane Whiteside said...

For me, sex scenes have become a way to interview my characters since they're at their most vulnerable.

Furthermore, the development of trust between each other at all levels - mental, emotional, physical and spiritual - can be very clearly shown through sex scenes. (This is critical in my Texas vampire books where their lives depends upon establishing a rock-solid foundation of trust.)

Finally, I always enjoy finding more reasons than lust to power a sex scene. My current heroine's first husband was into auto-eroticism and she gets spooked by the simplest things in the bedroom. It's been darned hard cueing sex scenes for her and the hero - and that's a lovely challenge.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, "a little story with my sex" is a great way of putting it :-). I think as you say the first time a couple makes love is usually an important plot point as are reconciliations after a fight or separation. The scenes that tend to drag for me as a reader (and the scenes I would realize were a problem as a writer) are the scenes where the relationship is status quo. Which I think is what Louisa means by "a sex scene inserted every so many pages because that is what is expected."

Louisa, congrats on winning the contest! Very cool. You and Elizabeth and Diane are all lucky that you enjoy writing love scenes. I have friends who will put off writing all of them until the end of the book and then write them all at once.

Diane, sex scenes as a way to interview your characters is a great way of thinking of it. I think the fact that characters are at their most vulnerable in intimate moments and the trust involved is why sex scenes can be so powerful.
Louisa, congrats on winning the contest!

12:06 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

Tracy, this is a WONDERFUL post.

(to me there are always at least 4 people in that literary bed)

Pam, "literary menage" is now a go-to phrase for me!

I write erotica for Harlequin Spice, so the challenges are different in some aspects, the same in others.

I confess I feel more free to include sex scenes with less direct effect on the plot than I would if I were writing a romance or other type of novel. However, I can also substitute sex scenes for different types of scenes that would also move the plot forward.

For instance, a disagreement between characters can happen in a sex scene as opposed to during a walk in the park. The villain can appear and interrupt a sex scene.

I do play a lot with where to break scenes, as well. I do feel I need a larger number of sex scenes than a romance novel, but I will end those scenes at different places (during foreplay, mid-stream, before pillow-talk, etc.) or emphasize different aspects of the action - for instance, lots of physical action but no speech versus a dialogue-heavy scene versus being within the pov characters' head while she worries about another plot point entirely.

And...this is getting long. I'd better do my own blog post!

9:04 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So glad you liked the post, Victoria! I think remembering that sex scenes are scenes like any other and they can move the story forward is really important. When I wrote them more often I used to approach each thinking "okay, how is this time different for one or both of them than other times and what does it mean to them?"

9:20 AM  
Blogger Victoria Janssen said...

"okay, how is this time different for one or both of them than other times and what does it mean to them?"

Yes, definitely. What do they want that they're still not getting? Why aren't they getting it? What's going to change between them, this time?

1:25 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I think " What's going to change between them, this time?" is one of the most important questions. If something does change, the scene will seem integrated into the story.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I love this exchange, Victoria and Tracy.

And I'm wondering what either or both of you (or anyone else out there) might think of a post that I read a while back on at Teach Me Tonight, a wonderful blog for romance scholars.

It's about classifying different sorts of erotic writing, at http://teachmetonight.blogspot.com/2008/07/guest-post-classifying-works-containing.html.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

For me, the sex scenes have to be organic to the development of character and story -- and they also have to be unique to character and story. Not everyone kisses, touches, tastes, smells, the same, and I find too many romances to have one-size-fits-all sex scenes, so to speak. I adored our own Janet's recent "A Most Lamentable Comedy" for many, many reasons, one of which is because the first, rather furtive, sex scene between the hero and heroine was absolutely perfectly crafted to the moment, to the characters (and particularly to their inner lives, esp. the hero), and to their relationship at that point in the story. I don't need a generic sex scene to spice up a story, or to keep me warm when my husband isn't home. I expect to see the same craft at work in the sex scenes as well as in the rest of the novel, not tab A and slot B glommed onto a plot.

As an author I don't have difficulty writing sex scenes when I am confident that I know my characters well enough to know who they are as individuals, never as archetypes, and what they want, in the scene, and in the story as a whole.

As a reader and as a writer, I shouldn't be giggling when I read a sex scene. Unless of course, I'm reading Janet's novel!

12:15 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the link to the fascinating post on Teach Me Tonight, Pam. It's one of the clearest, more interesting explanations and definitions I've read of the terms pornography, erotica, and romance. Even before I'd read the article, in my own mind to define erotica more by the focus (that the story is about sex and sexual relationship/s) than the number of sex scenes the book contains. Though, per our discussion above, if sex if the focus of a book, it's probably going to be easier to integrate sex scenes into the story and they will be less likely to seem extraneous.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I think making sex scenes "true to story and character" is what makes them challenging and also interesting to write. It means, as you and Mary both pointed out, really knowing your characters inside out. Effective sex scenes can reveal a lot about characters. I haven't read Janet's latest book yet, but your description of the scene sounds (not surprisingly) wonderful.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Jane O said...

An interesting post and an interesting discussion.

I have to say that as a reader I occasionally encounter sex scenes that contribute to the characterization and plot, but by far the majority seem to be utterly generic and repetitive, tossed in to pad the word count or fill some requirement. (Okay, we're 100 pages into the book, time for a sex scene.) So I skip over them.

I find the "less is more" approach both more romantic and more erotic. (I do have an imagination of my own.)

6:53 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much for posting, Jane. Though I've read a number of fabulous sex scenes that are integral to the story (many by my fellow Hoydens and those who've responded to this post), I've come to favor the "less is more" approach in my own writing, as I mentioned in the post. In large part because my books are now suspense driven, but also because I like the power of leaving things up to the reader's romantic and erotic imagination. I know as a reader, the "less is more" scenes, are the ones I tend to reread, because I'm trying to tease out exactly what the characters are doing, thinking, and feeling.

11:03 AM  

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