This rant is personal—as in, based on those things that I’ve found to work for me, along with some other peoples’ tips on the subject that I think are useful. I don’t get into specifics like, “Write this kind of sex this way…” It’s very general.
And “foul” language warning. For appropriate definitions of “foul.” Also, somebody should probably take the pun generator away from me.
1) Overcome your own embarrassment.
Yes, this comes even before point 2, because without it, the writer can’t achieve point 2 anyway. If you find yourself regularly squirming before the prospect of writing sex scenes, or tempted to be giggly about it, you’re not going to write them in-character for anyone who’s not squirmy or giggly.
This was the most difficult thing for me to do, personally. I had to get over my own squirminess around several words—for example, “breast” and “vagina”—before I could feel that I wasn’t better off just doing the fade-to-black thing. And there’s no reason you can’t do that. Plenty of books get along fine without explicit sex.
I also had to overcome the feeling that someone reading a story I wrote would be particularly inclined to frown at the sex scenes. Well, given the double standard many people have towards sex and violence, that’s probably true, but if it’s written well, then there’s no logical reason I should be upset about putting it out in public. Is a story filled with no sex but poor writing just as embarrassing? Oh, yes.
Too, I think this comes down to the distrust many authors seem to have in their readers. They don’t need to be led by the hand through the characters’ motives if you’ve already explained them adequately with dialogue and gesture and expression. Nor they do need to be told, “WARNING, SEX SCENE COMING UP.” Once they figure out what’s going on, they can skim it if they want to.
As I said above, I don’t think there’s any requirement for an author to write explicit sex if it’s not what she’s comfortable with. On the other hand, I do think it’s a requirement that such scenes receive just as much tender loving care, pun fully intended, as all the rest of her work.
2) Write it in-character.
The biggest problem in this area is language. Laconic characters suddenly get all flowery when their partner gets naked. Or crude characters become coy and purple. Look, if you’ve got a character who says “cunt” casually, I highly doubt she’s going to think of her partner’s vagina as her “molten core” (still, to me, the most ridiculous of all these silly euphemisms). Choose the kind of language that character, that person, would use, not the kind that doesn’t fit.
Same thing with pillow-talk. The character who says “cunt” might well keep it out of the bedchamber, yes, not wanting to offend her partner. But I doubt she’d suddenly reveal her sensitive poetic soul and quote phrases stolen wholesale from Shakespearean sonnets. If she has a sensitive poetic soul, it had damn well better be obvious before that point. Pulling it out then and only then, this pun also fully intended, also implies discomfort with the sex scene over all scenes. Why should she just happen to be sensitive and refined in this one area of life? Especially if she’s regularly had sex before and never displayed an iota of this? No, “This is her Designated Love Interest!” does not count as a reason.
If you want to change a character’s behavior in the bedroom, then there still has to be a reason. Is she nervous? Does she think that this partner isn’t going to accept anything less than the most refined talk, even now? (And if so, how in the world did someone so foul-mouthed manage to seduce/court her in the first place?) Does she change her behavior like a set of masks, and if so, why?
Viewpoint is also a problem here. The same sex can look very different written through the eyes of two different people (I know this sounds very obvious, but bear with me). There may be different expectations due to age, gender, experience or lack of it, problems with sex—see point 5 though, please—cultural background, and different levels of attraction/love/interest. If you have a couple and know that he’s really interested in her while she’s not that into him, then it would be much easier to write a tender love scene from his point-of-view. Having her suddenly discover in the middle of sex that she loves him is lazy and clumsy. (See point 6).
If you really want to have a sex scene and yet don’t feel comfortable writing about it from the POV of any of the parties involved, there’s always another solution: write it from the head of someone outside the action entirely. And no, you don’t have to use a voyeur, either. Use a completely neutral party. I like the idea of the evil wizard’s spy-raven watching the hero and heroine thrashing on the grass below, knowing what they’re doing, but not really caring about anything other than the fact that these people aren’t quite dead enough for it to eat yet.
3) This is not Twister.
“Twister sex” means two things, the way I’m using it here. One is written in such a clinical, detached manner that it leaves out the emotion entirely; it’s just bodies having sex, like Twister is just limbs going everywhere, at the command of an impersonal author. “And then he kissed her, and then he cupped her breast, and then he thrust into her.” The second is where the writer, apparently under the conviction that if you describe it generally enough it’s not that stinking dirty nasty sex stuff, makes everything the couple do in bed impossible to picture. “How many arms does she have?” and “How in the world could he reach her toes from there?” are common reactions to writing like this.
Sex is at least partially physical, and that means body-oriented writing, again. Don’t require your characters to perform movements that would give a double-jointed contortionist trouble to perform, just because you like the idea of them. Keep in mind the positions of their bodies.
Of course, you also want to avoid the other extreme, so that it doesn’t sound like you’ve catalogued the details of their bodies and forgotten everything else. So this is where POV comes in. Settle deeply into your character’s head, or, if you’re using an omniscient narrator who can look into both, give thoughts appropriate to the scene. If the omniscient narrator is one of those detached fellows who mostly describe the characters’ actions and dialogue without delving into thoughts, include sensory experience beyond the positioning of limbs: what sounds the couple is making, what the temperature around them is like, what their faces look like, what signs or signals they’re giving that something is perfect or less than perfect or seriously wrong. Omniscient narrators who suddenly look elsewhere the moment the couple has sex, but peer closely at everything else, amuse me.
4) Use the sex scenes as extra vehicles for characterization and plot advancement.
I’ve heard lots of people complain about gratuitous sex. And in the case of sex that doesn’t work with other aspects of the story, I would be inclined to agree—but not because it’s sex. There can also be gratuitous action scenes and gratuitous exposition, especially in fantasy. People can certainly disagree on whether the sex serves a purpose or not, but if it doesn’t at all, if it’s just there to be “hot,” it’s gratuitous.
However, complaining that the sex is gratuitous because it’s explicit—huh? What the fuck (I will stop with the puns now, I promise)? Perhaps it must be explicit, given the people the author chose to write about; I think you can see from my first two points that I believe changing a character mid-story simply to make a sex scene less explicit is stupid. Perhaps it marks personal growth; at one point this person could not abide trust or intimacy and was a ball of sulk curled around her Trauma, now she trusts herself enough to unfold. Perhaps it marks personal decline; someone could have gone from being much more open to self-absorbed and self-loathing, but because she’s not a viewpoint character and the main character is largely oblivious, sex is the best way to demonstrate it. Perhaps the sex is entirely plot-oriented, like a seduction to get information out of the enemy. The author, having set this up, cannot suddenly declare that, oh yes, incidentally the leader told the main character everything he wanted to hear because he’s decided that Killing Is Evil, or say that the leader only wants to cuddle when it was obvious he wanted something other than that.
So have the sex scenes have some purpose other than just to be words on a page. I still think every part of a story should serve at least two purposes. Sex might get treated differently because of a double standard, but, exposition or violence or the hero having tearful inner monologues over already solved problems or fucking, it can all be gratuitous.
5) If you give your character a sexual neurosis, be prepared to go all the way.
Yes, I said I would stop it with the puns. Any moment now.
This problem is particularly bad in romance novels. A heroine can’t stand sex and has major issues with men—and then she has no problems having sex with her One True Love, even though he’s a man. I wouldn’t mind if this was addressed somewhere, but it doesn’t seem to be, most of the time. This reads like another case of the author wanting to have her cake and eat it, too: the character suffers the angst of a sexual neurosis and wins the reader’s pity for herself, but the author does not want the actual work of writing out the consequences, so she skips them.
Do I even have to say why treating rape like a plot device is a bad, bad idea? I hope not.
Issues other than rape still merit a good long hard look if the author wants to use them. The character has issues with being touched, to the point that he flinches when being clapped on the shoulder? Explain to me, then, why he happily falls into the heroine’s arms after two days’ acquaintance. This character has an enormous problem acknowledging her own homosexuality and has fought it for years? Why oh why does it suddenly become okay the moment another character talks to her about it? I bet plenty of people have talked to her about it before, if she’s been at all vocal. This character has cultural issues with being a husband in a polyandrous society, because his original society was exclusively monogamous? Why does he adopt other attitudes happily because one of the other husbands is handsome?
Looks do not conquer everything. Psychobabble does not conquer everything. True love does not conquer everything (if you can have true love after two days. I doubt it). If your characters’ neuroses are serious, do them the favor of taking them seriously. If you don’t think you can, for heaven’s sake don’t have your heroine be raped, or fighting her own homosexuality. This is one of those areas where shortcuts to escape the work of writing it out run the risk of being deeply offensive and snapping all suspension of disbelief, not just confirming laziness.
6) Sex != love.
I mentioned this in an earlier rant on sex, but it’s worth repeating.
Just because characters are in love does not mean they’re having sex. It might be platonic love. It might be impossible for them to do so at the moment, due to danger or other circumstances (for example, if one of them is a soldier and another a commander, and sleeping with each other would cause problems in the chain of command). It might be that one character has one of those sexual neuroses, and they’re working on getting past it. It might be that they simply don’t want to have sex with each other. In fantasy cultures, I’m frankly surprised that not more is done with different definitions of love; instead, what seems to be done is importation of twenty-first-century Western liberal attitudes towards sex, as if they were holy truths instead of the experience of one culture, and nothing else.
Just because characters are having sex doesn’t mean they’re in love. I refuse to accept that someone who fucks his partner and yet doesn’t acknowledge her existence out of bed, nor care about her feelings, nor show any form of preference for her company at any other time, is in love with her. The author can insist that he is all she likes, but unless it’s demonstrated in some other way—after all, the male partner may be one of those laconic characters I mentioned earlier, not one for romantic declarations—I don’t think sex is enough proof by itself. And having characters fall in love in the middle of sex is—well, suspect. So he just now came to the realization that he couldn’t live without her, after several months of wanting to do so? Gee, I wonder if maybe he’s not doing all his thinking with his head (I will valiantly resist the obvious pun here).
Don’t substitute sex for love. Write in more shades of gray than that. Show your characters as themselves, as people, not as mindless slaves of the cultural convention that seems to think sex and romance are inextricably linked—a cultural convention their world might not even have.
7) Treat characters’ reactions and principles in regard to sex with empathy.
Sometimes sex scenes fall down not in and of themselves, but in the aftermath or the build-up. The author treats the sex seriously and writes it in-character, but afterwards has one character mock the other for worrying about the loss of her virginity, even though virginity is important to her culture. And the other character is forced to laugh and concede that preoccupation with virginity is silly. Why? Because the author thinks it’s silly.
I’m sure you can imagine, or have seen, the great sticky mess that surrounds sexual orientation (see? another chance for a pun gone by). One character only slowly comes to acknowledge that he or she is attracted to the same sex, and then the rest of the cast wonders what he or she was so worried about, because in their culture “it’s perfectly normal.” Way to trivialize the entire struggle this character has gone through! Now, if the author has that character lash back and emphasize that it’s a serious thing to him or her, that’s fine; that’s just cultural expectations in conflict with one another. But if the character who struggled through all these emotions is made to concede the argument…huh? What? Why make it a big deal to her at all, then? I don’t care what the author thinks about sexual orientation, and in fact most of the time I wish it were kept from being so obvious, thanks. That’s what pamphlets are for. I’m interested in what the characters think of it, and destroying the narrative for the sake of making A Point, without letting the person who struggled have a proper character arc, is just dumb.
I will mention one more example, because it irritates me so. If any female character in your story who doesn’t want children is all but laden down with messages from the gods telling her this is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, I am out of that story so fast it hurts. Make the conflict make sense within the story. Do not turn one character into your mouthpiece. Need I remind you, author, you were the one who gave this attitude to the character, and presumably an origin for it, too? Now you’re saying she’s wrong, and that she should have self-evidently known that Children Are Good? How was she supposed to do that? KILL IT WITH ACID.
I think the rant on killing secondary characters is next. With fewer puns, I do hope.