Sex Sells–Lessons in Writing

We all know sex sells. Whether or not you like that fact is irrelevant. Because editors know sex sells, they appreciate writers who recognize the value of a marketing tool. Which has unfortunately led to an abundance of inappropriate sex scenes in mass market fiction. Ach, we have a male and a female, they must mate! While space ships are blowing up around them. Yes, sirree, hot monkey sex is what would be on my mind as missiles shoot by my ear.

So today’s lesson —sex in fiction comes in different heat levels.

It’s possible—believe it or not—to add sex to your fiction without anatomy lessons. If you’re writing Inspirational fiction, the bedroom door can close, with no need to explain what happens there. That’s heat level zero, and I also recommend it for spies on the run, protagonists being chased by villains, and the middle of spaceship wars, even if your characters’ adrenaline is pumping. Sex needs to be appropriate to the scene.

What many readers, and writers, don’t understand is that there is a “sweet” or “mild” category of romance, one where body parts seldom get mentioned and beds are often for sleeping. It’s perfectly feasible to have a sexy story where the hero merely touches the heroine’s hand to show he understands. Or the heroine gives tacit permission for the hero to create mayhem by giving him his gun back, because she realizes how much destroying the villain means to him.  Appreciating each other’s virtues, acknowledging faults, and not asking each other to change, and doing so with observation, touches, and kisses —that’s sexual tension. And that’s what really makes a story steamy.

A level higher than “sweet or mild” would be what ROMANTIC TIMES calls “hot.” My MAGIC books fall in the hot category simply because my couples enjoy sex—eventually. The couple might never share a bed (or a fairy grotto, as in MUST BE MAGIC) until the end. The bed is likely to be covered in roses and surrounded by candles, and the sex may be more about whispered words than body parts. In TOUCHED BY MAGIC, I have a psychometric heroine who can’t even be touched—try that on for sex! But they do the Deed, indeed. Other writers on this heat level may write more explicit and more frequent sex scenes. Still, almost all of these books are driven more by sexual tension than explicit sex. Readers adore the tension—the sudden light of recognition in a man’s eye, the way a woman brushes a man’s cheek, the stolen kiss in an emotional moment.

In a book that’s not romance-oriented, sexual tension can still sell books.  It can be done with wit and cleverness through dialogue, or in how the hero admires his companion’s taut tush, then quickly looks back to his space log if she catches him ogling her. Tension is all about the protagonists noticing each other, physically and emotionally. So if you want your book to reach the “hot” category, when your couple finally does the horizontal tango, your tension should have already reached a level where it’s possible to concentrate on what’s important to the story, not anatomy. Who’s on top and who holds the gun and where do clothes go in freefall should have priority to basic mechanics, if one assumes the reader is older than six, at least!

The highest level of sex is classified by the ROMANTIC TIMES as a “scorcher.” This level covers everything from historical romance with a high level of graphic sex, to erotica, where any pairing of couples with animals and sex toys can be involved. Scorchers push all the sexual boundaries. They may serve sexual tension as an appetizer, but the meaty scenes are graphically, explicitly sexual and frequent. Anyone reading about bondage and S/M probably doesn’t need to have anatomy explained, either. And if you’re writing this level of sex, you probably don’t need me to explain how.

So go ahead, find the heat level that works for you and your characters, and don’t feel as if it’s necessary to include instructions on screwing Bolt B into Slot A!

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Sex Sells–Lessons in Writing — 11 Comments

  1. In one of the British papers is a quick summary of all the porn movie opening scenes — the randy pizza delivery boy, the visiting plumber with an INTERESTING toolbox, etc. When you see them in rapid succession you realize how perfunctory the setup can be. Unless you are indeed writing porn, you have to do more!

  2. In the days when I was editing comics I had an ongoing, um, dialogue with some of my artists, who (being not only male, but “boys” in a very “boy” field) felt that romance was sex and sex should be as much as the comics code and the editor (me) would allow them to get away with. These conversations often started with the blank space between panels–the space where Scott McCloud will tell you that all sorts of things can happen in the reader’s mind. “But don’t you want me to show what’s going on? It’s a cop-out, letting the sex stay between the panels?”

    Why? Because I’m pretty sure that my mind would supply something waaaaay more erotic than the boys could draw. I didn’t want to say it to them, but I was pretty sure anything they drew was more likely to make me giggle than feel squishy.

    Finally, I had a little lunchtime show-and-tell. I brought the guys (there were three of them) into the conference room and played the scene from Witness where Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis almost dance in the barn, listening to “Don’t Know Much About History.” It’s transgressive and romantic and astonishingly erotic, and nothing happens at all. Seriously. Two of the guys got it right away; the third complained that nothing happened, and was taken away by his fellows and, I think, beaten with gum erasers. Then he went back into the conference room and watched the scene again.

    Plumbing is so often less interesting than what your characters bring to it!

  3. Recently, many speculative fiction works — to say nothing of movies and TV — have embraced “torture chic”. This includes well-known authors who have run out of steam and up-and-coming ones who want to make a splash (splat?).

    If SF/F had the same amount of sex (the vanilla kind, let alone heavier-duty varieties) as it does of violence, the entire genre would be classified as — horrors! — romance (which reeks of the dreaded girl cooties) or, most likely, porn. This speaks to the very deep Puritan streak in American culture as well as to the glorification of violence, especially by people who haven’t experienced it firsthand.

  4. Great overview! So far I’ve written things that would fall into the hot category (equivalent to a Harlequin Blaze), but am currently embarking on writing my first erotic romance.

    I would like to point out though that you mentioned erotica can push any boundary including animals and that isn’t really the case. Most reputable erotic publishers have a list of topics that they won’t accept–bestiality is definitely one of them. The only reason I point it out is because erotic fiction already has a stigma against it. I’d hate for more people (who haven’t read in the genre) to think these stories are about vile things like that.

  5. There’s a hot tub scene in the movie Tequila Sunrise that got lots of attention when it came out — I think you can see Mel Gibson’s butt. But the most erotic scene in that movie — way hotter than naked people in a hot tub — was when Mel Gibson looked a Michelle Pfeiffer across a table.

    And I still remember, after close to 30 years, an early episode of Miami Vice in which Philip Michael Thomas and Pam Grier get it on. You see their ankles crossing, nothing more (this was network TV), but it was more than enough.

  6. Tension is considered more erotic than fulfillment (most of the examples on this thread fall into the former category). On the other hand, there is at least one major trilogy in SF/F (Jacqueline Carey’s Phèdre no Delauney Kushiel series) in which sex is integral to the plot and the protagonist’s character and nature.

    The issue of boundaries is interesting. For one, no one has brought up homosexual sex or polyamorous groupings yet. For another, the issue of “species miscegenation” would include such items as the Elf/Human couplings in The Lord of the Rings and Starman (the alien may look like Jeff Bridges but is really not, and he/she/it eventually mates/makes love with a human woman whose species is at such a comparative stage of evolution that it make her the equivalent of an animal, even if a sentient one).

  7. I really do love this group! Mad, I think you need to write the next column on sex. That’s beyond hilarious, and really, I’m amazed two of the guys got it. Young males have a very physical fixation. “G”

    I so totally agree about sex vs violence! I’d prefer to see neither because in most cases, it comes off as gratuitous. And in waaaay too many cases, it becomes a matter of this scene had one guy dying, so the next takes out two guys and a horse. I prefer the emotion and not the blood, but that’s me.

    Roni, I have read what I would call erotica that includes bestiality. Is there another level beyond that–besides porn, anyway? Labels are difficult.

    Nancy–the food scene in TOM JONES…

    Athena, totally agree on Carey’s series. I’m not certain another writer on earth could manage what she does, so she doesn’t fit into generalization. She’s the exception that makes the rule.

    LOL on species miscegnation–I’ll ask the reviewers at RT how they’d label that. Or maybe that’s why they don’t label sf/f!

  8. Omigod, yes, the dinner scene in Tom Jones. I was a kid when I saw it first, and even then I wondered if I should really be watching the way those people were eating…