The Sex Pt. 2 – How?

There are a limited number of adjectives in the language that can be applied to sexual acts.  There are even fewer that can be applied without eliciting guffaws of laughter.  And I was recently in an email exchange where an experienced romance writer announced that after reading some descriptions of a certain portion of the male anatomy her reaction was a desire to run screaming for the hills.

So, what do you do?  A Romance novel, or a novel with romance in it, has got to have some level of physical heat, whether it’s a sweet kiss, or a no-holds-barred bedroom event.  You’ve got to be able to describe the act, and sometimes you’ve got to be able to describe the same act, multiple times, within the same story.  At some point, you’ve got to dip heavy into the adjective jar.

Except, you actually don’t.  If you don’t keep a tight focus on the act itself.

A sex scene, like an action scene, is a chance to show the character at an extreme — not just a physical extreme, but an emotional one.  How they respond to what they see and what they do is a chance for the writer to dig deep into the character.  If the act is not isolated from the rest of the story, if it’s integrated with the development not just of the relationship, but of the character and the plot, it becomes meaningful.  This does not just mean the journey of a virgin style of sexual maturity.  Each aspect of a relationship is a discovery, and exploration of emotion, past and present.  What the character chooses to do in a moment, how far they choose to go, or not go, what they want to do vs. what they actually DO do, these are all valid moments to explore in the context of a sex scene.

It also means the act is different, each and every time, because the characters are different, each and every time.  They’ve changed, feelings and circumstances have changed.  What’s going on in their brains — that all important sexual organ — has changed, maybe radically, since the last time.  What the characters see and do, how they see it, how they feel about it, how they express themselves in their actions toward their partner(s) is going to change their partner’s attitudes and reactions.  To paraphrase an old saying about a river, you can never kiss the same kiss twice, if you keep in mind what that kiss is about.  It’s about emotion and it’s about intention.

Using emotion to balance out the focus on sensation has the added the advantages of creating suspense and furthering the plot.  It also gives you a wider range of adjectives and subjects to include in the scene.  Is there laughter?  Talk?  Mishaps on the way to the bed, sofa, table, etc.?  Is the character determined, taciturn, uncertain, disbelieving?  Do these things change during the course of the act and action?  All of this can be made to tie tightly into the rest of the story, keeping the scene and the story itself interesting to the reader, no matter how early or how often the sex scenes are included.

Which brings us round to ongoing discussion about the validity of having the characters go all the way, as it were, early in a story.  Some people are very against this.  What is interesting to them is the chase.  Once the chase is over, the story is over.

I see the point here.  But it can lead to stories feeling too coy.  The need for the chase becomes a device, not something that arises naturally from the characters and their relationship.  Too many contrived interruptions keep the characters from the sex scene and start to frustrate the reader as well as the characters, and not in that funny needs a cold shower kind of way, but more in the put this book down and go find a different author kind of way.

Particularly in a contemporary story, the sex can legitimately be just the beginning for the participants, especially if the scene is carefully constructed to make it clear that while this was a good time, there’s more going on here with these people.  So, they’ve gotten together this once, what will keep them together?  What drove them so quickly to this point and what do they feel about it now that they’re there?  These are the kinds of questions that a solid romantic plot can be built around and that can turn a consumation from an end point to a beginning.

At the same time, it has been observed in geunine pornography, as opposed to erotica or erotic romance, kisses are rarely described.  Everything else, yeah sure and at length and indetail, but not kissing.  What happens in a relationship story when the kiss is the last thing; the simple, tender, ultimately loving action that has been a part of the previous scenes, but not considered or appreciated on its own.  Why have the characters not focused on that?  Not appreciated or sought it?  What would it mean that they are finally taking this moment to share this particular intimacy?

These are the considerations that make for really good sex.

Next Week — Pt. 3.  Why?

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The Sex Pt. 2 – How? — 14 Comments

  1. after reading some descriptions of a certain portion of the male anatomy her reaction was a desire to run screaming for the hills.

    I know the feeling. Too many writers feel the need to add the exact measurements, which aren’t nearly so appealing when the reader gets a ruler and realizes just how big that is. Eeep.

    I very much like this series of post, by the way. Sex in writing often gets ignored, or worse, dismissed as “unnecessary for a good book.”

  2. It reminds me of studen ms I read once, in which the characters were being chased by a monster fifteen feet four inches tall. My reaction : You took out a ruler and measured, before running for your life?

  3. Megan: Thank you. And I agree. Just because it’s sensual, doesn’t mean it’s only sensual, or only titillation. It needs to be there because it’s part of being human, but it’s also got to be carefully considered as _part_ of the full human, not as something you throw in because the editor wants it or the readers might get bored.

    Brenda: Oh, dear. Oh, oh, oh, dear.

  4. Maybe this betrays how long it’s been since I read erotica, but in my experience, it was male authors who did inches. I can’t recall any female writer ever bothering with measurements.

    Aside from that, this is a great essay–I can’t agree strongly enough with how each encounter needs to be different, and for the reasons named.

  5. How do you stir a middle course, Brenda, Sarah? I’ve got an idea that has a great potential couple in it, but I don’t see the possibility of sex for a couple of books. (I’ve been thinking about the first essay for a week, it seems.)

    I think it’s a strong contemporary fantasy idea, but I’m not sure who I’m going to write it for, other than me. Except I know it’s for people who want a fantasy that also has relationships in it, and if one of those relationships starts to turn into a real, potential long-term romance with both strong attraction and friendship as parts of it — plus the fear/bonus of finding someone who knows your deepest secret — then that’s a big plus as a subplot.

    As long as the relationship — and It — doesn’t start overnight. I know people who live like that, but very few of them stayed in a fast-moving relationship — even if they made their way back to each other in the end.

    I appreciate your analysis, Sarah. It makes me think I can work this out and have it as part of the story. Usually I try to push for an extrovert in the couple, but so far, it doesn’t look that way in this concept. But I think I can make them feel real. And there have been couples before where both were introverts of a sort.

  6. This is good advice. In my experience what people most forget is that sex scenes, particularly early sex scenes, (but climactic ones too) are just like any other scenes. They need to do the same things, advance the plot, deepen the characterization, or even reveal backstory. And to do that the characters need to be having sex, not be unexpectedly replaced by mindless bodies. And to do that they need to talk, and get embarrassed, and keep thinking. The most utterly boring thing to read, I’ve found, is perfect sex. Things that are imperfect, humiliating, slightly painful all the way through, and that end with the characters being able to understand a little more about each other and themselves, are the ones that are really sexy.

  7. Sherwood: In contemporary erotica, I’ve read women authors talking in inches. I do not applaud this development. And what I really want is to read the comedy scene where one of them DOES whip out a ruler.

    Kathi: I think you really boost your potential audience by having strong relationships in your fantasy. Paranormal, urban, contemporary even high fantasy are all hot sellers in romance.

    The middle course is a tough one. In terms of timing of introducing the physical heat, in this you can trust your instincts as a writer. You and your characters know when it’s time. For the rest, well, if you’re slanting romance, how far do you want to go? All levels and variations are open. If you’re slanting fantasy, I tend to have a kiss, an embrace, and maybe we’re heading toward the bed, if it’s that time and … Scene change. But the big thing in all variations is focus on the feelings, not just the sensations, and tie the language into the implications past and present of the scene, and not just the present moment.

    Cara: I see what you’re saying, but I guess I like my sex a little further on the perfect side. With tasteful lighting, good costuming, pretty, or at least nice, people and plenty of enjoyment on both sides (bonus if you get a good setting). That’s part of the romance for me and part of why I’m reading the book in the first place. Tenderness, discover, drawing emotionally closer, yes, these are all vital, but I like at least a small bow on the package, as it were.

    Which is another point of consideration, audience needs to be taken into account as well as character, because each genre has its own set of expectations, and you disappoint your reader’s expectations at your peril.

  8. @Brenda — LOL! This is one take on it, to be sure. But like Sarah said, I tend to be careful with sex in fantasy and SF because a lot of guys are turned off by too much. Or claim they are. Perhaps it was the way it was done, though, because I had a man tell me once that women write the best sex scenes, and he’d finished Fire Sanctuary. So that wasn’t too much for him. Yet Locus complained of Much Romance in that book, even as they liked the book.

    I don’t want to go this far in this series, but the friendship becomes important by the end of the first book (which is a big step for a 500+ year old dragon who hasn’t taken a mate in 400 years and chooses friends carefully. Women to sleep with? He likes all kinds, but as he doesn’t visibly age, he never stays with one long.)

    His whole existence is about to change, on multiple levels. And it starts out with a woman whose newly-awakened magic is killing her slowly. Where the romance goes depends on them.

  9. Well, gotta say, I love your set-up. If you wanted to write that as a straight up romance, you definitely could.

    There is a definite institutional prejudice against anything perceived as too girly and mushy in SF. It is changing, slowly, but it is also one of the reasons I decided to hop the pink and gold wall, to where I can write about feelings, for a larger audience, and bigger print runs.

  10. Well, I think it’s a fantasy. But if an editor reads it and comes back to say, “I want this but for my romance line” I’ll say “Okay. I don’t have to rush the sex, do I?” But I’ll listen — because he or she will probably see better at that point than I will.

    After all, the idea is to find the right people who will most enjoy the book. And I want happy sales numbers, too!

  11. No, you would not necessarily have to rush the sex. But you would have to spend more time on that one relationship. One way to look at it is this; In fantasy/science fiction, the relationship comes from the plot. In romance, the plot comes from the relationship.

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