What I am about to say will not come as a surprise to any reader of these words who also happens to be an adult human being. People engage in sexual activity for a wide variety of reasons. Some are good, some are bad, some are profoundly stupid, and very, very few of them rational.
Unfortunately, this universal truth leaves the writer is at something of a disadvantage. Mark Twain was the first to point out that truth will always be stranger than fiction, because fiction has to make sense. This means that a character’s actions have to spring from motivations that make sense. There is a limited amount of random, or out-and-out stupid activity a reader will accept from a given character. This goes double for the reasons and circumstances behind characters getting into bed.
As with the act itself, foreplay is very important to a good sex scene. The reader has to not just expect that these people will have sex, they have to believe that they will. There has to be a structured reason behind it that makes sense, to the story and to the characters. And as with most things, focusing on the drive and the act itself only gets you so far.
I’ve heard many writers, even experienced writers, dig in their heels against a less-than-enthusiastic critique of a scene because “that’s what really happened.” Yes, I’m sure it is. But that doesn’t make it believable in your story. All actions within a story must come from something the reader knows about, or will find out about. Some aspect of the character background must be reveled that makes the reader accept that this new action follows logically from what has come before. When it comes to sex, especially early in a book, it can be a flimsy excuse. It can be highly contrived. We’ve all read those.
But it’s better if it’s not. Even in a story where a major reader expectation is that there will be sex early and often, the characters must believable reasons for entering into the physical relationship. These don’t have to be smart reasons, necessarily, and the reasons for starting the relationship can and should evolve as the story goes on, but they have to be there, and they have to make sense within the larger context of the story.
In short, if you’re going to write about sex, you have to choose a plot, setting and characters that allow for that sexual relationship. Sex has consequences. Everybody knows it. In most times and places, it has far more consequences for women than for men. So, the motivation supplied for the female character has got to be strong enough and realistic enough to convince the reader that that woman has set the consequences aside. OTOH, this is where research comes in, because women have never at any time not had sex outside of the societally approved ways and times. Watching the process by which the woman chooses or manages to enter into the relationship, can provide great fodder for character exploration.
Unfortunately, that leads us straight back to the previoius paragraph, because research reveals not just anomolies but perceived anomolies. There are things that “everbody knows,” that may not have been true. But you as the writer must still deal with the fact that everybody thinks they know them. Your readership is certain the world is or was this one way. If you are going to build your story around the fact that it isn’t or wasn’t, you are first going to have to set up this new reality for them. You are going to have to make your anomoly make sense first, and then you can proceed with the story.
Actually, when it comes to sex, for me, the plot problem comes not in writing historicals, but in writing contemporaries. Because in the modern day first world there are far fewer consequences for a woman who wants to have sex, even if she is already married, even if she doesn’t bring the condom (not something I recommend, BTW). So, while for a historical, the portion of the plot involving the sex becomes about providing reasons TO engage in the sexual activity, in a contemporary romance, it becomes about providing the reason NOT to go all the way with the attractive hero(es).
Fortunately, just because sex has happened once, doesn’t mean it will automatically happen again. The desire to continue the relationship, and/or the resistance to continuing the relationship provides plenty of plot fodder. Not only are there all those consequences, but there’s all the possibilities of lover’s remorse, of differing emotional responses to the act, of mixed messages, mixed expectations, and mixed-up intentions. These can prove as much an impediment to an evolving relationship as social and physical consequences, and can serve to make the sex and the desire a true driver of the plot and the character motivations. The scene can become the starting point of the race as opposed to the more traditional end point.
Next Week: Pt. 4 — What?
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