This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

In her comment to yesterday’s post, Robyn quotes a friend’s thoughts on the matter of evaluating sex scenes:

two hallmarks of a Generic Sex Scene: (1) You can grab a few such scenes at random from different books, juggle the names and eye colors, and be hard-pressed to tell which scene goes with which story; and, even more damning, (2) you can remove the scene entirely, substitute the sentence, “Then they had sex,” and the larger narrative will not suffer.

Which I think is a good place to start with a list of general guidelines for writing sex scenes.

The excerpt I’ve got today is from A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which won the Booker Prize some years ago and is as high-brow as a novel can get. It’s a hugely complex story, but at its center is a romance set in the Victorian age. A correspondence between a well established poet (Randolf Henry Ash) and a lesser known woman poet (Christabel LaMotte) begins when they meet at a breakfast given by a mutual friend. Ash is married; Christabel lives with a woman artist in a relationship that may go beyond friendship, something that is never made clear. They are intellectual equals; they fall in love, and eventually they travel to Yorkshire together, secretly.

Possession: A Romance. Copyright A.S. Byatt.

She met him with passion, fierce as his own, and knowing too, for she exacted her pleasure from him, opened herself to it, clutched for it, with short animal cries. She stroked his hair and kissed his blind eyes, but made no more specific move to pleasure him, the male — nor did she come to that, all those nights. It was like holding Proteus, he thought at one point, as though she was liquid moving through his grasping fingers, as though she was waves of the sea rising all round him. How many, many men have had that thought, he told himself, in how many, many places, how many climates, how many rooms and cabins and caves, all supposing themselves swimmers in salt seas, with the waves rising, all supposing themselves — no, knowing themselves unique. Here, here, here, his head beat, his life had been leading him, it was all tending to this act in this place, to this woman, white in the dark, to this moving and slippery silence, to this breathing end. “Don’t fight me,” he said once, and “I must,” said she, intent, and he thought, “No more speech,” and held her down and caressed her till she cried out. Then he did speak again. “You see, I know you,” and she answered breathless, “Yes, I concede. You know.”

The excerpt yesterday from Welcome to Temptation was written from Sophie’s POV; this one is observed by Ash, who is a historian and poet. It sounds like him, the places his mind would travel, the associations he would make. His physical observations are given to us again with verbs: opened, clutched, stroked, kissed, pleasured; there are very few directly sexual turns of phrase. Mostly we get imagery and metaphor: fire and sea and rising waves. There are few adjectives, but the ones used are very evocative: moving and slippery silence.

There is a great deal of very exacting, very deep emotion in this short paragraph — which fits, because this is not a casual sexual encounter. This is a life changing experience for a man who had reconciled himself to a loving but platonic marriage and a life of celibacy, and who has now found — but will not be able to keep — a woman who is his intellectual and sexual equal.

The short bit of dialog here echoes their whole relationship: he leads past the point of her comfort, she resists and so they move beyond the language which drew them together in the first place. There is change for both characters as individuals, and the relationship has shifted, as it must in this circumstance.

I’ve got a passage from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart that I want to excerpt tomorrow. I find it interesting because its tone falls somewhere between the comic playfulness of Welcome to Temptation and the intellectual lyricism of Possession. After that I’ll take on Robyn Bender’s “The Well Known Act” — so brace yourself.


This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

Robyn pointed me to a LiveJournal entry by Jane St. Clair which contemplates Farscape (most particularly the relationship between Aeryn and John), and heterosexual relationships across genres. The issues have to do in the first line (but not exclusively) with the wide wide world of fan fiction (if you go have a look, don’t be startled at the word “slash” — it’s not about knives).***

She writes:

[…] I demand more stories in which people have bad first sex.

(For some strange reason, my urge to write an long series of tales in which people have extremely bad sex. So awful that they never want to see each other again. But it doesn’t really satisfy anyone but me. No one expects their porn to include, “Can we stop? You’re on my hair.”)

This made me laugh, but it also made me think. Do I always leave out the not-so-nice parts about two people getting together? I think the closest I come to writing about a relationship that begins with a really rocky ride is in Fire Along the Sky, but I can’t say more here without giving a major plot line away. So this is something I will continue to think about. Maybe when FAS comes out this summer people will have an opinion on this.

The other thing that really struck me was this:

My beloved Shakespeare prof spent a long time reconciling us to the notions of love the plays offered, which often didn’t sync well with our own. What she led us to was the recognition that the strongest sign of love or affection is play. Sometimes teasing (Much Ado About Nothing) or wordplay (The Taming of the Shrew — she had us quite convinced that Katherina didn’t mean a word of her final speech on the place of women, that it was all humorously ironic and meant for Petruchio’s amusement), or gameplay (The Tempest). But in most modern portrayals of love, we go for either deep drama (angst) or domestic tranquility (curtainfic), leaving no space for a healthy relationship interesting enough to hold its audience.

Jane St. Clair has put her finger on something here. My sense is that sex takes second seat to playful banter for many of my readers. It certainly does for me. But how it all these elements work together — playfulness, drama, tranquility — that’s something to contemplate for a good while.

***I’ve got a longer entry on fan fiction I’ve been working on for a while. Hope to post it soon.