Note: This series of posts was written quite a long time ago, but it is still very popular. Someday I hope to get around to revising it and making it available in pdf format. Until then, please be aware that links and images may sometimes disappear.
Given the fact that this subject can get very bogged down in pseudo-intellectual banter, I’ve decided to start with a sex scene that is humorous and still evocative. This is from Welcome to Temptation by Jenny Crusie, which is a novel for anybody who (1) likes a good story (2) especially likes a good romance (3) appreciates good dialog. She’s also very good at sex scenes, as you’ll see here.
The first rule for any sex scene is that it has to contribute to the characterizations and the plot. In this case, we have two people in bed together for the first time. They’ve only known each other a few days but there’s a lot of tension between them, sexual, personal, professional; she’s got a secret he’s determined to unearth because he sees her work as possibly damaging to his own. Sophie is unsure of herself in a lot of different ways, and at odds because she’s wildly attracted to this guy and doesn’t trust him.
This is the first full sexual encounter (although there’s a very interesting assignation on a boat dock earlier), and right off Sophie’s not having a good time. She’s wondering how to tell him it’s not working, and that maybe they should go watch television, when he figures that out for himself and takes steps — without interrupting what he’s doing. That’s where this excerpt starts.
Welcome to Temptation. Copyright Jennifer Crusie.
“I think it’s time we got to know each other,” Phin said, laughter in his voice. “What do you think about when you masturbate?”
“Okay, I’m out of here.” Sophie tried to roll out from under him, but he pressed down on her with his hips, and she stayed just to feel him hard inside her.
“What do you think about, Sophie?” he whispered in her ear, and she said loudly, “I don’t think about anything.”
“You are such a lousy liar.” He rolled again, this time so that she was on top, his body sliding slickly under hers, and Sophie felt herself flush.
“Bondage?” he said, his voice husky as he rocked against her, his hands on her hips, and she caught her breath and said, “You come near me with a rope, and I’m history.”
“Okay, later for that,” he said. “Rape fantasy?”
”Tacky,” she said, and he said, “Not if you do it right. You want to dominate?”
“Oh, yeah. Like you’d let me.” She started to laugh, only to stop when she heard people in the kitchen downstairs. “Shhh.”
“Why?” Phin stopped moving. “It’s just Wes and Amy.”
“Yeah.” Sophie looked over her shoulder at the door.
“Did you lock it?” Phin said in her ear, and he sounded amused.
“I forgot.” She tried to pull away from him, but he rolled and trapped her again, sliding deeper inside her and making her gasp. “Stop it,” she said breathlessly. “I’m not even sure it’s closed all the way. Let me go lock it and I’ll come back.”
“Bothers you, huh?” Phin started working his way down her neck again as he pulsed inside her, and Sophie felt the heat spread low as her blood pounded.
“No,” she lied.
‘”They could walk in anytime.” He nibbled on her shoulder, and she twitched under him and felt her breath go. ”Walk right in and find us naked.” He slid his band up to her sweat-dampened breast, and the heat rolled across her as she moved to his rhythm. “Find you naked. With me inside you. Nothing you could do about it.”
She caught her breath and said, “Stop it.” and he said, “Nope, I think we’re getting somewhere.”
She squirmed under him to get away, and their bodies slid together. He said, “Oh, God, yes. Do that,” and she smacked him on the shoulder because he was so impossible, and arched into him at the same time because he was so hard moving inside her and he felt so good.
“Maybe I can get. . . somebody else. . . to open that door,” he said in her ear, and she said, “No!” a lot louder than she meant because it was part moan. She heard Amy say, “Sophie?” downstairs, and she tensed. Phin laughed down at her, his face as damp as hers.
Beautifully moist, Sophie thought. Be careful what you wish for.
Amy called her name again, and Phin said “Excellent.” He rocked higher into her and she bit her lip to keep from moaning and then moaned anyway. “Louder,” he said, and she shook her head as the heat built and his rhythm began to make her mindless.
“Then it’s up to me.” He sounded breathless. “The guy always has to do everything.”
He leaned over her to the bedside table, and she bit into his shoulder from the sheer pleasure of feeling him against her. Then he stopped, and she looked up to see him holding the alarm clock.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” he said, and threw it against the wall. “What are you doing?” she screamed as it crashed and went off clanging. Amy called up, “Sophie?” and Phin moved again, rocking harder, and she shuddered under him and gasped, “Stop it.”
“This close? Not on your life.” He was moving faster now, and she clutched at him and breathed hard as the pressure built. She said, “No… no. . . we’re not… close,” and he rolled across her again, making her jerk against him. He picked up the dolphin lamp, yanking the cord out with it, and she realized what he was doing and shrieked, “No!” just as he threw it against the wall.
It shattered and fell on top of the clanging alarm. “Sophie?” Amy called, and started up the stairs, and Phin said, “This is it,” and moved high into her, grabbing her wrists and holding them over her head, sliding hot on top of her, rocking hard inside her, whispering in her ear that Amy’d catch them, any minute, any minute, any minute, now, now, now, and Sophie twisted under him, caught in the heat and the slide and the panic and the throb he was pounding into her, and then Amy said, “Sophie?”‘ and pushed open the door, and Sophie cried, ”Oh, God,” and came so hard she almost passed out.
“Oh,” Amy said, and shut the door.
So to go about this in a fairly analytical way, it’s a good idea to look at word choice first. You’ll notice there’s no explicit vocabulary here, no naming of anatomy being engaged beyond breast. The passage sure comes across as explicit, but why?
You can go through and pick out the words that are evocative, and many of them are verbs: pound, move, clutch, pulse, rock, bite, slide, whisper, moan. That list of words taken alone says ‘sexual encounter.’ Sex is a matter of physical exertion (in this case, at least) and these verbs bring that home to the reader. There are quite a few indirect references to the way these two are engaged; particularly the prepositions in and into make clear what is going on. Heat is a major theme here: the room is hot (earlier it’s established that there’s no airconditioner, and it’s high summer) and the friction is both emotional and physical.
My take on this scene is that in spite of the deft choice of verbs and visual images, it really works because of the dialog. Dialogue is one of Jenny’s strongest points, and here she really shines.
The cardinal rule of any dialog is that it has to serve more than one purpose to earn its place on the page. In this case, we get some real information about Phin: He’s got a sense of humor, tremendous presence of mind, exquisite control, imagination, and he’s sexually generous and playful, all excellent things that Sophie can’t resist, and neither can the reader. He’s also outrageous, which really takes this scene beyond the pale. Whatever doubts Sophie had about him before this encounter, they have changed significantly by the time they are through. His suspicions about her — the fact that she’s repressed but reachable, that she will respond if approached well, are confirmed. They are on their way.
One final note on this: notice the way the rhythm of the sentences changes over the course of the scene. From fairly short and choppy in the beginning to an ending which is one long, fast, intense sentence. Which is meant to remind us of the act it’s describing, and does.
Tomorrow I’m going to look at something very different, far more serious in tone, almost lyrical in approach, which works for different reasons and in different ways.