Where Things Go Wrong

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I’ll start with a theory: no matter how messed up we are as a culture when it comes to sex, no matter how obliged people may feel to disavow an interest in reading about sex, almost everybody is drawn to it. Because that’s true, some authors feel obliged, and write sex scenes for the wrong reasons. Usually this ends badly. The basic truth is this: any and every scene needs to earn its place in the narrative flow, and sex is no different. No matter how much I love a character and a story, I’m not interested in following them everwhere. The author can safely leave out bathroom visits, cutting of toenails, the phone call about the electric bill, the spilled coffee, the songs on the radio while the character drives to work. Unless something significant happens (Anna discovers a breast lump while she’s in the shower; Mary spills her coffee on her wedding dress accidentally on purpose) this stuff doesn’t belong in the story. In the same way, you end up with generic, boring, unnecessary sex scenes stocked with color by number orgasms unless there’s a compelling reason to include the scene in the first place.

Carefully constructed, thoughtful sex scenes are one good way to show what’s right or wrong in a relationship; it’s in high tension situations that characters let go, and really, what else is sex about? Where else is character revealed in such a direct way? It’s not the only way to do this, but it can be a very effective one.

So sex scenes go wrong because (1) the author writes such a scene for reasons that have nothing to do with characterization and story; (2) the author is personally uncomfortable with such scenes. In either case, a writer often resorts to shortcuts, and what is a shortcut in fiction? Stereotype and cliche. It’s hard to come up with an interesting, non-generic sex scene that’s motivated by the characters and the narrative, so some authors fall back on the tried and (supposedly) true. Then you’ve got a generic sex scene which is boring and (at best) poorly written or (at worst) unintentionally funny.

Which brings me to these examples. These sentences are from published novels, each of them from a different author, but you’ll notice that there are some striking similarities.

He knelt between her silken thighs, his throbbing manhood poised at her entrance.

Her slender, silken thighs opened to the sweetest, tightest piece of woman he’d ever had.

Finally he was able to lodge himself within the tightest passage that had ever enclasped his throbbing manhood.

He felt a moist warmth enclose the end of his throbbing manhood, and then more than the end.

She saw the small sensual flare of his nostrils.

And with each pulse came a sensual rain that eased his way even more.

He continued his sensual movements, caressing her most private nub of flesh with his thumb.

The tip of his finger found her tiny love button, and he rubbed it.

He drew back to caress the nubbin of flesh now tight and throbbing with need.

… he could part her legs and put his tongue on the burning pearl of flesh that made her scream out.

If you’re writing about driving a car, the same terms are going to come up over and over again: steering wheel, ignition, stick shift, turn signal, key. The same is true when you write about sex: certain terms come up again and again. These happen to be terms which are loaded down with all kinds of secondary meanings and associations, and so an author chooses from variants available based on (1) the tone of the story and scene (2) the character’s leanings (3) the author’s own comfort level. It’s a simple fact of social conditioning that some of us just can’t write certain things down. Let’s take, for example, the range of euphemisms for the word penis. In the examples above we get the infamous throbbing manhood, but in each of those cases other variants could be substituted that would be far less coy. The same is true of cliches and euphemisms you see here for clitoris. The result? The reader’s attention is dragged away from the story.

For example, let’s consider burning pearl of flesh. The thoughts that went through my head: Can a pearl burn, and if that pearl burns, she’s in pain and not having a real good time just now, right? Isn’t a pearl too hard a substance to serve as a metaphor here? And the color’s all wrong, too. And if the pearl of flesh is really burning, he’s about to get a big surprise — and a blister on his tongue. Maybe some sensual rain would be a good idea at this juncture, eh?

The bottom line: a writer who can only be comfortable writing about sex by resorting to these kinds of suspect terms and images shouldn’t be writing about sex at all.

Genitalia, erogenous zones and specific acts aren’t the only place where the unmotivated, uncomfortable or lazy writer will resort to cliches. There is a list of words that have been so overused that they should be retired, maybe permanently. Silken thighs, raven tresses, sensual anything — these phrases have been stripped of any meaning they might have once had. Now they are nothing more than placeholders, and funny placeholders, at that. When the author resorts to these terms, you really have come to the place where it would be possible — and preferable — to substitute “and then they had sex” for the whole extended scene.

Am I being mean? Maybe. Mostly I’m trying to be clear and take an honest look at what goes wrong. Tomorrow, a change in direction.

Where Things Go Wrong(er)

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

In a comment to yesterday’s post, RW wrote:

Elizabeth Benedict’s very interesting book “The Joy of Writing Sex” suggests that the default terms for genitals should probably be whatever your viewpoint character would think (unless there’s a very good reason why not).

And it occurred to me that this may be part of why phrases like “throbbing manhood” etc. can hurl the reader out of the story so violently.

This seems to me like an excellent basic guideline on how to choose among available lexical variants when writing about sex. I’m not familiar with Benedict’s book, but I’ll have to read it. Thanks for the suggestion.

It’s clear that sex scenes can crash for a wide variety of reasons. Yesterday I looked at one way you end up in a ditch by the side of the road, and here’s another.

Paulo Coelho is a respected Brazilian novelist. I’ll say first that Eleven Minutes is the only novel of his I have read, and second: this is not a review of that novel as a whole, but an examination of a particular scene. This scene doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons: I find the tone inauthentic (more on this below), the scene does nothing to move the characterization or narrative along, and there’s an awkwardness to the prose. This last point may have something to do with the translation, so I will put it aside.

On the matter of tone, voice and authenticity: I’ve said before and I’ll say again, to be very clear: I’m not arguing here, would never argue, that a male writer shouldn’t attempt a female POV. There are hundreds of examples where male writers have done this very well indeed. It is harder for a man to write a woman’s POV, and for a woman to write a man’s, sure. That degree of separation is an additonal challenge. If we’re talking about a sex scene, things are tougher still, but not impossible. I’m using this scene from Eleven Minutes to illustrate an author failing, in my estimation, to make the leap. This is written from the perspective of Maria, a Brazilian woman.
Maria is telling us about an intense sexual encounter. In the midst of multiple orgasms, Maria talks about seeing God, about an overwhelming sense of peace, about heaven and hell. In a purely detached way it has got to be clear that there’s nothing peaceful about multiple orgasms. Coherant thought is pretty much out the window in such a situation, much less a contemplation of the eternal divine, theology, cosmotology. So we have to doubt Maria’s veracity, her memory, and whether or not she falls within the continuum of the realistically human. Thus, we doubt the author.

What went wrong here, I think, is that Coelho was reaching beyond the physical (maybe because of the challenge presented — even women have trouble describing orgasm) to emotional thoughts and reactions, and didn’t quite succeed.

Of course, a woman writing about sex from a woman’s POV is just as likely to crash and burn, but for different reasons.

Tomorrow I’ve got a sex scene from the male’s POV written by a male which works, oddly, because it doesn’t.

Reader Feedback: On Writing Sex Scenes

This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

There are not a huge number of reader comments on the subject of writing sex scenes, but the ones that are there are really worth reading. Some highlights:

From Pam:

Isn’t it a truth that where trust is required, self-knowledge and knowledge of the other is essential? So sex scenes and battle scenes – a couple of ways to tell the truth about your characters.

From email:

[my favorite quote] “Would those of you who’ve never had sex, PLEASE stop
writing about it!”

Which still makes me giggle. I read it initially in a
discussion of the scary and anatomically impossible
things that some fanfic writers put characters
through, where it is extra-true.

From Robyn:

Part of the magic of a sex scene that does work is how it lets you see into these people, how they reveal new things to themselves and to each other as well as to the reader.

From Gerry:

It would be bad, I think, if an author got to feel obliged to be constrained on this or that – like when the Inquisition made Descartes tread very carefully.

From Jena:

Excellent suggestion re subbing “Then they had sex” to test whether the scene is generic vs. unique. I can see the same idea working for fight scenes, chase scenes, scenes about the weather, location, etc. etc.

Falling in Love

This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I love Jane Austen, and I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

If I could jump in a time machine I’d go back to see her at age twenty or so and bring her a lifetime supply of cortisone supplements — still the only treatment for Addison’s disease, which is what killed her. Imagine another five or ten books by her. Wouldn’t that be worth a spin in a time machine?

At any rate. Other people love Jane as much as I do, and some of them are very … exacting. Austen Purists do not like anyone to fuss with the Work. Purists are opposed, unilaterally, to the small industry that has sprung up around Jane’s stories, particularly to the dozens of sequels that have been published. Currently the list of such works over at the Republic of Pemberley numbers 68, and it is not complete. Personally I try to judge every after-the-fact sequel on its own merits, but thus far I haven’t run into one that really worked for me.

All this by way of introducing Linda Berdoll’s
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife — which works in a very limited way.

One thing I would love to ask Jane (when we’re sitting in her garden and after I’ve explained to her the [asa left]1402202733[/asa] function of cortisone and why her inability to produce it is going to be fatal) is this: when we get to the most crucial scene in Pride and Prejudice, the one we’ve been working toward for so long, why does she step away? Darcy and Elizabeth are finally declaring mutual love and a future together, but we are no longer in scene. Very frustrating, really. I would guess she’d tell me that it was far too personal a conversation to put down on paper. I expect that’s exactly what the purists say, too: if Jane didn’t want it told, we should be satisfied to leave it at that. But of course, nobody is ever satisfied. Fictional characters live on and independently of their creators. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are a case in point; maybe the ultimate case in point. Linda Berdoll was not the first to sit down and write the story of what happens after they get married, and I doubt she’ll be the last. What sets her apart, though, is her willingness to explore the sexual relationship between them.

There is a lot of sex in this novel, probably too much. Some of it works very well; other bits don’t. Part of the problem is that Berdoll decided to try to emulate Jane’s late 18th century style and tone, which she pulls off only inconsistently. What she does do well is to give us scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth that go beyond sex, the very kinds of scenes that reveal so much about the inner person and the relationship. The passage I’m quoting here is after-the-fact. They have been married a very short time; Elizabeth, of course, has come to the marriage bed with very little concrete idea of what’s going to happen, but great willingness and an open mind (she is, thus far, still in character as Jane created her) — but she is also confused and at odds and worried that she’s not performing to expectations, because she doesn’t know how to interpret some of Darcy’s reactions and comments. That’s where this begins, with her misunderstanding of something he’s said having to do with her loss of virginity.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Copyright Linda Berdoll.

Before she had found reason or even anger at fate, which would have been a truer reaction for her nature, she bitterly (and with a great deal of self-pity) announced her obvious shortcoming.

“I am stunted,” she proclaimed.

Still in heaving contrition atop her, he raised himself upon both elbows and inquired, “You are what?”

“I cannot accomodate you. I am obviously stunted.”

Still raised upon his elbows, breathing heavily, but blinking at her remark in non-comprehension, he could only repreat, “You are ‘stunted’?”

“Yes.”

Impatient that he did not follow her reasoning, she explained to her exceedingly satisfied husband thusly, “My body obviously cannot meet your needs. I thought it was only at first, but you see now, it is not. I am stunted and cannot perform satisfactorily as your wife.”

“Lizzy, that is absurd!”

“‘Tis not absurd! You yourself said, ‘This will not do.’ Indeed, last night you said again and again that I was too small.”

“I said you were small, meaning….” he searched for an explanation.

“Paltry,” she answered for him.

“No. I meant, small — diminutive — petite. Lush and tight.”

At that unprecedented explictness, he well-nigh blushed.

Then, hastily, he continued. “It was a compliment, Lizzy, not a complaint. As far as my saying ‘it will not do,’ I only meant it would not do for me to continue to hurt you. That is my failing, not yours. I must rein myself in, for you are not too small. I am…” He flailed about for a delicate way to put it. “…rather large.”

“Oh.”

This was an interesting turn of events. The entire conundrum was the fault of his body, not hers.

She bid, “Do you mean too large?”

“I mean to say, you are small, but not too small.”

“You mean to say, you are not large, but too large?”

“I am not all that large…” he made a frustrated little half-snort, obviousy unhappy at the direction the conversation was taking, but that did not deter her curiosity.

“How large are you?”

“As you see.”

“Well, you must understand, sir, my frame of reference is somewhat limited. Would you not grant I have no true way to compare it?”

He almost smiled then reclaimed it, not wanting to encourage further discussion of the meritoriousness of his member. But he was tardy by half, leaving Elizabeth feeling saucy enough to inflict a tease.

“Are you large enough to incite gossip? Are you large enough to be put upon display in Piccadilly?”

By then thoroughly defensive, he said, “I said I was large, not a freak of nature.”

“I am just trying to get some idea of what sort of largeness we are dealing with here…”

“I should have said I was not small.”

“There is a very wide gap in definition betwixt ‘too large’ and ‘not small’.”

“It will have to simply remain so, for I refuse to discuss it further.”

He shook his head slightly, then said, “I truly believed I would be whispering endearments in your ear at this moment, not discussing logistiques.”

“But the dilemma has not been solved…”

“I promise you, Lizzy, it shall be solved,” he said. “With very diligent practice.”

I find this touching and funny, the idea of the very correct Mr. Darcy unable to extract himself from such a conversation. This playfulness is something we don’t see at all in Pride and Prejudice, but something we suspect is there beneath the surface — something we hope for. We want this Mr. Darcy for Elizabeth. A sexually aware, adventurous, considerate Darcy who is able to talk to Lizzy about their relationship, who stretches outside of his areas of comfort because he likes and loves her.

There are many little bits like this in the novel, where we see what falling in love has done — and continues to do — for Darcy. They both evolve, but he especially changes and grows, and it’s a delight. Those bits alone made the novel worthwhile for me; I could overlook or forgive almost every other kind of infelicity, given this window into the way the newly married are continuing to fall headlong in love.

Tomorrow I’ll try to draw out some guidelines that have been rising to the surface while I looked at these various sex scenes, or, maybe, I’ll do one more. If I can find the book.