Less; More

This entry is part 4 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I have been wanting to look at a sex scene from a hardboiled thriller/detective type novel. I vascillated for a long time between a very short scene from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey and one from Dan Simmons’ Hardcase and finally decided to look at them both.

Both of these novels are excellent examples of their genre. Sandford’s Lucas Davenport is a tough, no-nonsense homicide detective; Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was a tough private investigator until he killed the guy who raped and murdered the woman he loved — in a very well written, very shocking scene, I might add, the very first scene of this series of books about Kurtz.

Davenport has his very dark side, but Kurtz doesn’t have anything but dark, no matter how you look at him. Davenport loves women, likes to talk to them, his closest friend is a nun. Kurtz is so hard bitten and terse that it’s hard to imagine him smiling. We know he likes jazz; we know he’s concerned (from afar) about his daughter; that’s the end of it. These scenes are so different in tone you know, even if you read nothing else, that they are not from the POV of the same character.

Rules of Prey. Copyright John Sandford.

“You should have been a shrink, ” he said, shaking his head ruefully. He cut the water off and pushed open the shower door. “Hand me that big towel. I’ll dry your legs for you.”
A half-hour later, Jennifer said hoarsely, “Sometimes it gets very close to pain.”

“That’s the trick,” Lucas said. “Not going over the line.”

“You come so close,” she said. “You must have gone over it a lot before you figured out where to stop.”

Hardcase. Copyright Dan Simmons.

They moved together hard. Kurtz made his right hand a saddle and lifted her higher against the tiles while she wrapped her legs around his hips and leaned back, her hands cusped behind his neck, her arm and thigh muscles straining.

When she came it was with a low moan and a fluttering of eyelids, but also with a spasm that he could feel through the head of his cock, his thighs, and the splayed fingers of his supporting hand.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispered in a moment, still being held against the tile in the warm spray. Kurtz wondered just how capacious this loft’s hot water tank was. After another moment, she kissed him, began moving again, and said, “I didn’t feel you come. Don’t you want to come?”

“Later,” said Kurtz and lifted her slightly.

I should note that these are both the first novel in a series written by a male author. This is the first time you see Lucas in a sexual situation, and the same is true for Joe Kurtz. The Rules of Prey scene is so short and so lacking detail it’s hard to see why it might be erotic. There are two things: he orders her to submit to being cared for (the dichotomy here is intrinsically interesting) in a fairly matter-of-fact, gruff way; and then it is a half hour later when she is coherent enough to raise the subject of his methods, in a hoarse voice. A hoarse voice is a very distinctive thing, and should by rights be a cliche, but it still works, if used sparingly, to get across something about the scene.

Mostly this short scene is erotic because it makes the reader wonder what in the heck was going on, and draws on the reader’s own imagination. “And then they had sex,” does the same thing, but not like this. In this case, you have just enough information to make you understand a few things about Lucas Davenport. Interesting things.

The Hardcase scene is extremely explicit, and from a man’s POV, which is interesting in its own right. I would say, though, that it’s so mechanical, and Joe Kurtz’s POV is so detached, that there’s nothing erotic about it. The author lets us into Joe’s head, where we find him wondering about hot water heaters — and this is the first time he’s had a sexual encounter after eleven and a half years in prison. Would “and then they had sex” be a suitable substitute for this scene? Nope. Especially not if you read the whole scene from the beginning, which starts with Joe’s contemplation on how doing without sex in prison drives some men crazy, and how he read the Stoics to deal with it. This scene gives you a lot of information about Joe. It’s not very pleasant, it’s slightly disturbing, but most of all it’s very intriguing, for me at least. I kept wondering if he was ever going to put down the defenses and let himself feel anything. That’s why I kept reading the series, to answer that question. You’ll have to read it too if you’re interested.

So now I’m done; this is the last time I’ll post scenes for analysis, at least for the time being. I’m going to try to gather my thoughts on what I’ve learned by the process and I’ll post them tomorrow.

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.

NC-17

This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This discussion is going to get very explicit, just to warn you. If sex scenes aren’t your thing, you probably want to turn back now. You should also turn back if you are under eighteen. Really, go away.

Now that we’re alone.

A few notes before I get started. First, if you are new to fan fiction, you probably should have a look at an earlier post (Fan Fiction, and why I like it), which will make some of the preliminaries clear. Second, this is Farscape fan fiction. If you don’t know about Farscape, you must be pretty new to this blog, as I talk about it on a regular basis. Here’s the absolute minimum you need to know:

John Crichton is scientist who was running an aerospace experiment when he got stuck in a distant part of the galaxy; Aeryn Sun is Sebacean, a species very closely related to human. (One of my favorite tag lines: He’s human. She’s not. And you thought Romeo and Juliet had problems.) They spend two years becoming friends, saving each other’s asses and minds in terrible situations, beating each other up (sometimes literally), and falling in love.

The relationship doesn’t become sexual until the third season. Because this is television we’re talking about, it never becomes overtly sexual. Which is where Robyn’s fan fiction comes in.

Fan fiction exists mostly on the internet, so I could just send you over to read Robyn’s “The Well-Known Act” in its entirety. In fact, you should do that, because it’s an example of an extremely well done, very adult extended sex scene. But in the spirit of the exercise I began, I’m going to quote bits of it, anyway. For those of you too shy to take the plunge, so to speak.

The consummation of this very complex, very intense relationship is a topic Robyn handled in a series of short stories which deal with the emotional development of the characters as individuals and a couple, as well as with the physical. This is from Aeryn’s point of view. I’m excerpting two bits here, from the beginning of the interlude (the first line of dialog is John) and then a bit from the middle of it when things are in full flow.

“The Well-Known Act”. Copyright Robyn Bender.

“The well-known act of sexual congress. I’ve had some thoughts.”

“You think too much.”

“But I do good work.”

“Granted. All right.”

“We ARE different creatures. We don’t know how we fit, not like that, not for sure. I need to know that you’re way more than ready. I’m thinking, we start with the usual stuff. Rev you up a few times. Probably more than a few. But just keep away from my cock, okay? I’ll get far enough, fast enough, touching you, seeing you. Give me a chance.” The towel was gone. He was kissing her, settling in.

Might as well lie back. Put herself in his hands. She knew the man couldn’t be rushed.

She was right, of course. Things happened. Time passed. He could drive her all night.

========================

bodies entwined. How much skin could they press? Embrace and roll. His lips on her throat. Her hand caught the nape of his neck, run through that short, soft hair. Come here, you. Cup his skull. Capture his mouth for a wet, deep kiss

========================

on her back, shaking. Helpless with laughter. His mouth buried down in her sex. Those gleeful blue eyes peering up, eyebrows waggling. She stretched her arms toward him. He caught at her hands. Interlaced fingers, palms pressed together. She rolled her head back and stretched their arms high. Laughed and laughed as she came.

When I re-read this, the first thing that comes to mind is how very playful it is without being coy. So often sex scenes are generic, forced, contorted, self-conscious, but there’s a vitality here, a directness that works on multiple levels. If you know these characters, the way they talk to each other feels absolutely right. John is quick witted, self-confident; he likes word play; Aeryn has come to that kind of playfulness late in life and is often a half step behind, but appreciative. She’s given herself over after long months of agonizing, and she’s applying herself, now that she’s taken the leap.

Note that the word choice is explicit but matter-of-fact; nothing flowery, no over extended metaphors. The most direct descriptions of sexual acts (his mouth buried down in her sex) are offset by simple images of affection (interlaced fingers, palms pressed together).

Things intensify:

“That okay?” he asked softly, voice in her ear.

“You bastard!” she laughed. Could barely say it. Breathed hard through her mouth. “It’ll do.”

He gripped her waist. “Baby, I want you.”

“You have me, I think.”

“Yes, I do.” He moved deliberately, microns, fractions. Slow, so slow. He is going to do me, indeed, indeed. He intended to use everything he knew, his midnight thoughts, his very best skills. She was frelled. She laughed again. Too small a word. Who had known what it meant?

Her laugh faded out. She was straining up toward him. He held the same spot. Not so fast, my dear. Can’t have it all. He slid his hand down, wet with the silk. Cool, slippery stuff on her lips, her clit. “Oh, you are BAD,” she gasped, as his fingers skittered around, around. Just that little bit extra. Just one thing more. He watched the flush rise on her chest before he leaned down. His lips found her nipple. She jumped, and that jump hit his cock and she rippled around it, set off again. His mouth clamped down wetly and sucked. Can I come with my breast? Apparently so. God, only one mouth. But his palm took over, rubbed that wetness, his mouth to the other one, swirling his tongue. Yes. That!

She needed more brain. Too much coming in. Her hips rocked, her pelvis, she could feel each wet curl at his root. All circuits locked open, no filter. Squeeze her eyes shut. Try to swallow the waves in her throat. Was she making that cry, that call? His mouth clamped hers. Her throat still sang.

It’s Aeryn’s emotional transition as well as her physical one that makes lifts this scene out of the realm of the merely voyeuristic. Note the lovely balance between explicit acts; internal monologue; and dialog. Take any one of those three elements away and the scene won’t work nearly as well. We follow the natural progression from playfulness to absolute concentration not just because we are given the physical facts, but because we hear them in Aeryn’s rather amazed, completely engaged voice. Her rational mind tries to take over, but her body and her emotions are in control.

To follow the analysis I used in the other passages, the obvious contrast is in this author’s willingness to use words considered by many to be taboo: cock, clit, nipple — without resorting to technical terms or coy euphemism. It’s very possible, even likely, that if you are writing fiction in which sex scenes have a natural place in the character and plot development you will not want to take things this far. I don’t, not because I’m afraid my readers wouldn’t like it or my editor would object, but because I don’t think I could manage the delicate balance necessary to make it work. Which for me means that you can’t substitute “and then they had sex” without losing things important to the characterization and narrative flow.

And now that I’ve peaked your interest, here’s a link to a list of all Robyn’s Farscape fanfiction in chronological order.

I’ve been talking now for three days about scenes that don’t work because they are generic, forced, and coy in tone. Tomorrow I’m going to look at some of those. Then I’ll look at a scene that isn’t badly written, but doesn’t work, for me, for other reasons. I’ve got a list of maybe four or five sex scenes to cover in the next week.