writing sex scenes

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.

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’?”


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.”


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.

More Good Bad Sex

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes
[asa left]0312983824[/asa] I’m not sure if men will find this scene funny, but I’m pretty sure most women will. It’s one of those laugh-or-cry situations, and laughter is usually the better option.

This is the story of Tilda, a good woman, an artist from a family of artists and art dealers with a long history of questionable practices. A very long history. Tilda is a seething mass of worries, angers, guilts, and corresponding asthmatic symptoms. In spite of her many worries, her difficult relationship to her (now dead) father, her concern for her mother, she has managed to hang on to the things that make her likable and interesting. She doesn’t get close to people outside the family because she is loyal and honest, two things that don’t really go together well in her situation. Which means she is also lonely, though she doesn’t see it that way.

Enter Davy Dempsey, who is also from a family known for its less than amiable relationship with the law. He’s attracted to Tilda, she’s attracted to him, but her fear has definitely got the upper hand. When they embark on this first sexual encounter, she’s so worried about her asthma, a missing painting, and the possibility that they may lose the family business that there’s really no way for her to relax, and thus things are doomed from the start.

A few notes: the references to her inner Louise have to do with her attempt to model herself on her sister, who is able to have a fulfilling sex life because she compartmentalizes successfully. When she’s out on the town, she’s Louise. Tilda would like to have access to an inner Louise. Steve is her dog.

Faking It. Copyright Jennifer Crusie.

She began to move with him, trying to pick up his rhythm, which was hard because she kept slipping down the couch. Oh, hell, she thought, and moved her hand to brace herself on the back of the couch and caught him across the nose.
Don’t have a nosebleed, she thought, please don’t have a nosebleed, but he just said, “Ouch,” and kept going.

Single-minded, she thought. Okay, there is no Louise, Louise is like the Easter Bunny, so just breathe heavy and get this over with and never go near this man again.

She took deep breaths, not even trying to match his because they were never going to be in sync, and once she stopped trying and started breathing, things got better. He picked up speed, and Tilda tried to imagine the tightening of her muscles and did a damn good job with those moans as the minutes passed and her pulse picked up. Then he shifted against her and hit something good, and she sucked in her breath and thought, Wait a minute, this could–but even as she had the thought, he shuddered in her arms and that was it. Just hell, she thought, and finished off with an oh-my-god-that-was-good moan-sigh combo.

So much for channeling her inner Louise. He was semi-mindless on top of her now, so she held him, patting him on the back while he caught his breath and Pippy Shannon sang “I Pretend” on the jukebox. Our song, Tilda thought.

Steve dozed on the rug beside the couch, oblivious to both of them. He had the right idea. She should have taken a nap instead.

Then Davy pushed himself up on one arm and looked in her eyes, nose to nose. “So what was that?” he said, still breathing hard, looking mad. “A fake or a forgery?”

Jenny’s trademark witty banter is here, though it’s limited to interior monologue. Which is one sign that things aren’t going well — if you remember the scene from Welcome to Temptation, when things are good, her characters are quite chatty. In her panic and distress, Tilda is intellectual. She’s trying to figure out how to handle the situation; she’s worried about Davy’s reaction, about what she should be doing, about how to make everything okay. It doesn’t occur to say to him, hold up, bub, this about as exciting as a televised golf game. She’s the fixer in the family, and she’s trying to figure out how to do that here, as well; the only option that occurs to her is — well, faking it.

Most women and I assume, most men can think of times when things have gone Very Wrong much like this. The scene in Welcome to Temptation starts like this — the encounter isn’t working for Sophie, but Phin takes things in hand and turns them around. Here Davy seems not to notice that Tilda is mentally absent and physically unresponsive. She’s pretty sure she’s fooling him, at any rate, and thus it comes as a surprise to her when he makes it clear that he was indeed paying attention, and he doesn’t like what happened. The line “A fake or a forgery?” summarizes the theme of the whole novel, which is lovingly complex and carefully constructed and really worth reading.

It’s very hard to write bad sex well. Scott Spencer did it by subtle revelation of David Axelrod’s inner demons in his first person observations of less than erotic details. Jenny does it with humor and also with sympathy. Tilda is funny, but she’s also tragic in ways that take time to make themselves clear.

I’m coming to the end of my examination of sex scenes. I may drag out one or two more, and then wind things up. In a week’s time I’m off to Europe until the end of the month, but I’ll see what interesting bits might be hanging around between now and then.

Good Bad Sex

This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes
[asa left]0880016280[/asa] I really admire Scott Spencer’s work. Waking the Dead is probably my favorite of his novels, but I’ve found things to like about all of them. Endless Love is, over all, a delicately told, very dark story, one that I have re-read more than once. This particular scene I’m going to talk about bothers me — which may mean it is entirely successful.

Endless Love is about David Axelrod, a teenager desperately in love with Jade Butterfield but also with Jade’s family. His own intellectual and detached parents can’t compete with the Butterfields, who are unconventional and demonstrative. David and Jade’s relationship bothers her father (who is in some ways as volatile a character as David himself) not so much because it is sexual, but because of the degree of obsession David shows for them all. He orders Jade to stop seeing David, who then makes a desperate play to win the family’s love back, and missteps badly — more than once — with disasterous results. Near the end of the novel he does reconnect with Jade, who allows herself to be drawn back into the relationship. This excerpt is part of the longer scene in which Jade capitulates. Part of the delay is that she is having her period, but she is drawn enough to him, and he is eager enough, that they proceed anyway. The novel is written in David’s first person POV.

Endless Love. Copyright Scott Spencer.

We kissed and stroked each other for a while. Jade straddled me and I thrust up to enter her, but missed. She took hold of me and guided me in. She fell a little dry and her discharge was thick, viscous — the result of her period, the blood mixed with her normal secretions. She winced as I entered her —it’s awful, really, how stirring men find those small signs of pain. She lifted herself up a little and I popped loose of her. She came back down until the knobby bones of our hips touched and the bow-shaped curve of my cock pressed into the cushy heart of her genitals, sinking until it hit a ridge of cartilage. I pressed her at the small of her back; her hips were locked around mine now and I felt her pubic hair brush against me, as soft as breath on my belly. I pulled her down, made her bend from the waist, and crushed our chests together.

I whispered her name and when she didn’t respond I felt a moment’s panic.

I held her face and kissed her mouth. Her tongue felt huge, soft, and unbearably alive in my mouth. I breathed her breath. It was the night’s first real kiss. Precise, enormous.

The first thing to note here is the almost detached way in which David describes the mechanics of what they are doing. He has been obsessing about this moment for years, and now that he is in the middle of it, he seems almost cold in his observations. The first real insight into his state of mind is the sentence it’s awful, really, how stirring men find those small signs of pain. He is telling himself — and us, the readers — that this is about love and making a connection to Jade, but not very far beneath the surface he is tremendously angry. He draws attention to his own anger and trivializes it immediately, returning to relating the fine details of what is going on.

Why these particular graphic, less than erotic, almost distasteful details? Why language calculated if not to shock, then at least to push the reader away?

The sex is a way for us to see some frightening things about David, who is, after all, an unreliable narrator. There is very little of tenderness or affection here; this act is about blood, about crushing and crashing together, about barely constrained violence. Until he remembers to talk to Jade. Until he calls her name, and another part of his mind is engaged. It isn’t until this point, until he kisses her, that the scene shifts. He holds her face, he takes note of the fact that she is alive, and breathing. The adjectives here (Precise, enormous ) change the tone and the direction of what is happening between them — for him, at least. We can’t know what Jade is feeling.

It’s been observed before that sex and battle scenes are great places to see what a character is made of, and this scene is both. It is shocking, disturbing, distasteful because the things that drive David, things he has been withholding from himself and from us, are disturbing. This passage is as successful as a dark sex scene can be.

Whew. I’m ready for something a little lighter and I bet you are too. Tomorrow.