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.

Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This excerpt from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart is anything but a typical or generic sex scene.

The two main characters in this historical romance are Stuart Aysgarth, a viscount, and a woman called Emma Hotchiss. Emma has a very shady past but at this point in her life she is an utterly respectable and unremarkable woman who owns a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Stuart gives her cause to seek him out when he causes harm to her livestock, but after getting no satisfaction she takes matters into her own hands. Thus, he catches her in the act of robbing him (I’m simplifying this, please note). So he ties her to a chair to keep her from running off, but more importantly because this is an opportunity he had been hoping for. With her questionable connections and background, she can help him with a problem — or if she prefers, he can call the sheriff.

There is a long, interesting, complex discussion between these two while she’s tied to the chair, business negotiations and personal observations, all fraught with a great deal of sexual tension arising from strong mutual attraction. Emma is experienced and not easily frightened, but she is at a bit of a loss on how to handle Stuart, who tells her she must give up two minutes of her time to experience the personal trespass he has suffered over a longer period.

This initial confrontation, discussion and negotiation takes many pages, and eventually they get to kissing (another couple pages). Remember that Emma is still tied to the chair where this excerpt begins.

Untie My Heart. Copyright Judith Ivory.

Somewhere along the way his hand returned to her knee, light, dry, warm possessive. Just his hand on her knee. For balance. Still, for a second, she knew a tiny panic. He stroked it away. His thumb rubbed the inside of her knee, two soft, short strokes along the bend, the first reassuring, the second bringing such a shocking physical rush of blood to the core of Emma, she nearly lost her breath. Her legs … dear heaven, her legs. She felt all at once exposed … aware how close he was to… well, he could have put his hands, that thumb, those fingers anywhere.

Almost gentlemanly, sweetly, as if he read her mind, he broke away long enough to lean over sideways. With one hand, he yanked at the ties at her legs, ripping them in part, setting her right knee free first –oh, lovely!–coming back to kiss her again briefly–then stopping long enough to lean in the other direction. She lifted her free foot out, straightening her knee to stretch, as he undid her other one. Not that he was letting her free or up exactly, because as soon as her legs were freed, he came back to that astonishing kiss, having her rather trapped against the chair.

Then, the next thing she knew, his hands hooked under her knees, and he lifted her legs up as he moved forward and straddled the chair himself, sitting, while in the same movement lifting, running his hands under her legs down her calves to her ankles. He sat, taking her legs up over his. He still had to bend forward slightly, he was so much taller, but he was less awkward, more comfortable, she thought, sitting on the chair-until he moved forward and brought their bodies close, up against each other. She would have slapped him perhaps. Maybe. Difficult to say, since her hands were still held behind her. In any event, it was a shock at first to feel him — his male body up against her spraddled female one.

He bent forward, kissing her harder. One moment, his hands were at the sides of her, gripping the chair posts over her head. He curved his hips hard against her, and she knew the heady thickness of him. All so oddly familiar, yet not. The next moment, one of his hands was between them, at her waist, then the back of his hand glided down her belly, almost protective. Then he took his hand away–and nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever was between them. Unless one counted something else she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection.

He either knew or was inventing on the spot how to have sexual congress on a chair … they were about to…she was letting him … no, she jerked on her hands, they weren’t free in back….she was his prisoner…wasn’t she? Was she letting him? She wet her lips to say stop. The word didn’t come out. Did she want him to? Now was certainly the moment to say so. Decisions seemed to hang, demanding her attention, yet her brain couldn’t seem to keep up with her body.

She felt herself swollen, lit, as the head of his penis dropped against her. It slid down the length of her in an instant acknowledgement of how ready she was. The warm movement of his hand was there, adjusting himself into position – here was certainly the moment to protest. Did she want to?

Then it was too late to protest anything. With a swift, sure movement of hips, he thrust himself deeply, thickly inside her. Her body all but pulled him into her, swallowing him up. His arms were at either side of her again, enfolding her against the chair, against him, his chest, the spicy-warm smell of him…his strong, muscular shoulders hunched toward her, one hovering at her face till the starchiness of his shirt rose into her nostrils like steam, till she tasted it in her mouth. . . his hips under her, his presence inside her, hot and substantial, driving … intrusive, amazing . . . he lifted into her with a kind of rhythmic spasm that was so satisfying she bit down on his shirt, clenching her teeth. Seconds. It lasted seconds — perhaps three deep, solid stokes of Stuart’s body into hers. While her own contracted around his the moment of entry and simply kept contracting… tighter and tighter and tighter. . . until an explosion… or implosion, things collapsing and shoving and moving inside as she couldn’t remember in years, maybe ever, . . with both herself and Stuart making such noises, mutters, animal sounds, groans.

She came to her senses again like this, her heart pounding with him right there in her face, his body up against her, still inside her.

Two minutes. Had it taken two minutes? Feasible. It was entirely feasible.

When I read this over again I am entirely taken in by Emma’s voice, her very distinctive voice as we follow her thoughts through this scene. She’s such a down-to-earth, practical woman, unprepared but not particularly upset by Stuart’s direct approach. More upsetting to her is her own inability to produce the reactions she knows she supposed to have. She’s supposed to not want this; she should be protesting. But her body has the upper hand, and her body wants Stuart, and she goes along for the ride, amazed, dumbfounded, but absolutely able to acknowledge the pleasure it brings her. This has nothing to do with love; she never even thinks about that.

The approach here is very explicit: we see what Emma sees, and feel what she feels. Every one of Stuart’s actions is recounted, but in rather sober, vaguely surprised language. She registers things: the shock of his body against hers, the familiarity of a male body still after a long dry spell, and a very calm assessment of his body in a state of sexual arousal. What kind of woman, in this situation, thinks a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection. Notice the juxtaposition of the sensible observation (capable) with the appreciative one (perfectly beautiful).

She debates with herself what she wants, and her role in this whole business. I’ve read this many times to see if I could talk myself into believing that she is being abused or raped, but I can’t see it. She knows perfectly well how to stop him, considers doing that, and doesn’t. She never makes a direct and conscious decision to go ahead and have sex with the man; it’s more of a decision she makes by letting opportunities slip by. Once the act has actually begun, she’s caught up in the physical sensations, and they are provided for us in detail: the things she smells, tastes, feels, sees.

Her final thoughts — Two minutes? Entirely feasible are completely in character, and perfectly caught.

I’ve wondered too what to make of the lack of dialog between them in these two minutes — they certainly chatter away in the first twelve or so pages of the scene, and now complete verbal silence. This experience is for Emma a fairly solitary one; if she looks into Stuart’s eyes we don’t know about it; it’s all about what’s going on inside her own head and her own body.
Has Emma changed in the course of this encounter, has the narrative shifted? That’s something you’d have to decide for yourself by reading the whole novel, but I think that this is in fact a turning point for her, and for Stuart.

I think I like this and find it to be successful because it is unique and unusual and evocative. I’m curious what y’all think.

deadwood & the reconstruction of historical vernacular

If you read my review of Deadwood (HBO) you’ll know that I like it a lot, but I was critical of the anachronistic use of language. Robert Armstrong objected to the criticism and commented:

… However, much historical research was done to produce Deadwood and the dialog is authentic.Check out Noel Holston’s article at www.newsday.com.

So I did go have a look at the article. Newsday is a subscription service, but here’s an excerpt with the salient points.

The article is by Noel Holston, dated March 21, 2004

Welcome to the vile, vile West.

“Deadwood” is the most profane western in the history of the genre. … Just about everybody…uses polysyllabic epithets of the sort we associate with Tony Soprano and gangsta rappers. It’s language so unprecedentedly blistering, even some tough, jaded TV critics have been moved to ask, “What the, ah, heck, is this?”… According to Milch, it’s a much closer approximation of the language of the real West, that’s what. “That’s the way they spoke,” he said. “I researched the show a good, long time – over a year – and went through a tremendous amount of primary material. And the one thing upon which everyone agrees was that the profanity and obscenity was astounding. It was overwhelming. People who would visit would report that they simply couldn’t believe the way people spoke out there.”… Note that Milch said “primary” material. He’s talking about accounts of Deadwood in letters and diaries from the time in which his show is set and oral histories collected by the Library of Congress’ Living Memory project. … Rather than take Milch’s explanation at face value, I did a bit of primary research myself…. Don Reeves, the McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, recently oversaw the installation of an exhibit about the cinematic West. … He said the expression “cusses like a sailor” would apply equally to cowboys, but he was quick to add that, from his study, the salty language of the 1870s wouldn’t necessarily be the same as today’s profanity. [emphasis added]… Milch said that however startling the language in “Deadwood” may be, shock is not his point. “The lawlessness of the language is, first of all, something that I hope people will get used to,” he said. “But it [also] establishes an atmosphere, verbally, in which anything is possible. And at that point, the viewer, one hopes, is brought to some sort of emotional equivalency with the environment and then begins to identify how certain characters rise above it.”

I also went to look at the data at the American Experience website at the Library of Congress. There were a number of oral histories but no letters that I could find. The only mention of swearing I ran into at all was a recollection of Wild Bill Hickok that mentioned that he was very quiet, and rarely swore. Of course the letters may well be there, and I just didn’t find them — I’m assuming that they are. But here’s the problem. In 1875 “I can’t believe the way they talk!” means something different than it does in 2004. As the historian pointed out (bold faced in the excerpt above), salty language is a relative term.

The writers for the series went looking for hints on how people talked, and my guess is that they have over-interpreted what they found, or maybe they just decided that they wanted the shock value of the strongest language possible for the present day. In either case, I stand by my original criticism.

This is an issue of some importance to writers of historical fiction, and of particular interest to me because of my academic background. The short answer to the question of how to handle language of the past is (as I see it) this: you can’t get it completely right, but it is possible to avoid the worst kinds of generalizations and errors. ((An example of how I handled this issue in the Wilderness books: Robbie is a Scot from the Lowlands, thus is first language is Scots, and English is his second language. Scots and English are related, but distinct languages, somewhat like the relationship between Dutch and German — there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility, but Scots and English are still distinct and associated with different nation-states. Scots is different from English primarily in that many sound changes which originated in the south of England and moved northwards petered out — or, to put it more accurately — were resisted by those in the north. Now, all of this has nothing to do with Gaelic, which is another language from a completely different language family. Gaelic and other forms of the Celtic languages were spoken all through the island before the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invasions, which gave rise to English. The Celtic peoples were driven back, into Cornwall and Wales and up into Scotland. In the eighteenth century, Gaelic was the first language of the Scottish Highlands. Many people there spoke nothing else. If they did speak something besides Gaelic, it might have been Scots, but not necessarily. It might have been English. Novelists like to portray Highlanders as speakers of Scots, but that’s unlikely in most cases. This is similar to the way we like to think of King Arthur as speaking English, when that language did not even exist during his lifetime. So in Robbie’s case, he grew up in the Lowlands, speaking Scots. He learned English subsequently when he went to the Colonies, but he always spoke it reluctantly, and with a strong Scots flavoring.

As you might guess from this rather detailed answer, I have a PhD in linguistics and I take a lot of interest in the language issues. So when Robbie was developing as a character, I went to various people who could be counted as experts on Scots. Lesley Milroy, a sociolinguist who happens to be a Lowland Scot, was a great deal of help. I have about fifteen volumes on Scots (history, structure, vocabulary) and I have also found extremely helpful sights on the web. One of the best is put together by Andy Eagle (Sneck here for tae gang til a cuttie Scots furthsettin o his wabsteid!).))

The other question, and it is a valid one, is how to avoid anachronism without alienating modern day readers. That’s a topic for another time, I think.

omniscient point of view

POV is one of those things that beginning students of creative writing find hard to understand. The simplest way to determine POV (the one that I use when I’m confused in my own writing) is this: who’s got the camera? We’re seeing and experiencing this scene through somebody’s eyes — who is it?

For a long time it’s been fashionable to write in limited third person POV, which means simply that only one character at a time is holding the camera. You’re inside Joe’s head, watching a car accelerate toward a brick wall; then you’re in Jane’s. The contrast between how two characters experience the same event is one of the ways to use contrast to build tension. Mostly my work is in limited third person POV. Here’s Albany in 1794 seen through Elizabeth’s eyes:

The roads were crowded with housemaids swinging baskets on red-chapped arms; peddlers hawking sticky peaches, sugar-sweet melons, wilted kale; young women in watered silks with feathered parasols tilted against the sun; River Indians dressed in fringed buckskin and top hats; slaves hauling bales of rags and herding goats. It was not so dirty and crowded as New York had been, that was true. There was a pleasing tidiness to the brick houses with their steeply tiled roofs and bright curtains, but still the humid air reeked of sewage, burning refuse, pig slurry and horse dung. Elizabeth swallowed hard and put her handkerchief to her nose and mouth, wondering to herself that she had forgotten what cities were like in such a short time. Three months in the wilderness had changed her, stolen her patience for the realities of a crowded life.

And now from Nathaniel’s POV

Because they did not have any other molds, Run-from-Bears had melted down about twenty pounds of the Tory gold in a makeshift forge and cast a fortune in bullets. These Nathaniel had been carrying in double-sewn leather pouches next to his skin since they left Paradise, ten pounds on each side. In Johnstown this unusual currency would have caused a stir, but Albany was a town built on some two hundred years of high intrigue and trading shenanigans. Comfortable Dutch and British merchants had made large fortunes running illegal furs from Canada, reselling silver spoons stolen in Indian raids on New England families much like their own, and bartering second grade wampum and watered rum for all the ginseng root the native women could dig up, which they then traded to the Orient at an outrageous profit. A sack of golden bullets would raise nothing more in an Albany merchant than his blood pressure.

It used to be that authors wrote almost exclusively in first person POV (David Copperfield, for example) or in omniscient third. Jane Austen is a good example of the latter case: the author sees all, knows all, and tells all. She sees simultaneously into the heart and mind of of Jane, Darcy, and Miss Bingley and understands each of them perfectly. She is, in other words, their god. Along with what they are thinking and doing, Austen gives us a running editorial (and a sharp-edged one) on the greater society in which this is all happening.

I have wondered if I’m even capable of writing a whole story or book in omniscient POV, and I think the answer is that it would be a great deal of hard work. Like learning to write with my left hand, almost. There are a few writers now who are moving back toward omniscient POV; take a look at Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, Bel Canto (which won the Orange Prize and a lot of other critical awards last year), or the novels of Patrick O’Brien or Gabriel García Márquez.


An 1833 engraving of a scene from Chapter 59 o...

Here’s a lovely passage from Pride and Prejudice, which serves as an example of Austen’s perfect pitch in matters of dialog. It’s also in omniscient POV:


“How very ill Eliza Bennet looks this morning, Mr. Darcy,” she cried; “I never in my life saw any one so much altered as she is since the winter. She is grown so brown and coarse! Louisa and I were agreeing that we should not have known her again.”

However little Mr. Darcy might have liked such an address, he contented himself with coolly replying that he perceived no other alteration than her being rather tanned — no miraculous consequence of travelling in the summer.

“For my own part,” she rejoined, “I must confess that I never could see any beauty in her. Her face is too thin; her complexion has no brilliancy; and her features are not at all handsome. Her nose wants character; there is nothing marked in its lines. Her teeth are tolerable, but not out of the common way; and as for her eyes, which have sometimes been called so fine, I never could perceive any thing extraordinary in them. They have a sharp, shrewish look, which I do not like at all; and in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion which is intolerable.”

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,

“I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, ‘She a beauty! — I should as soon call her mother a wit.’ But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.”

“Yes,” replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, “but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.”

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

The editorial comments (highlighted) come from the omniscient narrator — Austen herself. The tone is indeed a little bit sharp, but Austen was sharp and in this particular instance, she gives her readers what they want (because, of course she has made them want it) — the officious, pretentious, cruel Miss Bingley finally talks herself into a scolding, and a particularly painful one at that.

The other thing to point out here is the masterful balance between direct and indirect dialog; some of what Darcy says is summarized, because it’s Miss Bingley we need to hear just then, without distraction. When he speaks up finally, he is given the floor with devastating effectiveness.

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