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.

Series Navigation<< Less; MoreWhere Things Go Wrong(er) >>