WRITING ABOUT SEX WITHOUT BLUSHING
Copyright 2008 Diana Gabaldon
These are actually the notes I used last time I taught a workshop at a writers conference on how to write about sex. Now, bear in mind that I normally use something like a stream of consciousness when I do workshops. [g] Since I'd never taught this one before, though, and it was my first attempt at consciously verbalizing what I know about the subject, I did make a sort of hasty outline, which I present as follows, accompanied by a rough paraphrase of the kind of thing I said.
Let me preface things here by observing that human beings are hardwired to be interested in sex. This fact is not lost on advertisers, which is why you have skimpily-clad young women straddling motorcyles and the like.
This being so, you have a valuable tool (but one to be used with discretion) as a writer; if you write about sex, the majority of readers will pay attention. (Some will avoid scenes involving sex altogether, of course, out of personal feelings. If you're writing for such an audience, you probably aren't including a lot of sex.)
1. CHARACTER - THE KEY TO GOOD SEX
The point here is that you need to know who your characters are, and how they may (or may not) respond to the situation in which they find themselves. I _have_ met writers who feel an obligation (and a heavy one they find it) to insert sex scenes here and there, in order to satisfy what they see as the demands of genre or editor.
I have one friend who wrote historical romances for years, without actually liking the genre very much. She said the historical research made it bearable to write the stories, but she simply couldn't force herself to write (what she referred to as) "fnck scenes" after a few books. She'd put off the dire necessity as long as possible, procrastinating and moaning to her next-door neighbor (who _did_ like historical romances) about how horrible this was. Finally the neighbor offered to write the "f-scenes" _for_ her, an offer she hesitantly accepted, figuring it was the only way she was going to be able to finish the book.
In this situation, everything worked out happily; the neighbor (who was also a writer, though unpublished) had fun writing the sexual encounters, my friend then smoothed the style so that the inserted scenes fit with the rest of the book, and a good time was had by all--including, we trust, the eventual readers.
But the point here is only _you_ can prevent forest--no, wait. Only you can decide--on behalf of the characters--whether they really want to have sex here or not. They may _not_. And if not, you're going to have a terrible time trying to force them to do it. Personally, I advise against it. Just listen to them; they'll tell you whether they want to, don't want to, think they want to, but would like to just make out for a little first...
Beyond deciding _whether_, the characters also decide _how_. Or they should. Sexual encounters _can_ be impersonal, but unless that's the deliberate effect you're striving for (and you might be, under some circumstances), you should treat a sexual encounter between your characters as an emotional transaction.
This doesn't necessarily mean pages and pages describing the characters' feelings. Bear in mind that dialogue is the single best and most economical tool you have in hand for describing character; it's also one of the best means of describing the emotional transaction taking place between them in a sexual context. Good characters talk in bed. [g]
2. THE LANGUAGE OF SEX IS EMOTION -
Ergo, in a good sex scene, you're dealing with the emotions of the characters, and not so much with the mechanics of what they're doing.
Note, also, that _because_ people are naturally interested in sex, any emotional transaction that takes place in a sexual atmosphere will have a heightened impact. NB: All sex scenes are not necessarily of the "I want him/her--let's do it" variety. They don't _have_ to involve mutual affection--or even physical attraction (though that's often there, even if not expressed). Anger, hate, and coldness can be expressed in the context of sex, just as well as the more positive emotions--and the sexual context will heighten these, as well.
(Note that a sex scene can be used for any of the usual purposes as a regular scene--exposition of plot, development of character, etc.)
Returning to the notion that we're dealing principally with emotion, rather than mechanics. This means you don't need to spend pages and pages following the blazing trail of sensation as his fingertips gently explore the slopes of....well, I mean, you don't. But neither does this mean that you don't need to say _anything_ about what's happening physically.
By and large, you can "anchor" a sex scene for the reader by providing small cues regarding the physical action, and allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the rest for themselves.
EXAMPLE 1: Sexex1
Note in this example, a) how we shift the atmosphere to a tone of sexual suggestion via the cat, b) how character is revealed through dialogue, and c) how the scene deals with the physical details of the encounter.
3. CHANGE OF FOCUS
I have two bamboo hangings on the wall behind my desk: one from
The Chinese one is a close-up of a flowering branch with birds. It's done in exquisite detail; you can see the shading of individual petals, the iridescent feathers on the birds' necks. Hundreds of tiny, precise brushstrokes.
They're both good pictures, and both with a strong Oriental influence (naturally). The major difference is the _focus_ of each picture--long-shot vs. close-up.
Effective fiction (by and large) _varies the focus_. You don't want to tell a whole story from an emotional distance; likewise, showing things in close-up becomes claustrophobic fast. Ergo--and this goes for _any_ kind of scene, not just sex scenes--you want to vary the focus. If you start out in close-up--with a woman feeling her lover's breath on her earlobes, say--you may then want to take a step back, and she hears the chime of church bells in the distance, reminding her that she's committing a fearful sin--but then his mouth moves lower...and we're back in close-up.
When you're writing about sex, you're exploring the geography of intimacy, and you do this using the same techniques you use to maintain pacing and interest in any other narrative.
(See later, distillation/metaphor vs. literalism/detail - both valid, but different impact. Actually, I never did get around to talking about this, but this is where it is in the notes. [g])
EXAMPLE 2: I can't attach this, for copyright reasons, but it was pages 286-292 in INCUBUS DREAMS, by Laurell K. Hamilton. What you should be noting here is a) the use of brief bits of dialogue to define character, b) the change in focus, between the (very explicit) descriptions of touching/action and the protagonist's thoughts (including, even, a small chunk of backstory about one vampire's eyes), and c) that while this is a sex scene between what are essentially strangers, and strangers who have _no_ emotional involvement with each other, it's by no means impersonal.
4. NON-SEX SEX SCENES
Again, a sex scene is not just the traditional four legs in a bed. It's possible to have an entire narrative suffused with sexual feeling (example: THE SHADOW OF THE WIND), but which has relatively little in the way of direct sexual contact (that book has precisely two scenes involving actual sex, each one about two paragraphs long).
It's also possible to write a scene that deals explicitly with sex--and infuses the text with sexual feeling--but that isn't a traditional sex scene at all.
EXAMPLE 3: (this is a short one, so I'll just include the text, rather than doing an attachment)
From RED ANT'S HEAD
Copyright 2008 Diana GAbaldon
[Here we have a man sitting in a meeting, watching the female police officer who's conducting the briefing.]
I like jewelry on women.
People figure that historically men gave jewelry to women because a) they could afford it, so everybody would know how rich they were, and b) it made the women happy, so the men got sex, and that made them happy. I'm not saying this isn't true, but the fact is that jewelry on a woman is a real turn-on, no matter how the lady feels about it personally.
It's about ownership, is what it is. It's captivity. Put a chain around a woman's neck, put rings on her fingers, and she's yours.
She wears it on her bare skin, where everyone can see. On places you'd kiss, like the hollow of her throat, the lobes of her ears, the insides of her wrists. Where her pulse beats. It's metal and gems, a hard wet gleam where she's soft and tender. You're hard and she's soft, oh yeah.
Delicate chains and heavy links. Both good. Those tiny gold and silver chains, like spiderwebs against the skin; they could be broken with a touch, but they're worn willingly. Heavy links and bands of gold play up the fragile bones and slender throats--you can imagine them helpless, chained to the wall...or to a bed.
Spiderwebs and slave collars. Power and possession.
When you decorate a woman with jewelry you aren't just showing off, you're staking a claim. Throwing a net of gold and silver over her. You touch her skin when you put it on her, close the catch of a necklace on the back of her neck, on the soft bare skin under her hair, where you might bite her...later.
Older women know this. And that's why young women are always told not to accept jewelry from a guy unless they're serious about him; because a guy who wants to put chains on a lady is for sure serious, at least about what he wants to do with her.
She wore a wedding ring and gold-and-onyx studs in her ears. A tiny gold cross on a spiderweb chain at her throat. I couldn't take my eyes off it.
OK, see how that works? There's no interaction at all in this scene; the characters aren't touching, talking--or even, directly, aware of each other. It's not a "sex scene" in the classic sense of the word at all--and yet it certainly a) gives the reader a sexual feeling, and b) tells you quite a bit about the way this particular character feels for the woman he's looking at, as well as c) something about his overall attitudes.
5. ATMOSPHERE - evocation, sensuality
Without being explicit at all, it's possible to give a story a _feeling_ of sensuality. This is done principally--and paradoxically--by practicing restraint.
You don't lard on adjectives, or even verbs. You pick precise details and use beautiful imagery--which is a lot of work, but worth it.
I didn't actually talk about _this_, either, because it's a whole subject unto itself (and I did cover this in a seminar on Sensual (as opposed to sexual) writing. I'll put that one up later).
Examples: Anything by D.H. Lawrence, THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (Carlos Ruiz Zafon), Anais Nin, THE
6. THE INVISIBLE SEX SCENE - When, Why, and How to Shut the Door
Genre or market constraints
Personal comfort level
Build-up/tension/anticipation - can come not only from refraining from complete sex onscreen.
Change the dynamic between two people, but without the explicitness of an intervening sex scene; this is where what' important to the story (or to you as the author) is not that the characters had sex--but what their relationship is now like as a result.
Consider whether you want to use sex in your story, and how important it may be. If you're dealing with characters who have an ongoing relationship that inovlves sex--whether consummated or not--that feeling will probably suffuse their story, even if you have no direct "sex scenes" as such.
7. THE PARADOX OF CLEAN SMUT VS. NOVELISTIC LICENSE
We must make a distinction between erotica and sex in the service of a larger story. One such--really paradoxical--distinction is that in today's market, publishers of so-called erotica tend to be very (you should pardon the expression) "firm" about the kinds of situations you can and can't use. I.e., all sexual encounters must be clearly consensual, including those that involve bondage or violence. You can do anything in "straight" fiction.
On the whole, erotica has less _context_ than fiction does. Sex scenes in fiction don't take place in a vacuum, whereas erotica often does.
EXAMPLE 4: Sexex2. This doesn't necessarily belong here, but I can't recall where I _did_ read it, so this will do. [I'll post the actual example later; it's , and I have to go to bed.]
The thing to note about this excerpt is that it's definitely not a sex scene involving positive emotion or mutual attraction. The point of this scene is a) the advancement of plot, and b) further revelation of character. Also note the physical details, which are brief, but..er..evocative.
8. MIND GAMES, or WHAT WOULD YOUR MOTHER SAY?
It's very daunting to consider writing about sex with the shades of people you know looking over your shoulder. So tell yourself--and mean it--that no one is going to see it. Nobody _needs_ to see it.
It's just you and the paper. Remind yourself that nobody _can_ see it but you. You can write anything you please, and throw it away, or hide it in a drawer.
Once you _have_ written it, it becomes easier to perceive it as something separate from yourself. But you do need to let any piece of writing separate, before you're truly capable of judging its merit. With this in mind, you figure nobody's going to see this scene you're writing--unless it turns out to be Really Good. And you don't need to decide _that_ until later.
Then go thoroughly into the point of view of one character; see what they see, feel what they feel, and write down such details as make an impression. (NB: I _have_ seen sex scenes written effectively using the POV's of both characters, with emotions and thoughts floating back and forth. I don't do it myself, but only because it doesn't feel natural to me. It needs to feel very smooth and undistracting, if it's going to work.)
And remember--this is an art, not a science. There are techniques and patterns, but any sex scene--just like any real-life encounter--is going to be unique.
How your characters talk about what they're doing is going to be specific to them, and to the situation. Fairly blunt language can be effective on occasion--but depending on the time, place, etc., you may choose more lyrical or euphemistic language. [I actually ended the worksho p by declaiming "Ode to a Penis," a comic poem written by a friend of mine. That's her copyrighted material, though, so I can't print it here.]