What Good Are Sex Scenes in Fiction?
I’m not here to talk about bad sex.
Okay, maybe just a little.
Fiction has some terrible sex in it. There’s even a Bad Sex Award, which was sadly not presented in 2020, but you still want a highlight from 2019, right?
With the fondling, Katsuro’s penis and testicles became one single mound that rolled around beneath the grip of her hand. Miyuki felt as though she was manipulating a small monkey that was curling up its paws.
You know...writers will tell other writers, If your character shoots a gun, you need to go out and shoot a gun. So maybe along with that, we should suggest that if your character is going to give a handjob…
Anyway, I’m not here to talk about bad sex. I’m also not here to talk about great sex. I’m not here to talk about sex in romance and erotic books because that’s a completely different ballgame. Sometimes boobgame. Sometimes velociraptor game.
I’m here to talk about the HUGE collection of mediocre, boring, useless sex scenes in books. I’m here to talk about the awkward, out-of-place sex scene in a movie, the one you watched with your grandpa, and both of you were blindsided by a sudden, surprising, ill-fitting, and unnecessary sex scene.
Why are these scenes there?
Why do writers include afterthought sex scenes?
How can you spot the difference?
Boring Sex Fails to Reveal Character
Writers squeeze every action for character. The way a character ties their shoes tells the reader something. The way a character washes dishes tells the reader something.
If your sex scene doesn’t tell the reader anything about your character, you’ve blown a great opportunity. [Uh, phrasing? —Editor]
A sex scene is a great chance to either reconfirm your character or show another side of a character.
Bad Sex Resolves Tension
When you have a romantic tension building in your story, remember that when and if your characters bang it out, that shouldn’t be the end of the tension. You can do better.
Sex can close the tension of a will they/won’t they, but you should only close that tension if closing it opens up a back door to greater tension. [Uh, phrasing? —Editor]
Resolving the entirety of the tension with sex is like ending a book with the antagonist’s death. It’s...fine? But you can do better.
Sex Turns Exhausting When It Goes On Too Long
Most of us take longer to eat a pizza than we do to have sex. So here's a tip:
Write the longest description of eating pizza that you can. Go on a little longer than you think you should. Include smells, tastes, temperature, everything you can.
Now cut it down to a tight paragraph or two.
Print this out, tape it to the wall, and if you’re writing a sex scene longer than that, you’re going on too long.
Sex Is A Snooze At A Distance
Whenever there's a chance to do something in books that's not possible in film, that's an opportunity you need to grab.
One of the huge advantages of sex in books, as opposed to sex in movies, is that you can do more than just see it. You can feel it. The descriptions are On The Body. The reader is much, much closer.
If you’re working on a sex scene, and if the reader feels like they’re watching it from a camera mounted on the ceiling, the reader is too far away. Get closer. Skin on skin.
It’s easy to film a sex scene too close. It’s hard to write a sex scene where the reader is too close.
Obligatory Sex Is Tedious
Maybe I’m totally alone on this, but I do not care about James Bond getting laid. There’s no part of me watching that’s like, “Oh boy, I hope James gets to do passionate intercourse!”
Meh-ntercourse comes from writers who feel like you couldn’t possibly have a book without sex. They’re checking the box. Is that innuendo? Can we start that? [Yes. —Editor]
Anything you’re putting in your book because you “feel like you should” is a waste of everyone’s time.
A sign that you might be adding obligatory sex: If the setting is night, in a bedroom, between two people, you imagine softcore music playing, and they're having fairly vanilla sex, you MIGHT be writing meh-ntercourse.
First Time Sex Has Been Done
Way, way too many sexual encounters in books are a buildup to the FIRST sexual encounter between characters. It’s not always bad, it’s just unimaginative.
As you’re working, try out the second sexual encounter as the one you get more detailed on. What’s the difference? What does that earn you?
Sex Told is Sex Dulled
Don’t give me sex through dialog or inner thoughts. This is the ultimate “show, don’t tell” moment. What does a giving partner do? Don’t tell me that he’s willing to toss her salad. Write him tossing with gusto.
Cinematic is Stale
There are certain things you can't show on screen. There are certain things you can't ask a couple actors to do.
The characters in your book aren't real. You can kill them, you can make them win the lottery, and they can do just about anything, sexually.
Why not have them do something interesting?
Sex Is Boring When It's Your First Thought
I’ve learned not to trust myself. When I want to show something like love in a story, the first thing I’ll reach for is a physical act of affection.
And that’s when I need to check myself.
Because sex might be the right tool, but there might be something better.
If I want to show a loving, intimate familiarity, I might show a character getting in on the wrong side of the bed to warm it up for a partner.
If I want to show a young, passionate fling, I might show two characters, sweaty, obviously just after sex, eating a jar of frosting with spoons, standing in the kitchen.
If I want to show a rocky relationship, my protagonist might be watching porn on his phone right before bed to put something in his head and help him perform.
Sex isn’t a bad tool, and it’s not something to avoid in your story. But if it’s the first tool you reach for, try reaching for something else and see what it earns you.
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