Sex—passionate, hot. I know this because it’s burned me before. I’ve been in many a passionate, heated debate about it over the years. Sex and storytelling—do they belong together? Well let’s dive in; I haven’t been burned by the subject in a good two weeks. I’m overdue.
This recent debate was with an indie author who has been teaching me a lot about indie publishing…primarily respect and greater understanding. This writer was talking about a sex scene she intended to put into a book. I made the mistake of saying, “Be sure it belongs in the story.” Oh my, that did it!
Now, I will confess that I got something of a reputation in my writer’s groups over the years past as a prude. I often attacked sex scenes vehemently. What they didn’t know is that I love a good sex scene. Make it dark and problematic, and I love it all the more. But writers’ groups are often a mix of talent of beginning, intermediate, and, if you’re lucky, advanced writers come together to experiment and learn. For me, this translated into most manuscript sex scenes I saw were not good. The reason they weren’t good was because they were put in for the wrong reason. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a writer defend a sex scene by saying, “but sex sells!”
Good writing and storytelling sell better. So good sex in books needs to be good storytelling as well. The reason I like dark and problematic sex scenes is all tied up in the word problematic. Problems generate story. Generally, the manuscript sex scenes I saw didn’t.
Another argument I’ve heard from many writers is “but it’s my story.” True, it is your story, and I’ve heard this defense in one form or another for years. I may have even said it early on. Today I answer that with this retort: yes, but it’s my money and my time you want from me and all of your potential readers. Stories that you write for yourself and without consideration for a reader are what I call high-risk manuscripts. These manuscripts run the risk of being more therapy than story. Once upon a time, we had a gal join our writer’s group and waltz in proclaiming proudly that she had a 10,000 page manuscript. Someone in the group piped up, “you mean 10,000 words, right?” Nope. She didn’t. The group actually groaned (and not the good fun kind of groan). She was something of a traumatized individual, and she was quite obviously to me (though not to herself) working her issues out in her stories.
First, let me say, that’s great. If you can save on counseling sessions by writing 10,000 pages, go forth and do—but, don’t torture me with it. Therapy is not the same thing as viable commercial storytelling. You have an obligation as a writer who joins a writers group or gives your manuscript to a friend or sends one in to a publisher to consider the reader.
You remember the reader, yes? The person you want to come up with money to pay for your story? Once you decide to pass on your story, it is no longer yours. If you are a writer, you’ve heard people say that, but think about it for a moment. A story in a reader’s hands is not yours. Your book has not been shrink-wrapped with a free copy of the author included in every sale. What I mean by this is that you do not get to dictate a relationship for your reader to your work. You can only cajole a reader’s cooperation and enjoyment of your book through your skill. Once it passes on, the reader makes the rules for relating to your book. And you have a lot competing with your book when it is open in your reader’s hands in this hectic world.
Back to the sex (because well, we always want to come back to that, right?). The next argument raised in the discussion was realism: “Sex is part of everyone’s life in some fashion or another. Why can’t characters just have sex? You wouldn’t throw out a bar scene just because it was a bar scene.” She almost got me on this one because it is two different points.
First, sex thrown in for real life’s sake: if it furthers your character development, promotes plot, or establishes a point in your story, then do so. Maybe a middle aged housewife is having her regular Friday night sex and just doesn’t feel it anymore. That ennui is now part of where the story is going. Then average ordinary everyday sex is appropriate.
Second, for a moment, I thought maybe she was right about the bar, maybe I’m just hard on sex scenes…then I realized, what am I saying? Am I going soft in the head? Of course I’d be down on a bar scene that didn’t further the goals or address the needs of a story. In fact, I’d just dealt with exactly that question in my own writing. I had a tavern across the street from an inn where my protagonist was hiding, then the antagonist gets close but is drawn off to the tavern at the last minute. As one of the my writer’s group so succinctly put it: “Squirrel!”
So I axed that tavern and used the tavern I’d already mentioned in the inn, and when the antagonist goes into it, he is getting closer to the protagonist, not farther. I had an extra unneeded bar in my story, and I axed it. Although I’m focusing on the sex question here, this advice is true for any scene or element. They all have to pull their weight in your story.
But she was right about one thing, I probably pay more attention to sex scenes, but I have a reason. Sex is actually a very powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It resonates in some way with us all. It annoys me and throws me out of the story to see sex turned into something light and unimportant when in fact, it should be a story driver. Sex. Money. Power—these three things drive the world. Scandals in the real world always revolve around one or more of these three issues. So sex is one of your big guns.
So what do you do? Do you never write a sex scene? Of course not. Here is a bell weather test to try. Ask yourself then a trusted reader this question: How would the story change without the sex scene? If you don’t have a good clear strong story-driven answer, then maybe it doesn’t belong. And if you do have a clear reason, set it up right. Take your time. Remember that tool in your writer’s toolbox called foreshadowing. Don’t bring that big gun out (in either figurative sense) until the time is right, until you’ve covered a good deal of story real estate with groundwork and building sexual tension. Make me want the culmination, the consummation of reader and story, for a long time. Make me want it as much as or maybe even more than the characters do. Foreplay, my dear writers, it’s as important in writing about sex as it is in sex itself.
Title is from a W. H. Auden poem. Picture is available at AliExpress.