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Let's write about sex, baby -- Part I

(Note --I started writing this piece a long time ago, and it turned into a great long chapter of a book or something. So I’ll be posting it in three parts, over the course of the coming week. And then we can all have sex scenes for Christmas.)

 Let’s write about sex, baby.

Various topics occurred to me when I decided I wanted to write something about the difficulties of creating fiction. How to handle the antagonist, for example. Or writing the opposite sex.

But then I thought “why even bother with the middle two words of that last sentence?” And now, with the recent  announcement of the 2010 Bad Sex Award, it seems a good time to talk about sex.

There are authors who are blithely unselfconscious about these things. But there also many--not all of whom are even British-- who approach the necessity of writing a sex scene with dread and trepidation and furious blushing. Many declare “I can’t!” and run for the hills. The reasons are all too clear. The stakes are alarmingly high. Sex is a source of hang-ups and embarrassment and awkwardness in real life. But at least in real life, awkwardness is usually private and fleeting. In print, it is potentially public and eternal and may be witnessed by your mum.  Terrible warnings from literary history lie before you. Many are the great writers of genius who have tilted bravely at the prize of the Good Sex Scene only to land in an embarrassing squelchy heap, with all the world peering down at them and tittering and going “Ew.”


But there’s such pressure to do it all the same.  Maybe you’d have grave doubts about your ability to pull off a scene where a character has a traumatic flashback to Vietnam,  or convincingly makes a perfect pizza, but your editor (whether that’s an actual person or the one you’ve got in your head) is probably not going to be giving you notes saying “Needs more pizza-making!” or “Wartime flashbacks sell.”

And it’s not only the pressure to cater to the supposed market – you’re supposed to be a fearless explorer of human life, aren’t you? You shouldn’t be shrieking and running away like a Trollope heroine from such an essential aspect of it, should you?

...but they don’t have mocking  awards for the Worst Pizza-Making Scene, or the  Most Unintentionally Hilarious Flashback To Wartime Trauma. 

On so sensitive a topic, I think it’s only fair you know who you’re dealing with, so I’d like to start by sharing the following declaration of literary intention, written and signed by me, aged 10 or 11.

I Am never going to read or write a love story I COULDN’T stand it. Signed Sophie McD, 1990.

This tells you almost everything you could ever want to know about the Sophie McD of 1990. That thing in the corner that looks like a  pair of sea-horses in a bin is a picture of couple kissing in bed, fiercely CROSSED OUT. I actually could draw better than that, I swear, but I was in a hurry because I was angry. I can’t remember exactly how that little certificate came about, but I do remember my parents were laughing at me and I remember my complete indignation.  Because I knew that never, never, would I countenance such nonsense. The unbearable soppiness of romance! The utter disgustingness of sex! I didn’t know which was worse!

A few years later, at 12 or 13, I would grudgingly accept that these things had to be written about, sometimes. I was just about willing to read about people in love, especially if they were safely Victorian or Elizabethan people.  But still, as an author you would lose points with me if any significant focus was placed on your characters doing any of the following:

1.       Having sex
2.       Kissing
3.       Telling each other they loved each other (unless they were incredibly concise or incredibly periphrastic about it. Getting married off-page after the end of the story is also allowable.)
4.       Holding hands
5.       Hugging (angstily clasping people to you when they are injured or unconscious is acceptable)


People only change so much. At heart, I remain a prude. A recovering prude, a prude who thinks prudery is silly,  but it’s still there. Surely this is an impediment to writing sex, let alone offering advice on writing it? On the contrary, I consider it a qualification! I have had to think at length about what works and what doesn’t, what is boringly safe and what on the other hand is jarringly odd. I have also managed to learn  to write scenes in  which characters are doing rude things to each other, without freaking myself out too terribly, and some people have told me they liked those scenes! If I can do it, surely, so can you. Furthermore if you can write sex without making me cringe and skim-read through my fingers until all concerned have put their clothes back on and are acting like ladies and gentlemen again, you must be doing something right. Finally, being so aware of my own  squeamish tendencies, I hope I will not fall into the usual trap of writing advice about writing – I will not tell you simply to write the way I do. I can mention some techniques I find useful –  for example,  I prefer not to write very explicitly – I  pretty much always avoid mentioning genitalia directly, and I think it’s useful to bear in mind that you can avoid that, that you can write “she reached for him” rather than “she reached for his penis.” I also think that while words like penis and vagina can be off-puttingly clinical, florid euphemisms are usually, if anything, worse. But there are writers who break all of these “rules” and do it well – one of the books I want to discuss refers to an intersex teenager’s penis as  ‘a crocus’, after all. What suits one narrative won’t necessarily suit another.

 So I will try to examine what successful scenes, whether those that work more on mood and suggestion (more my line) or  the more explicit  full frontal kind, have in common. We will start with the sex scene that isn’t there at all, and progress all the way[i] to the twenty-page saga of sweaty, thrusty action.

So with the introductions out of the way, let us venture into the exciting and terrifying world of sex in fiction.

Relax. Don’t do it.

This may seem a bit anticlimactic, but it’s an important consideration. As in life, you shouldn’t let peer-pressure push you into doing something you don’t want or need to do!  Does the sex need to happen at all? And if it does, do we need to see it?

Towards the end of Black and Blue by Ian Rankin, there’s a strange example of sex-in-fiction that, as far as I can see, should have been left out entirely.  It’s not because it’s is embarrassing or unintentionally comic or that it gave my inner prude a fit of the vapours –there is no sex scene. There’s not even a sex sentence.  One character beckons Rebus, Rankin’s morose, obsessive hero, across a bedroom... aaaaaand  then it’s the next morning, the woman has gone and Rebus continues about his business as if nothing had happened – which, since the sex has no effect on anyone’s character development, or on the plot, is not difficult. It’s  more difficult to say what this episode is doing in the novel. It can’t there be to titillate, since the characters barely even touch before  the narrative cuts away. The only reason I can see for it is that someone thought that as the hero, Rebus should be having some sex somewhere in the novel. But I’m not so sure he should. In Black and Blue Rebus’s depression and alcoholism are so severe, and his life so chaotic, that he can barely function. And though at this point he’s begun to drag himself out of the worst of it, he’s still, to say the least, a mess.  Which isn’t to say he doesn’t still need some love, but we have been shown little reason why a near-stranger would want to invite him into her bed. If this encounter revealed such a reason, that would be interesting, and give it purpose. But it doesn’t. The sex comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere, and raises expectations of development that are never met. It is a confusing hitch in the flow of the narrative.

Nevertheless, by refusing to actually write the encounter, Rankin at least gets across what happens while avoiding  what is perhaps the most common complaint about sex in fiction –  the perfunctory, mechanical sex- scene that  could be replaced with the line “and then they had sex.”

For example:

              The minute she was completely naked, he buried his face in the triangle of auburn curls between her thighs. His tongue snaked out, seeking and finding her clitoris.
He licked. She whimpered.
He stroked. She shivered.
He sucked. She cried out his name.

       (From Dead by Midnight, by Beverly Barton, found at the terrifying [info]weepingcock comm.)

On the one hand, sex can be tranformative. In fiction, it can serve any number of essential purposes. It could mean an emotional rite of passage, the consummation of a crucial new relationship, the renewal of a lasting bond, or it could be a depressing and degrading illustration of a character’s emotional decline. It could mean the conception of  a whole new character!

But on the other hand, it’s just two people rolling around on a bed (or in a woodland glade, or against a wall, or wherever) And while they’re doing that, they’re usually not catching serial killers, or learning the terrible secret of their identity, or fomenting the French Revolution, or  whatever else they might otherwise usefully be doing. A sexual encounter might be essential to the plot, but often the plot has to stop and stand around twiddling its thumbs while it happens.

There’s nothing wrong, therefore, with the dropped-curtain technique – (“Character A kissed Character B and pulled him/her down onto the bed”)   and then cutting straight to the aftermath and whatever psychological change has been effected. If sex isn’t actually necessary, then  don’t...um,  shove it in.[ii]   

And it’s possible to omit sex extremely artfully. Here are two examples, both first person narratives. First, The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood. Iris  Chase, now in her eighties, reflects on her loveless wedding night as an eighteen-year-old.

“About my bridal night, or rather my bridal afternoon – the sun was not yet set and the room was bathed, as they say, in a rosy glow, because Richard did not pull the curtains – I will tell very little. I didn’t know what to expect; my only informant had been Reenie, who had led me to believe that whatever would happen would be unpleasant and most likely painful, and in this I was not deceived. She’d also implied that this disagreeable event or sensation would be nothing out of the ordinary – all women went through it, or all who got married – so I shouldn’t make a fuss. Grin and bear it, had been her words. She’d said there would be some blood, and there was. (But she hadn’t said why. That part was a complete surprise.)

I did not yet know that my lack of enjoyment – my distaste, my suffering even – would be considered normal and even desirable by my husband. He was one of those men who felt that if a woman did not experience sexual pleasure that was all to the good, because then she would not be liable to wander off seeking it elsewhere. Perhaps such attitudes were common, at that period of time. Or perhaps not. I have no way of knowing.”

Second, High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. Rob has a pleasant but nerve-wracking night with a beautiful singer.

And then I go to the bathroom, and clean my teeth, and then I come back; and then we make love; and then we talk for a bit; and then we turn the light out, and that's it. I'm not going into all that other stuff, the who-did-what-to-whom stuff. You know 'Behind Closed Doors' by Charlie Rich? That's one of my favourite songs.

You're entitled to know some things, I suppose. You're entitled to know that I didn't let myself down, that none of the major problems afflicted me, that I didn't deliver the goods but Marie said she had a nice time anyway and I believed her; and you're entitled to know that I had a nice time too, and that at some point or other along the way I remembered what it is I like about sex: what I like about sex is that I can lose myself in it entirely.[ ...]  All the horrible pre-sex self-consciousness drains out of me, and I forget where I am, the time of day... and yes, I forget who I'm with, for the time being. Sex is about the only grown-up thing I know how to do; it's weird, then, that it's the only thing that can make me feel like a ten-year-old.


These are two very different novels, but  instead of showing us the act in any detail, the writers show us where it fits in the character’s life.  We can safely infer that Iris and her husband are in a wincing missionary position, but  Rob and Marie might be suspended in harnesses from the ceiling, for all we know. Both expand the focus from the refusal to divulge “the who-did-what-to-whom stuff” of a specific  encounter to the character’s thoughts on sex in a wider context. Sex within marriage for Iris, and sexual pleasure in general, for Rob.  The omission is made to reveal as much, or more, about the character as if we’d seen every detail. We see that both these characters need to keep something of themselves back. That Rob, damaged and shambolic and easily-distracted as he is, is a gentleman, and that Iris, decades on, is at once phlegmatically detached and furious about how uninformed and exploited she once was.

It is also possible to omit “who did what to whom” by zeroing in rather than expanding out – focusing on one character’s sensations, without much explanation of what physical acts are causing them. For example, this teenage love scene from How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (a novel I’m very fond of). Daisy is lounging on a bed beside Edmond, who seems – this is never spelled out– to be telepathic.

After some more time I tried an experiment by thinking something very very quietly to myself, and then nothing happened for ages, Edmond just lay there with his eyes closed and I felt a little disappointed and a little relieved all at the same time and then just as I was moving on to the other things in my head, he propped himself up on one elbow and looked at me with a little half-smile and then kissed me on the mouth so gently and sweetly, and then we kissed again, only not quite so sweetly.

And after a little while of this my brain and my body and every single inch of me that was alive was flooded with the feeling that I was starving, starving, starving for Edmond.

And what a coincidence, that was the feeling I loved best in the world.

Beyond the kissing, we don’t know what the characters are up to – whatever it is, it’s contained within the coy understatement “after a little while of this...” It might even not be anything beyond a bit more kissing and feeling up, though they’re definitely in a fully sexual relationship later. But there’s no sense here of anything being left out; Daisy’s reaction is so all-consuming that the specifics of what they’re actually doing would be quite extraneous.

This technique – thoughts and feelings in place of exactly observed physical acrobatics – can be highly effective, but it has its dangers too. It can be tempting to compensate for the lack of reported action by going into torrents of swooning detail over the experiences you are reporting. And then you get purple prose – a particular risk if you use this method to try to  describe orgasm. 

And it swept over her like surf sweeping over sand then falling back and sweeping up over the sand again and falling back. Images went off in her head like little fireworks. The smell of coconut. Brass firedogs. The starched bolster in her parents’ bed. A hot cone of grass-clippings. She was breaking up into a thousand tiny pieces, like snow, or bonfire sparks, tumbling high in the air, then starting to fall, so slowly it hardly seemed like falling at all…


Well, goodness me. I don’t know if that’s an orgasm or a whether she’s got really bad flu.  Notice by contrast how sparing and simple Rosoff’s narration is – and yet how much more it says.  “Starving” is no casually-used word for Daisy, who has anorexia. The intensity is conveyed within a very few deft lines, and the words run out, gracefully, while Daisy is still desperately wanting more.

This leads to another point – there  is more than one place to fade to black, and it need not be at the very beginning of things. It is by no means necessary to follow the characters  from first kiss to screaming orgasm. I almost never try to write all of an encounter: sometimes I’ve  left out the beginning and rudely walked in on the couple halfway through.  More usually, I get the characters started, establish a mood, indicate a little of “who did what to whom”, and then wander off to leave them to it.  And I think at least one of these nominees for the 2009 Bad Sex Award would be greatly improved  if it just stopped a little sooner:

"My mouth lingered on hers; I tasted her. I felt for her tongue with mine. I felt the blood surging through my body. We pressed against one another.

"Impossibly close.

"She gripped my arms. Her nails tore into me. Soon we both were burning.
"Sweat pooled in the ridge of my back as I moved like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks.

"Then – a moment before – inside, I kept very still. Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah's body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give. For those final moments, we existed seamlessly – all memory negated by a desire that both belonged to us and controlled us.

After, we kept very still, like the only two roots of the forest."

Even ignoring the truly horrible image: “Hannah’s body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give” that  paragraph I’ve struck out really doesn’t add anything, beyond: “They were having sex! And they went on having it! And there was penetration! And there were orgasms! No, really!” But I think it’s that losing fight against redundancy, that desperation to convey the intensity of the experience all the way through from beginning to end, that shoves the imagery over the edge into such unfortunate vagina-dentata /snake-swallowing-fieldmouse territory.  Without it, the passage is perhaps a little generic, but perfectly reasonable. 

(Well, I don’t see how anything can pool in a ridge, but never mind.)


And I Need You More Than Want You. And I Want You For All Time.

So, we’re only writing sex if it’s necessary, and we can ring up the curtain up and down at will. But how do we define “necessary”, and how do we proceed from there? “If it’s not essential to the plot, if it changes nothing for the characters, leave it out” is a good rule of thumb, but like any rule of thumb, it will only take us so far. I didn’t think “the lead should be having sex somewhere in this novel” was a good enough reason for Rebus in Black and Blue, but there are characters for whom it would be.  If a character is supposed to be sexually adventurous, say, then, if only to adhere to the adage “show don’t tell,” it makes sense that we should see at least one instance of it, even if it has little bearing on the narrative. The plot of a novel set in a red-light district might not technically require a single sex scene, but the atmosphere probably would. And then there is the established couple whose relationship may seem staid and lacklustre if we never see any of their more passionate moments, even though their lovemaking may not  provide the same obvious cues for drama as a first time.

 But this kind of necessity is more challenging than the strict narrative kind – there are fewer built-in clues on how or when to start depriving characters of their clothes.

I will illustrate here from my own writing. (MILD SPOILERS FOR THE ROMANITAS TRILOGY AHOY!) Romanitas ends with two characters in a romantic relationship. They don’t, however, consummate it then and there, even though they do fall into bed. For a number of reasons  they’re just not ready. In the sequel, however, those same characters have been together for three years.  The one time it’s actually important to the plot that they tumble into each other’s arms, the silly people don’t do anything particularly sexual –again.  It’s not absolutely essential we  ever see  them getting it on.  Still, as the connection between these characters  is so important, and so frequently under threat, I felt it was something we should see expressed physically at some point.

So,  that left me with a self-imposed requirement to write a sex scene with no obvious indication from narrative compulsion where exactly it should go or what the hell it should be like.

In such circumstances, you have to make your own necessity. Every scene must change or reveal something, sex scenes included.  So is there anywhere where a sex scene can facilitate some transition you would have needed anyway, some point where the backdrop of the plot would create an interesting juxtaposition – a contrast, or an echo?  

This is what I did:

Despite wanting my own scene to be sweet, leisurely and relaxed, I put it at the tensest point I could find – just after seeing off a serious threat, the characters think everything’s fine but the reader knows new problems are looming.   The fact that the couple are just recovering from one problem (a little matter of attempted murder)  gave me a purpose for the scene.  Being so shaken by what had happened had left a slight, scared distance between the characters. I was always going to need to close that distance, so yes, I could use sex to do it. I could make the scene bring them back together, even as external forces begin massing against them. 


These decisions gave me the kind of clues on where to go next that I’d look for in the premise to any story – because ultimately, that was what I was writing.  [iii]


We’ll look further at the sex scene as a story, and the sex scene as dialogue, in  Part II

[i] All the way baby!

[ii] Everything in this piece is going to sound like an innuendo, we may as well just accept this here and now.

[iii] I rather treasure my former editor’s reaction to this passage. “I really liked that scene between them,” he told me. “Which scene?” I asked. “The one where they’re...” “Oh – the sex scene!” “It’s NOT a sex scene,” said Jon, sounding scandalised. “It’s a LOVE SCENE.”


Dec. 20th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Thanks
Heavens, really? That's incredible and incredibly flattering, thank you. (Well, assuming you didn't mean in the sense of a Ghastly Warning of what not to do...!) I am really glad you liked this post -- hope you'll find the rest interesting too. And good luck with writing sex scenes and everything else!
Sarah Stunt
Dec. 23rd, 2010 02:44 am (UTC)
Re: Thanks
Oh, yes, I should have mentioned that - in a good way - not as a ghastly warning.