In August, I am teaching a class on writing sex scenes for UCLA Extension. Yes, this seems like a very bold thing to try to teach, as a sex scene is difficult to write and you might be wondering what my area of expertise is in this field.
And wouldn’t you just like to know. Really? You would? Okay, I will tell you.
But first, a couple of books you all need to read if you are, in fact, going to write sex scenes. The first is The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict.
Basically, her idea is that good writing is good writing. Sex is the basis of character exploration and forwarding plot. So do all that the way you do anything in fiction. With detail, specifics, and feeling. Avoid clichés. Don’t rely on the known and pat.And she manages to tell us all that with verve and with great examples.
The second book is a book every fiction writer should read: The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield. I wish it had been around when I started writing fiction. This little book shows us all how to contain action. How to box in the movement so that it carries import, idea, character, theme. I would assign it to every writer if I had the ability. Such good information there.
So—how do I get off (yuck, yuck) teaching a sex scene? The first is that when I moved over to romance writing, I promised myself that I would not wander into the land of the gigantic male parts and strange euphemism female parts. I would not have this sex being like a nuclear explosion that changes the course of all known history. I read a few such sex scenes, one that remains in my memory. I truly can’t remember the writer or the book, but the sex act occurred on a run-away stallion (anyone for a metaphor?). The hero and heroine were literally having the most amazing sex of their lives while this horse went full tilt down some mountain.
I almost fell off my chair with laughter. They end up at some frozen lake, snow everywhere, and still manage to have absolutely mind blowing sex of all time. A few times. In the snow, the horse looking on.
Listen, I can’t even stay on a horse, so the idea of managing multiple orgasms while a horse runs away just about had me calling the Guinness Book of World Records.
Romance writing has an arc of plot, somethings that need to happen. I often think of romance novels needing the--hi, how are you sex, the oh-we-can't-be-together-for-long-if-at-all sex, the thank-god-we-made-it-through-we-will-be-together-forever sex. Story over. But even with that arc, I hold true to the following below.
So my tack was this. Stay with the plot and stay with the feelings. While in a romance the hero and heroine HAVE to end up together, it doesn’t have to be a circus act. The sex arrives out of their connection or growing connection.
And then—stay “in” the body. Don’t focus on the body itself. We don’t have to look at the parts but feel the parts. And sex doesn’t have to be in the genitals but in fingers and rib cages and toes. Things don’t have to be literally explained, either. As one writing teacher told me, avoid fluids. I am big on avoiding fluids. There are enough fluids everywhere, so can we please stay with the feelings?
In other stories, sex isn’t always good. The feelings aren’t always wonderful. Bad sex has its place in literary fiction. When characters have bad sex, it helps explain what is going on with them in the story. It shows their inability to connect.
The one scene I really liked in the Sex and the City film was one where the character Miranda is having sex with her husband Steve. They are enjoying it, and she says, “Can’t we just get it over with.”
Wow. Talk about a bucket of water. And it worked toward showing how their relationship was moving along. Or not moving.Literally.
So in a nutshell, for romance or literary fiction: Remember you are writing a scene, a bit of action contained in a box. Use the characters and the plot to inform the type of sex scene you write. Stay in the body, don’t focus on the body. Try using alternative body parts to explain the sex. It’s not all about part A fits into part B. Avoid fluids, stay with the feelings. Make the sex realistic to the relationship the characters have with each other.
Now the handouts. Sex scenes from the following novels:
Into the Forest--Jean Hegland writes a sex scene between sisters, and it works
Animal Dreams--Barbara Kingsolver wrote later that she wished she’d shown the sex between Loyd and Codi—see where she chickened out.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover—see what we owe this classic and DH Lawrence.
Dream Boy—see how sex is power and lust and plot and abuse in this scene by Jim Grimsley.
Beloved—sex as metaphor. Corn was never as sexy. Morrison rocks.
Traveling Light—Katrina Kittle writes a lovely sex scene between two men witnessed by the sister of one of the men. So important to the character’s growth and plot
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