I have to write a sex scene. It’s inevitable. The two characters in my novel-in-progress-slowly-taking-shape have been circling each other for pages and pages. The desire is palpable like fresh air in the room.
The advice from writing professors over the years is to give a glimpse only. Otherwise the scene becomes gratuitous or tacky or worse. But what if a glimpse isn’t enough? As I said, these characters have been drawn to each other from their first encounter. In my first draft, I gave a hint, a whiff of a suggestion that something just happened, but on my read-through, I knew it was a cop-out and a missed opportunity and a refusal to let the characters become sated in sex. They’ve waited at least one-hundred pages!
In a recent New York Times article, Edmund White, who writes sex scenes without flinching, made some suggestions: 1) “Don’t try to make sex scenes pornographic, since that will make them formulaic in actions and language, and unbelievable. Include all the incongruent, inconsequent thoughts and amateurish moves. Most sex is funny, if we accept Henri Bergson’s definition of humor: the failure of the body to perform up to the spirit’s standards, or the resistance of the material world to the will’s impulses.”
When I rewrote my sex scene using only the physical detail of bodies—bodies holding each other, pressed up against each other, entering, gasping--it felt cliché, in fact, violent. To quote White again: “Remember that sex is our most intense form of communication in a language no one can decipher or interpret.”
So that might be what my professors meant by a glimpse. If sex is a language no one can interpret, then to write explicitly is to assume you’ve found a language that is decipherable. It flattens the experience. The sex scenes that work for me rely on subtext, metaphor, imagery, and objective correlatives to convey so much more than what appears on the page. The imagery reaches beyond the characters’ bodies to setting, internal thoughts, and the use of metaphor.
Here’s a beautiful sex scene from Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Chapter Thirteen, p. 159) in which Robert and Maria have sex:
“Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes of the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color.”
The scene goes on, but let me stop there. Hemingway specifies the physical details of her body: her head, her closed eyes, the curve of her throat, her lips, lashes. The images extend to the surroundings, too: the smell of heather crushed, bent stalks, head pushed back into the heather roots, and an explosion of color. (The colors align with White’s advice to include the incongruent thoughts.) The images are sensual, engaging the senses of sight, smell, touch, sound, the kinetic or motion. Interestingly, touch, smell and motion emanate not (or not exclusively) from the characters’ bodies, but the heather. Sexiness is embedded in the very images of the setting.
The heather and what’s happening to it is adding so much to this scene. It is crushed, giving off a scent, it has the texture of roughness. It is serving as an objective correlative for what is happening between Robert and Maria. By the end, the heather is transformed.
What seems just as important is style. Hemingway uses the connective conjunction “and,” to suggest intense connection; everything is knitted together in this moment through the use of “and.” He uses diction that suggests sex, “crushed,” “roughness,” “pushed back,” and toward the end of this long sentence, repetition heightens the emotion. He repeats “all”: “…and it all was that color”; “all of it”; “all of that color”; “all in a blindness.” “All” is a perfect word to convey the vastness of this moment. The word “color” is repeated at the end three times, a word that takes the reader back to the explosion of color, which suggests climax. And with the list of -ing words (gerunds), “the filling, possessing, having,” Hemingway creates energy, by using verbs that act like nouns.
The Hemingway scene goes on:
“For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.”
In this next long sentence, “nowhere” appears twelve times, an image that conveys the dissolution of self in the act of sex. The repetition of phrases “then to nowhere,” “then again to nowhere,” “once again to nowhere,” “always and forever to nowhere,” is mimetic of the rhythm and cadence of sex itself. We remember the characters with the grounded physical detail, “heavy on the elbows in the earth.” Then we have the repetition of “up, up, up,” in which these three short, monosyllabic words create speed and are juxtaposed against the slower series of three, “suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly,” which suggests a climax.
The unity of the sex act is conveyed again by the switch to “they.” Earlier, the scene was seen through Maria’s eyes: “and for her everything was red, orange…”; Then it was shown through his eyes, “For him it was a dark passage…” At the end of the sex scene, “they were both there…” Like the heather, the earth is changed: “he felt the earth move out and away from under them.”
How inspiring! How beautiful! Now I’m ready to revise my sex scene again. What else do you see in the Hemingway passage? What else can we learn from Hemingway?
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