With the world currently going crazy over Fifty Shades of Grey and its quickly published sequels, I’ve been having a surf around the internet today to figure out what all the fuss was about. I’ve come up against very polarised views about the books with criticisms usually centring on a dumbed down writing style, the poor use of language during the sex scenes (“uninspiring”, “perfunctory” and “unimaginative” being common complaints) and having a contrived plot. That said, the writer must be doing something right to be the author of the fastest selling debut novel of all time.
I have still not yet been brave enough to write a sex scene. It isn’t that I have put it off out of fear of falling into the traps of so many badly written sex scenes, it is just that none of my work has yet called for it. I am conscious of the fact that I will need to write one as the sequel to my completed novel will require at least one. Two of the main characters are going to fall in love and both romances will be relevant to the plot thread. One of the sex scenes will be incredibly profound for the male character involved (those who have read it or parts of it will probably guess which character and therefore understand why it will be so pivotal).
We’ve all read them so I guess we all know what makes a well written or a badly written sex scene. It is something, I feel, that transcends personal tastes on sexuality: regardless of what we might personally find arousing or a complete turn off. The phenomena is so common now that they have an award for it. Put “bad sex in fiction” into google and you will be presented with hundreds of examples from a wide range of genres. For those of you who followed my report of last year’s award, as well as those who were brave enough to try The Guardian quiz last week will see that the gender of a writer is no barrier to writing bad scenes.
I guess the stereotype is that men will tend to write in a visceral style with either a hint of violence (which the female in the text enjoys) and a completely mechanical process where he dominates and she enjoys everything he does no matter what. There are two stereotypes about women writing sex scenes, the first is very much the Jackie Collins “man eater” in which men are empty vessels for the sexual and financial gratification of a middle aged woman who discards them and move on to the next one when shet gets bored with him becoming clingy or possessive. The other is a more cerebral style where the scene is written purely about how the sweet, demure female is feeling inside at a gentle, incredibly handsome and caring mister perfect foregoes his own gratification to make her happy. His own pleasure in having sex with her is to make her happy. He doesn’t care about himself one iota. Metaphors about sunrises, fountains and azure oceans lapping white sand beaches saturate the text as the writer forgets that she is actually supposed to be writing a sex scene.
Science fiction writer Jeff Vandermeer discussed this in a blog post several years ago. There is some practical advice here and I have to agree with everything he says. As one of the comments suggests, I like the idea of treating a sex scene as any other action scene. A sex scene is, after all, an action scene. We don’t use bizarre euphemisms or similes describing a space battle or a car chase so why do it for an intimate act between two people?
Point 1 in Vandermeer’s blog regards flow; I really can’t reiterate this enough in any written fiction but poor flow becomes more prominent in any action scene. You really want to create an organic feel to the text without stopping to think “hey? what does he/she mean by that?” or stopping to grab a dictionary so that the metaphor isn’t lost on you.
Another science fiction writer, David Gerrold, has a short chapter on writing sex scenes in his amusing book on writing Worlds of Wonder. He offers this advice:
Every time you write a sex scene you’re telling people not just that you think about sex, you’re also telling them what you think about sex. It is a very public admission of a very private part of your life.
He goes on to reproduce a scene from one of his own books (David Gerrold is a well-known writer of Star Trek in all of its guises. He also contributed to Babylon 5, The Twilight Zone and a large number of novels). What is interesting about the scene is how much emotion he includes in the section. This is about a man who has been in love with the same woman for a long time finally getting into bed with her. Each time they make love, the emotions are different as they adjust to each other. The first is full of nerves, passion and comfort growing with each one. Yet the emotions he feels toward her are very much at the centre of the writing without brushing away the physical act. Mostly, it is a relaxed scene that flows well and just feels, well, natural.
Following this, he writes a short chapter about love scenes, making it very clear how it differs from the sex scene. It is about the relationship between the two people and how it is demonstrated. It doesn’t have to be between lovers, it could be between parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, siblings etc. He goes on again to demonstrate that with an example from his own writing and after reading it, I get what he means.
I guess as I’ve covered this subject about four times now, poked fun at bad sex scenes and not actually tried to write one of my own, I guess that puts me in a position to give it a shot.
laterz, babez. *bites bottom lip*
12 thoughts on “Writing love/sex scenes – some thoughts”
I thought Ben Aaronovitch’s sex scene in Moon Over Soho was very well done. You might want to read that. But, by all means, write the sex scene already!
I’ve written a few. Nothing I would show to the world, but I wrote them as practice. Gotta start somewhere.
Good advice. Thanks for the post. :)
I’ve not read Moon Over Soho yet but as I thought the first was so great, I got a copy straight away on Read It Swap It (love that site!)
I’ve thought about writing one as practice but didn’t think I could get into it from scratch. I feel I already have to know the characters so that is why I want to start with one that is already familiar; I know how he will act.
Well, just remember to have fun. ;)
You would hope that the characters involved would have the most fun ;)
I have faced similar thoughts, and what I did was I wrote a short story which was essentially just a sex scene to see if I could do it believably and well. I think I did an ok job but it was also meant to be an exaggerate as one man who meets his ideal woman, thinks he’s in love but the reader perceives he’s just objectifying her and then a reveal at the end of something that shatters his image of her, it was a good exercise and this is often what I do with short stories: experiment with new styles and ideas.
Sounds like a good idea and I’m glad it worked for you. If I’m feeling brave enough I might give it a practice run this week
I understand your thoughts on sex scenes. It’s maybe the most frustrating element of the novel. Maybe the solution is that everyone just goes back to being coy, and suggestive. Channeling Jane Austen perhaps?
Good idea but it might come across as a little twee in the 21st century!
Ah, yes, that is a risk. But maybe it would make a nice revolution, y’know: the opposite of exposure.
With the inevitable saturation of over the top bondage type erotica that is bound to follow in the wake of the success of “50 Shades”, it could go the other way when people get fed up. I think you might be onto something!
I haven’t read that book yet, and I can’t decide if I should or not. I might read it just so I can see what it’s like- I imagine it won’t be the best book ever written…
Most complaints I’ve heard are about poor editing, overuse of cliches and a juvenile writing style.
Unfortunately, it seems to be the sort of book for people who generally do not read because those who do read find the style so fundamentally flawed in most ways.