Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Will she or won't she, and other questions about sex

Barbara here. Sex is the theme for today. Or rather the do's and don'ts of writing sex scenes. The reason for this is that I am currently trying to write a sex scene in PRISONERS OF HOPE, the third book in the Amanda Doucette series, and have found myself dithering and evading and resorting to the time-honoured "dot dot dot".

I have not faced this challenge much before because in both my previous series, sex never seemed relevant. Inspector Green is married, and the old mantra of "each scene needs to advance the story in some way" seems to preclude married sex, unless it prevents the detective from answering a crucial phone call or getting someplace important. I suspect that technique would seem contrived enough that readers would yell boo-oo. Similarly, in my Rapid Reads short novel series, poor country handyman Cedric O'Toole has been too romantically inept to make it that far.

But Amanda Doucette is a different matter. She's smart, worldly, single, and thirty-five. In the series, there are two eligible men vying for her attention. In a book club discussion last fall about the first book in the series, FIRE IN THE STARS, the members (all women) said I should have let the poor woman have a sex life. Amanda might have been keen, but being aware of the perils of rushing into a romantic entanglement too soon in a series, I had been holding out. But now that I am writing Book #3, perhaps it is time. That's when I realized it was harder than it looked.

For one thing, a writer suddenly realizes they have readers. Like their mom, their kids, and even grandkids. And friends and colleagues who might imagine we really live like this. In the interests of helping me grapple with this problem of writing sex in crime fiction, a couple of my friends sent me a link to a timely article on the subject, which helped to get me thinking. Check it out here.

Many factors influence the decision of will he/she or won't she, how much detail, what kind of detail, etc. First of all, the will she or won't she? I suspect female characters, like women in real life, are held to more exacting standards and their moral integrity judged accordingly. Male characters seem to be able to get away with lots of bad behaviour – being falling-down drunk in the gutter, not coming home for days, cheating on partners in "a momentary weakness", breaking the law in the interests of the greater good, to name a few. But let a female character forget to feed the dog, and someone will call her on it.  So part of an author's decision to let her female character have sex revolves around how this will be reflected in her character. If you're creating a raunchy, "bad girl", "no holds barred" character, she can have hot sex with whomever, whenever, wherever she wants. But Amanda is not that kind of character. She's passionate and adventurous, but she has a strong moral compass. She believes in helping people and doing the right thing. If she's going to sleep with someone, there has to be some depth of feeling and sense of commitment behind it.


So far so good; I could relate to that. But how to relate to the sexual feelings and romantic experiences of a character when there's a thirty-five years gap in years and cultural evolution between us? I was young in the sixties, which may have been the era of free love and the pill, but still just one step out of Victorian repression. No one even swore in books or in the movies, let alone showed a little flesh. Amanda would have been exposed to much more freedom, openness, and frank pressure. Plus I had never been a single thirty-five year-old woman navigating the landscape of dating and sex. At thirty-five I'd been married fourteen years, had two kids, car pools, and a full-time job.

Luckily, we writers have vivid imaginations. I've never actually murdered anyone either, but imagination (and stories from friends and family in that age group) can take you pretty far. And I suspect that some things don't change. Whether the feelings and experiences I dream up for Amanda bear any resemblance to a real woman's world is open for debate, however.

Point of view is another really interesting minefield in the handling of sex scenes. A scene written from a male character's point of view will focus on the feelings and experiences that character is having, what turns him on, what actions he takes. A scene written from a woman's point of view will, or at least should, describe her body's reaction, her thoughts and fantasies, what turns her on. I think it's very hard to write accurately across the gender divide. I've almost never read a sex scene written by a man that I found erotic, because it is focussed on what turns him on and not what turns a woman on. Even if the writer is trying to describe a woman's experience, he usually gets it wrong. Female writers probably do equally poorly trying to get inside a man's head.

But it gets even more complicated than that, and I'll have more to say about point of view later. For now, suffice to say I am still in safe territory, because I was going to be female writing about female.

But now we are down to the nitty gritty. How to describe the sex, how graphic to be, how poetic and metaphorical. Again this is partly influenced by the style of the book and the effect you want. Raw and shocking? Subtle and romantic? I rarely go in for "do's and don'ts" in writing, but I will throw in some cautionary notes here. In every scene, a writer is going for effect. In a sex scene, you hope to capture the reader and sweep them along on the journey so that they are immersed and experience it as vividly as possible. Anything that trips them up and pulls them out of the story will ruin this journey.

Metaphors and similes and euphemistic language can be killers. It takes a very skilled writer to hit exactly the right note with a metaphor or simile. Bad sex scenes are replete with images of fountains, geysers, fireworks, rocket ships, and other hilariously clumsy attempts at poetry. And once the reader laughs, all magic is lost.

Graphic detail can be an equal magic killer. First off, as you're reading about a particularly spectacular position, you might privately think "ow," or "how is that even possible?" In the article above, the writer makes reference to sex in a "disabled toilet" and I was immediately wondering how does that work, how do they fit, and how do they know it's disabled? A gush of cold water certainly would cross my mind. Magic killer.

And this leads me to the biggest hazard about writing sex scenes. The more graphic you are in your description of who does what to whom, where, and with what, the more likely you are to trip someone's "ew" wire. In the article cited above, the author's rule of thumb is if it turns you on while you're writing it, it will probably turn the reader on too. I disagree. We are not all turned on by the same things. Each of us has unique sexual triggers that come from our sexual orientation, our formative sexual experiences, and our partner's skills. And we have unique turn-offs. A three-some in a poster bed with handcuffs may drive some readers wild, but you've lost me at the gate.

So at the end of all this soul-searching, I've come full circle to that first rule of good writing. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes a gentle allusion or two is all that is needed to allow the reader to use their own imagination to fill in the scene with their own details. Like a good artist, more can be achieved with minimal brush strokes than with a flurry of minute detail. There are some universals in sexual arousal. A longing gaze, a tilt of the head, a touch of the finger. Maybe a caress or two.

And then dot dot dot.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Barbara, I loved this. Sometimes the sex scenes in TV series or movies are just plan silly. They should be part of the plot. I've been following Homeland and that show is a great example of sex scenes being part of the story. The homecoming soldier's difficulties, the wife's frustrations. And Game of Thrones is about sex and violence. The viewer should be prepared to accept that from the very beginning. But I'm totally turned off by gratuitous sex scenes that have nothing to do with anything.

Ditto with books. And I struggle with the same problem as you--it's hard to convey the rigidness of yesterday's moral behavior in today's climate. Living together without benefit of clergy? Unthinkable. A baby out of wedlock? Disgrace for life.