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I really hate “workshops” that sound like “buy me! buy me!” with examples solely from the author’s own work, so I promise to pull in several other authors’ examples for illustration. However, to start the discussion, I want to refer back to an interview I did with Kelly Jensen of SF Crow’s Nest after she reviewed Beautiful Death:
SFC: How did you decide to handle the transformation from human to monster as the most sexually intense part of the novel?
JSB: I think a good sex scene in a novel should be both intense and transformative. Isabella and Hades trusting each other enough to be intimate was just as significant as her metamorphosis into a “monster.” On the flip side of the coin, she was already a monster, though, and Hades wasn’t the monster she thought him to be, neither. Her world viewpoint had to transform, too, and Hades made it possible for her to survive the final mutation as well as see the truth about New Olympia.
SFC: Do you see sex scenes as necessary to sell a book?
JSB: Not at all, although I won’t deny that I love writing an intense, physical relationship. A good sex scene reveals characters like nothing else. As a reader, I want the sexual relationship of the characters to progress along an arc as the story unfolds. The scenes are important and significant, not gratuitous. As a writer, I use sex to add another layer of conflict and complication. I always love watching the afterglow fade away to a sudden realisation that now things are so much worse than before.
Until this interview, I’d never really thought about my writing process for sex scenes. I had a gut feeling about when I’d include a sex scene — just like I had a gut feel for when to kill a character. I never stopped to question why I felt that way. But Kelly really got me to thinking about why I include sex scenes, and it all comes back to transformation.
Any writer who has studied much of the craft at all knows that if a scene doesn’t move the story forward, it should be cut. But have you really thought about what that means for a sex scene?
I’m not going to get into whether or not your story should or should not close the door — the level of intimacy you write is totally up to you. This also isn’t a workshop on how to write hot sex for the sole purpose of arousal–although there’s definitely a market for hot books! I’m also not claiming that these two are mutally exclusive. In fact, I bet if you write a sex scene to deepen characterization, really dig into the whys and emotions, then the scene will also get hotter. Let’s see if I can convince you.
Transformation implies change. A good story begins with a protagonist who changes throughout the story. There’s not just an external goal, but internal goal/need as well that may be even more frightening an undertaking to achieve. The success of the external goal should hinge on whether or not the protagonist can heal whatever internal conflict she’s been battling throughout the story. If you’ve read here long, you’ve already heard how much I love the Emotional Toolbox. My friend Jenna is going to talk more specifically about how she uses the hero’s journey to write sex, so I’ll point you to her site.
So let’s assume that you as a writer have decided to include a sex scene in your story. You feel like it’s the best fit for you, and your writing instinct tells you this is the right spot for your characters to get intimate. They’re nekkid, they’re going at it, but it feels…stilted. It’s boring. Tab A/Slot B mechanical. What went wrong?
Common Problems with Sex Scenes.
How many times have you heard a reader say, “Oh, I skip the sex scenes because they’re [boring, repetitive, mechanical, waste of words].” Or have you read a high-tension romantic suspense, only to roll your eyes when the hero and heroine call time out to roll around in the sheets with the villain waiting outside?
Two common problems with boring or useless sex scenes are:
1. Not enough emotion — too much anatomy.
If you took a survey of adults in our current age, I think we could all list at least a handful of slang words for both male and female genitals. All day, everywhere, we’re bombarded with sexual elements. If you get two (or more) consentual adults together, chances are pretty good they all know the mechanics of sex.
Books and attention spans are getting shorter every day. Why waste several thousand words on the physical aspect of sex that we all have read or seen a hundred times or more?
On the other hand, what makes a reader linger over those scenes, even if she’s read hundreds of romance books this year alone? It’s the emotionalconflicts and bonds that form during sexual intimacy. Sex makes us vulnerable. Boundaries should be falling left and right; masks should be removed; hearts and bodies laid open bare. That’s what makes a sex scene emotional — and transformative.
If the heroine is feeling deep emotion, I guarantee she’s feeling transformation. Both characters are opening themselves up for risk, both physical and emotional. Think about animals in the wild: mating can be a dangerous undertaking, even if you don’t think about how badly your heart will feel when its broken.
Instead of pushing the envelope with more and more bizarre and extreme sexual behavoir, why not dig a little deeper into your characters’ psyche?
2. Plot Interrupted.
Nothing makes me roll my eyes quicker than when the external plot takes a backseat for the required “sex scene” moment. The reader shouldn’t feel like a referee is standing over in the corner blowing a whistle so the heroine can go take a break, if you know what I mean.
However, when the external plot is truly worsened by the developing attachment of the heroine and hero, and when they have legitimate reasons not to be together, the combination of sex and conflict can be so tightly coupled that no reader would ever dream a skipping a scene. Any scene that is “skipped” — even a sex scene — should mean that the reader MISSED something. If nothing important happens, if some change doesn’t happen, then why is that scene still in the story?
Don’t call time out for the plot — but make things even worse for the protagonist. Heap on emotional guilt, smear with a little betrayal, top with a new fear. The external plot will taste all the better. *winks*
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll list some basic questions and techniques that you may find helpful in digging deeper to reveal characters through sex.
Example: Talk Me Down by Victoria Dahl
This book seems like the pretty typical girl makes it big story, coming home to small town and dealing with old flame. However, this book made me laugh and cry and delay dinner long enough so I could finish the book. Why was it so compelling?
Everything was tightly coupled together, beginning with the hero’s backstory. Ben has a measurable, concrete reason to hate gossip. Now, as the chief of police of a small town, he has an important place in society. He can’t tolerate gossip or scandal about him again without damaging his career. So he has INTERNAL conflict and EXTERNAL conflict regarding scandal.
In walks Molly Jennings, his best friend’s kid sister, and his careful, staid existence is thrown out the window. She, too, has a very key backstory moment that has driven her secret career, starring Ben, even though he has no idea. No one in town knows what she does for a living. It’s hilarious watching Ben think about all the scandalous possibilities: hooker, sex phone operator, etc. As a cop, he even investigates her. He can’t let himself get involved with someone who might be doing something shady, no matter how sexy she is.
Molly has very measurable and concrete reasons NOT to tell Ben her secret, too. Again, it’s tied to her backstory, and the whole thing just builds and tangles until you think there’s absolutely no hope they can work things out. Then it gets worse, and the very thing Ben fears the most rears its ugly head: scandal, and he’s at the heart of it. Or rather, the book of it. *laughs*
Don’t get me wrong — there are several sexual scenes, many of which are hilarious. (I laughed out loud when Molly thought her little blue friend might have electrocuted her.) But each one very carefully pulls back a layer of character. We peek under Molly’s fun, confident mask as an erotic writer, unafraid to ask for exactly what she wants, only to find that she’s afraid she’ll never live up to her parents’ expectations. Every sex scene revolves around these fears and secrets, and only when both heroine and hero face their deep fears that they’ll never be good enough (Molly) or that gossip might destroy him forever (Ben), can they heal themselves…and each other.
Discussion: what’s your most favorite emotional, transformative sex scene?
Share them in comments (or simply throw your name in the hat) to be entered to win Victoria Dahl’sTalk Me Down and Start Me Up (unsigned), and winner’s choice of any book from my backlist.
As Lynnalways says, anyone on the planet can enter, even if you’ve won something from me before. I’ll accept comment entries through midnight CST Friday night, July 17th, on this post, or you can e-mail me ONCE (joely AT joelysueburkhart DOT com). One of the monsters (my kids) will draw names on Sat. and I’ll post all winners then.