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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.
15 thoughts on “LB&LI: Writing Transformative Sex – Part 1”
I think my favorite (or at least the one that springs to mind) is Zadist and Bella in J. R. Ward’s Lover Awakened. The man has ISSUES to it is a very very big deal to watch her take him through this and to see him give her the ultimate trust. I think I cried the first time I read it actually. And I think one of the reasons I love it so much is that it’s not the WOMAN who’s scarred and has emotional hangups (it so often is), so I found it very very powerful.
You know, I’d probably pick Christine Feehan’s Dark Desire (book 2) for the exact same reason. I love tormented, scarred heroes and the heroines who are capable of healing them. Although Feehan’s headhopping makes my skull crack open!! I just can’t read her any longer, but I used to loooove the Dark books.
I couldn’t even make it through the first one. The heroine annoyed me and so did the hero.
You know, this is from a movie, but the movie is based on a book, so I’m totally counting it. It’s in the BBC’s latest film of Jane Eyre. After the failed wedding, when Mr. Rochester has to admit that he’s already married, he goes to Jane to try to convince her not to leave him. They’re laying on her bed, fully clothed, and he’s doing nothing more than kissing her and stroking her face, but that scene leaves me breathless.
And when he tries to convince her with her desire to stay, then pulls away and says, “How can this flesh be so soft and yielding…and yet your heart be like an iron fist?”…oh, God, it KILLS me. Amazing stuff. And not a single bared breast or butt shot to be found.
Kait, I didn’t read them in order, and it’s a good thing, or that first heroine — Whitney or Raven, can’t remember which — probably would have done me in too. I read 5-6 of them and then quit.
Sis, exactly, I loooooove that scene! It’s so emotional, which makes it such a sensual scene, just those fingers gliding up and down her neck. *shivers* Love it.
There have been some I have skipped because it was pointless, useless or boring. But I think my favorite is Eve and Roarke in the first couple In Death books. Luckily I think I have found more good or entertaining ones than ones I feel the need to skip over.
so many lol
congrats on teh books
such great reviews
i like how leslie kelly writes love scenes, i like foreplay and nice sexy words
“2. Plot Interrupted” is usually the reason if I’m skipping a sex scene in a book. Or in other words, if an intimate moment slows down the book too much, I get impatient and skim.
I think my favorite is from Rachel Vincent’s Prey, which is pretty newly released. This post is going to contain a big spoiler. If you’re a fan of the series, you’re own your own if you keep reading. 😀
The scene is between Faythe and Jace. Jace has just had a coming of age moment, which has given him an epiphany about the way he wants to handle things from here on out. And he starts right away. Faythe is in a horrible emotional dither and loses control for an instant too long — an action which may cost her the love of her life.
I totally agree with the issues of trust and vulnerability that intimate scenes highlight. Erotic stories, for the sake of the eroticism can be fun, but a heartrending scene of emotional intimacy will get me every time.
Regarding “Plot interrupted”, my friends and I always used to call the obligatory sex scene in a Hollywood movie the “3 minute popcorn break”, because the plot would stop dead for 3 minutes, so the characters could engage in a soft focus sex scene. So if you wanted more popcorn, that was the time to get it.
I also confess that I used to skim sex scenes in novels, because most of the time nothing of interest happened and the scenes usually weren’t all that hot either. It was only when I found myself faced with having to write sex scenes myself that I started paying attention and found some good (and hot) ones.
Echoing what someone above said, the sex scenes in “Naked in Death” by J.D. Robb are good examples of transformative sex scenes, because every single scene demonstrates the growing intimacy between Eve and Roarke.
The sex scenes in Rachel Caine’s “Weather Warden” books are also great and always illustrate the changing dynamics between Joanne and David.
In Devon Monk’s “Magic to the Bone”, there is a sex scene which not just takes the relationship between the hero and heroine to the next level, it also alters the heroine’s understanding of magic.
Finally, there was a really great sex scene in a TV show. A traumatized young woman caught between a dud boyfriend and an emotionally unavailable man she has a crush on turns to a third man who has been very clear in his intentions towards her. She is traumatized and full of self-loathing at what she is about to do and suddenly the man who only seems to be after casual sex embraces and comforts her. It’s a total goosebump moment that completely alters our perception of the characters and very hot, even though you see almost nothing. Alas, some vocal viewers felt morally offended, because how dare she cheat on the dud boyfriend, so the writers pretended it never happened. That’s also why I’m not mentioning the title, because the show ultimately was a deep disappointment after so much promise.
Just tossing my name in the hat…can’t think of a specific scene right now 😕
Haha, the 3-min popcorn break – I love it!
Thanks everyone for commenting!
I can’t think of a favorite scene to fit the question, but I have to agree that, in order to make an impact, the sex scene has to be transformative. If the characters still feel the same afterward, I feel cheated somehow. Even if it’s not a major change, but something slight shift that slowly permeates the characters’ natures, there has to be some difference in the characters after the act in order for it to mean something.
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