It’s All About the Sex — Part 1

If you’re writing a novel for adults, and these days “adult” often means Young Adult, too, there’s a very good chance you’ll need to include some sort of sex scene. Many writers new to the craft approach this opportunity with mixed feelings, not the least of which is fear — fear of looking bad in a relative’s eyes, fear of kickback from friends or employers, fear of failure, etc. Sadly, little I say here will make those fears go away. BUT, I have a strategy you can use to make the process less difficult. Better still, that same strategy could vault your sex scene from something you had to write up to something you’re proud of.

For openers we need to look at the “why” behind the scene. There has to be a reason for it, even if it’s simply character development or procreation. If all the scene does is go through the motions like a stripper who’s done the same dance a thousand times, it’s unlikely to be memorable. It may not even have enough sensory value to make it worth reading. In these cases your best bet may be to settle for “…and they made love.” Or maybe “…and they went to bed.” Or, in extreme cases, “…unto them a child was born.” You can always just cut to the fireplace.

That all assumes there’s nothing else to be gained from the scene. If that’s all you expect from it, then make it short and forgettable — the written equivalent of wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. Don’t waste your time, or the reader’s, with a recap of how they undressed, where they went, what they did, how long it took, or if there were any encores. It just isn’t necessary. The only folks who might care are likely not buying books, assuming they can even read (a fact not in evidence).

Ah, but what if there’s a secret to be revealed? What if one of the players isn’t who (or what) he or she claims to be? What if there’s a tell-tale mark visible only when disrobed, or seen under ultraviolet light? What it it’s not visible at all? What if it has to be felt or tasted? (Okay, I’ve written a lot of science fiction. <smile>)

What if the sex isn’t as important as where it happens — be it in the Lincoln Bedroom, the back seat of a limo, in the King’s closet, on the moon, or any place else for that matter.

What if it’s the timing that’s important? Maybe the encounter occurs between two people who aren’t where they’re supposed to be, at least, not at that particular moment. Say, when the king walks by, or the Publisher’s Clearing House people come calling? (“Mabel dear, just where were you on Super Bowl Sunday?”)

What if the sex is between estranged partners, old lovers, spies for different countries, or some other combination of good and bad, dark and light, plaid and stripes? Any such combination of character or circumstance can provide the angle a writer needs to make the ordinary interesting. Let’s take these one at a time and see what can be done with ‘em.

There’s a secret: Who doesn’t love this gambit? Let’s say the sex is merely a means to enter a certain room, one containing the top-secret Toilet Plunger of Death (sometimes referred to as the McGuffin — essentially an object or other motivating element which drives a plot). A bounty of potential actions and consequences can bloom from a motive like this: a theft attempt, an effort to hide the thing, a call for help, an effort to silence someone, etc. Now imagine any one of these options, or several, set against a backdrop of seduction. Suddenly, the sex isn’t just something happening between consenting adults, it’s a means to an end (no pun intended).

Place precedes passion: Consider the humble “Off Limits” sign, which is just as likely to be metaphorical as physical. “You can’t go in there; that’s the boss’s office!” Or the Queen’s craft room, the President’s boudoir, the mad scientist’s wine cellar, or the girl’s locker room. Wherever. It doesn’t matter. For some characters, there’s a profound and irresistible lure associated with almost any forbidden place or thing. Now, add the complicating factor of sex; make it the key to unlocking that untouchable domain. Or make it the reward. The point is, you have the chance to make it important.

Tick, tock: No, I don’t mean speed sex. (Besides, ick. And shame on you!) Under normal, non-marathon circumstances, sex requires a certain amount of time. This applies even unto really unsatisfying sex (about which I’ve only read, naturally). Point is, it takes time. And that time can’t be devoted to anything else, because, well, you’re busy. And focused. Sex tends to force both parties to keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and to remain there until the ride comes to an end. So, while your characters are doing the nasty, they can’t be doing something else, somewhere else. Once again, the number of motives which play to this theme are legion.

I’ll never forget ol’ what’s his/her name: What often begins as light-hearted amusement, just for old time’s sake, can lead to an emotional and/or psychological avalanche. In the case of enemies, it can have physical consequences, too. How many times did James Bond dally with dainties wearing black hats? Does this hurt? No? How ‘bout this? Whether you’re writing a thriller or memories from the old folks home, you have the opportunity to spice up the story or a relationship. In fact, handled skillfully, you can get enormous mileage out of one measly roll in the metaphorical hay. Consider the possibilities, not the least of which are offspring, guilt, shame, pride, boasting, lies to cover it up, lies to make more of it, maybe even failed memories. Who knows? It’s your story, after all.

Notice, however, that in all the examples thus far, sex actually takes place. There’s a whole gunny sack full of options available when little or nothing happens. I’ll address those next time.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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4 Responses to It’s All About the Sex — Part 1

  1. Lisa L. says:

    Well, I have to say your blog’s title certainly goes along with your subject here. I found it to be very interesting (the blog, that is). I understand writing a “do it all” sex scene, but I have a little problem with the YA audience. Not that they’re strangers to it, it’s just my 1950s self showing it’s puritan thinking. I’m not even sure there was a YA category for us in the late 50s and early 60s. But since times change, I guess the YA audience is more jaded than I thought. Then there’s the OA (older adult) and many of us want the details. We’ve been around the block more than once (a lot of us) and probably would like to learn something new – we’re jaded too. It’s a fine line as to how far to go (lol) with describing sex to any age without offending someone. This blog addresses it well.

    • joshlangston says:

      Thanks, Lisa. I’m trying to make this discussion useful, and while I don’t write YA fiction, I’ve certainly read some, and it appears the boundary for what is or is not “acceptable” has shifted mightily over the past 20 years (to grab a completely arbitrary number). But shifted it most certainly has. I blame that primarily on Hollywood. Where films go, books all too often follow, unfortunately.

  2. nativeson49 says:

    The “best sex I ever read” was in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Prodigal Summer. She did a wonderful job of suggestion blended with romance without the use of four letter words. Matter of fact, if memory serves me correctly, she only needed a few lines to get a clear message on the page.

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