When working with beginning novelists and reviewing their work, I’m often tasked with reading their very first sex scenes. One might be tempted to say, “You lucky dawg! You get to jump straight to the good stuff.” But, one would be dead wrong. Reading these fledgling efforts rarely amounts to a privilege.
What I typically encounter are vague scenes loaded with tired, adverb-packed phrases. It often feels as if the writer thought using the word “passionately” would somehow make the scene steamy. Yet, there’s rarely any passion on display at all. No steam, not even a whistle. Worse still, there’s not much creativity, either.
Just to be clear, I’m not advocating detailed descriptions of body parts, their dimensions, or their disposition. I’m talking about setting aside one’s fear of writing a sensual scene and instead, using the opportunity to develop both characters and plot. In most cases, the actual sex is secondary. And yet the very prospect of writing about it often leaves those new to the craft sweatier and more nervous than the typical young lovers they’re trying to depict. “What will granny say when she reads this?”
A good writer uses setting, emotion, and motive to give full-bodied life to these scenes. Why empty the toolkit simply because the story demands that one character must jump into bed with another? The bed, of course, is figurative. It could be a hayloft, the back seat of a Chevy, a kitchen counter in a Manhattan deli, or anywhere else. With a little creativity, where the action takes place becomes as important as who’s involved.
So, you’ve got two players destined to make the grand connection. Must they be housed in a nice, private room somewhere? Hell, no! Maybe their best bet is a church pew or a bench in Grand Central Station. Maybe it’s a semi-private hospital room: “Excuse me, Mr. Frobish, I’m just going to pull this curtain around my bed for a few minutes. This won’t take long, and then we can continue our conversation about your collection of vintage teacups.”
“Oops! Here comes the conductor. Pull the blanket back in place and pretend you’re studying the timetable.”
There should always be a motive. Real people rarely do things for no reason (despite what your childhood sibling once claimed). The motive could be–and all too often is–infatuation. “My God, you’re gorgeous. Let’s make love right now!” That’s as silly as it sounds, but it ends up being at the heart of too many of the scenes first-time novelists write.
How much better would these encounters be if the players involved had some reasons other than unbridled libidos? This is hardly a new concept, and one can find a bazillion stories where one character uses sex to trap another, whether the trap in question is a pregnancy, an intimidating photo, the need to inspire jealousy or some other common plot device. Here’s where creativity and imagination come into play. Find a rationale that hasn’t already been done to death. (I’ve always been partial to the concept that if Character A is busy having sex with Character B, he or she can’t be simultaneously murdering Characters X, Y or Z. Unless, of course… Et voila! And we’re on our way.)
I’ve saved emotion for last because even if neither setting or motive comes into play, what goes through the mind of a viewpoint character should be explored. Such thoughts might be entirely coherent and focused on the moment, but they could also drift.
Sensory input isn’t blocked during sex, at least not completely. Textures, odors, tastes, and sounds are likely to be present no matter where the scene takes place. Use them, for cryin’ out loud! Maybe water is dripping from a faucet, and the rhythm mimics that of the couple. Maybe birds are chirping, or an ambulance screams by. Maybe the toast is burning, or the dog is scratching at the door. Maybe the radio is on in the neighboring suite, and mighty Casey is at bat in the bottom of the ninth.
Whatever you do, take the time to explore the options. Don’t settle for a clichéd bit of prose that will satisfy no one. Instead, be a writer!