Sex Sells (But Who's Writing?)
Generally speaking, sex scenes in novels are gross and kind of creepy. There’s something about writing the deed that gives it an extra-slimy sheen of prurience that I don’t find in visual depictions. Or maybe it’s that the art of writing sensually versus sexually is woefully undeveloped among writers. A good love scene can convey the magic of sex without coming off as designed to excite for no other reason than to provoke a sexual reaction.
Obviously, it’s going to be difficult to write about lovemaking without provoking some kind of physiological response in a reader. We are human, after all, and sex is how we bond with loved ones. However, if you look at how sex is used in a lot of storytelling, it’s meant to shock and titillate, nothing more.
Some television shows use sex and sexuality as a means of spicing up exposition scenes. I have been made aware that this is the case in The Witcher and A Game of Thrones, two shows I have never seen but which are lauded for their adult content.
A brief aside about exposition: it is never a bad idea to spice up infodumps. What you want to avoid as a writer in any medium are scenes where people are sitting around a table or whatever and just talking. Some tips to make these scenes more interesting and cover up the fact that they are infodumps include:
Having the characters walking, running, or otherwise traveling somewhere while talking;
Having the characters doing something else while talking; this can even be something as simple as going to the supermarket for something specific that they cannot find;
Have the characters each want a different thing, in other words, be in conflict; this will help make the dialogue more interesting;
Have there be some sort of time limit, ticking fuse, or sense of urgency that may even prevent the expositor from providing all of the information the character needs (there should still be enough for the reader, though);
Have the exposition occur during a fight scene;
Have the characters continually getting interrupted;
Explosions; and yes
So using sex isn’t bad in all cases. It’s just that, in books, it comes off as, for lack of a better word, icky more so than in other media.
Way back when, movies used to get around this issue, as well as the censors, by “panning to the fireplace” when characters were about to get busy. Or they would fade to black. This not only kept the movie from garnering a more restrictive rating, it also created a sense of sexiness that actually showing explicit sex could not. You had to imagine what was going on.
Horror directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, used this technique to great effect by not showing creepy and gross imagery or graphic violence. It turns out the effect can be heightened when people have to imagine what terrible thing went on instead of showing it.
I recommend that the written version of “panning to the fireplace” is appropriate in most scenarios. However, there are times where a sex scene is actually germane to the story—this is what I mean when describing it as not being gratuitous.
And guess what: I do have examples.
The first comes from Dan Simmons. I preface this by saying I am biased, as I think Simmons is one of the greatest living authors. His four-book Hyperion Cantos is a science-fiction masterpiece easily on par with Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is a relatively graphic sex scene in the first book, Hyperion, between Fedmahn Kassad and Moneta that actually has a point because it underscores the timeless nature and intensity of their inter-temporal love, a love that is important to the overall story arc.
Yes, the books involve jumping back-and-forth in time. Believe me; it works.
However, the zero-gravity sex scene between Raul Endymion and Aenea in either Endymion or Rise of Endymion (I can’t remember which) is just gross. It has none of the urgency, tension and release, or import that the Kassad/Moneta scenes did.
Here’s a second example of a sex scene in a novel that actually worked, and it comes from (don’t laugh) Stephen King. Further, it’s (seriously, don’t laugh), in The Stand, a book chock-full of pretty unnecessary sex scenes.
Except this one. It works because it furthers the plot, has lasting repercussions, and conveys information about several characters. But at heart, it shows why Harold Lauder is willing to betray his friends. Flip your baseball hats backwards and buy some JNCOs seven sizes too big, because Harold did it all for the nookie.
The character of Harold is a pudgy, awkward, and rather geeky young man in love with Frances Goldsmith, the slightly older girl next door. Frances is not into Harold as anything other than a friend, which drives the sexually frustrated young man crazy . . . especially when Frances starts shacking up with Stu Redman.
None of the respect Harold gains from the other men of the survivor’s community in Colorado matters. His hard work is noted. The others accept him and like him. He gets lean and muscular, and his acne clears up. He even starts to get female attention. But it’s not the kind he wants. It’s not from his Frannie.
Enter Nadine Cross.
Nadine is a piece of work. She lives with the good guys, but is secretly in the thrall of, and becomes the eventual consort of, big bad Randall Flagg. They identify Harold as a weak link and use the one thing he craves in order to get him to turn, utilizing one of the oldest tricks in the book: sex.
During the scene, King describes Harold’s ambivalence about the whole situation, his desire to fit in and be a part of the community conflicting with his desire to be wanted in this elemental way. The actual sex acts are almost incidental to Harold succumbing to his base desires. The sex is used to illustrate Harold’s fall, which is the true emotional core of the scene. It’s also a little edgy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Stephen King can be a really good writer sometimes.
This can be analogized to the way fight scenes are utilized. May Christ forgive me for referencing the laser sword franchise, but this is all akin to the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. That fight is not really being about who can kill whom. There are higher stakes at play, a deeper emotional core running through the battle, a subtext, if you will, that elevates what would normally be just another cool-looking lightsaber fight into something even more exciting.
Because the stakes are high.
The stakes are what matters.
Sex can have stakes.
It can also just be about good old-fashioned boning. But that’s more like pornography.
When in doubt, pan to the fireplace or fade to black. But sometimes . . . sometimes . . . there’s nothing wrong with being sexy.