Justifying Our Sex Scenes

Lazarus Barnhill, a fellow author at Second Wind Publishing, is planning to rerelease his novels to include the sex scenes he removed for the sake of keeping the familial peace. I understand why he wants to include the scenes — he wishes to reclaim his literary perogative and publish the books the way he wrote them, which is as it should be. Besides, with the scenes included, the books will probably go viral.

Though I wouldn’t admit it to him, I like the books the way they are now, with the focus more on the mystery in The Medicine People and the romance in the Lacey Took a Holiday. The truth is, I’ve never been fond of sex scenes. I read for mental titillation — expanding my mind, letting my thoughts wander into the realms of what if — and sex scenes leave little scope for such meanderings.

Despite tMore Deaths Than Onehat, I did write one very graphic sex scene for my first book More Deaths Than One. The scene appalled my father (by then my mother was gone, so I never got to hear her words on the subject. Whew!), but that was an important scene in the book.

The story is about a man who is so ordinary he almost seems invisible. Everyone assumes they know him, seeing him as a reflection of themselves. And yet, he has hidden depths that only one woman, Kerry, managed to see. As Kerry told Bob, trying to explain why he interested her, “I’d like to say it’s because you have hidden depths, but your depths aren’t hidden, they’re obvious.” She chuckled. “Maybe you have hidden shallows.”

The graphic sex scene wasn’t with Kerry, though eventually they did make love. The scene was with Bob and another woman, a woman who taught him about prolonging the pleasure and satisfying a woman. If you didn’t know why Bob had such a talent, it would have been unbelievable when you discovered that such a seemingly weak man would have such discipline. The scene also set up the love scene with Kerry. The scent of frangipani had always reminded him of that first woman, and yet when he and Kerry finally got together, he realized that from now on, whenever he caught a whiff of that scent, it would remind him of Kerry, of the teasing look in her eyes, of the moment he fell in love with her. (But then, don’t we all justify our sex scenes as important to the book?)

Oddly, each of my novels had less sex in that the previous one, and the last one had none. It’s hard to write sex scenes that are consistently new and fresh, and I’d said it all in that first book.

Someone dared me once to write an erotic novel, and I even accepted the dare, at least verbally, but I doubt I will ever write the book. The only reason I can see for writing is to write what only I can write, and it’s hard to bring individuality to sex scenes. (Which is probably why bondage and masochism are so prevalent right now — they are different from what people are used to.) Still, I’m young in author terms. I’ve only written five books. Anything could linger in all those as unwritten books of mine!

As for Lazarus Barnhill’s books, I’m keeping the versions I have for now. When he gets rich and famous, those expurgated copies will be worth a fortune, and I will be set for life!


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Writing About “Ahem”

Someone just sent me an email suggesting I look at a BBC article on writing about “ahem.” (His words.) Okay, it was my brother, so he’s forgiven for being a bit too discreet. The suggestion probably has to do with a remark I made once about writing erotica, and he and my sister-in-law dared me to do it. I told them I would. But after I finish my WIP, and after I finish my graphic novel, and after . . .

Oddly enough, I really am considering it — by now you know I like a challenge. The thing that’s weird about my considering it (okay, one of the weird things — there are many strangenesses, including the simple fact that I am considering it) is that each of my books has less sex in it than the last. For Light Bringer, which will be published in the late spring of 2010, I completely forgot to include a sex scene — or rather, the story didn’t demand it, so I didn’t include one. My first book, a poor deformed — unacknowledged — creature I have hidden away in the dark recesses of my closet, is so full of sex scenes that it wouldn’t take much to turn it into an erotic novel.

There seems to be two thoughts about writing erotica. One, that the story should hold together even if there wasn’t any sex; and two, that the sex must be such an integral part of the story that it will fall apart without the sex. I subscribe to the second theory because it holds true for any sex scene — it must be a scene rather than simply a depiction of sex. This means the scene must advance the story, tell us more about the characters, show us how having sex changed the hero, or show a change in the relationship between the participants. So many authors seem to have the attitude that they need to arbitrarily insert a sex scene into the story, but such scenes need to be written in response to the demands of the story, not just because “it’s time to insert a sex scene”. 

One comment appended to the BBC article was written by Alexander from Durham. He says: I never know what most sex scenes are trying to achieve in books (and in other media, come to that). It’s hard to tell if they’re going for an emotional response from the reader or just arousal. I think the problem is that the reader doesn’t know either and ends up reading the scene and trying to take the wrong thing from it. And he’s exactly right. The reason the reader doesn’t know what the sex scene is trying to achieve is that the author doesn’t know. 

The article about “ahem” asked: Is it Difficult to Write Well About Sex? I tend to think it isn’t, as long as the authors know what they are trying to accomplish with the sex scene. Once authors know their goal, they can write the scene with that goal in mind. On the other hand, maybe sex is difficult to write well. John Littel just won the “bad sex in fiction” prize. That there is such a literary award speaks for itself.

Sex SCENE not SEX Scene

One problem new writers have when they approach a sex scene is that they think of it as a SEX scene rather than a sex SCENE. Any effective scene — sex or not – serves multiple purposes. This is especially true of a sex scene, otherwise it will seem unconnected to the story, as if you just threw sex in the mix because you felt it was time to titillate your readers.

One good use of a sex scene is to show character. One of my favorite scenes in my novel A Spark of Heavenly Fire is when Jeremy King, a world famous actor, sleeps with a woman he just met in a bar.

The sound of weeping woke Jeremy. He turned his head toward his companion and saw one trembling shoulder and a tangle of gleaming hair.

He stretched luxuriously. The red hair hadn’t lied. The girl had been all fire, kindling a passion in him he hadn’t felt in years. The memory of it made him hard.

He reached over and pulled the girl into his arms. He smoothed back her hair and kissed away her tears, murmuring, “Honey,” and “Sweetheart,” and “Dear.”

“I’m such a terrible person,” she said, sobbing.

“Shh. Shh,” he whispered between tiny kisses.

Her arms stole around his neck, and her lips sought his. In a surprisingly short time she bucked beneath him, calling out his name.

You’ve still got it, King, he thought exultantly. Then, after one final thrust, he tumbled into oblivion.

I always liked that scene. It’s not very graphic, but it did what I wanted it to — define the characters

Another good use of a scene is to show the ebb and flow of human connection. For example, you could have three scenes spread throughout the story. In the first scene, perhaps, the man climaxes, feeling connected to the woman. When he immediately goes to sleep, she feels disconnected. In the second scene, perhaps he can’t get it up, leaving him feeling disconnected, but since he tries to make it up to her by cuddling her, she feels connected. In the third scene, they climax together, perhaps cuddle afterward, so they both feel connected.

In addition to the sex, then, you show a pattern of connection and disconnection between the couple (in other words, conflict), you show a whole new perspective of the characters, and you show a change in their relationship. You also end up with a subplot that adds to the overall richness of the story. In other words, you end up with a series of sex SCENES, not just SEX scenes.

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Sex Scenes: Self-Concept and Sex Concept

I just finished reading a book about how to get anyone to do anything, and the basic premise is that you figure out what a person’s self-concept is, and you play up to that. For example, if the person thinks of himself as a good father, you appeal to his father image: “If you help me, it will make a better world for your children.” If you go against a person’s self-concept, he will resist you and may end up disliking you. For example, asking the father to work on a night when he promised to be at his kid’s little league game is a sure way to lose his good will.

Since I have sex scenes on the brain — my last few posts focused on sex scenes — it occurred to me that one way to make a sex scene an important scene rather than just throwing it in because you felt it was time to add a sex scene, is to play on a character’s self-concept. What if a character were making love to a person other than a spouse? Would this lovemaking enhance his or her self-concept, or would it go against it? If the scene enhanced the character’s self-concept, we would learn more about the character. Perhaps she sees herself as a great lover, in which case nothing mattered except the lovemaking– not her marriage vows, not her husband, not her children — and so we know what kind of character she is. If the scene went against the character’s self-concept, then we have a character with inner conflicts. Perhaps the character sees herself as a faithful, till-death-do-us-part wife. In which case, no matter how exciting or tender the scene, it leaves her in turmoil.

I wonder if a character could have a sex concept that is the opposite of his self-concept — a great lover and a faithful spouse? In this case there would be no conflict if the character had an affair. Or would there?

I’m not sure what I’m trying to say—as usual, I am using this blog as a way of concentrating my thoughts. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that a sex scene is a good time to show a character confronting his essence. Without, of course, destroying the mood.

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Writing Sex Scenes

In its essence, a sex scene in a novel is no different from any other scene, and the key to writing it is to figure out its objective. If you’re just putting it in there because you think it’s time for some titillation, it will not have the resonance of a motivated scene. (Though in some novels, category romance especially, titillation alone is an acceptable objective.)

There are many other objectives for a sex scene besides titillation: to bring the couple closer together; to show that they want each other even though they can’t tolerate each other; to bring them comfort; to show the maturation of one character (perhaps he couldn’t commit, and now he can); to show the intensity of the relationship; to slow the pace of the book or speed it up; to bring a bit of humor or playfulness to a somber work.

Once you know the objective, you can write a fitting action/reaction sequence. If comfort is the objective, you can show them together at the beginning, close the door during the action, and show them cuddling afterward. If tenderness is the objective, you can show a bit of the action in addition to the before and after. And of course, if their desperation for each other is the objective, you will need to leave the door open during the scene. As with all resonating scenes, when it is over there must be some reaction, some change to the character or the direction of the story. And the objective dictates that reaction. If the scene was about bringing comfort to the characters, we need to know whether they found comfort or failed to find it, and we need to know the characters’ emotional response to the success or failure of that objective. This reaction, in turn will help set up the next scene.

Scenes also help show who the characters are, and where better to do this than when they are at their most vulnerable. The sex scene I wrote that I like best is one where the woman calls out her partner’s name, and he exults to himself, “I’ve still got it!” That defined them and their relationship.

The problem I have with sex scenes is that, in the end, there are only so many different ways of writing them and after a while they begin to seem ho-hum. Finding the objective helps make the scene unique, as does sense description not related to the act. Can they smell the garbage outside the motel window? Is the traffic only a faint hum from her penthouse? How does the office desk feel beneath her back? Each of these bits gives the scene a depth it might not otherwise have.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a sex scene in my current work. After devolving (or evolving depending on your point of view) from graphic sex in my first novel to none at all in my fourth, I thought I’d run the gamut. But then I realized I have never done a humorous sex scene, so that’s what I’m going to aim for. Not a bad objective.