Writing sex scenes: some writers have no trouble at all; others squirm with embarrassment and avoid the subject altogether.
“I can’t do them,” one writer told me and she shall remain anonymous. “People – my family, my friends – will think that’s what I get up to. No ways am I going to write about my characters having sex.’
Except it’s difficult to avoid if you’re wanting to write about the whole gamut of human experience. At some point your characters are going to end up, well, intimately involved.
Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award
Because writers are ever inventive, sex scenes have become ever more convoluted. Which gave rise to the annual Literary Review’s bad sex scene award (although for pandemic reasons there were no awards last year possibly because characters weren’t wearing masks and because of social distancing).
The award’s judges issued a statement that said, “With lockdown regulations giving rise to all manner of novel sexual practices, the judges anticipate a rash of entries [in 2021]. Authors are reminded that cybersex and other forms of home entertainment fall within the purview of this award. Scenes set in fields, parks or backyards, or indoors with the windows open and fewer than six people present will not be exempt from scrutiny either.”
The year before had produced some extraordinary renditions:
From Pax by John Harvey: “She was burning hot and the heat was in him. He looked down on her perfect black slenderness. Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire. More than torrid, more than tropical: they two were riding the Equator. They embraced as if with violent holding they could weld the two of them one.”
From City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: “Then I screamed as though I were being run over by a train, and that long arm of his was reaching up again to palm my mouth, and I bit into his hand the way a wounded soldier bites on a bullet.”
Writing sex – when it’s all in the mind
So what do you do to avoid ending up with the Literary Review’s award – although it has now become an accolade?
Well, you could do what James Joyce did in Ulysses where Molly Bloom has pages and pages of stream of consciousness ranging over many topics including sex until the climax: “ …and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes,”
Writing sex – a short interlude
Or you could do as José Donoso did in Curfew where Judit and Mañungo are breaking the curfew in a park while cop sirens wail nearby, a helicopter thunders overhead and the lights from a patrolling vehicle wash over their hiding place. In that sort of situation what would you do but indulge in a bit of oral sex?
“Mañungo’s entire body vibrated in harmony with the invisible helicopters that filled the night, the voice of the old woman howled with the waves of Cucao, the point of his tinnitus scratched the glass before shattering it, a drum, the beat of a thousand drums pounding out the wet secret of Judit’s mouth while the car’s searchlights swept through the crenated leathery leaves of the acanthus, his heart and the helicopter pulsing within and without them, the light stopping them without revealing that in that instant the wave flooded Judit’s mouth. Even though she rejected his caress, Mañungo fleetingly recovered the word ‘love’, which Nadja had once erased from his vocabulary. The car turned off its inquisitorial searchlight and left, leaving both of them splayed out on the grass.”
Writing sex: outside stimulants
Using outside stimulants is a common technique. Here’s how Sjón does it in Moonstone the boy who never was: “The October evening is windless and cool. There is a distant throb of a motorcycle. The boy puts his head on one side to get a better fix on the sound. Holding it still he tries to work out the distance; to hear if the bike is coming closer or moving away; if it’s being ridden over level or marshy ground, or up the stony slope on the town side of the hill.
“A low groan escapes the man standing over the kneeling boy. With his back pressed to the cliff, the man appears to have merged with his own shadow, become grafted to the rock. He groans again, louder, in increasing frustration, thrusting his hips…”
Writing sex: afterwards
Or you could do the bar pickup as Kate Atkinson does in Started Early, Took My Dog. Her PI Jackson Brodie walks into a pub and one thing leads to another.
“One of the women moved so close to him that he could feel the heat of her face next to his. She was drunk enough to think that she was being seductive when in a breathy voice she said to him, ‘Would you like a Slippery Nipple?’
‘Or a Blowjob?’ another woman shrieked.
‘They’re having you on,’ yet another one said, sidling close to him, ‘they’re the names of drinks.’
‘To you maybe,’ the first woman laughed.
‘Go on, love, give her a shag,’ someone else said. ‘She’s gagging for it, put her out of her misery.’”
Needless to say Jackson obliges and the next morning he wakes to find he is not alone: “There was a woman lying next to him” whose “skin had the bruised and waxy look of a corpse”. No details of the actual event, but you get the picture.
Writing sex: no holds barred
Finally there is Mills & Boon. First they came out with their Modern Series which got pretty hot, and now, I learn, there is an even more raunchy series – Dare – which must border on soft porn. No wonder M&B sell a book every 10 seconds in the UK.
This short extract is from a novel published in the Modern Series, called In His Christmas Acquisition by Cathy Williams. Chapter 8 begins with steamy foreplay on page 137 and goes on with rubbings and caressings to page 141 where the heroine looks like “a very beautiful Victorian maiden caught in the act of swooning” and he says ‘huskily’ to her “I’m glad you’re satisfied with my level of appreciation, milady.” He then “positioned himself directly over her, her legs between his, and he pulled her tee-shirt over her head. She was already arching back…” It gets fairly detailed from here on in.
Writing sex: the reader’s input
Whether you go for the blow by blow reveal or the metaphoric version, writing sex scenes can say a lot about your characters. Personally, I’ve always thought it best to take them to a certain point and close the door and let them (and the reader) get on with it. Remember what you have to do is stimulate your reader’s imagination and let that do the job for you.
Get more out of your writing.
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