Discussion → sex writing strategies

  • Tux.thumb
    Gary Percesepe
    Apr 26, 09:48pm

    ok, class, we will now discuss the difficulties of writing sex scenes

    you are invited to share difficulties you may have encountered, barriers to writing the scene and how you removed said barriers (surmounted them? sorry--), and were you please with the result? you may share a brief scene if you wish, for illustration purposes only, says karl rove

    the purpose here being a serious one--some fictionauters have been wanting to know how to write better scenes, and this now is us doing our part to be of service, so to speak--

    you may, alternately, share one of your fave sex scenes as written by one of your fave authors, so long as it isn't roth, updike, mailer, ---oh wait, that's another thread, we already did that one, lol

    let the fun begin,


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    Ann Bogle
    Apr 26, 11:37pm

    Gary, I've noticed with your own recent submissions that I've become something of a voyeur in my reading: it's entertaining. Even instructive. We all read, as writers, to learn a little more about how to write, but do we (is there an opportunity?) to read to find out a little more about how to have sex? There are manuals, but do we read those? The plot in a porn flick is too basic to satisfy as story. Also, the characters are plastic. I've noticed with Kirsty Logan's work, as a certain example, that I've expanded my idea of fantasy. I had become very responsible in my daydreaming, not a bad thing, yet perhaps (after reading Logan's poems and stories) I realized it was needlessly restrained, that I do have buried fantasies of clairvoyant and noncommital sex. It's interesting to pull from her work a liberation ethic about men. From my dream life I learn what is going on as well.

    Due to this group at Fictionaut and the challenge of writing IN the sex scene instead of leaving it out (skipping over it) I have learned something valuable and probably written a better story. As an example, the sex in my story "Fiancee." Ordinarily, I would have sent the woman on an overnight and elided the scene. As it is, the story reminds me now of a salad with bacon on it or blue cheese. It would have been a salad without meat or salt or bread. Ways to elide a scene can be funny, too, as when I wrote in "My Crush on Daniel Ortega," "The new man spends 15 hours in my bed," then 19 hours, without specifying what takes place. It's that swath of time that passes: time in bed that is not time in the living room or time at a restaurant or in a park or at a museum. I like the way time compresses in that spot and wouldn't try to write the scene. I wrote the sex a little later in the story, quicker sex, weeknight sex, the phone is ringing.

    A story I really liked recently is Rick Rofihe's "Chicagoo." There's a quiet spot in the corner of the story where sex goes, and it's elided. That it isn't crude serves the story, but I started wondering if there were a way to intensify it with a specific line or two, a small gesture that was explicit.

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    FM Le
    Apr 27, 02:35am

    In my experience, you can go subtle (romance) or you can go raw with it (pornographic). It's been at least 5 years since I even attempted it, and since most of my writing is first person, that makes it harder (what if my dad reads it! EEK). Leaving the romance out of a sex scene is fine but leaving the emotion out of it just makes it pornographic, not that there's anything wrong with that if you do it right. I don't have a favorite..yet.. I'd rather be submerged in the imagery rather than feel like I'm watching something. I want to feel the emotion rather than watch the act. There's middle ground somewhere in there.

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    Darryl Price
    Apr 27, 07:18am

    What I think people want out of a written sex scene is sex! By that statement I mean they want to have that same feeling you get of rushing blood to the pleasure parts of our being our bodies of euphoria of abandonment of excitement and release of contentment of joy of wild surprises. They want to identify not just witness, engage not just imagine, with the arc of the scene.They want to be put into it. Feel the sex. Be the sex.Enjoy the sex. Unless it's violent-then perhaps it's just the written excuse for violence using sex as the device to get the reader there.In which case it's not really about sex but power.A good sex scene well-written reminds us of what we hold most dear and why we fight in our way to keep it alive in the world with us.Sex is important. It's central. And because of that it's also bigger than us. Ancient. Eternal.So the scene has a lot to live up to.It better deliver or we get cold pretty fast.Does it take a genius? I don't think so, but it will take authenticity, passion, and a certain freedom of expression acted upon with some solidly honest originality.Know thyself and tell it.

  • Img_2612.thumb
    Apr 27, 10:05am

    Oh, the sex scene. It is a tricky thing, primarily because they can be so, so bad. As a reader, I often find myself cringing at a writer's graphic attempt at a play-by-play -- because most of the time what's meant to be hot and raw feels cliched and dull, the embarrassment heightened by the knowledge that the opposite effect was intended. Plus, when it fails to illuminate beyond the obvious it falls flat for me.

    Felicia brings up the whole porn vs. subtlety thing and while we're talking binaries I'd add that my experience (as a reader and a writer and yes it's all subjective) is influenced by my gender. I know it's a dangerous thing to be categorical, but as a woman I often do not need the explicit visual for something to be erotic. Maybe this is because the explicit is so tough to do well and can so easily become a lampoon. But, there is also the thing about women and veils, so to speak, women wanting to leave something to the imagination, whereas men, typically/stereotypically? want the whole thing splayed out. I'm not saying that's true and I'm not about to speak for the sexes (or anyone else) but yeah, that tends to be where my preferences lie. In literature.

    Ann writes about elision, which I think is a good instinct a lot of the time. When you do go there (and by there I mean sex) it's gotta be earned. And it doesn't need to be explicit. Ann's Fiancee is a brilliant example. It's not about the placement of hands -- we can fill that in -- but about the context and subtext. What is happening around it, outside of it, underneath. In general when it comes to sex, I am most interested in the startling detail or image or snippet of dialogue (Ann's: "I am a Jamaican") that elevates or degrades or otherwise stirs up the sex narrative as we know it.

    Who does it well? Nabokov. Gaitskill and Minot. Meg Wolitzer in the wife. Francine Prose in Blue Angel. Harold Brodkey's Innocence is a classic (and this i think is one example of a successful play by play) -- I'm less into Portnoy sex and more into Molly Bloom (that kind of thing, and I could go on. I guess you did that already but I missed it. Did I also miss a conversation about the Roiphe article in the Book Review?)

    When it comes to my writing, sex is at the inextricable core. This is true for so many of us (all of us?) here and elsewhere. Sexual beings (save for the "neuters" featured on Oprah that completely fascinate), sex is the essence of who we are, it forms our identity, it dictates relationships, steers power. There is no other way around it. But you get that already, which is why you are here. So I tend to skip over the act and focus on the alleys. "Spring" is in some ways one of the most confrontational sex stories I've written but it's not so much a story of sex as it is about selfhood and definition and desperation and desire. Sure, maybe the language is direct but what i was going for was matter-of-factness: it is not there simply to be erotic. Sex details that do interest me, as I said, are the unusual ones, (often awkward messy humorous dark subversive) the ones that suggest that whatever is playing out has not been cribbed from a harlequin. The last scene of "Jew" when the woman places the shopkeeper's hand into her blouse and triggers the letdown of her breast milk -- that to me, was an "important" sex moment to write, because there is so much other stuff being said in that gesture, in that exchange.

    Bottom line, Sex: it's everywhere. The scene -- why write it? Listen to yourself: Is it necessary? If so, then yes, follow that gut and forget that your child might read it and write it how it needs to be. I agree with Darryl that good sex reminds us why we fight to keep alive in the world. (I just think it's hard to find good written sex that achieves that, which is why, when you do come across it, it's that much more striking because it is so rare.) Ask first, what purpose will it serve? If it fails to reveal beyond the obvious, you might want to resist. Chances are if it's there simply to be hot, it's not. But if you can crack a window and give us a shadow onto it and something else, something deeper, something that opens up, then I'm on board.

    God, I sound like a prude.

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    Stephen Stark
    Apr 27, 10:27am

    Writing good sex scenes—i.e., scenes that aren't in the least gratuitous, increase conflict (either between characters or a character's conflict with him/herself), heighten tension—it seems to me is just like writing any other scene. If you write highly detailed, slowly-evolving scenes between people, then that's the kind of sex scene you write.

    This is going to sound like a joke, I'm sure, but there's research, stupid things you did you wished you didn't or things that were transcendent and difficult to understand because of their mystery. Part of that research, it seems to me, is talking to the opposite sex about the experience is like for them. When Felicia says she wants to feel the emotion rather than watch the act, that seems like a fundamental boy/girl difference. So as a male writer, how do you do that?, or for the female writer, how do you do that? I personally think you have to have both, that middle ground. Plain old honesty may play a major role in that. Interesting, though, that I've had stronger, and mostly positive reactions from women readers about my sex scenes, although I wonder if that's just because it's way less likely a guy is going to say, Wow, dude, totally hot sex! One friend said at the time I was writing <i> Second Son </i> (ex-wife was pregnant with daughter), So, this is what a guy does when he's not getting any, eh?

    I'm now at the other end of that EEK thing that Felicia mentions. My daughter, now 18 (and I told her should couldn't read my second novel until she was 18) just came across a copy of <i> Second Son </i> at her grandparents' house, said she read the first 15 pages and just fell in love. Called me up to tell me she was going to read it. I got very squeamish. I said she should probably stop reading if it was creeping her out. I don't want to cause any sort of primal trauma, because there is very graphic sex—which I would argue is not pornographic, even if it is hot (I like Nabokov's definition, which is perhaps in the intro to Lolita). I said, well, go ahead. A (woman) friend who had read <i> Second Son </i>suggested that I was nuts and should go ahead and tell her to wait until she's 25.

    I agree with Darryl pretty much completely that sex is important. I've said it in other posts around here, but it seems to me that the undercurrent of sexuality in our lives as animals animates so much of it. And it becomes fraught—issues of power and violence and betrayal and you name it.

    And Darryl is right, as well, about the authenticity, passion and honesty. Which is the hardest part. Avoiding the tropes, or using the tropes to better advantage. Being honest about the motivations of the characters, knowing the motivations and the ambivalence.

    I love Ann's marvelous comparison, both funny and telling, of a story without the sex scene as a salad without the meat and cheese. Give me the Cobb salad, but leave out the cob.

    Seems to me that the way characters (and real actual human beings) approach sex—as something profound and deeply emotional, or as something fun and casual and not to be made too much of, or somewhere in between—tells us a lot about the rest of who they are. It's the little details. How generous or selfish is the character? How screwed up at that particular moment in the story is the character? How much does s/he have to lose, gain, and so forth?

    Finally, I think as with all things, practice, practice, practice.

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    David Erlewine
    Apr 27, 11:28am

    Great q. The first "sex-filled" story I ever wrote REALLY REALLY pissed off/alienated some "close" female writer friends who found them bordering on misognystic. I say "close" to mean that at the time they were trusted readers/writers I knew via "online interactions" (okay that sounds bad too) and they really really really didn't like my story. I've written a few more pieces and I have one that is REALLY dirty upcoming in the "Girl Crush Anthology" that will win me some friends I'm sure. And that story has a "sex" scene involve blue cheese dressing (maybe from a Cobb salad, ha ha). It involves the dressing, a finger, and a mouth, and that's all that's fit to print.

    The only time anyone I've known has been pissed at me about my stories (and told me about it) was my sex-filled stories.

    Okay, I gotta go hit the gym. This is all too much for my saggy heart.

  • Tux.thumb
    Gary Percesepe
    Apr 27, 11:48am

    well, this thread is certainly heating up--no news there. the expected, brilliant writers writing about the essential--what's not to like?

    so many wonderful comments, too many to comment on in passing--thanks to all and keep them coming....

    just to say, about harold brodkey, in "innocence"---that he sets up all of the LONG sex writing in tat story with this observation of orra, at harvard:

    "She was a somewhat scrawny, tuliplike girl of middling height. To see her in sunlight was to see Marxism die."

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    James Robison
    Apr 27, 04:28pm

    If you start to write "play-by-play" (thank you, Lippman, that's the phrase) open a vein and bleed until you feel cold and things look darker than they ought.

    Young guy: I want to be an actor, any advice?
    Spencer Tracy: Never let them see you act.

    I'd say, never try to write sex and never try to write funny.

  • Richter.thumb
    Apr 27, 05:01pm

    I really enjoy all the comments in this thread - they're so instructive and insightful. I think of writing as sex - as seduction, as longing, as sadness, as orgasm. All of it. When it comes to writing about two or more bodies coming together, I'm for straightforward descriptions and get out of the minds of the characters all together. Stick to the mechanics of the body and what is happening at that moment. I also think of dialogue as sex - as negotiation, as power, as trust, as love.

    My novel begins with a sex scene:

    High school senior Henry Robeson, fossil collector and future accessory, moves his hand over the dark green wool. Henry's back is sore from the deck and his shoulder scrapes the wood, so that spots of dark blood will later appear on his flannel sheets. The wool's mossy tendrils cause a rash to creep up his forearm as he kisses star pupil and fruitless visionary, Edie Lacour. Her eyes are shut, tight. Sometimes, when he kisses her, he opens his eyes and finds her looking back at him, her pupils black orbs in a pool of slate.

    Great thread - thanks G. for posting :)

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    Cherise Wolas
    Apr 27, 07:39pm

    I am awed and impressed by the cogent and brilliant analyses set forth in this thread. The comments are, as Marcelle wrote, and I second here, instructive and insightful. Also fascinating, Freudian, psychological and personal. An honor and pleasure to read all of your views.

    Bad sex writing is, well, like bad sex.

    A lesson can be learned about erotic sex writing by reading erotic books, not necessarily the compilation books that are popular now, but those books set in bygone and earlier eras, usually penned by, I am hoping, various "Anonymous" authors.

    Based on my own, highly informal, survey, women respond to the subtleties, the slow build up before any crescendo. Men respond most to the visual.

    In one of my stories up here, Things I Should Have Done - #2, there is a bit of sex, but from the perspective of a young girl, seventeen, a virgin, and in this story, a forced voyeur. I thought it important to have the bit of sex, and to have it viewed and observed by a girl without much experience.

    Here is a passage I read last night. I am interested in everyone's take on it. Is this literature? Is this good sex writing of a sort, based, of course, on the nature of the book, which is gritty. When you read this, do you think you're in the hands of a fine writer, or a hack?

    "Stony drove along White Plains Road under the el tracks. His heart was pumping Kool-Aid. He imagined Cheri nude except for knee sock, blue ones, going down on Mott. Mott coming all over her face. Mott hoisting her up, her knees wrapped around his rib cage, lowering her on his cock. Mott standing spread-legged, her arms wrapped around his neck. Mott's hands lifting and lowering her ass on his dong. Cheri biting his neck. The moans, the squeals, the oohs, and ahhs. Stony's boner gave him a hard time with the clutch."

  • Richter.thumb
    Apr 27, 11:29pm

    I think this is a good sex scene save for one line: "The moans, the squeals, the oohs, and ahhs." That flattens the action for me - takes me out of the moment. I don't know if it's literature or not - the only answer to that question is to contextualize it within the larger frame of the story itself. Who are the characters? What is their relationship to one another? What are their political, sexual, historical identities?
    Their are clues of something larger: The Kool-Aid. The knee sock (singular). The clutch.

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    Cherise Wolas
    Apr 28, 05:42am

    Apologies, I had a typo, "knee sock", was supposed to be plural. I agree with you Marcelle, about the oohs and aahs. I also think it's very well-written based on context and character.

    This is a paragraph from Richard Price's novel Bloodbrothers, which I I believe was his first book.

    Although I loved three of his later novels (Lush Life, Freedomland, and Clockers), I am finding myself at a total remove from this one. Set in New Jersey, it features a family, father, son and uncle, and unions, and I'm not sure what else as I'm only a bit of the way in. But even only 60 or so pages in, there has been a lot of sex, sex scenes, discussions by the men about sex. The various kinds of scenes involving "sex" described above in the various threads.

    And yet, all of it, thus far, has left me cold. I am impressed by his ability to write such scenes, and to have his blue-collar characters discussing sex at length among themselves, yet, the sex seems laid on so heavily, and there seems to be so much of it, that its effect dwindles away. For me, at least, a case where the sex hasn't made me gallivant rapidly through the pages.

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    Heather Fowler
    Apr 28, 01:42pm

    I think that writing sex scenes is not so deliberate as: Okay, it's time for a sex scene. At least not for me, though I do write them a lot. When I write sex, I write sex usually as an interface for warring impulses, the difference between speech and action, to display the unspoken or the heat. Often, the sex in my work, for me, in play by play, is incidental, is the symbolic action that provides the foil for the psychological action. Thus, all of the sex in my stories is philosophical or psychologically driven. I don't often overwrite it because it's almost like a clinical application of detail to go along with the tide of the mental arc, if this makes any sense. Really interesting discussion above.

    Fond regards to all,

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    James Robison
    Apr 28, 10:06pm

    Yes, Heather, yes,and I said with my keypad yes, that is exactly what I think,or, if I may stupidly try to rephrase that which cannot be said better than you said it, one can't write sex or cars or breakfast cereals or political philosophies, but all these come from the first impulse--"warring impulses"--and I would add sometimes those forces are genrated not as interface between characters but between writer and text or writer and character. Such many involve anatomy, appetite, allure, disgust, fury,but they all must arise from the prose or verse and its requirements, never the requirements of extra textual matters such as titillation.

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    George LaCas
    Jun 12, 10:51pm

    Lots of great stuff above about the sex scene.

    One major project I have in the works right now is a story about a woman in a tightly repressive marriage who is inspired to change her life when she falls in love with a young female artist. A lesbian affair commences. The husband doesn't like it. The protagonist must face inner and exterior conflict as she breaks away from both the numbness of her unhappy marriage and her own inability to face past failures.

    Yes, you read it right: "a lesbian affair commences." One of the many problems I had with this story (a novel) was how to approach sex, and naturally as a visually-oriented male my early drafts included blisteringly vivid sex scenes, if I do say so myself. Hmmm, I thought typing, two women having sex, what fun for me! And it was fun. I got lots of positive feedback on those scenes from female acquaintances who happen to be involved in erotic writing.

    The thing was, while charging headlong into my project (like a bull in a china shop, if you'll pardon the simile) and gleefully writing emotionally-charged and explicit love scenes, I was also ignoring more important things that novelists have to worry about. Like genre, character, and story. I'm the type of writer who envisions a new project and forges ahead (not an outline kind of guy) and maybe the Muse will forgive me.

    But the reader will not. And neither will a prospective agent or an acquisitions editor. Several months into the project I hired an independent editor who pointed some of these things out to me, and currently Draft 9 sits waiting to be reconceived (again, another troubling metaphor, not intentional).

    My point? When it comes to sex scenes, at least in my opinion, it's not a question of Yes or No. Current trends in literary fiction may avoid sex, but I don't care about that. Rather, my sex scenes must have a purpose. They have to work, and even when the scenes themselves are well-written, they stick out as cheap and gratuitous if character and story are not enhanced by them.

    Whether sex scenes in general should be attempted (I vote yes) or what's the best way to write them are questions that depend on the writer, her or his abilities, the larger work the sex appears in (and therefore the reasons for the sex to be there at all, especially story and character), genre and would-be audience.

    Sometimes, as in Nabokov's Lolita, sex is best rendered through masterful language, double entendre and innuendo. Sometimes it may be coarse or brutal. And yes, sometimes writing about the sex act itself is not appropriate.

    In short, the proof is in the pudding. But even if such scenes do work, there are those in the critical establishment and in the marketplace who are put off by any treatment of sex at all. Writing sex scenes is a risk, no matter how you look at it.

    And I love writing them.

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    Stephen Stark
    Jun 25, 03:45pm

    <b>Update on the EEK thing. </b>

    I had told my daughter years ago that she could read <i>Second Son</i> when she was 18. She read it. She thought I was a prude and being unreasonably squeamish when I told her that I was uncomfortable with her reading some rather explicit sex. And so she read it anyway.

    Her reaction? (Aside from, Daddyyou'rsostupidandaprude.) Daddy, you're such a good writer. It's such a good book. She added that she did not read it as though it was written by her father, but told by an authorial voice, and has now recommended it to at least one of her friends.

    And when I sort of recoiled at the compliment (having been uncomfortable with the reading in the first place), she got (rightly) angry with me for not being able to accept the compliment. I consider myself now duly chastened by a wise daughter. Should she ever decide to write a novel, I will do my best to read it as told by an authorial voice and not written by my daughter.

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