Sunday, September 9, 2007

Bad Sex

We’ve all been there. Yes, it’s an awkward subject to talk about, but we’re adults here. Human sexuality is a part of us and we’ve all experienced terrible disappointments at one time or another. I’m talking about novels we’ve been completely absorbed in up until we hit a bad sex scene – and there are a lot of ways to go wrong here.

As a reader I am much more critical about sex scenes in a dramatic story than I am about sex written into humorous stories.

A sex scene that has been added in order to move a story forward and has been written well will allow me to remain in the “fictive dream”. Sex that’s been added gratuitously or that isn’t written well will pull me out of that experience and I become hyper-critical. I suspect most of us tend to be that way. There are several common ways to lose me and most readers.

Pitfalls to watch for include the value judgments and values of the intended audience, making sure the scene is serving a purpose, describing the encounter in the proper context – is it simply sex between two people, is it two people in love, is it both? Is it a first encounter? Is it adulterous sex? Is it sex between married people? Is it gay sex? Is the sex being forced? Is one or the other of the characters bored? Distressed? Is the description too graphic? Too metaphorical or corny? Too perfectly orgasmic?

Based on the number of articles I found when I did a search on “writing sex scenes”, most writers consider this is one of the most difficult aspects of writing.

If you had attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in July, you could have attended this:

Writing About Sex
Weekend Workshop
July 21–22

Writing a good sex scene is no more difficult than writing a good battle scene, a good hospital scene, a good bar scene, a good office party scene. Novels, short stories, memoirs, poems, plays, movies—you’ll find sexual activity in every genre. The writer of sex scenes is faced with making a private act into a public performance. This requires attention to language and perceptions that are both intimate and universal. Sex can be sad, funny, quick, joyful, desperate, illegal, impromptu. So much depends on the character, the situation, the setting. We will explore writing about sex (with a nod to Elizabeth Benedict’s wonderful The Joy of Writing Sex) by reading examples from Michael Chabon, Scott Spencer, Audrey Niffenegger and Sue Miller. We’ll write our own sex scenes—subtle and bold, sad and comic, metaphoric and meandering, striving to make an honest scene on the page. This workshop is for those writers of fiction and nonfiction who feel their work could be energized by a well-crafted sexual moment.

Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex was published in 2004 and all comments and reviews I’ve read indicate it may be a great “how to” reference on this tricky subject. I'll let you know after Amazon delivers my copy.

This link to an article in The Boston Phoenix, by Steve Almond is a humorous set of rules about writing sex. Rosina Lippi’s blog has a series of posts on writing sex here. Marge Piercy also has an article on writing sex scenes here. Just About Write has a good article by Lori L. Lake here. Writer Lee Goldberg also blogs about it here and science fiction writer Deanna Hoak writes about it here.

When at all possible, many writers will simply “close the door” to avoid writing a sex scene entirely, but sometimes the story really needs it.

How do you feel about writing sex scenes? Are you good at it, or would you rather avoid it? Can you recall scenes you’ve read that have been done well? Done badly? What do you think are the keys to writing sex scenes well?


Patti said...

i suck at the sex scene, and interestingly enough i just had this convo recently and came to some very hard revelations. one: i will never stop using inuendo in sentences meant to get a rise. two: if at the age of 45 i am still shielding my eyes when an onscreen kiss happens how the hell i am supposed to write realistically about this stuff?! three: i giggled at all the words in this comment that could be misconstruded as sex talk...

(i'm punch drunk from the weekend, and you happened to be my first comment! lucky you!!)

Rosina Lippi said...

This is a very useful list of links -- I missed some of these. So thanks for that, and for the mention, too.

I've been planning a revision/update of my series, as soon as I have the time.

Lisa said...

Patti, I am so averse to tackling this that the two main characters in my WIP are siblings -- a relationship I wanted to explore precisely because I could remove the sexual element entirely. I am not a prude, but I'm a total puritan when it comes to talking or writing about sex in any kind of serious context so I always turn it all into a joke. Sooner or later I'm going to have to work on this though. And stop giggling :)

Rosina, I am so pleased that you stopped by! I was inspired to post about this after reading your essay, Lyricism in Sex Scenes in The New Writer's Handbook - 2007 edition. That had me Googling around half the night last night! (Special note to Patti: I know you're laughing about me Googling around half the night so quit it). Thank you so much for commenting and please do keep us posted as you update.

reality said...

My WIP has a brief sexual encounter. Brief because i intended to make it a brief description. Reason being the rest of the 100,000 words are written in a certain style.
I wouldn't be averse to it if my story really needed it. I mean really. But I would dislike it to be graphic. Reason: See a porno vs a movie that really needed to show a sexual encounter [Basic Instinct; anyone] and that is my answer. Words create an image. We need to decide what is the appropriate image for our audience and story.

The Writers' Group said...

I adore Elizabeth Benedict and can attest she writes truly riveting scenes. If you're in the Boston area, I encourage you to take one of her workshops at Grub Street.


Ello said...

OK - I can add another don't on sex scenes. If you are a bit of a prude (like me), don't write a sex scene in public. When I was working full time and whenever I could get someone to watch the kids so I could write, I would go to my local Starbucks or Barnes and NObles to write in peace. One of those times was when I was writing my "one and only but mandatory to the story" sex scene. Man, I started sweating and getting paranoid that people could see over my shoulder to read my screen. I kept shifting my screen left and right to avoide imaginary prying eyes. All that sweating and shifting, you would have thought I was having sex, not trying to write about it! My first stab at it was as awkward and uncomfortable as I was writing it. Subsequent rewrites in the privacy of my house did much to smooth out the kinks. No, not kinky sex, just my clumsy writing of sex.

But I have to say, having written it, I am actually quite proud of it. I think it is tastefully done, if I do say so myself. And given that I am my own worst critic, I shall give myself a pat on the back... for now...

Creechman said...

well-written commentary. My own opinion is that what defines good writing from bad, sex or otherwise, is its purpose.

To elaborate about the sensuous experience itself, as part of a story, requires justification. Does the reader need to be grabbed that way? Does the manner of it explain motives? Or is the luxury of just pretending you were there - come at a point necessary?

Anias Nin did a pretty good job with it.

Lisa said...

Reality, I completely agree. There is a big difference between including a scene in a novel because it's pertinent to the story and writing erotica or pornography. They are very different things. I think the Iowa course description sums it up nicely; it says so much depends on the character, the situation and the setting.

Amy, I realized after I read about The Joy of Writing Sex that I bought her novel, Almost a couple of years ago and have never gotten a chance to read it. I'll have to get it up higher on my TBR stack.

Ello, that's a funny story. I can just imagine you tilting and adjusting your laptop screen.

Creechman, I think purpose is everything and then character, situation and setting have to fall in line with that. Certainly not all scenes will be about pleasant experiences. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is really built entirely around the anticipation and aftermath of a very uncomfortable and humiliating sex scene and I think he pulled the whole thing off brilliantly. As a matter of fact, I'd offer that up as a great example of how to write a sex scene that is awkward and uncomfortable. He's in both character's heads the entire time.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've only written a few sex scenes. I thought they worked but I found them difficult to write. It's not that the scene itself is so tough, only that it's been done so many times before and there are a limited number of ways in which two people can physically get together. It's tough to do something new.

steve said...

And I thought Steve Almond's greatest obsession was with the Idaho Spud candy bar. Fr. Andrew Greeley once wrote a column in which he denied, among other things, having a mistress. I believe him. After reading the sex scenes in many of his books, I'm convinced he kept his vow of celibacy. I have a hard time agreeing with your first sentence, although the alternative scenes you mention--especially the battle secne--aren't exactly easy. It's easy enough to write sex badly, but to write it well takes a lot of skill and a lot of rewriting. I have to have at least one sex scene in the novel I'm trying to write, and I know it's not going to be easy.

liz fenwick said...

My first written sex was horrendous and will remain with the whole novel in the bottom drawer. The next book thankfully didn't require one. However in the last book I knew I needed to cross this threshold so I had a glass of wine and kept it simple. I am told it worked quite well. I tried to keep focused on the fact that the readers mind is far better at filling in the details in this area than I am at writing them :-)

Great links. Thanks.

Sustenance Scout said...

YIKES, I just wrote a long comment and lost it. I hate it when that happens! Suffice to say Liz's comment about filling in the details is right on target. M.J. Rose is well-known for her successful erotic thrillers and would probably be a terrific resource. I, on the other hand, remain a close-the-door, what-would-your-mother-say type of writer at this point! Great post! K.

Lisa said...

Charles, I haven't really attempted this yet. I'm a chicken so I'm hoping to avoid it for as long as possible!

Steve, I edited the paragraph I think you're referencing (with the battle scene) -- so hopefully it's a little more clear that it's a course description from the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, so those aren't my words. Believe me -- I can't say I find there's anything particularly easy to write :) Good luck to you with your scene. I'll be sure to report back on Elizabeth Benedict's book, once I've read it.

Liz, you are not the first person who has mentioned drinking wine in conjunction with sitting down to write a sex scene. I agree with you that the more that's left to the imagination, most of the time, the better!

Karen, the same thing happened to me last night! I'm with you, although I suspect that one of these days it's going to be unavoidable. As big a part of life as sexuality is -- it's bound to come up as the natural part of lots of stories :)

Yogamum said...

Hey Lisa -- this is Kristi from the writing workshop (Yogamum is my blogging alias)! What a great post! I'll definitely have to check out those resources. I suspect the 20-year-old protagonist of my novel and her husband will want to have sex.

Lisa said...

Kristi, I'm so glad you stopped by! Yes, I suspect they'll want to get around to sex sooner or later too :)

Sustenance Scout said...

Lisa, I presented at my third (and last until next semester) CU-Denver class yesterday and somehow this topic worked its way into the conversation. Thanks for a good attention-getter of a topic! I'll be sure to officially add it to future presentations and include your name and blog info. Just what you want to be known for, right? :) K.

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It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

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