Maybe Characters Do It

Many things may befall your characters, but one of those things, eventually, somewhere, in some story, unless you’re writing for children, surely—-implied or direct (have I drawn this out enough?), good or bad—-is going to be sex.

And I’m going to avoid the euphemism “love scene.” Plenty of characters aren’t in the story for love.

Now, I don’t know how many officers are in your troupe of morality police or how much control these officers have in your world, but unless you’ve found a way to get rid of them all together (locking them up in a dark corner of the mind), they’re watching over what you let your characters do.

And maybe they’re going to call your parents, your children, your friends, your partner, your students, your boss, somebody, anybody, who will look at you in shock or dismay or in some way you aren’t going to like.

(On the other hand, you may well like that sort of thing. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t know what all the fuss is about then this post isn’t for you. Go take your giggling and smirks elsewhere and come back tomorrow. And I’d like to point out that being comfortable writing about sex and being good at writing about sex are not the same thing. Lots of folks can talk a good game, but…)

There is the less-is-more philosophy. Sometimes true and sometimes the cowards way out. All depends on the story. What does the reader need to know to understand what the characters are going through? How a character treats a lover or spouse and how the character allows themselves to be treated speaks volumes about them.

This may be an area where the common writer mantra, “Show; don’t tell” is most tested and abused.

Have you heard of The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award? Now there’s a reward you don’t want to win! Read some nominated passages (at your own risk).

You can’t possibly write anything that bad!

All the same, I find myself thinking–how do these guys get published and I don’t? My morality police isn’t nearly as upset as my foolish Libra sensibility. It isn’t fair! I can write better than that!

And I’d like it noted that out of the nine nominations—-only one is a woman. You could either conclude that women write better sex scenes or that even this award panel takes male writers more seriously.

So. Do you write love scenes? Do you have a watchful morality police force?


Well, I don’t have any sex scenes in my short story for today…but such a thing is implied…

9 thoughts on “Maybe Characters Do It

  1. Great post! I haven’t figured out how to handle such scenes in my new novel, but I have characters who are prostitutes, so for sure there will be some non-love sex scenes! I’m rather terrified about getting to that spot in my draft, actually.

  2. Hi, I write sex scenes for a living. I have two books out on and short stories in two anthologies on the same website. I like to say sex scenes are just like action scenes. Use short sentences and keep the action hopping. Euphemisms are a must if you wish to avoid redundancies. The simple truth is…sex sells. Keep writing. janet

    1. Janet, thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. And I have a question about your writing–or rather your attitude about writing. At some point in the past you wrote your first sex scene and you also decided you could submit that story somewhere. Was that a breeze? I mean, were you like, “Hey this is cool.” and didn’t give it a second thought? Or were you unsure and hesitant about it. And does your family know you write sex scenes for a living and are they cool with that?

  3. I thought for sure I’d addressed the writing-a-sex-scene problem at my place already, but no. Maybe I’m the one ignoring the elephant in the room.

    I’ve written a few such scenes but now that I think about it, only one was from a male POV. (Whatever that means.) That one consisted almost entirely of a single, page-long sentence with lots of run-on and/or comma-spliced phrases and erratic punctuation, sort of a stream of consciousness I guess. A couple years later, when I read the ending of Ulysses I thought, Hmmmm (about the general style, I mean).

    Just my opinion, of course, but I think something which makes writers louse up a sex scene is the focus on — or the too-obvious avoidance of — the physics, anatomy, choreography of the various acts. From a certain more or less objective perspective, humans engage in few things more ridiculous-looking than, well, coupling. (I know, I know. Call out the euphemism police!) From facial expressions to postures and crazy vocalizations, it’s a wonder more real-life scenes don’t conclude with peals of laughter.

    What saves it from ridiculousness is the mindset — the psychology — of the participants. Some of those examples at the bad-sex page you linked to didn’t strike me as wrong in their intention, as wrong in their execution: trying too hard to come up with new, evermore-exotic metaphors. (The Amos Oz one unhinged me with: “She holds him tight and squeezes her body to his, sending delightful sailing boats tacking to and fro across the ocean of his back. With her fingertips she sends foam-flecked waves scurrying over his skin.”)

    But, really, I have no idea what’s right and wrong or good and bad about this stuff.

    As for writing these scenes and worrying about what particular readers might or might not think, the reluctance is understandable but ultimately it’s all got to (sorry, cliche incoming) serve the story and not the reader.

    I don’t read much YA fiction but I’ve always wondered about the delicate line that those authors have to tread: what do they do to make it work, and how, without crossing the invisible culturally-imposed line around taboo subjects.

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