The short list for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Awards by the Literary Review is out and it’s hilarious though I think last year’s was funnier. But this time I feel a certain empathy with the authors selected. Because, honestly, it’s bloody hard to write a good sex scene that is at the same time believable and beautiful, or at any rate memorable. I know because I’ve been there.
A few years ago I read a book by a local author whose name I’ve conveniently forgotten because the book was really bad. One of my few specific memories was of a sex scene in which the female participant was apparently capable of twisting her upper body at 180 degrees. Either that or the author had been incapable of describing what suspiciously looked like a cowgirl situation. And then I read the 50 Shades series and I said that’s it, you’re writing a porn just to see if it’s really that difficult to make it good.
That’s how the story of Nadia and Jack, 79,973 words of romance, sex, drama and a happy ending was born. And you know what I discovered? That writing a good, believable and reasonable beautiful or memorable sex scene is hard. I think I could make an argument that writing about things we tend to mostly experience rather than think about in any coherent way are generally difficult to describe well. But if you compare a description of eating an apple the eater is really enjoying to a description of really good sex, well, the latter would be a lot harder to make good because it involves more than one person and more body parts and movements than the eating of an apple. Yeah, to me it’s as simple as that.
The road to a good sex scene is fraught with pitfalls. Let’s first make the assumption that the writer of the scene is over the age of consent and has some personal experience of the activity we refer to as sex. They are also bound to have fantasies, it’s human nature and they’re fun to indulge in. But we’re writing a sex scene here that’s part of a story, part of that damn plot so many writers these days seem to find personally offensive as a concept. But there is a plot and the scene must be an organic part of it. Forget about your own fantasies unless the whole book is a sexual fantasy play-out. Fair enough. If it’s not, forget about the fantasies unless they fit into the narrative. So much for the fun of it.
But there is the even deeper pitfall of believability. Plausibility. Making a scene sound, read, and feel real. I have plans to rant about plausibility exclusively in another blog post, so I’ll try to make it short here. It’s very easy to get carried away with a sex scene. I mean, writing it is an emotional experience. But despite the emotions, sadly, you have to keep tracks of the setting and the peculiarities of the human body as well as boring stuff such as distance and speed.
Here’s a partial recall of how it went for me. “He flung her to the wall… Wait, how far were they standing from the wall? Damn, they were too far. Also not flung, flung is violence not sex. OK, try again. He picked her up and she wrapped her legs around his waist. His breath heavy and hot in her ear, he leaned her on the wall and… Not very original but what do you want? These things happen. Someone picks you up face to face, you wrap legs around waist because balance and comfort. Fact. Also, it goes hot and heavy, not heavy and hot, you idiot! End of partial recall.
Okay, I just made that up right now but I do remember a scene with Nadia and Jack involving a wall session and I do remember having trouble making them get to this wall in a believable yet sexy fashion. Which I think they did but I can’t be sure until more people read it and that’s in the future. All that said, believability in sex scenes ain’t got nothing on originality and that’s what makes them special and deserving of their own Worst Ever award.
The names of human genitalia are not that many or that attractive. Penis and vagina are quite literally medical terms and medical terms don’t really sound sexy. So romance authors came up with manhoods and what was it, flowers of femininity? There are also shafts as a metonymic reference to penises and the core of her being as more of a metaphor of the vagina. Fair enough but euphemisms tend to turn into cliches quickly, frustrating as this may be, and authors are forced to look for ever-newer ones. Which is how a writing freak such as last year’s bad sex scene award winner, the penile billiard rack, was created. I mean, with so much pressure to refer to your characters’ genitalia in a new and refreshing yet sexy way anyone would go over the top sooner or later. Me? I play it safe and stick with pronouns. I have no urge to be original in my genital references, so I tend to focus on the action.
Did I say originality? Twice already? Welcome to the Originality Trap that will suck you in before you can say “manhood shaft” and grind you into a delusional monster with no sense of reality whatsoever. Seriously, one of the most famous writers of our time is on the short list for apparently forgetting or deliberately ignoring the maximum believable amount of sperm a set of human testicles can produce and release in one go. I am emphatically not saying he is a delusional monster with no sense of reality. I’m saying the drive to be original at all costs sometimes ends up costing too much.
Having said that, I’m aware you can just write “They kissed, they touched and one entered the other” because that would be bland, to put it mildly. It’s all about keeping the originality reined in because originality is one wild boar that’s bursting with energy and if you don’t hold on to the reins tightly, he’ll take you place you don’t want to go, such as the short list of a bad sex scene award. You might say “Oh, who cares what someone thinks, I like my stuff” and that’s fair enough but I’ve found the above is usually used only for people who dislike someone’s work. In other words, we all care what people think about our writing, we just choose to ignore the critics, or at least try. Or, if we’re smart, we listen to the critics and become better writers.
So, sex scene writing is no fun, at least not entirely fun. It’s here that the “Show, don’t tell” rule applies with particular force. I may well be wrong but I believe sex scenes are where we need to be especially careful with adjectives and adverbs. They have no place in a good sex scene, at least in those good sex scenes I subjectively like. Spare me the hot and pulsing, and throbbing, and twitching, and eager, and yearning, and whatever genitals and breasts, just give me the action. After all, that’s why we’re here for, right?*
*I will allow that a lot of literature is not so much about telling a story as about basking in the beauty of language. I do not enjoy this kind of literature. For me, the story is always above linguistic beauty and this should be the natural order of things. Thank you for your attention.