Briefly, because sex is part of being human, and fiction writers write about human beings.
To satisfy hunger and thirst, breathe air, procreate the species, and defend ourselves are probably our most important biological drives. They enable us to survive. Not to write a scene in which two characters have sex may be to ignore one of the greatest biological drives in our make-up and a prime motivator in a fiction writer’s arsenal of techniques.
For some genres and sub-genres such as romance, sex scenes are expected. I don’t write romance novels, so for me, a sex scene should do one or all of the following, like any other scene:
Move the story forward
Characterization: How the Characters View Sex
When one character considers sex a bit of fun and the other thinks of it as a commitment, there’s a basis for a serious, character-driven conflict. Perhaps the reader believes the fun-lover will be a male character and the commitment character a female. In that case, by switching the characterizations, the writer will add dimension to both characters.
For example, Jack has decided it’s time to settle down, he wants a family and a stable life after years of running around and shacking up. Susan is about his age and wants nothing to do with commitments after her divorce from The Skunks, as she calls her exes. Maybe she has no confidence in her staying ability over the long term. Or she’s so attracted to Jack she’s afraid to acknowledge it to herself.
The story might open with the sex scene that sets up the conflict and then go on from there while they work through their differing expectations and desires. Depending on their characterizations, they may work it out or part company.
How It Works
This scene would accomplish all four goals at once. Look at how it works.
The scene itself: During their encounter, Jack wants to linger but Susan tries to hurry things along, and when it’s over she’s eager to leave. His feelings are hurt, and being a man who is not easily put off, her behavior challenges him to learn why she kisses and runs, as it were.
The scene fulfills the requirements because Jack’s decision to solve the puzzle of Susan moves the story forward. Their differing experiences creates a conflict between them, and reveals a fundamental difference in their characters. Finally, Jack’s decision foreshadows further encounters and conflicts while they begin to understand that their differing approaches and misunderstandings about sex reveal a fundamental similarity in their characters. (You can decide what that similarity might be.)
Sex shows some of our relationships at their deepest level or in our worst nightmares and anywhere between. Sex reveals character in novels. When, where, and with whom characters have sex tells almost everything about them. Imagine sex between two partners, and your imagination can leap to every kind of conclusion.
Reasons Not to Write a Sex Scene
In my view, there are some good reasons not to write them:
To turn on your readers
To arouse prurient interest
To sell more books
To interest publishers (It won’t work with a lot of them)
Your personal moral vision forbids it
Perhaps you promised your grandmother or your pastor or your rabbi, and it’s important to you to keep that promise. Or, you’re afraid of revealing too much intimate detail about your own experiences. Whatever your reasons for not writing sex scenes, honor them. It is not necessary for you to write too far outside your comfort zone.
Much as I believe that little about human nature is to be shunned by novelists, sex scenes in my novels will seem tame to some readers. I’ve dubbed my approach a “metaphoric” approach, in which the act is experienced metaphorically, and takes place mostly in the characters’ minds. We all know the mechanics of sex; I prefer to concentrate on the characters’ emotions and thoughts.
Other genres have different requirements and other writers have different perspectives on writing sex scenes. Which is why Jamie DeBree and I decided it would be educational and just plain fun to write a series comparing our different approaches. Sex scenes are not often discussed, and we didn’t know of any other writers who compared two different genres in their approaches to sex in fiction. Jamie, as I mentioned in the previous post, writes romantic suspense and other allied genres. On Thursday, Feb. 17, she’ll post her introduction to this series.
Mostly, we’ll write our own perspectives on this subject, except that I can’t tell the difference between erotica and pornography. Jamie can, so she’ll handle this aspect of the subject by herself. It’s the first clear definition of the two I’ve seen.
What do you think about writing sex scenes? How would you treat sex in fiction? Both Jamie and I welcome discussion.
(I’ll be offline starting Thursday, February 17, and back on February 28.)