So let’s talk about something I don’t typically discuss here: sex. That might get some people’s attention, won’t it? In my own life, it’s a loaded topic – no pun intended. I’m not going to get confessional or veer into the lewd, no concerns here, but there are some reasons that I don’t like stepping into the trap of talking about it too much…making this a truly rare post.
This topic came to mind when I was reading fellow blogger and book-reviewer-extraordinaire Amanda’s Floor-to-Ceiling Books. She was writing about how often people put sex scenes into manuscripts that she’s reviewing without any consideration for the plot, and that’s kind of what I’m thinking about and wanted to talk about – when is a sex scene necessary, and when is it just titillation?
I’m not sex-averse. Almost every book I’ve written up until the most recent has featured at least one sex scene, and I’ve written several erotic stories, so I’m not here to say there is no place for it or that people shouldn’t have to read that stuff. Not true. But age, experience, and some consideration have convinced me that some writers throw them in gratuitously, maybe to goose sales, maybe to garner a reaction, maybe because it seems like the right thing to do. Stephen King pops out as an example of this for me. In the uncut version of The Stand, there’s a rather disturbing scene involving The Kid and Trashcan Man that you can look up if you’re interested. I’m not going to give specifics here, it’s not necessary – just know that it involves a gun and an orifice.
When I was younger, I didn’t think too much of the scene either way, but as I’ve come to think about it more, analyzing writing and the techniques that others use, it strikes a very strange chord with me. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why he considered it necessary to the story. Of course, it wasn’t included in the original, edited version, so the editors cut it out – and for likely very good reasons: it does little to establish the characters. We already knew The Kid was a scary psychotic and we knew the Trashcan Man was…well, the Trashcan Man.
And let’s not even get into the creepy scene in IT, which is otherwise one of my most beloved King works. I mean, I kind of understand what he was going for there, but it could have been just as easily accomplished through some other form of bonding given that there were underage characters involved, only one of which was a female (use your imagination if you’re not familiar with the scene) – it’s not even a question of propriety, it’s a question of working with the characters, and it seemed highly out of character.
These are just two examples that I can think of, but I’ve seen it over and over again. Let’s talk about some good examples, though; Clive Barker had a short story called The Age of Desire (found in The Inhuman Condition in the States) about a man who had been tested upon with this experimental aphrodisiac that drives him insane, to rape and murder, until he ultimately self-destructs. There, sex scenes were obviously important as they were key to the plot and the horror that Barker was conveying. The sense of unease it created was just amazing, though very unpleasant. He used it in a disturbing way in the same way that King did, but again, it was integral to the story.
This all raises the question of when it’s appropriate and when is it not appropriate? I think the first, most important way to use it, is when it somehow defines the character or shows something about that character that we have not seen before. Say you have a character who is very prim and proper and conservative, but when she gets into bed she turns into a wild animal, which hints at a later loosening of the character in the story. This is a sex scene as foreshadowing.
The second way to use it is to move the plot forward. Say, someone is being blackmailed and decides to use sex to get out of the blackmail plot. Perfect example. Where it kind of gets fuzzy, and where I have some problem is…well, all right. Let me say up front that I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read of Charlaine Harris‘s Southern Vampire Mysteries.
However, there are some examples of where we don’t need to see the sex between Bill and Sookie. The first instance, yes, I’ll grant you that one – it shows the dynamic between them very nicely, and when he “comes back from the dead”, that also works, but there are times where it seems like they’re either there to pad out the story or to show us something that we’ve already seen. I have to admit to rolling my eyes on a few occasions.
This is really where we get into the haziness – when is this showing something between the two that we haven’t seen before? If we’ve seen the characters sharing emotional intimacies, it’s probably not necessary to be shown every detail of lovemaking. Maybe give a scene a start, showing a bit of physical intimacy, then if it’s not necessary to show the entire thing for the plot, move on. Action scenes are held in reserve for the same reason – repetitive action encounters between two characters, over and over again, are also just as boring.
What’s interesting upon reflection, though, is that this presents the opportunity for a third proper place: when physical intimacy betrays a truth about emotional intimacy. Say two characters are very passionate when around others and have a strong emotional intimacy (seemingly) but their lovemaking is very detached. There are so many possibilities for what this reveals – maybe he has some sort of baggage that is holding him back, maybe she is secretly angry at him. In such an instance, it almost behooves a writer to show this.
So the ultimate set of questions to ask yourself are:
- Why do I want to include this sex scene?
- What does this scene accomplish?
- How does this serve the story?