Friday, December 8, 2017

Writing about Sex, Intimacy, and Other Dangers

Sex is hard to write.  I've written two sex scenes in my life so I'm no expert, but I found each extraordinarily difficult.  

The main challenge was not any reservations about including sex scenes in my fiction but how to make them reveal more about character than the character's actions.  That's my personal preference as a reader, as well as a writer, and it may not be yours.  You may be a Fifty Shades of Gray kind of writer and reader, and more power to you.  But I wanted to address the topic, especially after a coaching client sent me this email.

She was reading through her first novel's rough draft, preparing it to send me for feedback.  She came across intimate scenes (her words) that she'd written about the character on her honeymoon, and she had some concern about how they read.  "Too graphic," she said.  "A  bit much for me."
She wondered about how to craft scenes that are intimate but leave something unspoken, that kept the mystery in.  She wanted to reveal more of the character affected by sex and intimacy than about the act. 

In most characters' lives, sex is a dangerous act.  It might be a way for a character trying to prove her coolness or it might be from numbness to the effect or it might be for power.  There's usually an effect from it--at least in literature, if not in life.  Effect on character moves a scene from graphic to literary, where scenes of intimacy or eroticism that have more to do with the human being experiencing it and living with its aftereffect than the mechanics.     


Writing sex scenes brings up our own awkwardness with the topic.  I know many writers who can kill characters much more easily than put them naked on the page.  Sex is loaded, whether from our history, culture, or personal preferences.  It's not easy to write any kind of good sex scene, no matter whether explicit or subtle. 
Totally your choice, whether to include it in your book, of course, but if you do, study up.  Research:  How do expert writers write sex and intimacy scenes?  How much do they veer towards the specifics?  Do they use names for body parts or just allude to them?  Do they show all the steps? 
And most important, at least to many readers, what does it all mean, in the end?  It is about power, love, healing?  Is it the sex only, or is it about the tension between two characters before and after, the disappointment or joy?  What's the point of the sex scene?
This week I had the pleasure of researching a bit on my own.  So many great articles, arguments, and examples of writing exist online, so this week, I'll share three favorites.
Lit Hub (The Best Literary Writing about Sex):  Great excerpts from the likes of Eileen Myles, Alice Munro, Jonathan Franzen, and others.    
Lit Reactor (Five Literary Sex Scenes You Wished You'd Written).
If you're writing YA (young adult), here's an interesting take on sex scenes for younger readers from The Conversation.