Archive for March, 2014

Writing Sex Scenes in Literary Fiction Article About Writing Better

Monday, March 31st, 2014
William H. Coles

WomanWhat is a successful sex scene in literature? What are the acceptable decisions for writing a sex scene in serious fiction? Do you just reword a scene from erotica? Describe a pornographic video in as much detail as you can produce? Think of your best sexual experience? Take a vibrant scene from romance novel you enjoyed?

A major consideration is the nature of a sex scene in fiction. Like rage, the tension of a sex scene is difficult to sustain for long periods, and once the tension dissipates, it is followed by post climatic passivity and quiet that may stop story momentum and rebuff reader interest.  This can work well in some genres where emotional biological tension and its release fuels the fiction and is the purpose of the story.  In literary fiction there is often an overriding emotional arc(s)–say revenge, or jealousy, or unrequited love–that when kept suspenseful by delayed resolution, does form the lifeblood of a story.  And in literary fiction, emotional arcs intertwined often move the plot and subplots forward. 

Psychological tensions are the ingredients of good fiction, and sex as the physical interaction of humans often plays a role crucial in characterization and plotting.  But there are dangers that work against story success.  Sex scenes may scrape against a reader's cultural and moral sensitivities, and spoil the enjoyment of the work of fiction.

No one can really predict what will please a specific reader.  Most writers try to reach their "intended" readership–those readers whose respect will mean the most to the author.  What is acceptable in fiction is dependent on cultural norms, moral attitudes, and perception of artistic accomplishment of the individual.  For many readers in today’s world, anything is permissible, well, almost anything.  So if you write fiction, to be effective as a writer you may have wide latitude in using sex for plot and characterization.  But so much is written about sex it's hard to be original, to avoid cliche, and offense, or feelings of inappropriate writing and storytelling are always possibilities and need to be avoided. 

To be successful, literary fiction writers need a strategy about sex scenes. To start, an author needs to know what the goal is for the reader’s experience. Does the author want hearts to race, breath to quicken, arousal to the maximum? Or does the writer use the sex scene to build character in unique ways–sustain a love arc that is bolstered by a sex scene but with the love arc coming to its own more encompassing resolution, say marriage or divorce for examples.

And when creating a sex scene, what needs to dominate is a prime consideration–lust or love? Lust is sexual desire. Love is affection, caring, and so broad in meaning it’s difficult to define. But sex scenes need to have a decision about the purpose of the content to direct the wording, the ideation, and the contribute to story.  Indeed, the proportion of lust to love–and the credibility for character development and acceptance of the lust/love ratio in the story context–is dependent on a considered attitude of the author for what is the purpose of writing sex. It can be, of course, to sell books. But that’s not the driving force today for most serious fiction. It can be to purge an author’s fantasy. That may be self-serving satisfaction from the describing but doesn’t often fuel good fiction—it’s too divorced from the story core and the story is diminished. These dilemmas pose the critical question for any author's story: why should a sex scene even be in this work of serious fiction?

Many might say it's the suspense.   Will something climactic between humans that yearn for each other, or at least one yearns for the other, final culminate?  Would it be a release of longing and hedonistic desires of the biological tensions of human sex? Would it be just the admission of mutual attraction and yearning in both withheld because of fear that feelings were not reciprocated? Who really knows? But an author should try to find out for his or her story.  What the author chooses to write on the page makes a big difference.  Compare:  They made love?  Tongue licked flesh and her face flushed with passion?  He relished the presence of her desire.   A moan untethered escaped her full lips, her eyes squeezed as tight as a finger in a dyke, and she held her breath then gasped as if inhaling a shooting star . . . when she felt his slippery, salty-saliva-soaked tongue boldly massaging the excited flesh of erect delightfully rigid nipple. Extremes on a spectrum of detail and quality.  But in sex scenes the danger always lurks of overwriting, sentimentality, inaccuracy of word choice and syntax that might offend.

When in literary fiction should a sex scene be described in detail, as if observing human intercourse through a keyhole? Isn’t the summary of the actions between the two characters–the feelings, the unrequited attractions, the craving of tension release rather than the act itself often most important? For most literary fiction, a sex scene can be suggested and left to the imagination of the reader. He took her hand and led her to the bedroom, turning off the light.  Whatever happens is left to the reader to imagine (often more successfully that an authorial-detailed description).  The overriding principles are: no matter what the author chooses to write, it must relate to the story context in credibility and purpose; it must not stop story momentum with excessive description, sentimentality, or perceived offensive imagery; and it must be paced with respect to over all pacing of the prose.

Successful sex scenes are tricky to achieve in literary fiction.  Success takes practice and good judgment, and the reader reactions will be unpredictable, varied, and often critically intense.  Yet every author needs to develop capabilities to use lust and love as motivations in fiction successfully, but develop good judgment and use restraint that supports quality storytelling and writing.  Basically, a unique strategy for delivery is useful for every literary fictional story.


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