Since I’m working on my novella for the IMPROPER GENTLEMEN anthology (July 26, 2011) with Diane Whiteside and Maggie Robinson, my topic today is improper thoughts.
In straight talk–sex scenes. Writers work with nothing but ink on a page and somehow hope to breathe life into our characters. We play on their hopes and dreams. We catalogue their triumphs and failures. Nowhere are these things more evident than in our character’s sex lives.
My literary first time was not in a romance book. It was from that highly respected literary genius, John Updike. I was a junior in high school, an extremely naïve junior, when I read Rabbit Run. The scene where Harry Angstrom coerces a hooker into giving him oral sex while his wife is giving birth was a shock to me. First, because I had no idea people did such things. Told you I was naïve. And second, because the relationship in which the oral sex occurred was so cold and devoid of joy. But did it deepen my understanding of the characters and propel the story? Like a runaway locomotive.
It also convinced me that every scene—especially the sex scenes—should deepen my characters or propel the story. Preferably both.
If they’re so important, why are sex scenes so hard to write?
Probably because writers need to get over themselves. We worry that someone will think our sex scenes are autobiographical, sometimes with good reason. When I first started writing, my DH used to go to RT with me. One day a woman who’d read my work came up to him, gave him the once over and said, “You must really be something.”
The wicked man just smiled and said, “Thank you, ma’am, I am.”
Part of what makes writing a sex scene difficult is puzzling over what language to use. Which brings us to “purple prose.” If you’ve ever giggled over something as ridiculous as “the ruddy tower of his power” you know what I mean. Beauty of language is one thing, but let’s not lose our heads. There’s no room in any scene for, pardon the pun, flaccid prose. Keep it crisp or the story will be lost in our Victorian silliness. Unless of course the story is set in the Victorian era, but even then it’s best to keep the euphemisms down. Or better yet, let the characters laugh over their verbal coyness.
Call it what your character would call it. When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense. Technical terms may not sing, but they don’t confuse anyone either. And it is possible to write a totally hot sex scene and not mention any body parts at all.
Mark Twain said “A successful book isn’t made of what’s in it, but what’s left out of it.” I promise to leave out purple prose.
What “purplism” frustrates you? My mother hates the word “groin.” Any time we write about body parts or sexual acts, someone will be offended by the words we use. What term do you wish your favorite author would leave out?