Let's Talk About Sex… Scenes

Continuing on my theme this week of how much of our human bodily functions should make it into fiction, I would like to discuss sex scenes.  Human beings have sex. If you’re a believer in Freudian psychoanalysis, it’s a primary reason why we do much of what we do. Freud postulated that how a person pursues intercourse, as well as what he or she does while having it, betrays that individual’s true nature.  “The behavior of a human being in sexual matters is often a prototype for the whole of his other modes of reaction in life,”-SIGMUND FREUD, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love  Even if a novelist doesn’t subscribe to Freud’s theories, they still have to deal with the fact that interactions between people have a physical component that can give rise to sexual tension.  With few exceptions, if a novelist wants to create believable fictional characters and show them over any length of time, interacting with anyone, they have to address sexual desire, attraction, and, sometimes, the act itself. And that means they have to grapple with how much to show or tell. There are different rules on how much detail to go into for different genres and sub-genres. In cozy mysteries, the action typically must happen off screen, if at all. In most of my favorite thrillers, there’s at least one sexual interaction that does more than cut away after the characters kiss. In romance novels featuring adult protagonists, catharsis is often achieved by the physical union of the romantic leads. How much catharsis is necessary depends on how much tension was built up throughout the whole book, as well as the tone of the novel.  As a writer of psychological suspense stories and domestic thrillers that often involve couples, I consider a sex scene pretty much a must have. I use them, however, not to titillate, but to illuminate the power dynamics at play between characters and reveal behaviors that a character would naturally cover up in a less intimate setting. The sex in the book isn’t just about the sex. It’s about showing a character’s true nature.  Showing and not telling demands a little detail. But it’s a delicate balance. The goal is to add tension, not turn off my readers with too much gushy prose. In my book, Lies She Told, my protagonist Liza is a writer that addresses this issue of how much is too much in one of the chapters. After penning a sex scene about Beth, the flawed hero of the book that she is writing, Liza says:  “Writing about sex is tricky. Readers want details to stoke their own erotic fantasies, but they don’t want to be in the imagined room listening to each moan, witnessing every awkward position change. Intercourse, even for the most liberated observer, is embarrassing. Porn is rife with examples. People say uncalled-for, dirty things. They obviously fake orgasms. They scream words more suited to the hook in a Daft Punk song. Harder. Better. Faster. Stronger.”  When writing a sex scene, as when writing all scenes, I try to think about what my characters are trying to communicate to each other and say about themselves. I want to treat the act as another form of dialogue or inner monologue, intended to unveil personality traits to the reader. For some characters, showing what I want only requires describing a kiss and then fading to black. For others, I need more detail.  So, writers and readers, weigh in. What do you want to see? When do the details become too graphic? If we’re not writing 50 Shades, should we all be fading to black?

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