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Writer’s Craft #93 Sex in the Skiffy

October 8, 2012
J Graykin

J Graykin

Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com


I am reading Mary Doria Russell’s SciFi novel The Sparrow, and came across a brief passage describing one character’s dark past. Orphaned at the age of fourteen by the violence of a civil war in her country, she “sold what she had to sell, and survived.” The author does not go into detail, other than to mention that her customers were the male victims of the violence, good men and boys crazed by circumstances. We are made to understand the horror of the situation and her inner strength and nobility in surviving it, without any scenes of graphic sex.

Another author might have dragged the reader through at least one heart-wrenching, sordid episode, evoking vividly the girl’s shame and degradation, describing the moment of penetration and every dripping, sweating detail of what she endured. Russell chose not to do that, instead granting her readers the benefit of the doubt in their ability to understand for themselves what the character went through.

There are times when it might be necessary to go into visceral detail about an episode of violence or sex—in the case of sex, it can be positive or negative, a rape or a voyeuristic peep into a character’s love life—but unless it has some direct relevance to the story, it seems to me as unnecessary as following the character into the bathroom to enlighten readers on the function of his bowels.

How does a wise author make the call whether to send the camera after the couple into the bedroom, or just establish that’s where they went, fade to black and get on with the story? What level of effluvial detail is the best?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Lynda Williams permalink
    October 8, 2012 11:17 am

    Ah, reminds me of my dilemna in “The House of Em” — the story of Amel’s early life contrasting his family life with foster sister Mira (albeit in an austere setting) with the notorious 6 months in the UnderDocks. I haven’t published the story yet. But I will one day. It’s told from Amel’s POV which means he skims over the ugly details, including just enough to make his point — or wrestle with his conscience. The story is framed as him recounting his failure to live up to being a “Soul of Light” to Perry D’Aur. I wrote it because, after doing the research into real life abuse and atrocities of the kind one reads about in Amnesty International, I wanted to tackle the terrible question of how much of your soul you can keep when placed in horrific circumstances. And how to get some of it back if you survive.

  2. John Park permalink
    October 8, 2012 3:16 pm

    I think the short answer to “how much detail?” takes the form of a couple of questions: What is the book about? and How important is what happens in this scene to that main thread? If readers can fill in enough detail for themselves, leave us to do so. But if what happens is so important that it shapes the course of the book, then the writer has to convince us that something momentous is happening and make us share what the characters feel, so that we understand and sympathise. If the scene is only tangential to the main thread, playing it out explicitly would risk losing focus and unbalancing the book. Maintaining a consistent point of view and narrative tone can be part of keeping focus.

  3. October 9, 2012 2:35 pm

    It depends what kind of thing you’re writing. Paranormal romance, for instance, may well have some leanings toward erotica — that’s part of the point as far as the readers are concerned. Another reason to get into it is to exploit the comic possibilities. Or, of course, the way someone does it may tell you something about their character or the setting (the lights must be off and they don’t undress any more than necessary, let’s say. Or they seem a little bored. They are texting during the act).

    In my own writing, I’ve never felt a need to get into details beyond a little foreplay, and that was because it was part of the character’s motivation for having sex (not certain she wanted to, but kind of got carried away).

    • October 12, 2012 8:17 am

      Naturally if the genre leans towards erotica, that is what you are going to write. That’s what the reader is looking for. If you are writing a gritty brutal action novel, the reader expects people to die violently and they want details. But I had in mind science fiction, where one is not necessarily there for the viscera. If one is dealing with an alien species, perhaps one might be curious about reproductive differences. I’ve generally found it a kind of cheap way to get laughs or just the readers’ attention by focusing on such things as alien prostitutes or pornography — it also makes a pretty huge leap, presuming sexual reproduction (and sexual habits parallel to humans) evolved in extraterrestrial species. But yes, if “I fell in love with an alien” is the point (or “I was raped by an alien” as happens in The Sparrow) it might be necessary to get into detail.

      I do find that, based on what I’ve read in current SF (and other genres) too many authors feel like they are obliged to go into unnecessary detail for the sake of “realism”, arguing that sex and pissing are part of life, and including details irrelevant to plot or character development add to the sense of realism. Personally, it’s a degree or realism I can do without.

  4. Lynda Williams permalink
    October 10, 2012 6:57 am

    Agreed, Tyler! Whether the scene is doing work in plot, setting or character development is what helps me decide how much to write. Picking the words to use for body parts is the next problem! It disrupts the flow for me to use words that sound too medical or too porno. Which doesn’t leave one a lot of options without sounding foolishly coy. Sigh.

  5. October 10, 2012 6:33 pm

    I think the expression “less is more” applies. It takes very few words to establish a mood, whether its supposed to be sexy or disturbing.

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