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Writer’s Craft # 95 – When it Comes to Sex in Literature, I’m Not a Prude, But…

October 22, 2012
Ira Nayman

Ira Nayman

Ira Nayman is a Canadian political and social satirist whose Web site, Les Pages aux Folles, just turned 10. That’s not the funny part. He has three collections of humourous speculative fiction journalism in print and a novel – Welcome to the Multiverse (Sorry for the Inconvenience) – coming out March, 2013 from Elsewhen Press. That’s not the funny part, either. In his spare time, he earned a PhD in Communications. Comic genius!


So. You have manoeuvred your characters into the bedroom and now they are about to consummate their relationship. How should you proceed? I would suggest you follow the example of films of the 1940s: close the door to the bedroom on the reader before anything too serious happens and pick up the narrative the next day. “But,” you cry, “my readers are expecting a portrayal of human sexuality. I owe it to them!”

Let them use their imaginations.

Depictions of human sexuality in literature are almost always awful. There is a reason that there is an award for worst sex scene in a novel, but not for best sex scene in a novel. Worse, there is a reason why some of our most distinguished authors have won the award for worst sex scene. It is almost impossible to do well.

There are a couple of approaches an author can take to writing a sex scene. One approach is to try to literally describe the sex act. Unfortunately, a literal description of sex is about as arousing as instructions for a model car kit: “Simply place Tab A into Slot B. Repeat until glue appears.”

As bad as this seems, there are only so many ways you can describe long (let’s be generous) things entering round holes. Thus, the majority of writers use metaphors to describe the various body parts involved in sex, as well as the uses to which they are put. “Alain stroked Evalinda’s train tunnel until it gushed hot, sweet chicken noodle soup.”

The literal approach to sex makes the act look ridiculous; the metaphoric approach to sex makes the writer look ridiculous. Best not to go there. “Oh,” you insist, “but I’m a good enough writer to overcome this problem.” Oh. Okay, then. Go there if you must. And, who knows? Your writing might even be worthy of an award…

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 22, 2012 7:07 am

    Oh, bless you Ira! You cut to the crux of it with delightful humor and sense. This is just what I was getting at, but you’ve done a better job of it. A passionate kiss, cue the music and fade to black!

  2. J Hatfair permalink
    October 22, 2012 8:20 am

    I think you are wrong to close the door on all sex scenes. Granted, they are among the most difficult to write and are often misused. When the relationship between protaganists is simple, I agree that they are unneccesary. But there is a lot of messiness, power games, complications and contradictions within a complex relarionship that can best be defined in an act of so-called intimacy.

    Even then, I agree that “Tab A- Slot B” is unneceesary, but the emotional nuances created may shed light on character detail that might not be expressed otherwise. I think sex scenes have their place, not for tittilation but like a scalpel can cut to a character’s core.

  3. October 22, 2012 9:21 am

    I refer to a sex scene as a doorknob scene. For one year I had writing a doorknob scene in my list of goals. Month after Month passed and I did not write one. I still haven’t done it, my DH is a very willing volunteer if I find a need to act one out before penning it.

    There is so much gratuitous doorknobbing going on in all sorts of media that I feel it is worn out. Don’t get me started on all the offers I see on tv and email to improve my performance and extend my part A. I don’t have a part A but have access to one.

    I have to wonder if all this puts undo pressure or discomfort on the men in our lives. Are they as uncomfortable about the little blue pill and the low T ads as we were when feminine hygiene ads began airing in the late 70s?

    Thanks for giving me permission to Not Write these scenes.

    Sally

  4. October 22, 2012 10:24 am

    This is simply a matter of taste. There are many people who want to read explicit sex scenes, and you should write them if those people are your audience. You probably already know that if they are.

  5. October 22, 2012 12:01 pm

    Two words: Molly Bloom.

  6. October 23, 2012 2:03 am

    Don’t write scenes where nothing happens to move the plot forward. It’s possible a sex scene that has something happen in it that is plot-moving, but if not, it’s boring. If it’s happy fulfilling agreeable sex, not much really happens to move the plot forward. It’s like a dead-tired character finally gets a good night’s sleep. A page of him snoring happily is boring. All we need to know is he woke up refreshed. Or that our couple now feels an even deeper bond as they work together to prevent the destruction of the universe.

  7. October 23, 2012 2:26 pm

    Good post! Although I’v never seen glue, so I wonder if I’m doing it wrong…

  8. October 23, 2012 4:42 pm

    I like sex scenes in books and I enjoy the challenge of writing them…no literal language, just euphemism and metaphor…I feel its a cop-out to close the door…and it always annoys me in my own reading.

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