Sex scenes are not fun to write. (Well, for me, they’re not; Krissie loves writing them.) And since I’ve struggled with them for over twenty years, I now have Theories, which I am about to inflict on you, mainly because I’m struggling with the sex scenes in Nita now.
So here’s what I think about sex in fiction:
- A sex scene must move the plot, not just the earth.
A sex scene is first a scene which means it must have structure: conflict that rises to a climax (yes, I know) that throws the story into the next scene. The fact that there’s sex in the scene is content, and content alone is not enough to justify including a scene in a story.
- A sex scene must arc character.
A sex scene should have an impact on character. If the characters are the same people they were before the sex scene, then the story doesn’t need the sex scene. But since most people who are having sex for the first time are coming into the scene with different expectations, hang-ups, hopes, and fears, you can pretty much bet that any realistic sex scene is going to change those characters, at least in their attitudes and expectations toward each other. Which is why I write sex scenes: it’s a cheat not to do if it changes something about the characters, and the first time they have sex, it always changes things.
- Sex scenes are about emotions and physical feelings.
They are not about what the characters are actually doing (unless you’re writing erotica; then have at it). Chances are that anybody who is reading your sex scene has either had sex or seen it on cable TV. Therefore writing Ikea scenes (“Put tab A into slot B, use enclosed screw and wingnut . . .”) is ineffective because that’s not where the rush is. The rush is in all those emotions clashing together, the physical sensation that results from the physical action. The rush is in the characters and what they’re feeling, not in the specific description of the physical action.
- Sex scenes are most effective when they give readers room to use their imagination.
I have heard that readers often skip sex scenes in books because nothing is happening except Ikea. So how do you keep people reading? Well first, see points one through three here; they make the sex scene integral to the story and therefore necessary reading. But the fourth point may be the most important: Sexy is in the brain of the beholder. Just as monsters that are fully described in detail are the least frightening, so sex scenes that are fully described in detail are the least compelling because they’re the most distant from the reader’s experience. (Think of the last time you had sex and thought, Penis, let alone velvet-covered manhood.) If you give the reader the white space in the text to write in her own preferences and fantasies, she’s going to think that’s the hottest sex ever put on the page.
- Sex scenes are most effective when the characters are vulnerable.
Two beautiful people who fall into each other’s arms and have perfect sex are boring. Two flawed people who enter into a sexual relationship with reservations that have been overwhelmed by lust and who then have flawed but interesting sex are fun to read because (a) there’s conflict there, (b) unexpected things happen, and (c) we worry about them. And that means that the characters aren’t fabulously beautiful and completely in control. Think Irene Adler purring at Sherlock that smart is the new sexy; he’s completely taken aback and even though he’s a genius, he falls into her trap and sputters out the answer to her question. Think Indiana Jones in his glasses in the classroom in Raiders; he’s stunned into silence watching a student blink I love you. Think how much hotter Clark Kent is than Superman because he’s flustered around Lois. Yes, all those men are played by very attractive actors, but they’re also in roles that aren’t the stereotypical Hot Guy Named Rod. This is one of the reasons why I like to write The Screwball Best Friend instead of the Beautiful Rom Com Heroine: the best friend is vulnerable. I think the first Thor movie would have been vastly improved if Thor had fallen for Darcy instead of Jane. (It’s also the reason I like the Oh-Hell-Not-You romance, but that’s a different essay.)
So that’s what I think about sex scenes. Now here’s what’s happening with Nita.
Nick, as we all know, is dead. Nita is not, but since Nick’s body isn’t real, she’s pretty much ruled out a physical relationship from the beginning, especially since she’s finding out that she’s not completely human and that tends to occupy her thoughts. Meanwhile, Nick is being poisoned with Lazarus Bell which is making him a paradox: a dead guy with a live body. Because of these things, they go through some hefty emotional bonding in the first two acts of the book, so there comes a point when they hit the sheets.
Sex Scene 1, Act 2: Nita is fine with casual sex, Nick is just starting to remember it. The sex is okay but they’re both disconnected; Nita’s dealing with the underlying knowledge that Nick is both dead and about to become the Devil, and Nick’s mind is melting out his ears because he’s remembering sex while he’s doing it. There’s some fairly heavy mental adjustment going on afterward, not to mention the necrophilia jokes (Hello, Keres). They’re not upset with each other, they’re mostly dealing with the impact side-by-side, not together.
Sex Scene 2, Act 3: The people poisoning Nick decide it’s taking too long and up the dosage and he forgets who he is and thinks he’s back in fifteenth century. Trouble ensues as he works his way up to the twentieth century (he doesn’t get to the twenty-first until the last act), and Nita tries to help while keeping him from killing anybody or getting sucked back to Hell in his vulnerable state, while dealing with all hell breaking loose on her island and new revelations about her own heritage. Nick’s not a completely different guy, she can still see the basic Nick in there, but he doesn’t remember her or the key aspects of his situation. So when they sleep with each other this time, it’s like another first time with a lot more baggage. (One of the reasons I wanted this in here is that it’s a good indication of mature love–“I need you because I love you,” not “I love you because I need you.”)
Love Scene, Act 4: I don’t know if this is going to be a sex scene or not, I’m pretty sure it’s not because by Act 4 things are moving so fast that they really don’t have time for anything horizontal, but there has to be a third beat where all the people Nick has been coalesce into one permanent Nick and where all the people Nita has thought she was coalesce into one Nita, and they recognize that no matter who they’ve thought they were, they still loved and wanted each other (it’s that mature love thing).
Which brings me to:
6. In a romance novel, the sex scene is there to arc the relationship. If it doesn’t at least foreshadow that the characters are on an irrevocable path to mature love, then it’s not selling the major point of a romance novel, the most important clause in the contract with the reader: These people are going to love each other forever.
And now I must get back to work. Sex scenes. Bleah. Feel free to tell me how wrong I am, or how right I am, or your theory of sex scenes. Like I could stop you.