The Words Away Salons are back after a slightly extended break while Kellie was in Australia, and next Monday, 10th February, we're thrilled to welcome acclaimed novelist and short fiction writer Leone Ross who joins us to talk about the art and craft writing sex in fiction. It's a perennial problem - opportunity - hot topic - in writing, because (I reckon) it poses all the same problems as writing anything else, only much, much...harder, shall we say?
Kellie and I will be cooking up some questions for Leone to get the Salon ball rolling, but if you can't wait that long, or want to think up some of your own, I've looked back at a blog from a few years back, and given it a tweak and a poke (sorry). And if you already know you want to join us, click through to the Words Away website and bag a ticket.
I've pondered the odd business of writing sex before, but a good post by US writer Sebstien de Castell, about writing fight scenes, made me start thinking about it again. Sex and violence are hard (that's only the first double entendre) to write because both kinds of arousal involve an altered mental and emotional state which interacts with relatively complex choreography; what happens isn't built of words even if words are involved. Fiction has the same complexity, because it tells stories through characters-in-action as drama does, but we have nothing but words to work with. And yet we have an advantage: fiction has evolved so richly because it can evoke and depict consciousness, the insides of minds and hearts, as well as the outsides of expressions and actions and four - or more? - bare (or rubber-clad, or green-and-slimey) legs in a bed/on a chandelier/outside Buckingham Palace...
Of course, there's always a tension between those two different jobs, but that makes sex scenes an irrestistible challenge to many writers, while others will do anything to avoid putting them in. The extra complication is that since humans seek out altered mental states, the pornography industry has thrown up large Scylla of crude words and cruder outcomes on which we might wreck our story, while there's an equally large Charybdis of engorged and purple prose on the other side.
The channel between is very narrow, so how do you steer a safe course between them? De Castell's points about writing violence, translated, are a good place to start:
Every sex scene should advance the story. If the sex is just part of their daily (or yearly) lives, then the actual playing-out of the scene doesn't do anything to get the story further. Mind you, if this really is once-a-year then it is probably hugely significant, and that's the point: the only reason for including a sex scene is that it's a point of change for at least one of the characters. The classic reviser's question - Why this? Why now? - is always a good thing to ask yourself; the reason needs to be a version of answers to the question: "What is different for them, between the beginning, and the end of the scene?" If the answer is "nothing", then don't write it.
Sex is about character-in-action. How people act is controlled by who they are, and who they are is revealed by how they act, and that shapes both plot and story. What needs are they trying to get met at this moment? And how does that fit in the drive of the story as a whole? The latter often gets neglected: it's easy enough to make us believe that X wants go to bed with Y as a piece of plot (a turn on "the route you take"), but how does that fit in the larger story of "the journey you make"? Does the sex promote, divert or thwart what we thought the route and journey were at the beginning? If it does none of these then, again, don't Show it, even if you Tell us that it happened.
Sex is dialogue. It's a dialogue between two minds and two bodies: hoping, listening, tempting, enjoying, adjusting, mistaking, refusing, ignoring, suppressing. And that's true even - yes - when someone's on their own (A Secret Alchemy starts with one of those...) it's still a dialogue between mind and body, in the context of a life. If you get stuck with this dialogue-y-ness, it's always instructive to sketch out the same scene from the other person's point of view, not for the final draft, but as a way of drawing out of your imagination what it half-knows already. If you're working with a moving point of view, where might it change?
Fulfil the promise of the book: this is about staying true to the tone and style of the story. If it's light-hearted, don't lose your sense of humour just because your ferociously feminist mother-in-law will disapprove of the silly words. If the story is all gritty realism, don't wimp out just because you're reluctant to be as grim about sex as you have been about drugs and rock 'n roll and the nightmare which is the self-checkout in your local Tesco. If your writing is naturally lyrical, then don't be afraid to work with words which "renew the world and make the world anew": self-consciousness is the death of this kind of writing, so be whole-hearted. Yes, there's a risk of it ending up a bit over-written, but you'll only find out what's surplus to requirements in revision, so for now follow your heart (or other parts of your anatomy), and know you can sort it out later.
Make each scene unique. Even if every scene does have a properly-built change between the beginning and the end, it's easy to find that the actual actions are rather similar: there is, after all, a limit to the possibilities. But if you're really clear about what each of your characters wants as they go into the scene, and what their point of change is, and where they are at the end in relation to where they started, it should help you to get to the heart of what sex scenes are really for in fiction: the physical embodiment of mental and emotional change. And since that change will be different for each scene, the actual choreography may not be so different, but how the characters experience it will be.
Remember you don't have to write everything, blow by blow, from first kiss to last post-coital cigarette. This is where learning to expand and contract your storytelling, according to what's important, is so useful. Maybe the beginning is what matters, when he blocks out his mental picture of his husband, and lets her undress him - in which case we may not need to know much more. Or does the fact that both of them usually go to bed with their own gender mean there are all sorts of negotiations, tacit or spoken, that must be had - and might go horribly wrong? Maybe what matters is the end, when she suddenly says "I love you,", in which case maybe all we need of what came before is the crucial stages in her mini-journey to that point, so that we believe she means it. Or so that we know that she doesn't.
Let the reader choreograph the action. The best sex-scenes are the ones which the reader writes in their head. Less is often (not always) more, and here's why. You only need to give them enough of what-goes-where for that writing to happen: anything else may be fun - and let's not deny that sheer fun is one function of literature - but it isn't necessary, and so may weaken rather than strengthen the overall narrative drive. This is where learning to make your Telling Showy is so useful: we get a strong sense of this encounter, in very few words. And avoiding pornography? Porn has only one goal, and it isn't moving the story along. As long as you're telling stories because the story's worth telling it'll be fine.
Avoid the Scylla of too much plumbing. One of the central problems of writing sex scenes is that most of the vocabulary for sex is either medical and Latinate, or silly, or reminiscent of porn. But it's surprising what you can get away with not naming at all, if you're clever with the pronouns (I have to say that this is one way in which writing heterosexual sex scenes is easier...). And avoid the Charybdis of crashing metaphors of waves, or other things. As ever, with things which are difficult to describe, it really helps if you make your voices as voicey as possible. That will help you make good choices about words and descriptions, whether you go right close in in psychic distance, and exploit stream-of-consciousness, or you step back and let the narrator be the Storyteller.
Use your narrator, storyteller, impersonal-entity-putting-the-words-on-the-page. I'm brewing a post on this business of what/who is the producer of all the words which are not dialogue. For now I'll just remind you what's implicit in many of the points I've already made: where the reader needs to know something - say, the general story of these two people's sex life just before one of them does something wildly unexpected - or the bit in the middle where they just do what they do, between the crucial opening and closing moments - or the context of a character remembering those crucial bits... When it comes to these things that are part of the story but not the big point of the story, there is no reason your narrator shouldn't just Tell us. Sure, make the telling show, as in the link above. But, y'know, in real life we Tell all the time: why not in fiction? As far as I'm concerned, in The Well of Loneliness, "and that night they were not divided" isn't prudery, it really is all the story needs, because of what's gone before. The people who prosecuted it for obscenity obviously felt the same. .
Remember that what's most sexually charged often isn't sex. As I was dissecting here, in the context of Gaudy Night, it's perfectly possible for the big turning points in a sexual relationship (before, during or after) to be nothing that has any obvious sexual content at all. I learnt as much about writing sex from that book and its sequel, Busman's Honeymoon, as I did from years as a teen reading Cosmopolitan and Judith Krantz's S&F novels.
Buy The Joy of Writing Sex, by Elizabeth Benedict. I haven't got hold of the new edition yet, but if it's as good as the original, it's the most sensible and helpful guide you could ask for. Which essentially means that it's also a sensible and helpful guide to good writing. In the end, sex scenes go wrong when the writer loses sight of their normal, ordinary sense of what makes any scene go right. Hold onto that, as they say, and you'll be fine.