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On Sex Scenes In Novels, by Alison Booth

Do sex scenes in novels make your toes curl with embarrassment?  You are not alone.  Many readers find them excruciating and many mainstream novelists find sex scenes the hardest to write.  Let me be clear from the outset that I am not referring here to sex scenes in erotic novels.  This post is about sex scenes in mainstream books – literary and commercial.

Suppose you’ve written your sex scene and you’re pretty happy with it. The next step is to get it past your editor and publisher. You achieve that, your novel gets published, you wait for the accolades… and you cross your fingers that you’re not going to be shortlisted for the literary honour that no one wants – being shortlisted for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

This award was established by the Literary Review in 1993. It explicitly excludes from consideration pornographic and erotic literature. You may be interested to learn that male writers predominate on the shortlists, and that in 2010 The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, an Australian author beloved by many, was shortlisted for the award (see www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsex.html)

When thinking of sex scenes, it’s helpful to make the distinction between bad-sex scenes on the one hand and bad sex-scenes on the other.  The former refer to a frame in which the sex is not going well.  The latter refer to a frame in which the sex may be going brilliantly but the writing is not good.  If you look around you will find rather a lot of these. For some examples, see: http://www.theguardian.com/books/badsexaward

An example of a bad-sex scene can be found towards the start of the novel On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. This chronicles a sexually inexperienced couple’s disastrous encounter on the first night of their honeymoon which ruins their married life.  The plot is dependent on this bad sex and the characters are changed by the experience.

Bad sex-scenes are badly written – and may be focused on sex that may or may not be going well.  They describe the activities of the relevant couple in great, and often toe-curling, detail that is secondary to plot development or to characterisation.

A third type of sex scene might be thought of as transcendental.  The scene takes one or other or both of the couple out of themselves to some higher level of emotion.  There are many nice examples of this in the novels by Patrick White.  (For example, see the union of Ellen Roxburgh and the escaped convict Jack Chance in A Fringe of Leaves.)

Should you or should you not include a sex scene in your novel?  Of course it is entirely up to you as the writer: you can do whatever you wish.  This is after all one of the joys of writing a novel.

Have I ever written a sex scene? Yes, in Stillwater Creek (page 22) there is a scene that relates to character development – and it is a bad-sex scene, written from the viewpoint of George Cadwallader, who is unhappily married to Eileen.

In general it is useful to bear in mind a simple idea –  that the sex needs to either advance the plot or to reveal more about the characters involved, or both.  If the sex scene doesn’t advance the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it does affect what happens next.  If it doesn’t show more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development, again either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does.

It is not as if you’re losing information by leaving it out.  Remember that you can simply refer obliquely to the lovemaking or the sex.  Only if something happens during the sex to change the characters or affect the plot do we really need to see it in any detail.

Of course, this advice applies to every scene in a novel.  If you do decide a sex scene is vital for your novel, then there are online articles and sites that can help you. There is a good article at: www.huffingtonpost.com/jennie-nash/the-making-of-a-novel-7-r_b_695024.html.

***Write with novelist Alison Booth near Hobart, Tasmania with Novel Writing Retreats Australia in April 2014

Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net

Alison Booth’s bio page

***

Stillwater CreekThe Indigo SkyA Distant Land     House for all Seasons by Jenn J McLeodBurning LiesSavage TideThe Fortunes of Ruby White

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sex is a part of life. As such, it gets included in my books, though not a blow-by-blow description – except when relevant. That would be the bad-sex scene or the sex that changes things in a relationship. The first time a couple have sex always changes things, and if the author is so coy that the reader is left wondering ‘did they or didn’t they?’ then they have failed in their task.

    September 26, 2013
  2. Totally agree Allison. Same deal with violence. Everything in a book must advance the story, not tow it along. Great essay. JH xo 🙂

    September 27, 2013
    • Thanks, Jarad! Love the expression that everything in a book must advance the story, not tow it along.

      September 30, 2013
  3. With my first novel, my editor suggested that it needed a sex scene at a pivotal point. (I had originally opted for the tasteful fade-to-black option.) I agonised for hours and ended up squeaking out two paragraphs which I thought were passable. When my manuscript came back from the editor, I skipped ahead to the new scene to see what she thought. There were two red lines through it, plus the words, ‘You were right the first time.’

    (To this day, I don’t know whether to be pleased that my writerly instinct was correct or bummed because I apparently can’t write a sex scene for love or money.)

    September 27, 2013
  4. LOL Lia. fade to black is wonderful. It sure is a tricky thing to do. so many different reader expectations. I know i get so caught up trying to second guess reactions. I toyed for so long today about a certain phrase – a good Aussie one – that fit the character but could potentially turn some readers off. Then i thought…. Oh, bugger it! 😉

    September 29, 2013
    • Jenn, now I’m just dying to know what the phrase is…

      September 30, 2013
      • It’s in the comment above!!! We say it all the time and it suits my character, however the literal meaning is quite unacceptable and therefore to some it may be a “ooh-ah ickly moment ” – kinda like some sex scenes 😉

        September 30, 2013

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