This Business of Writing

When is Too Much Sex, Too Much? (Caution Terminology)

In Editing Your Manuscript, General Information, The Craft of Writing on March 1, 2010 at 8:55 am

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One of my blog readers asked me to expand on an earlier article, “How to Write a Sex Scene,” and today I’ll try and help her out. Her question entailed how much detail should one write into a sex scene. In my mind it’s up to the writer, but the answer varies according to writer’s target audience and the needs of the scene. Regardless, the reader’s imagination is the determining point.

Let’s look at the scene first. If you’re writing about raw sex, you might wish for more detail. Should you write about the power of love, you’d likely incorporate less. In the first case, you might include the feel of a woman’s wetness, whereas in the second you might offer nothing more than a bit of caressing as the two disappear behind a door.

Think also about the scene’s perspective. Is it written from the eyes of an eighteen year-old male bully or from grandma’s? Imagine how the bully might envision sex in relation to how might your grandmother. (Sorry for that visual.)

Let’s now take a look at the target market. Imagine how “the first time” scene might change if you wrote about seventeen year olds, thirty-somethings or grandmothers. In the first, you might have a young boy’s initial experience which entails raw sex with much more physical and tactile detail. The second could be a woman’s first encounter since her oppressive divorce where the details revolve less on the physical than the emotional. Grandma’s first encounter since her husband died might have very little detail, (if you don’t mind…), and convey something like comfort or even betrayal. Each displays the same basic scene, but with wildly varying descriptions and need for detail.

Here is how I feel about the subject in general. It’s all about the reader’s imagination.

Consider this simple example of describing a woman’s eyes when writing this type of scene.

“As he grabbed her hair and pushed her down on him, her eyes grew wide as silver dollars.”

“As he grabbed her hair and pulled her down on him, her eyes grew wide with excitement.”

Which of these lines creates the better vision to the reader? To me, everyone knows the size of a silver dollar and though the scene might be titillating, this simple detail reduces the reader’s option to use their imagination. In contrast, her eyes growing wide with excitement allows the readers to interpret how the character looked and thus makes the scene more personal to the reader. Now envision how involved a reader might be if a hundred details form in their mind, rather than on the page. This concept of appealing to the reader’s imagination applies regardless the level of detail. The more your reader employs their imagination, the more personal, more powerful the scene is to them.

I’m also all about the emotion of a scene. Consider a rape. Though the grabbing and thrusting it integral to the incident, if nothing else is described, the scene lacks much of its potential strength. However, if you write about how the woman emotionally responds to these actions, your writing will have much more impact.

To me, detail is dependent upon the scene and the audience. Use more of the reader’s imagination and fewer major details and I think you’ll write with more powerful imagery.

Now for some general tips.

A sex scene, as with all others, should maintain your writing style. Do you include every detail in every scene? Then continue in that vein. Do you skirt the large details for the small? Then carry on with that.

Highlight the tiny details. A man caressing the goose bumps on a woman’s thigh is more enticing than simply thrusting into her.

Think of your writing more as an Impressionist painting than one from the realistic period. The Impressionists worked with blurs of color and motion, allowing the reader’s mind to see what they wanted to see. The viewer’s imagination filled in the gaps. In contrast, the Realists painted each and every detail, giving each as much power as the next. Though their work is amazing, you only see what they want you to see.

Color-code the emotions you write on the page. Some people use colored pencils or crayons, while others use their word processing text highlighter. It matters not, but here’s how it works. When you mention an emotion such as yearning, you might color it gray. Should you highlight that mood one gets when a couple cuddles after sharing sex, you could use gold.

After colorizing each emotion, make a flip-book of your pages and thumb  through them. The colors that jump off the page will offer a strong insight as to the effectiveness of your writing and inform you if you’ve produced the type of article you wished. If your sex scene has a lot of black, for example, let’s hope it’s a rape. If the colors begin with cerulean, turn to yellow, shift to gold then orange and red, then back to blue, you’re probably on the mark for a love scene.

I read somewhere that “Details are the fingerprints of prose.” (Great line, don’t you think?) However, think of your details like spices. Too much salt or pepper and you’ll ruin the taste of the meal. So it is with your writing. Use your details sparingly so as not to overpower your reader.

When incorporating details, insure you employ your characters’, and thus your readers’, five senses. Have your character look at her nakedness, touch her skin and taste her lips. Have him hear her moan and smell her explosion. (And he’d damn well better see she has one.)

The general purpose of your novel is to transport your readers to another place and time. Would they rather go where they wanted or where you tell them. It’s all about the imagination.

It’s not about the sun, it’s about the warmth of the sun on one’s skin.

I do apologize for not offering specific instructions to leave in the erection and omit the sigh, but how much detail to write into a sex scene is up to the writer.

I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

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