In the last post, I talked about how often we encounter sex in books, and why that might be. I promised I’d be back with more sex, and that’s a promise I’m keeping. See, sometimes I am reliable. 😉
One of the interesting things about sex scenes, besides the fact that they’re sex scenes, is that authors all have their own way of going about writing them. To know why they are written the way they are (and why I choose to write mine the way I do) you need to first determine why the scene is in the book. Sex scenes are like any other detail in a book; they should serve a purpose. Sometimes they are written only to titillate — sometimes as a natural progression of a relationship. What is the difference between a sex scene meant to arouse and one meant to show the culmination of a relationship? How can you tell the difference between erotica and romance?
You’ll often see people commenting in reviews that a book is or isn’t erotica or romance. There’s a lot of crossover here. I was a librarian for many years, so I’m basing my judgement on years of reader’s advisory to make my genre calls — it’s the most familiar to me and was the most reliable way for me to find the right book when someone asked for a recommendation. To illustrate the difference between the genres, I’ll use an example from a series that went from plot driven, noir, urban fantasy, mystery storytelling in the early volumes to urban fantasy romance to finally land firmly in erotica.
When I first started reading the Anita Blake series by Laurel K Hamilton, the books were pretty standard urban fantasy fare. Each book set up a murder mystery, then, in a fairly noir fashion, there was a lot of detecting and danger. Romance was an underlying theme in the early books, particularly with Anita’s push/pull with the lead vampire and werewolf of the series, but it took time to consummate — I’m not even sure if anyone has sex “on screen” in the first two books. But in the first two books, the romance was not the driving factor of the plot, the murder mysteries were. This is the primary difference between genres.
When you’re determining categories of books, it’s important to understand the underlying differences between genres. A person who enjoys science fiction isn’t necessarily going to enjoy a romance with science fiction elements. You might have even run into this confusion when someone you know recommended something to you that you ended up, to their surprise, not liking — “But you like fantasy! This has dragons!” One of the key components to determining genre is the plot. Is the plot dependent on the genre elements in the book?
If a book is about a man and a woman meeting, and the plot revolves around whether or not they get together — it doesn’t matter if they’re on a space ship or in a wizard’s school — it’s a romance. If the genre elements could be swapped out, and the story would essentially be unchanged, then romance is the main category you put the book in, with the sub-genre — science fiction/fantasy/horror — being secondary. But if the plot revolves around whether or not the man and woman in question make peace with alien life, then the genre is science fiction, even if during the course of the book the two of them get together. The mere presence of a relationship does not make a book a romance. The mere presence of a space ship does not make a book science fiction. The plot is what changes the genre.
Back to our example of Anita Blake. After three books, things started to heat up in Anita’s life, and the balance between mystery and romance became weighted heavily toward the romance end of things. The plot more consistently revolves around who Anita loves, with the mystery taking a back seat to the relationship issues. Because this is a series that shifted (pun perhaps intended), it’s harder to say 100% if it becomes romance or urban fantasy at this point. Anita is still working with the police, but the cases get less and less page space, and the relationships more and more.
Most readers note Obsidian Butterfly as being the point at which the books undergo a drastic shift in tone. Personally, I feel like the author was already edging us closer to erotica with each entry. Obsidian Butterfly seems like the start of this departure from urban fantasy mystery, I think, because the book on a whole is an outlier; it takes place in another city entirely and most of the recurring characters aren’t in it. It’s so different, that when we jump back into Anita’s life after this book, the lack of sexual tension in Obsidian Butterfly makes the contrast all the more obvious.
Before Obsidian Butterfly, Anita’s sexual encounters had already increased dramatically from the first three books. After Obsidian Butterfly, these books are no longer simply urban fantasy or romance; they are erotica — the sex scenes are not only extremely graphic, they are the focus of the book. They take up pages and pages, Anita focuses on them to the exclusion of whatever story is going on in the background, and they often drive the plot. The sex is the reason for the book, not the story. That means the book is erotica. When sex is the whole reason for the plot, that’s how you tell the difference between romance and erotica.
I stopped reading the series after it turned completely to erotica. Not because the sex in and of itself was off-putting, but the way Hamilton wrote it was — which leads me to my next point. Why do I write sex scenes the way I do?
Much like with anything we enjoy in life, we have preferences. Favorite foods, flavors, colors, book genres, movie types — whatever it is, we usually have things we prefer. We also usually have things we don’t prefer. Maybe we hate green beans. Maybe the presence of a particular actor will put us off a movie we’d normally like. Maybe a dress is fabulous, but that color! Ugh! Erotica and sex scenes are no different. People have preferences and turn offs. Hamilton wrote a lot about the pleasure of pain as she started to delve into her erotica. Pain is not pleasurable to me in the slightest. I don’t find anything remotely sexy about it. But plenty do (and more power to them), thus Hamilton has a generous market and continues to thrive as a writer. This works, because when people read erotica, they are looking for their particular preference. If you write erotica, you know that and don’t have to be concerned about whether or not you’ll turn someone off with a particular description. You know the audience is there for what you’re writing.
I don’t write graphic sex scenes. As I said before, it’s not because I object to them. The problem I have with writing extensive, graphic scenes in my books is I’m not writing a sex driven plot-line. I’m writing a different kind of story. In my writing, I remove — what I like to call — distracting elements. My style of writing is character driven stories with a fast, driving momentum. I want to pull the reader along — I want them to turn the page and keep going to see what happens next. If I take too much time to discuss at length, say, what’s for dinner, I feel the momentum start to lag. It’s a style choice, nothing more. Some authors love to luxuriate the reader with details. Some readers love this leisurely pace in their books. I write the same way I like to read. I’m not sure if this is true of all authors, but it’s true for me. I prefer books that move along and don’t dwell on details of little importance to the plot.
My editor and I have a saying, “And an apple sat on the table, unnoticed by anyone.” It’s shorthand for us to talk about things in my writing that have little point other than an interesting aside. I don’t want these distractions, or “apples,” there for the reader to wonder about only to be disappointed later when the detail amounts to nothing. If I give details, they are important to either the plot, the character development, or to allow the reader to feel the setting and mood of the story. I discard all the distractions as much as I can.
For me, detailed sex is a distraction. It’s a bit different from an apple on the table, but the reasoning is the same. All the editing I’m doing is in service of the story. If I can keep the reader’s focus on that story, then I’ve done it right. If I take the time to detail out a sex scene, it may work just fine for some people. The problem arises when it isn’t fine. I’ve written Paul and Jane to be a great couple. You’ve followed them through an adventure. You love them as a couple. You want them to fall in love. The moment comes when they kiss. And now they’re about to have the culmination of that relationship! Oh boy! This will be wonderful! And then I detail an intimate act that makes you go, “Ick!”
All that work to get you into the moment is wiped away by one scene. What I wrote that I thought was super sexy, you thought was downright gross. Now I’ve lost you, when there was no need to. As I said in the last posting, people aren’t reading books for the sex scenes unless it’s erotica. As an author, if you haven’t managed to already, you aren’t going to sell a couple as being in love if you include a highly detailed sex scene. You also don’t ruin the coupling if you fade to black just as the deed is being done. However, what you do achieve by fading to black is the perfect sex scene.
Let’s say roast chicken is your favorite food. If someone tells you they are going to serve you roast chicken, you start to imagine it. If they sit you down to wait, you start to taste it. If they start cooking it, the smells remind you of the last time you had it, and how great it was. When they put it in front of you, and you see how perfectly it’s been cooked, you know, without even taking that first bite, it’s going to be delicious. You can taste the flavors in your mouth without even eating it, you’ve thought about it so much by that point. If you bite into that chicken and get fish flavors instead, you’ll be sorely disappointed. In fact, it probably ruined the whole experience for you, even if that fish was expertly prepared and as delicious as any fish ever cooked. You like chicken; you wanted chicken; you thought about chicken; you imagined chicken; but then you got fish. You don’t care if it’s awesome fish.
Detailing sex in books is like this. You’re setting the table and cooking up the meal in such a way the reader already has a picture in their mind of what it’s going to be like. And there is no picture that is more perfect for a reader than the one they think up — that is their idea of a perfect sex scene. Fading to black allows them to keep that picture in their head of what happened. It allows them to hold on to the perfect culmination of this relationship, and move on with the story without dwelling on anything that might accidentally make them think “Ick!” You don’t stall them, you don’t leave them with a bad taste in their mouth. They will continue to enjoy the story after that point.
I don’t write explicit sex scenes because I don’t see the upside to it as a storyteller. I might draw some people further in to the story if I get it just right, but I also might turn some people away. For something so trivial, it isn’t worth the risk. It’s the act itself that is important to my characters and their growth as a couple, not what they put where and when. By allowing the reader to fill in the details, I’ve created a bespoke sex scene for every possible desire.
If I were asked by a fellow author advice about sex scenes, I’d tell them everything I told you, with one addition – “All that said, if you really think it’s important, put it in your book.” I don’t think there’s never a place for it. Detailed sex scenes can also do a lot for a story. They can show how painfully awkward that first time is with someone. They can show how connected two people are. They can show heat in a way fading to black isn’t particularly strong on. However, there is an art to it, and I’ll say that I’ve read an awful lot of bad sex scenes. In fact, there’s more than one award for bad sex in writing. I think I’m okay not testing my ability to write these scenes to avoid the book version of a Razzie.
That’s really all I have to say about sex in books — at least I think so. 😉 Next posting I’ll be talking about the ease with which independent authors can edit their works post publishing — as compared to the traditional market — and my feelings on these ever changing “director’s cuts” and how they impact the experience for readers. Thanks for reading!