Friday, January 11, 2008

Sex scenes are more than sex

What I'm reading: Lord John and the Hand of the Devils, by Diana Gabaldon

On January 2nd, the "Hearts and Handcuffs" blog had a post about resolving to write more sex scenes, and some interesting discussion ensued.

Finding myself between projects, I fiddled around with writing an 'out of the blue' sex scene just for fun. On a whim, I sent it to a writing buddy, and it turned into a round-robin exercise.

In the ensuing exchanges, I learned a lot about myself as a writer who writes sex scenes.

The opening was short and simple, a mere 400 words. Woman alone in the bathroom, getting undressed and putting on a silk nightgown. It was primarily a sensual scene, and, as always, I wasn't really sure where it would lead. I ended the scene with this:

She runs a brush through her hair, then tucks an errant lock behind her ear and smiles. Quietly, she opens the door wide enough to slip through, leaving it open barely a crack. Just enough to show her the way to the bed. Where he waits.

The response moved the encounter to his pov and definitely transported it into 'sex scene' territory. And since there was little, if any, character development, it leaned toward my definition of erotica, not romance.

The gauntlet having been thrown, I was faced with a couple of character details I hadn't considered, but hey, I have no problems writing hot and heavy, so I started writing section 3.

And hit a wall. There were two consenting adults in bed together, but without knowing who they were (or at least who SHE was, and a little more about him,)I couldn't write the scene. Absolutely couldn't. I realized I wasn't in her head, and that I couldn't write the physical parts without the mental parts. I had to stop, create a character with back story, with a reason for being where she was – even if it was a casual one-night-stand, I had to know WHY she would do it, and so on. All I 'knew', and this was thrown at me by my writing partner, was that she was an "older" woman. Until I knew a whole lot more about her, the writing wouldn't happen. I simply could NOT write a 'Tab A into Slot B' scene.

Once I created the character, I found it easy to move forward. Of course, the taking turns approach tosses some challenges as it's impossible to plot much in advance, because you don't know what will happen next (even more than my normal 'seat of the pants' writing surprises), but I wasn't looking for plot when I started writing. But without the emotional connection, without a deep understanding of the character, the writing is flat and darned hard to pull off.

As a matter of fact, on round 4, after seeing where my partner took the scene, I put the brakes on entirely, and made the two character take time to talk. Even with some character back story in my head, I needed to show it on the page. I shall await my next installment, but I'm sure my writing friend will have kicked the action back into high gear.


BrennaLyons said...

I'm the same way. The characters come first. Then the action. Starting in the middle is always difficult, because you have to figure out the mind you're in...motivations, goals, fears... But, it's a blast, isn't it?

I write everything from straight genre through romance (PG-13 through erotic romance) and even erotica. Doesn't matter what heat level it is. I still have to come home to character.


Jenyfer Matthews said...

I'm with you, Terry - I have to understand the character and the motivations before I can just jump into a scene like that.

Terry Odell said...

Well put, Brenna & Jenyfer

Must be why in so many romances, the first full sexual encounter happens on page 191.

Macy O'Neal said...

I'm going to have to check your page 191 theory. However, I agree with you. I have to know the characters first. And I like to read sex scenes where it isn't just about sex. Rather, it's so much more conflict-wise.

Terry Odell said...

I think the 191 holds better in historicals, but it was one of the first things I noticed when I started reading romance.

Lara Dien said...

I doubt I've ever counted pages -- for me it's whenever it fits into the story I'm telling. If I'm writing r/s, it's going to take longer because the h/h have more on their minds than sex (or, at least, more standing in the way!). People have sex for all sorts of reasons, so I think it's a given that you can't write it without knowing -- or at least making conscious or unconscious assumptions about them. Even in a story such as The Fortuneteller's Lay, where they're having sex on, what, page 5? (Nature of the story.) It's not like I dropped them into having sex without having a reason -- even if it was straight erotica (not erotic romance, with a HEA), there'd have been a reason, because without a reason there's no story. I think Brenna said that, too LOL. Also, if you don't know your character, how are you going to know what turns her on? -grin- (the guys are easy, we KNOW what turns them on!)

Actually, I think the hard part about writing erotic romance -- in the short story format, at any rate -- is that you've got to make it believable in a hurry. You don't have that first 100+ pages to develop your characters, make their reasons clear, etc.

Terry Odell said...

Well, it's not that I count pages while I'm writing. It's just that it seems to take "about" that long for them to get to that point. And then there's the 'manuscript' pages vs. 'published book' pages issue, too.

However, in erotica, the sex drives the relationship, so you're expected to have more and get to it sooner.

(Not a rule, just convention and reader-expectation--and 'defined' on the Ellora's Cave site.)

Dara Edmondson said...

Interesting that without knowing the character, you couldn't write the scene. I never thought about it before, but it makes sense. Guess that's why they call it Romantica instead of Erotica these days. Just sex with no character loses too much.

Terry Odell said...

Actually, I think Ellora's cave actually "owns" the term Romantica.
I think they copyrighted it or trademarked it, or whatever they do.

ptbertram said...

Sex scenes are always about the characters, even when they are sex scenes and not love scenes. Without characters to give the scenes life, all you end up with is moving body parts.

Terry Odell said...

Exactly, Pat