Tuesday, March 24, 2009

[no sex please] we're british

Graphic image of a sexual act - cover the children's eyes.

The problems of inserting sex into a novel. I wasn't going to post this but not having anything else ready - well, why not?

Liz Hinds had sexual troubles recently, both in her novel and with her George who decided to mount a rottweiler.

Of the different aspects of this novel of mine, I’d give my handling of them the following scorecard, out of ten:

Action, chases, killings etc.: 7

The problem with action is the use of the staccato technique and the economy of shortish words required. No section kills speed faster than a misplaced comma or misspelt word and this requires close attention.

Suspense, tension, thrill: 5

Rather than keep the tension bubbling, I prefer to allay fears and lull you into a false sense of security, then when you’re not expecting it, in comes a horror, which I describe mundanely, in the way the perpetrator might. Overall, you remain uneasy, knowing it could come at any time.

Realistic dialogue: 7 to 9

Pathos: 4 [but I’m working on it]

Sex: 7

This is really tough to handle well and I’ve had to rewrite and adjust it over and over. For a start, one’s own sexuality must never intrude because that would turn anyone off. Once you’re clear it’s characteristic of the protagonist only and true to form, then it’s the better for it.

References to genitalia can only be used outside the sexual scenes. For example, someone will refer to vaginal politics at some point in an asexual philosophical discussion but when it comes to the actual lovemaking, these words are mysteriously absent.

These sorts of scenes make you realize just what a genius Nabokov was. How do you have a sex scene [and one of main character Emma’s, in the third book, goes for two chapters in real time] and not refer to body parts? The answer is – with a heck of a lot of editing.

How do you avoid the other end of the scale – the classic French cut to the crashing waves on the shore which is, quite frankly, cheating the reader? How do you make it suggestive without the reader feeling short-changed?

For example, it might go: ‘Sophie had just withdrawn her hand when Laurence walked into the hut …’ Laurence is an upright military type.

There was no reference anywhere to anything sexual having happened before this scene but in the context of the three people now in that room, knowing the two characters, both women, knowing their relationship and knowing that the only possible venue was the bed in that room [from a reference two chapters earlier when they were building the hut], then it’s pretty clear what had been going on. The shock and horror which now follows confirms it, still with no anatomical reference nor any name for the act.

It needs to come form nowhere, it seems to me and not be mentioned again for some time.

The scene I’m most pleased with is where one character gets some alternative passage action in but you only know it was happening from a third party prude who accidentally sees the two of them together in a rock pool and now she rushes to tell others, in the euphemistic terms you’d expect a prude to use.

The problem with this technique is that you can become too opaque, you rely too much on the reader interpreting it correctly. It also brings in the problem that if you keep the description of the physical aspect mundane, how do you build sexual tension?

The only way is to leave little alternative. If there’s a lead up to it, if a reference is made to fingers and if you distract the reader at this point, coming back to the recovery scene straight after the thing is done and describe that in detail instead, then the reader can fill in the blanks.


Nothing kills sexuality in a book and turns the reader’s attention back to the author more than a scene being misplaced, in the context of the sub-plot. If there was hardly likely to be sex there, then why have it?

I’ve tried to delay it actually. When you were expecting it, it doesn’t happen – they’re called away, something gets blown up or whatever. Eventually, when it does happen and you say, ‘At long bloody last,’ it goes for two chapters and you can bathe in it.

In one series of scenes on the run in northern England, the middle-aged ‘protector’ is thrown together with a 23 year old and the reader thinks, ‘Oh yeah, I know where this leads.’ Actually, it never does. There’s more sex which doesn’t happen than sex which does and you’re the one with the naughty mind who thought it was going to.

Never mention group sex

Sexual prowess

This is another killer. In a Mary-Sue novel, the lead man has near-magical powers and the girl is always voluptuous and gagging for it.

You have to avoid this like the plague.

If one of the three lead characters [and there are always three or four at any one time] is middle-aged, then he’s not going to excite his thirtyish partner and certain plot paths can accrue from this, for example when she does meet a younger stud. Yet she has to be happy enough in their relations overall or else she wouldn’t hang around.

These things are not easy to write. You also have to have sexual scenes between other characters, almost as closely written as with the leads but not quite because you don’t want to fragment the storyline. This takes a lot of rewriting and editing.

Finally, why is your fellow blogger, a supposed moral champion, including this sort of thing in a book anyway? Actually, I’d like to see how Cherie, Andrew Allison, Ubermouth or dearieme would include such a thing.

Perhaps they could write a short story each and we could see for ourselves.

UPDATE Wednesday

Uber has taken up the challenge - now what about you others?


Liz said...

You have to include it in a book because it's part of life. A big part. (Bo boom, I've turned into Sid James.)

jams o donnell said...

Since my only published work was concerned wit the rat colon (and the noradrenergic innervation therein, there was not much scope for inserting a sex scene!

Anonymous said...

He was bent over his keyboard, unmoving, tense. I ran my finger up the nape of his exposed neck. He shivered. I began to massage his shoulders, gradually pressing my thumbs down harder and harder, while slowly easing him back until his head rested between my breasts. He nestled, his eyes closed.
I stroked his forehead, the fingers of each hand in turn moving upwards from the brow of his nose to the crown of his head. His hair felt soft and silky with its familiar shampoo smell. I gently kissed his head. He took my hand and squeezed it. ‘Enough,’ he sighed. ‘I have to get this done.’
‘Okay,’ I breathed into his ear, letting the word be drawn out on a long slow exhalation of warm breath. I traced the turnings of his ear with my tongue as I followed the line of his cheekbone with my fingertip, across, down and around his parted lips. His breath was shallow now. I slid my finger slowly into his mouth, between his teeth, further, deeper, letting him suck before biting down on me. Hard. I licked his earlobe before my teeth sank in.
My other hand that had been massaging his shoulder now moved over his chest, down to his waist where I tugged urgently at his t-shirt. I pulled it up exposing his nipple, dark and erect. I ran my palm over it, just allowing contact. He groaned.
I pulled away suddenly. He leaned back further expectantly. I swung his chair round and leaned over him. I traced the line of pale hair running from his chest bone to his navel, first with my fingertip, then with my tongue. As my fingers pulled at his sweatpants I raised my head just enough to look up at him. ‘Enough,’ I breathed. ‘I have to get this done.’


Fascinating James[unless I am the prude-which was when young].
I shall take up your short story challenge,talking about S-E-X without ever mentioning it,but there will be misplaced typos.


I think he was looking for more subtlety,Anon.

James Higham said...

Anon - well done but the idea is to put your name to it!!!! :)

Liz - bo boom!

Jams - any sex in that?

Uber - I'm heading over there now.

ScotsToryB said...


'alternative passage action'????


CherryPie said...

Thinking of the story in the first place would be the hardest bit for me!

James Higham said...

C'mon, Cherie, be daring. :)

STB - :)