Alexander Hellene

Sex Sells (But Who’s Writing?)

By Alexander Hellene

Generally speaking, sex scenes in novels are gross and kind of creepy. There’s something about writing the deed that gives it an extra-slimy sheen of prurience that I don’t find in visual depictions. Or maybe it’s that the art of writing sensually versus sexually is woefully undeveloped among writers. A good love scene can convey the magic of sex without coming off as designed to excite for no other reason than to provoke a sexual reaction.

Obviously, it’s going to be difficult to write about lovemaking without provoking some kind of physiological response in a reader. We are human, after all, and sex is how we bond with loved ones. However, if you look at how sex is used in a lot of storytelling, it’s meant to shock and titillate, nothing more.

Some television shows use sex and sexuality as a means of spicing up exposition scenes. I have been made aware that this is the case in The Witcher and A Game of Thrones, two shows I have never seen but which are lauded for their adult content.

A brief aside about exposition: it is never a bad idea to spice up infodumps. What you want to avoid as a writer in any medium are scenes where people are sitting around a table or whatever and just talking. Some tips to make these scenes more interesting and cover up the fact that they are infodumps include:

  • Having the characters walking, running, or otherwise traveling somewhere while talking;
  • Having the characters doing something else while talking; this can even be something as simple as going to the supermarket for something specific that they cannot find;
  • Have the characters each want a different thing, in other words, be in conflict; this will help make the dialogue more interesting;
  • Have there be some sort of time limit, ticking fuse, or sense of urgency that may even prevent the expositor from providing all of the information the character needs (there should still be enough for the reader, though);
  • Have the exposition occur during a fight scene;
  • Have the characters continually getting interrupted;
  • Explosions; and yes
  • Boobies

So using sex isn’t bad in all cases. It’s just that, in books, it comes off as, for lack of a better word, icky more so than in other media.

Way back when, movies used to get around this issue, as well as the censors, by “panning to the fireplace” when characters were about to get busy. Or they would fade to black. This not only kept the movie from garnering a more restrictive rating, it also created a sense of sexiness that actually showing explicit sex could not. You had to imagine what was going on.

Horror directors, notably Alfred Hitchcock, used this technique to great effect by not showing creepy and gross imagery or graphic violence. It turns out the effect can be heightened when people have to imagine what terrible thing went on instead of showing it.

I recommend that the written version of “panning to the fireplace” is appropriate in most scenarios. However, there are times where a sex scene is actually germane to the story—this is what I mean when describing it as not being gratuitous.

And guess what: I do have examples.

The first comes from Dan Simmons. I preface this by saying I am biased, as I think Simmons is one of the greatest living authors. His four-book Hyperion Cantos is a science-fiction masterpiece easily on par with Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is a relatively graphic sex scene in the first book, Hyperion, between Fedmahn Kassad and Moneta that actually has a point because it underscores the timeless nature and intensity of their inter-temporal love, a love that is important to the overall story arc.

Yes, the books involve jumping back-and-forth in time. Believe me; it works.

However, the zero-gravity sex scene between Raul Endymion and Aenea in either Endymion or Rise of Endymion (I can’t remember which) is just gross. It has none of the urgency, tension and release, or import that the Kassad/Moneta scenes did.

Here’s a second example of a sex scene in a novel that actually worked, and it comes from (don’t laugh) Stephen King. Further, it’s (seriously, don’t laugh), in The Stand, a book chock-full of pretty unnecessary sex scenes.

Except this one. It works because it furthers the plot, has lasting repercussions, and conveys information about several characters. But at heart, it shows why Harold Lauder is willing to betray his friends. Flip your baseball hats backwards and buy some JNCOs seven sizes too big, because Harold did it all for the nookie.

The character of Harold is a pudgy, awkward, and rather geeky young man in love with Frances Goldsmith, the slightly older girl next door. Frances is not into Harold as anything other than a friend, which drives the sexually frustrated young man crazy . . . especially when Frances starts shacking up with Stu Redman.

None of the respect Harold gains from the other men of the survivor’s community in Colorado matters. His hard work is noted. The others accept him and like him. He gets lean and muscular, and his acne clears up. He even starts to get female attention. But it’s not the kind he wants. It’s not from his Frannie.

Enter Nadine Cross.

Nadine is a piece of work. She lives with the good guys, but is secretly in the thrall of, and becomes the eventual consort of, big bad Randall Flagg. They identify Harold as a weak link and use the one thing he craves in order to get him to turn, utilizing one of the oldest tricks in the book: sex.

During the scene, King describes Harold’s ambivalence about the whole situation, his desire to fit in and be a part of the community conflicting with his desire to be wanted in this elemental way. The actual sex acts are almost incidental to Harold succumbing to his base desires. The sex is used to illustrate Harold’s fall, which is the true emotional core of the scene. It’s also a little edgy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Stephen King can be a really good writer sometimes.

This can be analogized to the way fight scenes are utilized. May Christ forgive me for referencing the laser sword franchise, but this is all akin to the duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. That fight is not really being about who can kill whom. There are higher stakes at play, a deeper emotional core running through the battle, a subtext, if you will, that elevates what would normally be just another cool-looking lightsaber fight into something even more exciting.

Because the stakes are high.

The stakes are what matters.

Sex can have stakes.

It can also just be about good old-fashioned boning. But that’s more like pornography.

When in doubt, pan to the fireplace or fade to black. But sometimes . . . sometimes . . . there’s nothing wrong with being sexy.

– Alexander

4 thoughts on “Sex Sells (But Who’s Writing?)”

  1. Agreed.

    My presumption is that humans act in a human manner. There may be some benefit in normalizing normal relations, but unless it drives the story, stakes a turn, or is otherwise necessary to set a tone, I would prefer that the imagery remain as I may or may not imagine it.

    No need to tell me about bodily function, or anything else. Where things are divergent, and it impacts the story, feel free.

    1. R.K.,

      No need to tell me about bodily function, or anything else.

      Exactly! It just comes off as really gross in books, especially when, as you said, it doesn’t drive the story, raise the stakes, or is otherwise necessary to set a tone.

      It’s all about why you have the scene in there in the first place. For example, it’s interesting to me that George R.R. Martin’s works have become known as “fantasy with sex,” and that this formula has been adopted by other writers and TV showrunners. Apparently, people’s attentions can’t be grabbed without showing a bunch of tits. Who knew?

  2. Why quip about GRRM’s GoT is admittedly from a sex abuse survivior’s POV, but I maintain that if you can get more ‘play’ at a family reunion that that ‘shack out side La Grange’(h/t to the great bards known colloquially as ZZ-Top) then I don’t need to read it.

    On the other hand, the establishment of relations near the beginning of MZB’s ‘The Mysts of Avalon’, while distasteful to me, set the grounds for later aspects of the story.

    You mentioned King previously, a scene in Tommyknockers set to establish the alien nature of an entity, fair enough, and some scenes in “It” serve as justification for being he psychic bonding between protagonists. In the first case, detail exemplifies the alien nature. In the 2nd case, detail becomes repulsive, knowing the act occurred drives the reader to understand the connection, additional detail seems to be solely for titillating the reader.

    Thus, there is a further argument of not simply should the relation be documented, but to what degree is it necessary to describe the act(s). GRRM might be given a bit of a pass with regards to reporting the activity happens, because it further roots the depravity of the individuals in plac, but the level of detail is better left to so called Romance novels with some Fabio model on the cover.

    1. Why quip about GRRM’s GoT is admittedly from a sex abuse survivior’s POV, but I maintain that if you can get more ‘play’ at a family reunion that that ‘shack out side La Grange’(h/t to the great bards known colloquially as ZZ-Top) then I don’t need to read it.

      Yeah, some of Game of Throne‘s prurience has a point, even though it’s gross like [SPOILER] Bran witnessing Jaime and Circe’s incest. And I agree–I’d rather listen to ZZ Top than read GRRM’s sex scenes.

      On the other hand, the establishment of relations near the beginning of MZB’s ‘The Mysts of Avalon’, while distasteful to me, set the grounds for later aspects of the story.

      I’ve never read any of her stuff. I’ve read her daughter’s book and boy howdy does that make me not want to read her mother’s work, but I’ll take your word for it. Word is that she was a talented writer.

      You mentioned King previously, a scene in Tommyknockers set to establish the alien nature of an entity, fair enough, and some scenes in “It” serve as justification for being he psychic bonding between protagonists. In the first case, detail exemplifies the alien nature. In the 2nd case, detail becomes repulsive, knowing the act occurred drives the reader to understand the connection, additional detail seems to be solely for titillating the reader.

      You know, I read that book one summer but I cannot remember much about it, save for really not liking either of the main characters. What miserable losers.

      Thus, there is a further argument of not simply should the relation be documented, but to what degree is it necessary to describe the act(s). GRRM might be given a bit of a pass with regards to reporting the activity happens, because it further roots the depravity of the individuals in plac, but the level of detail is better left to so called Romance novels with some Fabio model on the cover.

      “. . . to what degree is it necessary to describe the acts . . .” Exactly. I’m all for it if it serves the story or the vibe or mood of a book, but even then it’s a fine line. I suppose there’s no easy answer, but comments like yours help us fumble towards it. Thanks, and I hope you comment more in the future!

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