Going beyond the bedroom door …
Recently, an article written by novelist Maeve Haran in The Telegraph hit on a common problem for writers and especially writers of romance: how to write that perfect sex scene.
It’s something I had to face a few months ago. One novel that I’ve been working on for a few years now (I’m a very slow writer!) hinged on a crucial sex scene. I had to find out if I could do it (the writing, not the actual act itself!). My first foray into the experiment was with a scene for a long short story I was in the middle of writing – and I hadn’t even reached the bit where the hero and heroine got together. I’ve never worked harder on a piece of writing. I spent months on a piece of text barely two pages long! How could I create that tender mood? How could I make it sensual? When to time it in the story? What to call the body parts? It was a nightmare. Is there anything even vaguely erotic or romantic about the words used to describe the male sexual parts? Even worse are the ones used for women! And it is so subjective. One person’s eroticism is another’s vulgarity.
Ms Haran cited Birdsong and Atonement as having tender, erotic sex scenes which work but I can think of others in slightly less highbrow novels. Nora Roberts’ Hidden Riches is one. The author has the two main characters battling their growing attraction until we are desperate for them to get together. The sexual tension ratchets up to such an extent that it pops off the page. Interestingly for me, the writer gets them together physically before the emotional knots are ironed out. Untangling those continues the tension until the very end. But I won’t give that away!
Another example, which springs to mind, is Fiona Walker’s Snap Happy. Juno, a happy-go-lucky comedienne, finds herself landed with a surly but sexy New Yorker for a flatmate. They sleep together at the beginning of the book in a realistically described and very funny one-night stand that affects both of them far more than anticipated. The writer then teases us by keeping them arguing and misunderstanding one another until the resolution. I gave this to a friend, citing it as one of my favourite sex scenes only to have it rejected – she didn’t like the size eighteen heroine – the very reason I liked it so much! Written sex is as subjective and divisive as the real thing.
One of my all time favourite films is Ten Things I Hate About You. In this American high school update of The Taming of the Shrew, Kat is sent to the school counsellor only to find the woman writing a sex scene for her romantic novel. After trying out a lot of hopeless vocabulary, Kat supplies her with the word ‘tumescent’. It demonstrates just how fine the line is between laughable and sensual. As I pore over my laptop, while trying to create that elusive mood, the scene often springs to mind. And it doesn’t help at all!
Jilly Cooper, wise lady that she is, once said that to make a sex scene work, the reader has to care about the characters. Perhaps that’s the real key to it all?
Latterly, I’ve erred on the ‘leave them at the bedroom door’ side of writing sex. It’s more fun to use your imagination. And it means I avoid having to find ways of describing things which are too difficult to put into words! Tumescent members anyone?