Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Obligatory Sex Scene


What is that sex scene doing in my book?

The obvious answer is... well... obvious. The real answer is a little more difficult to find.

I'm sure everyone's seen the trend where there must be some kind of sex scene in every book. Perhaps not surprisingly, the obligatory sex scene usually ends up with big author-flags around it saying "Look! It's the obligatory sex scene! Nothing plot-related here at all. If you're a bit sensitive about these things you can skip a few pages and you won't miss a thing. I'm really only doing this because my agent/editor/writer's group said I had to, anyway."

I have - and sadly, this isn't that rare - read books where the obligatory sex scene was actually rather a lot of sex scenes and took up more than half the book. It really doesn't take long to read a book when you skip most of it, and before anyone starts thinking I'm a prude (I'm AUSTRALIAN. Of course I'm not a prude. Australian prudes and wowsers are scarily relaxed about matters sexual by US standards), I skip them because they're boring. We're talking about IKEA sex here, insert tab A into slot B and wiggle a bit until tab A goes limp or someone goes to sleep, usually the reader.

Sometimes the writer gets inventive, and you get the whole IKEA catalog, with every conceivable combination, pairing, tripling and, well, you get the idea. Yet it's still boring.

Let's face it, sex is a lot of fun to do, but difficult to write well. Just about all the sex scenes I've read are in the land of purple prose, where throbbing manhoods thrive and banana and peach metaphors are always in season, or they're at the other extreme, building IKEA furniture and making the exercise about as interesting as IKEA furniture, except you've got to wait up to 9 months for a result then look after said result for the next 20 years - something conveniently neglected by most of said books. Possibly everyone in IKEA-sex land and purple prosalia have magical contraception? (Don't laugh too loud. I knew someone whose role playing game campaigns always included stashes of magical contraception. They were needed, too.)

When I try to think of someone who writes the sex scenes well, I don't get very far. Most of the writers I admire (modern writers afflicted with the need for their characters to get it on or at least threaten to at some point in the book) manage to slip things in offstage or with a convenient scene break after making sure we all know what's going to happen.

So who does do really good sex scenes? Ones that actually belong in the plot and aren't a case of "skip 10 pages and you won't miss a thing"?

I'm not asking for the bad because I've read way too many of those and I don't need any more.


Ori Pomerantz said...

Reading is a spectator sport. I'm not really Chip Connoly fighting the Magh. Neither am I Lucy, fighting for England. I like "watching" them do it, but ultimately I'm not there.

Sex makes a poor spectator sport, at least for me. It does not matter if I watch it or read about it - it doesn't work nearly as well as the real thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

I like Terry Pratchett, when he brings Vimes and his wife together the first time. Okay, it's not sex, but you see how it will be. And good Lord, the end of Venetia by Georgette Heyer where they hug once, I think, has more teeth-grinding passion than the most explicit sex.

And being totally classless, I like my sex scenes in Soul of Fire and Heart And Soul, such as they are. Not in Heart of Light, though, where it is "the obligatory sex scene" which I was forced to write.

And I agree with Ori on spectator sport.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Kate.

If the developing relationship between the two characters and their level of mutual trust is important to the plot, then the sex is important, because it reveals how far they are willing to trust each others.

Have they really let down their guard? Is one of them using sex to distract the other one? Is the sex going to make their relationship worse?

A sex scene, like every scene, should advance the plot or reveal something about the characters. Preferably both.

Kate said...


I'm not fond of gratuitous sex scenes either - but since they seem to be required, I'd like to know how to write good ones.

Kate said...


You are not being classless at all - Soul of Fire and Heart and Soul have wonderful love scenes. They're not "sex" scenes, though - you do it all by implication (and very well, too, as the bishop said to the actress).

Kate said...


Absolutely. I don't agree with sex in books just to have sex in books - but if it forwards plot and/or character development, then yes, it needs to be there.


Dave Freer said...

Any contemporary sexual discovery scene ought to have the obligatory severe laceration of the index finger on the bra-strap. And the part about mistakenly sucking an elbow.

Of the ones I've written - my favorite sex scene has to be Francesca, Manfred and Erik in the Red Cat. I recall that Francesca commented later that Eric was the biggest stiff thing she'd ever had between her thighs. (Ok so you'd have to read it ;-))

Kate said...


Absolutely! Those bra straps are dangerous things. Also overly curious cats, excitable kittens thinking the bouncing bits are new kitten toys and all the other hazards of the deed.

How could I have forgotten Francesca's 'meeting' with Erik and Manfred! Utterly essential to the plot, and hilarious as well.

Dave Freer said...

I shall leave the bit about an over-excited bull-terrier and my twinkly white buttocks to your sordid imagination.;-) It's the kind of real life scene which could only go into a RBV type book because people would say 'too ridiculous.'

Don't you think it might be that we tend to forget the ones that do advance the plot?

Anonymous said...

As far as love scenes that advance the plot go, two of the better ones that come to my mind are Jeff and Gretchen's wedding night in 1632 and Dag and Fawn in Bujold's Beguilement.
I also really do (after I got over the embarrassment) Francesca of the Red Cat meeting Manfred and Erik, it was funny.

"Lady" Dawn

Anonymous said...

Dave, that scene in Shadow of the Lion was hilarious. For a moment there, I thought you were trying to kill off poor Erik with sheer awkwardness and embarrassment :-D

Though, what made it work was what was going on in Erik's mind, not what was going on in Francesca's room. What makes for a good sex scene is that it isn't about the sex; it's about the characters' thoughts and emotions. A good sex scene that drives the plot is one (IMO) where it changes the relationship between the characters involved in some way shape or form. They come out of that bedroom thinking and feeling differently about each other than they did when they walked into it. File under "character development."

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the above: And usually, not only do they end up thinking and feeling differently about each other, they end up thinking and feeling differently about themselves.

Kate said...


My sordid imagination is wondering how you escaped that one with all your everything more or less intact! Bull terriers tend to... um... hang on.

Clearly you persuaded it, since you still have something to sit on ;).

And yes, it's possible that the sex scenes that do advance the plot don't stand out so much as the ones that are obviously gratuitous.

Kate said...

Lady Dawn,

Advancing the plot is always a good thing. Authors who can do the bedroom scenes well and still advance the plot are far too rare. I'd say the Francesca/Erik/Manfred scene definitely puts Dave in that exalted company.

Kate said...


You nailed it. It's what's going on in the character's minds that matters most. I've seen it said that the brain is the biggest and most powerful sex organ, and when you're in - to take what seems to be the popular example here - Erik's mind, utterly mortified by what's happening and getting far too good a view of Manfred's legs and Francesca's... assets, all of it completely against his moral standards... It's brilliantly done.

And you're right, none of them are the same afterwards, and the incident sets off a whole chain of events that cause a lot more fun later in the book. All told, that scene is a perfect example of a good sex scene that's necessary to the plot.

Francis Turner said...

So I'm looking at the list of scenes here (and nodding in agreeement - esp with Lady Dawn) and I think I see something in common. Love/sex scenes generally seem to do better when told from the POV of the inexperienced party. I think that may be because the inexperienced lover is concentrating on feelings rather than mechanics - we don't need to know exactly how slot A fitted in to tab B (or vice versa) and whether Slot A and Tab B also encountered orifices M and N etc. in the run up...

Two other examples of that would be Wen Spencer's love scenes in both Tinker and A Brother's Price

It also seems to me that you want the scene to act as a binding between the parties and somewhat of a promise for better things to come later when everyone is living HEA - or possibly as the bitter sweet memory when one of the parties dies shortly afterwards.

Anonymous said...

Just a quote:

"Look, other bands, they want to make it about sex or pain, but you know, The Beatles, they had it all figured out, okay? "I Want to Hold Your Hand." The first single. It's effing brilliant, right? That's what everybody wants, Nicky. They don't want a twenty-four-hour hump sesh, they don't want to be married to you for a hundred years. They just want to hold your hand."-Thom to Nick: "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"