Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex

That's right, you heard me. No matter what the genre, (well maybe not in children's or young adult novels), there's a good chance two of the characters will, at some point, hook up. The question is, when two characters have sex, do you shut the door or leave it wide open for the world to see?

Barry Eisler addressed this issue in a recent interview:
"Mostly I prefer more of the full monty approach, driven as I am by my enduring inner 14-year-old. But here's the right rule of thumb, I think, at least when your inner 14-year-old isn't calling the shots: does it only matter *that* the characters had sex? Or does it matter *how* they had sex? If the only thing that matters is the fact of the sex itself, showing it is unnecessary and will add nothing to the story. But if the way the characters make love is what matters in the story, then not only should you show it, you actually have to show it, or the story will suffer."

I think he has the right approach. Deciding whether or not to include a sex scene should be like deciding whether or not to include any other scene in the book. You should ask yourself: What is this doing for the overall story? How is it helping push the main plot line forward? Is it necessary?

When I was working on my first book, I kind of dodged the bullet when writing about sex. Mayah wasn't in a relationship, wasn't dating, wasn't too concerned with men. There was no sex to be had. But in Street Walk, the main character is a reformed prostitute and the villain is a former john. Sex scenes are inevitable. And admittedly, despite my inner 14-year-old, they were some of the most difficult scenes to write, let alone read aloud. I will never forget how I blushed reading my opening chapter to the critique group. I kept having to stop, take a sip of water, and apologize before continuing. Not to mention when my 85-year-old grandmother read my first three chapters and I had to warn her about twenty times that they weren't exactly PG material. But like Barry says, "You have to show it or the story will suffer."

If I look to my favorite mysteries and thrillers, most, if not all, of them include some sort of sex, love, or seduction. I attribute that in part to my love of hard-boiled mysteries and my aversion to Cozies, but a lot of it has to do with the characters. Love tends to raise the stakes. Take an author like Elmore Leonard. In almost all of his novels he has the protagonist either going after a girl, in love with the wrong girl, getting screwed over by that girl, etc. Love tends to be blind and makes a person do crazy things, and Leonard utilizes that fact in his books.

As a reader, I can do with or without the sex, it's not that important to me. What I do love in novels is the seduction, the lust, the characters' emotions which drive and often steer their actions. Better yet, I love when the object of desire uses a character's feelings to manipulate those actions. But often times, like when I'm reading romantic suspense, I find the sex scenes jarring, unnecessary. I want to scream at the characters, "Get out of bed! Go find the killer!"
But by sticking with Barry's method, asking if "the way" the characters have sex is necessary to the story, that situation can be avoided. How much to show or not show solely depends on the tone of the book and the type of story you're writing. Put sex in a Cozy and you'll be crucified. Same goes for omitting it in a Romance novel. But in crime fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction, it's more of a gray area. Sometimes you need to shut the door and leave it up to the reader's imagination, other times you have to show the reader everything, let them feel the passion and smell the sweat.

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