Writing About Sex: Love Through Other Eyes

This week, as part of Week 3 of the The Shadow of the Sun Read-Along, nrlymrtl posed me this question:

As we get to know Ellion more and more, we definitely are not spared from his private thoughts, including his romantic thoughts. In making your main character the opposite sex of yourself, what came easy and what came hard? How did you overcome obstacles of those nature?

As always, nrlymrtl asks questions that go down to the center of the earth; and also as usual, my keyboard runneth over. After driling down into the question of  how a woman can write  man’s sexual experience with any sort of confidence, I’m looking at the issue from a broader perspective: how can we as writers write anybody‘s sexual experience, and what can we do with it from a storytelling point of view?

I don’t write erotica, and I suspect much of what I’ll say here does not apply in that venue. As a writer I don’t shy away from intimate sexual detail, but I’m not writing to arouse: when I follow characters past the bedroom door, it’s because what will happen there advances the story, develops character, or–hopefully–both.

First of all, what is sex good for in terms of building story? First, and maybe most importantly, conflict. As writers we know conflict is the engine that drives stories and scenes: internal conflict, external conflict; there are dozens of different types. The writer who takes time to think about it can find endless sources of conflict in a character’s sexual impulses and actions, starting from conflict between what he desires and what he thinks he should desire and spanning the distance to a character whose sexual desires puts him in conflict with society itself.

In The Shadow of the Sun, Ellion’s sexual impulses create sticky situations for a variety of reasons: his philandering has been the cause of a high percentage of the duels he’s fought and his attendant reputation as a man prone to slice others up; in the Tanaan lands, he brings his cultural assumptions about the loose morality of Tanaan women along with him and must constantly talk himself out of his culturally-entrained assumption that any woman who gives him any notice whatsoever is actually coming on to him, whether or not it’s true; he maps his culture’s near-mythologicization of the sexual charms of Tanaan women onto Letitia, rapidly muddling the person who simply needs protection with his culturally-etnrained sexual fantasies. Which, of course, generates further conflict between Ellion, Letitia’s father, and Letitia’s intended consort: not least because she’s got her own reasons for responding in kind.

Another source of conflict that arises from sex: there are well-documented biochemical changes that take place in people who have sex together: biochemical processes that create emotional bonds. A character who might not otherwise have allowed himself to become fully embroiled in a conflict can’t help but respond when his lover is involved. Once they’ve made love, he’s all in, even if his mind knows it’s stupid. Even, sometimes, if their sexual reltionship is over.

Sexual encounters are also a terrific way of revealing character: it is during those periods when humans are at their most open and vulnerable. The private time after sex is likely to be a time when people are fully honest, or as honest as they ever get. And how a character thinks about a sexual partner and about the act itself arise from whatever other emotional baggage they’re bringing along.

A character of a romantic bent, which oddly enough my philandering Ellion is, filters his perceptions far differently from a person of shallower thinking. When I write sexual encounters through his lens, what he sees and thinks arises naturally from how he sees and responds to his partner: a brief dalliance with someone he has just met shifts from a conversation between professionals (in this case, he has just met a female bard, and their meeting begins as shop-talk) to a nearly clinical comparison of the experience to what the stories he’s heard had led him to expect: there’s no emotional involvement to speak of.

But a later sexual encounter, with someone he has developed real romantic feelings for, is almost entirely about the emotions: even his perceptions of her beauty and of the sex act itself are filtered through intense emotion. One of my early readers said, after reading that scene (and no, I’m not telling you who his partner there is: that would constitute a spoiler) that she finally felt she understood Ellion. Because in the course of opening himself up in that encounter, he finally let the reader in far enough for her to understand all the little mysteries he carries around.

What comes hard? nrlymrtl asks. For me, what’s hard is writing sex without throwing the reader out of the moment. There’s no time when it’s more important for the writer to disappear into the cracks of a scene: every word must connect the reader intimately with the character. I work intensely to choose words and images that reflect how the character would experience what’s happening: to stay true to his voice rather than allowing embarrassment to make me reach for euphemisms or a desire to titillate make me reach for detail that doesn’t serve the story. I have to pretend no one but me will ever read the scene, and concentrate on getting it right–and then just move on to the next, to the conflicts whose stakes I have strived to raise while the characters involved forgot to notice the longer-term meaning of what they were doing.

In general, I write sex scenes like I write fight scenes: at their best, I believe, neither is about the physical stuff, but rather about what it means to the characters involved. It’s important to write believable, so as not to distract the reader from the important work we’re doing in these scenes; but if I’ve done my job correctly, at the end of such a scene you know a little more about the character than you did before–and he’s a little deeper in trouble.

Explore posts in the same categories: for writers, my keyboard runneth over, The Shadow of the Sun

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10 Comments on “Writing About Sex: Love Through Other Eyes”

  1. EllionInMyMind Says:

    Less writey ABOUT first book, more writey OF secont book!

  2. nrlymrtl Says:

    This is so spot on. I love my favorite authors, in part, because they get this right. The sex scenes are there to move the story forward and to show us something of the nature of one or more characters. I have often wondered how an author goes about crafting such a scene – and your comment on writing it as if you will be the only one to ever read it, to see the scene through the narrative character and describing it as that character would – that answers many of my questions.

    I have also heard that some writers read aloud their work to another int he final edits. Who do you choose to comb through such scenes in detail?

    • Ohmygod, I think I would die if I tried to read my sex scenes aloud to anyone else. I am in the camp of writers who write in part because talking can be just too hard. Fortunately, I am blessed with a cadre of brilliant first- and beta-readers, and all of them are unflinching in their feedback–and some of them genuinely love my work. So I get ample information on what doesn’t work, and even useful notes on what *does*–as with the early reader who heaped high praise on the scene discussed in this post, by telling me that I had gotten the character reveal just right.

      There is no substitute for early readers. They can give a writer the reinforcement she needs at critical moments–and keep her from going out in public with something stupid.

  3. lynnsbooks Says:

    Hello Missus
    I’ve just nominated you for a Liebster Award – now don’t be offended, I have no idea how many followers you have but I just really wanted to include you to get your answers – also included Dab of Darkness – thought it would be fun for us – actually I should have included the others!!! (Drat – I’m such a bird brain). I know you haven’t got time to take part in all of this because it if TIME CONSUMING – but you could post your answers and tag me back! (It’s against the rules but I love breaking rules!)

  4. lynnsbooks Says:

    Yay, looking forward to your answers.
    Lynn 😀

  5. Amy Says:

    I think writing sex scenes that move the story along are some of the most difficult to write because, as you said, you don’t want to take the reader out of a scene but move it along. That’s why I liked that aspect of the story so much. Yes, there was sex but in no way did it ever take over the story. It just happened, as it does between adults, and causes lots of sticky situations for the characters.

  6. leonardo Says:

    Non mi capita mai di fare commenti sui blog che leggo, ma in questo caso faccio un’eccezione, perché il blog merita davvero e voglio scriverlo a chiare lettere.

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