Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sex Scenes and How to Make Them Relevant

Salutations, my curious congregation. I'm in the process of reading a book and I'm not going to say which one because I don't want to go pointing fingers, but there is a lot of sex. A lot of sex that doesn't have anything to do with the story or with character development. It's not my shtick, but I understand a lot of other people like it. More power to them.

Personally, I'll give you as much sex as you want if it's plot relevant. And one gratuitous sex scene per novel. Two if it's really long or if I'm really into the rest of the story. Four is way too many.

So today I'm going to talk about sex! Namely, how to get your ero bits and them not come off as gratuitous wankery.

Content Warnings: A healthy dose of irreverence, probably some swearing, some candid talk about the naughty bits, brief mention of domestic violence, and a maybe .05% chance of an eagle attacking you in your home.

Additional apologies for my tardiness, darlings, the power was out last night and I wasn't able to get to it until late.


Okay so. For me as a reader you get one gratuitous sex scene before I start bitching about it. One. So how DO you keep sex scenes relevant to the plot? How do you keep them from being gratuitous?

Character Conversations


We'll start with the easy way. They can talk to each other during the deed. And no, dirty talk doesn't count, not just for dirty talk's sake. Half-lidded eyes and the words 'do you want to suck my cock' are not conversation.

Like any bit of dialogue, this should say something about the characters involved that we don't already know.

A man walks into a bar. He finds a blond there and chats her up and takes her home with him. A few hours later we see him pounding away at her shouting the name Lucille. After the fact she lights a cigarette, looks at him sidelong and tells him her name is Cindy. Asshole. And leaves.

What We Learned: Lucille exists. Who is Lucille? Why is this man so obsessed with her? We also find out he's a bit of a jerk for not caring about Cindy's feelings.

The Royal Vizier and a Lady in Waiting meet in an abandoned corridor under the cover of a thieves lantern. He pulls the curtain behind them and shoves her against the wall. As he kisses his way down her throat she asks, "don't you want to know what I found out?"

And he makes her tell him. While he's between her legs and making speaking at an even tone and not drawing attention to herself very difficult.

What We Learned: The Lady in Waiting is a spy. Preferably we learn what s he found out. The Royal Vizier is a playful lover and enjoys exhibitionism and clearly so does this Lady in Waiting.

The cheer captain and the artsy goth girl lie in bed together, not yet undressed. The cheer captain mentions this isn't something she usually does for her friends and the goth girl grabs her by the chin and asks "friends? are we really?"

Goth Girl flips her over and kisses her hard. "Because you wouldn't speak to me if I approached you in public, would you?"

What We Learned: This is an illicit affair on some level. Why? The obvious answer is the cheerleader doesn't want everyone to know she's gay, but it could be cliquish social standing BS. It could also be that Cheer Captain's position in the public eye makes the goth girl vulnerable if they're seen together; her very religious parents wouldn't approve of them.

Establish something.  Even if it's just one character trying to get information out of the other, scenes are built on conflict and imbalance.

But Megan, you might be saying, imbalance isn't healthy! Well, sometimes. But we'll put a pin in that and get back to it.

Character Development

You know what's not gratuitous? Things that change for a character.

If it's the very first time for a pairing, that's character development and it's not just gratuitous sex. You are describing every scar as one character sees it for the first time. You are establishing tones for their relationship. How fast or slow is it? How is their consent? (Bad consent is not a good way to endear a pairing to your readership, but you're still allowed to use it.) What do they say to each other? How confident are they by the time they get here?

If it's the first time in a long time, that's character development too. If they've been separated. A paladin has been in prison for years and gets home to find her girlfriend manning the bakery as always, but she's waited all this time and it's a joyous reunion between two people that are not exactly the same as the ones that parted ways, or a sailor just got back from a five year voyage.

If they've been fighting or something, the make up sex might be character development. But just because it's make up sex doesn't mean it is. If one of them mentioned liking it when the other goes down on them but that it doesn't happen enough and then this sex scene happens to be a blow job, congratulations that's now character growth. Same if one of them is getting over a big deal issue in their lives.

Personally I feel like I've had my fill of 'this is my first gay experience' scenes, but a lot of people haven't. And for that matter, characters on the ace spectrum are allowed to experience attraction and participate in sex. "What?" I heard someone ask. Okay, let me sidetrack for a moment to explain.

There are a lot of layers to asexuality. Not everyone experiences it the same way. An ace character could go years without experiencing sexual attraction but a lot of romantic attraction and then one day have just developed desire for their partner. That's a thing that happens. A character could be demi-sexual. A character could be asexual and just participating to make their partner happy; and yes, that can be healthy!

Allosexuals in the audience, put your hands up if you've ever done something in the bedroom that you didn't get anything out of but you know your partner really likes.

-puts my own hand up-

And why did you do it? Well, I can tell you I did it because what I got out of it was watching my partner enjoy themselves. And no, I haven't always gone into sex looking for an orgasm. I have gone into sex looking to give one. I'm pretty into the idea that I have the power to make another human being lose control like that.

Sex isn't always about sex. So, you know, as long as  your characters aren't being coerced this could be a really interesting perspective to write sex from that wouldn't remotely come off as being gratuitous.

Two rules when dealing with part of the sexual spectrum that you do not belong  to(or honestly really any culture you don't belong to):

1. Do your research, live interviews preferred. I bet you know an asexual person. I know it can be awkward to be like "Hey can you sensitivity read this", but I promise you it's better than just doing what you're doing with no questions asked.

2. Respect the source material. Never under any circumstances make it about "fixing" the character in question. That's gross. If they end up attracted to their partner that way, it doesn't make them not ace anymore. No, it really doesn't. I married a man and I am still 500% attracted to women. No one is revoking my bi card. If a character has attraction to their partner, and doesn't look at other people and have them spark anything at all, they're still ace if they say they are.

Okay now shoving this conversation back on the rails.

Finally, if you're making a point about a character, it's character development. If you have a shy character that spent the first ten chapters of the book barely speaking up, then you get them in the bedroom and they are an absolute tiger, that is character development. Just make sure to hint at it first.

PS, if your character is into bondage, baby alpaca rope is the softest. It's expensive, but not as expensive as a lot of the shit people write into their fantasy dungeons. Go research some knots; even if you aren't going to use it this shit is interesting.

If You're Writing Erotica

The sex is the plot, just go forth and be promiscuous.

Okay, sort of. Not exactly. I read a bit of erotica and all of it has been freebie published online, so I can't exactly talk about the publishing trends but I can tell you  my favorite ero stories still have plot. It's just sex-based plot.

Every scene in The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty centers around the conflict of this woman having been claimed by this man and it's super unhealthy but it's like a train wreck and I could not look away.

Like any other scene, somebody should want something. And someone else should be keeping it from them. Play with power dynamics. Even if the characters are on even footing they don't have to bring the same things to the table.

The Line Between Interesting and Unhealthy

Remember how I put a pin in this earlier? Let's take that down.

Conflict is the life blood of a story. I hear a lot of people getting up in arms like "don't write that, it's not healthy". Okay, sure. But actually, no?

The trend right now is pointing the finger at anything p r o b l e m a t i c. And that's all well and good. A lot of things are problematic. If your female characters are basically furniture, get your head out of your ass. If your minority characters are all cardboard cut outs, get your head out of your ass.

Relationships can be a bit more complicated than that.

I am a domestic abuse survivor. There are some things that are absolute red flags. Some that you shouldn't ignore. But not every single thing should be a red flag, not every single thing ruins a character forever, and you know what? Sometimes power imbalance is what makes the god damn story interesting.

Your characters do not have to be equal in every way. Yes, everyone involved in a ship should bring something to the table, but imbalances happen and--actually. Fuck it that's Thursday's blog. If I try to do it here and now we'll be here all day.

So tl;dr: Make your sex scenes interesting or I'll send the eagles after you.

Fortune Favors,
Megan R. Miller

P.S. Check out Torchlighters if you haven't already? Pretty please?

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