Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TTYU Retro: A Character-driven Approach to Kissing Scenes and Sex Scenes

The day I tried to write my first sex scene was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I'd avoided it for a long time, and then I realized that the story I was writing demanded it (not the first time I'd changed what I felt I was capable of due to the demands of a story). I had this idea of what had to happen, and I tried to write it. When I got through I realized it had devolved into a succession of meaningless generic actions and disconnected body parts.

It was awful. And, I realized, it was "sex-driven" in a bad way, the same way that stories can seem pointless and over-wrought when they are too heavily driven by plot.

Something changed for me at that point. I realized that that the point of a sex scene was not the sex.

Why do we need sex scenes? I suppose for erotica that they would be part of the point, but in my stories that's not it at all. In my stories, I have two people developing a relationship, and what is most important is what that relationship means to them, and how it changes them. I had already figured that out for kissing scenes, so that was where I went when I had to re-think the sex scenes.

As I see it, a first kiss is a form of communication between the characters. Tension may be building - and this is something I do by having the characters become more aware of one another physically, say, noticing for the first time the way the other person's throat moves when he drinks - but somebody starts it. The other person then has to decide whether to permit the kiss, and whether to return it. Internalization is critical here. Too little internalization and it will seem like I've slapped the kiss on from my position as author. More internalization may make it seem like the poor character is in agony trying to make the decision (which he or she may be!). Occasionally, since this is a big turning point in a story, I'll switch points of view and place the kiss itself at a chapter break so I can then move into the recipient's head and gauge the reaction.

What is important is not the movements. Yes, we can say "oh, this is how far they went this time." But what is important for me in a kiss is the nature of the communication - the psychological conditions that permit someone to take the chance, and the experience of the other person in response.

A sex scene is the same for me. The question is much less "how far did they go" but "what did they decide to do and why, and how did it affect the way they will interact in the future?"

I therefore place my focus on the characters. I start by asking, "What significance does this scene have for the characters, and for the story as a whole?" That will help me gauge what is necessary. If the scene is incidental, like a scene demonstrating that a character has sex as part of his everyday life and doesn't think much of it, then it will get a lot less attention. You'll see where the couple make their decision, and follow through with little detail, the critical ingredient being what the act means, and what it does for the characters, rather than what they do. I have one scene where a character makes love with his girlfriend because this is something relatively normal that they do often, and it helps him to release anxiety from the earlier part of his day.

The buildup for a first sex act is usually much longer. This I think is natural because, compared to kissing, the first occasion of such intimacy has far greater significance - and much greater possible disasters associated with it. Romance novels, after all, can spend almost the entire book getting there! What I have found, though, is that in this case the physical act itself is far less important. I can build up the psychological conditions necessary, and once the two characters have made the decision to act, I can end the scene. The only reason I might include physical details is if there is some consequence of the act itself that must be experienced in order for readers to understand the characters as they carry forward.

All of this is to say that I recommend including only the most character-relevant details in a story, either when you're dealing with a kissing scene or with a sex scene (or anything else, for that matter!). Keep the motivations, the decisions, the justifications, whatever it is. Keep the mental states that matter in the front of your lens, and let all physical details follow directly from them. It's the best way I have found to create a scene of intimacy that actually fits the characters I'm working with, and matters to the story, without letting things fall into clich├ęd motions and lists of body parts.

Update:
I thought I'd revisit this post because I recently wrote a scene that demanded more than my usual amount of attention to the "sex part." Note that I didn't say "parts" - but this scene was one I had been building up to for a very long time, and it required me to go all the way through the sex for several very specific reasons. The process I'd been going through as I went through the story over the long term was making a mental list of ways that the two people were not compatible or would not consider one another, and then knocking them down one by one through the events of the story. At the point where they became intimate they had to have quite a deep discussion about it - so that was how I covered the "why," but because both characters were important, and both viewed physical intimacy in vastly different ways, how they did what they did became very important. What did each one consider "too normal" to be appropriate in intimacy with the other? What did each one consider frightening? What did they consider not worth noticing (say, whether the lights were on or off) and where did they put special attention? The other reason that I had to carry through was that the fact that they consummated the sex is actually very important to the way they will interact in the future. This is to say that the relevance questions haven't changed, but in some cases the story and relevance questions will demand the entire scene, and sometimes they will not.


It's something to think about.


16 comments:

  1. This got me thinking...Oh, my! But...I read somewhere that when writing about different species, I'm thinking alien, that being specific may be...okay. I'm not thinking erotic, here, but...I don't know. I have a story where human and alien marry. If the "act" is important, I'm wondering how far should I go...

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    1. E. Arroyo, you certainly don't want people to feel disoriented or like they don't know what's going on when dealing with an alien encounter. How far you should go will depend on the needs of the characters and the story, and the genre (erotic or not). If the character is encountering alien physiology for the first time, surely they will "notice things." If they've been together for a while, then a lot more will be "normal" and should be treated as such, i.e. receive less focus than the current psychological concerns each has with intimacy. Those are my thoughts.

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  2. Great post! I've recently found myself venturing into these waters - the characters and the story demanded some intimate scenes and yes - there was blushing the first time I wrote such a scene! And yes, as a critiquer, I've read many "disconnected body part" scenes. Anatomy lessons do not equal sexy or even interesting reads. I think that's the final frontier we learn as writers! :-)

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    1. Terri, I'm glad you liked the post. There is a place for anatomy, but only as it integrates seamlessly into the demands of the story, characters, and genre. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. I'm writing a story about a 12 year old boy who was sexually abused as a child. He doesn't realize what effect it might have had on him until he tries to take an innocent kiss from another 12 year old too far bacause he thinks the behavior is normal. This is not a children's book at all. I want the character to attempt something fairly adult. How do I handle this without putting off the reader. They are children after all.

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    1. Norman, my approach to this would be to do a lot of research into the effects of sexual abuse on the psychology of young people. That will give you a lot of ideas about how much will be remembered, how much importance it will be given by the victim, and how much it will affect his behavior. I can see him not knowing that he's going too far, but seeing it as "normal" may not be precisely what's going on. The biggest risk for having it put off the reader is to have it seem unrealistic, i.e. disconnected from what would actually occur in a young victim of sexual abuse. A grounding in reality will help you know what to take farther, and what to leave alone.

      I hope that helps. Thanks for the comment!

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    2. Thanks Juliette. That helps a lot. I only ever considered one possible direction to take the character.

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  4. This is a highly relevant post for me, because I've been wrestling for months with a scene not yet written in which two characters have their "first kiss" -- except they come from a culture that doesn't kiss, and to complicate matters further courtship is done through and about families. Oh, and they're lesbians, which is not so much taboo as not really on the cultural radar, so they don't totally have the vocabulary to express their feelings verbally. The consequence of this is that the scene that would normally be a fairly routine kissing scene (not that I've ever written one of those, so it's still a bit embarrassing, but I've read oodles) is now hovering uncertainly between ambiguous and a little too sexual for these characters at this time. Your thoughts here have helped me to see another piece of the puzzle, though I'm not totally sure if it's a sky piece or an ocean one yet, so thanks for this post.

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    1. Phoenix, thanks for your comment! It sounds like you have a lot of pieces to put together in understanding how this one has to go. Good luck with it!

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  5. Great post! the first time I wrote one, I felt awkward, but I soon got over it. Actually I was going to comment on your action scene post from last week, that a lot of what you said in the beginning of that post could be applied to writing a sex scene. You can't have a laundry list of actions in a fight scene, nor in a love scene, both would result in skim-worthy prose. I think people forget that it's the emotional connection that needs to be shown...

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    1. Yes, Angela, fight scenes and sex scenes have quite a number of similarities. I'd also emphasize the existence of personal boundaries beyond which one would not be willing to go... those are present in fight scenes as well, but obviously they are a bit different.

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  6. I took a creative writing class in college and one of our assignments had been to write a sex scene. I deliberately took a zero on the assignment because I just could not do it at the time. One, I was a virgin. How could I write something I had no personal experience with? All I knew was the biological aspect to it and what other people wrote about sex. Two, it was just one scene. How could I write such a scene void of any lead-up or idea of the characters? And three: it was just too embarrassing and personal. I didn't read erotica and avoided watching sex scenes in movies for that reason.

    I still haven't tried to write one yet. But for now, that's because it hasn't been appropriate for my stories. At least so far. I do know that when the time comes to have a sex scene in one, I'll be much more capable of writing it than I had been back then. And it won't be some random scene with no connection to anything else.

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  7. Great post! I've never had a problem writing sex scenes. I've never felt embarrassed or shy about writing about something that's so natural and human. I generally write SF and have recently switched to YA SF. Now I'm having the opposite problem, in that I have to censor myself and NOT include the details I normally would and this is causing me stress. Now I'm not sure how much is too much for my intended audience :/

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    1. If it were me, I'd do a lot of reading of the genre, and talking to young people to see how they might think about these issues. Let the psychology of your audience guide your choices. Thanks for the comment!

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  8. This is such a helpful post. I've found myself dancing around the relationship of my main character and her love interest, even though I've always intended for them to be attracted to each other (won't necessarily get what they want). I don't write romance, and I think I might be avoiding the situation b/c I don't know how to write it. This post really helps clear some things up and makes it not seem so mysterious. Thanks!

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    1. Monica, thanks! I'm really glad it was helpful.

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