During the last week, I’ve been reading a thriller written in the early 1980’s by Ken Follett entitled The Key to Rebecca. I’d read his The Eye of the Needle when it first was published and loved it. Follett had written an explicit sex scene in that book, as I recall, so the sex scenes in Rebecca haven’t been a surprise to me. On GoodReads, however, I read several comments complaining about the sex scenes in Rebecca being too explicit, even pornographic.
As a writer, I appreciate that it’s difficult to write sex scenes, and I’ve written before at this blog about writing love scenes and writing sex scenes. Rebecca provides a good example of how to write successful sex scenes that reveal character and move the story forward. Follett does a masterful job of this.
First, in Rebecca, Follett reveals motivation for each character with stunning (and refreshing) clarity. We learn early what Alex Wolff wants that will drive his behavior. He is a user. He uses people to achieve his goals. Part of this strategy is to ferret out their weaknesses, assess their strengths, and then figure out how to gain power and control over them to achieve his goals. Sex is a part of his arsenal. He recognizes that he does not see sex as an expression of love or affection. It is about gaining physical pleasure for himself as well as power over his partner. He calls it “lust.”
Major Vandam’s motivation focuses on insuring that the British defeat the Germans in Egypt. He works in military intelligence in Cairo but possesses a much higher level of integrity and morality than Wolff. Sex doesn’t really enter into his personal actions to achieve his goal because 1) he’s focused on his job and taking care of his son, 2) he’s a recent widower and 3) he doesn’t see sex as a tool of control and power. He is a lover not a user. However, his job requires him to recruit people who may end up in the thrall of the lustful Wolff, and he’s not above encouraging his operatives to use sexual attraction to gain Wolff’s interest and lure him out.
And finally, there’s Elene Fontana, who’s real name is Abigail Asnani. She wants to go home. What “home” means for her, however, remains a mystery to the reader for a while, as well as a mystery to Elene, for what she thinks she wants may not be what she really wants. She has been traumatized in her childhood, and has spent the last few years working as a kept woman for a series of wealthy businessmen. She has used her body and her beauty to survive in Cairo, but deep down she’s not happy about it. Her ambivalence toward sex will provide interesting developments as the story progresses and she meets Vandam.
Understanding the characters gives the sex scenes during the story meaning. Seeing how they respond in that intimate, vulnerable situation reveals character. Some of the sex scenes function as a way to move the story forward as when Wolff recruits his “friend” Sonja, with her own sexual goals, to seduce his target. Reading a sex scene essentially devoid of emotion can be disturbing unless the reader can put it into the context of the characters’ motivations.
Once or twice I thought, as I read, that a sex scene could have used a bit more editing to increase suspense in the layering of motivations and action. But otherwise, I thought Follett succeeded in the way he made sex an important element of the story. The next time you read a novel that includes sex scenes, ask yourself about the characters’ motivations, how the sexual behavior reveals character or moves the story forward. Sex, after all, is a part of human life and can be a powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox for creating riveting stories and human characters.