Sex scenes can be truly difficult to write and write well so that they move the story forward or reveal character or both. The question I usually ask myself — how does this scene reveal character or move the story forward? — before I decide to include a sex scene or not doesn’t really apply, I’ve discovered, if you’re writing bodice-ripper style romance novels. Then the question becomes more about how well to write the scene — how much of the physical action to include vs. the emotional action — and if an explicit sex scene is consistent with your characters’ beliefs and behavior. I’d also question whether or not the sex is gratuitous, because after all, sex does sell.
This reminds me of an experience I had years ago with a movie called Die Hard starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. The first time I saw this movie was on TV. It had been edited for length and content, but I didn’t think about the parts that I were missing. The version I saw on TV was highly entertaining — suspenseful, twisty, and really fun. Then I decided to buy my own copy of the movie for my movie library. I purchased what was available at the time, looking forward to seeing this fun movie again. When I viewed it, I discovered all the parts that had been edited out for the TV broadcast — primarily explicit violence — and was startled by how little the edited parts added to the story or character development. In other words, I would not have missed those edited parts if they hadn’t been included.
Sex scenes are similar. Sometimes sexual tension or the suggestion of sex going on behind the scenes is far more effective because they don’t stop the action or forward momentum of the story. And they’re not nearly as boring. I’ve now read two historical romance novels in which the authors chose to stop the forward momentum of the story and character development to have the romantic leads have sex with each other for 100+ pages in various ways, in various places, and with a varying degree of explicitness — and nothing else. The story just stops. And after about 15 pages of this, it gets really boring. At least for me.
The most recent novel I read, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, included explicit sexual violence, including rape, against the main female character. This historical bodice ripper takes place in 1743 in the Scottish Highlands where the men are depicted to be far from sophisticated or considerate — as far as they are concerned, a wife is their property and they can do whatever they want to her and she cannot complain about it. Loving a woman essentially means fucking her whenever and however they want. At least, that was the message I understood from this particular historical novel. It really disappointed me. I got to the point where I thought that really, Gabaldon was a good writer and it was a shame she was wasting her skill on these scenes that went nowhere. But sex sells.
While Jamie and Claire were characters with a lot of potential, I thought all but a few of the sex scenes could have been cut in favor of focusing on the development of their emotional and intellectual intimacy, how they get to know each other as people rather than only as two bodies. The last 100 pages of the book gives them a wonderful opportunity to deepen the emotional connection and trust between them, and to perhaps broaden Jamie’s realizations that there’s far more to Claire than he thought. There are glimmers of this possibly happening, but I did not see it coming to the fore and going to another level for their relationship.
I know that there’s a market/audience for this type of bodice ripper romance and perhaps Gabaldon and other writers in that genre feel a responsibility to give their readers what they apparently enjoy. Maybe that’s fine, as long as it’s well written. I know now more than ever that I am not a member of that audience. To me, all those sex scenes could have been cut and not hurt the story or character development at all, just as the gratuitous violence in Die Hard could be cut and not have the movie story suffer at all. To me as a reader, stopping the story for page after page of sex scenes isn’t titillating but boring.
This reading experience has certainly shone a new light on the issue of writing sex scenes. It’s no longer a matter of how to write them well, but whether to include them at all. The question still remains: how does the scene move the story forward or reveal character or both? And I’d add the question: how does the scene (or scenes) affect the pacing of the story’s momentum?