By Karen Wills
Sex scenes. When, why, and where do they belong in novels? Sex is as important in fiction as in real life. And fiction incorporates particular reasons involving plot and structure for characters to engage in passion. The engaging, its reason for being, its character revelations, and its aftermath, even those details shown and not shown, should enhance the story
I’ve written scenes of passion into River with no Bridge (out June 21). As my protagonist, Irish-Catholic Nora, moves through life, she experiences love, or in one case lust, with three men. I hope readers will sense that the totality of these relationships, and her very different partners, move her from virginity to becoming a sensual lover. Sexual attitudes reveal so much about our characters and their changes.
Sex scenes can also be ugly precursors to damaging consequences for characters victimized by coercion. I’ve just read City of Light, a historical novel set in Buffalo, New York, at the time of the Pan American Expo. Author Lauren Belfer incorporates in one episode a depiction of women’s lack of empowerment at the turn of the century. The protagonist is coerced into having sex with Grover Cleveland. She uses details (“Your stomach like a rubbery cushion”) to show how frightening and disorienting forced sex is and how it determines so much of the story that follows.
After City of Light, I turned to Montana Women Writers own Deborah Epperson’s latest novel, Shadows of Home. Two former teenage lovers reclaim that status in several detailed scenes of passion renewed. Lovemaking is shown as their key to rediscovery and joyful reunion. It’s also a means of healing rifts, stress, and misunderstanding.
A sex scene should only be used as needed to move the story forward. The introduction of lovemaking changes characters’ relationships. A sex scene just to have a sex scene will never work. Authors often struggle with the verbal details of the sex scene. The words used can vary depending on the characters. Crude characters tend to use crude words. More refined lovers, and seducers, use a refined vocabulary. Writers also vary in our own ideas of propriety. Modern readers are quite sophisticated and unlikely to be as easily offended as their historical counterparts.
Remember the language of a sex scene belongs to the character, not the author. If the story needs the scene then use it. There are many ways to write sex scenes. Every sentence should move the story forward and show us what our characters desire or fear.