As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read a terrible novel by a writer I generally respect. The book would have been fairly good, had the author not packed it with gratuitous, hackneyed sex scenes that led me to suspect she’d penned it in the midst of an epic battle with menopause, during which she wrote the most explicit scenes she could think up as a means of coping with mind-bending hormone swings and/or reaffirming her own sexuality.
I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the message she meant to send.
Mad props to girlfriend for taking a risk, but she just didn’t have the literary chops to pull it off. Few writers do. Graphic love scenes are problematic for several reasons:
Tone. Let’s face it: Sex is an innately ridiculous act. There’s nothing dignified about it. It’s a biological function that elicits giggles every time it’s mentioned — which makes it difficult to write about while maintaining a serious tone.
Cliches. If you write a steamy scene in clinical terms, it will sound like a biology textbook — or worse. (I can’t read the word “buttocks” without hearing the voice of Forrest Gump.) But euphemisms are no better, because every single one of them is a cliche.
Connotation. Pop culture is full of references to sex — which makes it easy to stumble into unintentional double entendres. One slip, and your tender love scene becomes an episode of Beavis and Butt-head.
Variety. If you include dialogue — which you should — you’ll need dialogue tags. Repetition is the enemy of good writing, but it’s difficult to avoid in a love scene, because your tag options are basically limited to onomatopoeia: Characters in the throes of passion might “gasp,” “moan,” or “sigh,” but they are not likely to “argue,” “complain,” “contradict,” “explain,” “grumble,” “inquire,” “reply,” “retort,” “snarl,” or “stammer.”
Personal embarrassment. Even if your love scene is brilliantly written, you need to be prepared for the consequences of sharing it. People automatically assume you based the protagonist on yourself. Do you really want your boss thinking he knows exactly what you do in bed?
Explicit scenes are generally more trouble than they’re worth. If you’re determined to write one, here is the best approach:
1. Write the steamiest scene you can conjure up, paying close attention to the issues listed above.
2. Have a cigarette afterwards.
3. Use the cigarette to ignite your paper.
4. Watch the flame consume the page, taking care not to set your desk on fire in the process.
5. Finish writing the novel.