1. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Explicit sex scenes in non-erotic novels.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by TDFuhringer, Feb 4, 2014.

    If this is in the wrong place, I apologize. The question is cross-genre so I wasn't sure where to put it.

    How do you react to explict and/or erotic scenes in a non-erotic novel, such as a supernatural suspense or a low fantasy?

    So far, there are two explicit sex scenes in my fantasy novel, For Want of a World. Here's why. The first is a counterweight, contrasting the second. In the first, the character knows he's being used and resents it, and is unable to enjoy the act beyond physical pleasure, because he's incapable of true intimacy. In the second, after the main story (problem) climax, the main character's (arc) climax and the action climax (I do like a lot of climaxes) the main character, having resolved his emotional issues, finally opens up to genuine intimacy. So we have a sex scene showing (rather than telling) this, where his partner literally and figuratively washes the blood from his hands and then makes love to him in a healing way. This scene is also important because it resolves the sexual tension between these two characters that has been building for two-thirds of the book.

    I have no problem with writing the scenes (though it's incredibly tough to do it without resorting to cliche, being overly clinical, or sounding completely ridiculous), I actually enjoy the challenge, and I feel they are not only necessary, but critical to the plot. The problem I have is... readers.

    I've explicitly described food, drink, dreams, physical discomfort due to being cold, wet, hot etc., violence, pain and magic (with a strong emphasis on how it feels to use magic) so I feel it would be a major cop-out to suddenly gloss over the intimacy/sex since that would be inconsistent and my readers will notice.

    If I leave the scenes out completely, I will be emasculating the main storyline. But I have the impression that some readers are really not going to like sex scenes in their fantasy. (I consider this astoundingly hypocritical, since making love is normal and sane, whereas beheading and gutting and murdering is not, but people seem to have no problem reading all that shit and lapping it up like dogs)

    How would YOU handle the sex in this situation? Would you give in and tone it down or remove it, knowing it might get you a wider audience, or would you stick to the dictates of the story, knowing it will reduce your potential readership?


    P.S. I'm happy to pigeon-hole my novel as a fantasy novel, but the fact is there's action, romance, suspense, mystery, history and emotional introspection... I use whatever elements work to move the story forward, and I think more is better than less when it comes to genre-blending, so long as the overall genre is not lost in the mix.
     
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  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I believe it depends on your readership, the story, your characters, and if it is more than gratuitous. I see no reason sex scenes are limited to erotic novels. But I can't imagine reading a sex scene with Harry Potter doing more than kissing.

    I've left some of the decisions for later on how much to reveal directly and how much to imply in my own novel. Sex plays a semi-key role, and I definitely need to avoid some of the tropes surrounding virginity, my protagonist is a virgin and not a virgin at the same time, and the reason has nothing to do with morality. (I'll leave the mystery at that for now. ;))

    There is a heavy social commentary on sex trafficking that I'm afraid will turn readers off if they aren't expecting it in the genre and I don't handle it right. Already in my critique groups when it's come up, the reaction was one of mistaking the intent of including the scenes which they thought lacked credibility the scenes would happen. But they do happen, all too often in real life.

    So I have some work to do.
     
  3. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I don't get your dilemma. You said it yourself - it's critical for the story. Do what serves the story best. If you've handled it tastefully and it falls within the tone and style of what you've already set up, why should anyone have a problem with it?

    The ones who hate sex scenes can skip ahead, and miss something pretty special, but that's their choice. It's only gratatuous sex scenes I don't like. But if your sex scenes hold purpose, that should come across and thus, would not be a problem.
     
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  4. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Though I haven't read your story, I have to disagree with you on this point. I don't read supernatural and fantasy novels, but I do read a lot of 19th century novels. The British masters -- authors like Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot -- could and did write stories saturated with sexual tension. And yet nowhere in their novels can you find a sex scene, let alone an explicit sex scene.

    That's because their writing reflected the culture of their day, of course. I realize that. But it also showed us how great writers can write convincingly about escalating sexual tension without explicit sex scenes, about overwhelming anger without F-bombs falling like rain, and about epic violence without descriptions of what has become mindlessly routine in books and movies today -- exploding cars, bullets tearing flesh apart, etc., etc.

    I think this skill is one reason Austen, Eliot, et al., are properly regarded as great writers today. They developed such a command of their craft that they could convey tremendous action and emotion without resorting to coarse physical imagery. That is no small feat.

    You may not agree with me, but I think that's a skill worth studying and trying to emulate.

    One objection I'll anticipate and answer: Yes, but this isn't the 19th century. Today's audiences expect and demand explicit depictions of sex and violence, and if you want to sell, you must produce what the market demands.

    My answer: Some audiences expect and demand such things. Other audiences reject them. As a writer, you choose -- consciously or by default -- the audience you're appealing to.
     
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  5. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well the big one is at the end. The end end, as in the last chapter. Long way to read to find out there's going to be a sex scene. Problem is the first one. It's nagging at me. It's not right somehow. Ah well, I'll figure it out eventually.
     
  6. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh I agree with you @David K. Thomasson . It just isn't who I am, yet. My voice is not yet 100% sealed in stone, so there's room for a few adjustments. My use (or non-use) of sex scenes is one of the areas where there's wiggle room. I'm still in the developmental stage, both voice and process. I know I want to go one way or the other, all or nothing, no wishy-washy, I just have to decide which way to go.

    When I was young, Irving Wallace, Ken Follett, Jean M. Auel all had successful careers based on books with explicit sex (and I loved their books). But that was a few decades ago. Things have changed. My point in asking this question is to gauge the current book-reading (and book-buying) audience.
     
  7. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    I think you're underestimating the general public with this one. If there's violence in the book, they'll probably expect some sex. Look at friggin' Game of Thrones. I've been told there wasn't as much sex in the books, but there had to have been some for it to leak into every episode of the TV show.
    I don't think you'll be narrowing your audience at all, unless your audience includes very young children and fundamentalist bible nuts. Just my opinion :)
     
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  8. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    There are many audiences with widely varying tastes.
     
  9. aClem
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    aClem Active Member

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    From my perspective, the crux of the biscuit is not that it's a sex scene but whether it intentionally strives to excite (sexually). I have written a fair amount of non-erotic stories about sex, which contained sex scenes that were basically PG. My intent was not to excite the reader but to tell a story that necessarily included sex. I'm not saying this is how you need to go, but if you don't want your scene to SEEM to be gratuitous or pornographic, you need to avoid pornographic style writing... "he ran his *** along her *** and she *** his *** with her ***, *** and bla bla bla.

    I have no idea if avoiding that sort of thing would work in your context. But I do believe you can be somewhat explicit and still not give the impression you're writing porn.
     
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  10. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting @aClem . I hope my food scenes make people hungry and my scary scenes make people scared. Is it such a bad thing if my sex scenes make people horny? (Genuine question, not being facetious) This is a genuinely complex issue.
     
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  11. aClem
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    aClem Active Member

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    Well, I don't see anything wrong with erotica or even straight ahead porn, but the issue is whether it will cause problems in a story whose main theme is not erotic. I am hardly an expert on marketing, probably the contrary. Still, I can imagine it being harder to market if there are graphic sex scenes. But as I say, I am a marketing idiot. Maybe this is what the world is waiting for?
     
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  12. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Kitchen sink writing style. Every genre, everything that could excite or offend, every style all in one book! The new novel! :D
     
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  13. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    Based on what you say as to the reason for the first scene, it makes sense and belongs there, as does the second one. The question is on the need for specific physical detail. If things don't go well, must the reader experience every thrust to know that? Wouldn't the conversation that follows the event, with recriminations flying, be enough? That's the meaningful emotional part because it dictates their behavior and attitudes more than does the failure itself.

    But that aside, if you do decide to go with the act, think in terms of emotion, not plumbing. Facts are boring, but gossip excites and entertains.
     
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  14. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's one of the reasons why I like the second scene. It's 90% tenderness and vulnerability followed a brief bit of plumbing, which could be rendered more tastefully. The first one however doesn't feel right. It feels prurient and tacked-on. I know why it's there, but the reader doesn't, and I'm asking for a lot of trust.
     
  15. AlannaHart
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    AlannaHart Contributing Member

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    Why not take it out and have a conversation that highlights his discomfort about it, then? Or cut to directly after the fact and describe how miserable he is? If you don't trust the scene yourself, no one else is going to.
     
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  16. obsidian_cicatrix
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    obsidian_cicatrix I ink, therefore I am. Contributor

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    Just had to pick up on this.

    It's true there is very little sex in A Song of Ice and Fire. It is not gratuitous, and always says something deeper about the characters.

    It's not a question of 'leakage.' :) Many fans of the books were quite annoyed at how HBO constantly popped gratuitous nudity and sex into the mix. It's so OTT and unnecessary for the story telling. It's obviously all about the viewing figures. The most outstanding sex scene, for me, and perhaps the most telling, should occur during the next series to be aired. I'll be curious to see how it comes across on screen. It is considered taboo from many perspectives, but the point of it's inclusion was to highlight the differing motivations of the couple. At the rate HBO are going, they are likely to give it its own episode. Maybe two. (That was a joke.)

    Certainly HBO believe sex sells. Is their product better for ramping up the sex factor? Personally, I think not.

    Having said that, I do like a well written sex scene. Talk of 'plumbing' wouldn't put me off, although, depending on how it's written, it might bore me.

    I was thinking of my two favourite literary sex scenes. One is really short and so blunt as to bruise the eyes. There's no love there. None. Despite the vulgar tone and the gross detail, I feel the scene works because we see the couple together and realise any hope we have for them to find love is doomed to failure. We can clearly see that they are using each other for their own ends. The author could have chosen to express this another way but, as it stands, the brief scene says reams.

    The other is the polar opposite. It goes on for several pages in a dream-like haze of thoughts, feelings and sensations, and reinforces the readers belief that the couple belong together.

    So even one reader can have varied taste when it comes to it. It's all about the quality of the writing and what the inclusion does for the overview that is important, to me at least.

    Edit: And to answer your original question, TD. I wouldn't tone it down, just because. If it has good reason to be there, why should I?
     
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2014
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  17. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    It's been done in fantasy before, so can't see why you couldn't do it. You have your reasons for the scenes, just like you have for your fight scenes, eating scenes, etc.

    I'm not entirely sure, so this is just a hunch, but unlike with e.g. fight scenes, the type of language used in sex scenes can make it or break it for the reader. The author might use euphemisms and circumlocutions that annoy a less timid reader or get too raunchy and gross out those with a more delicate taste. I think as long as the scene fits the tone of your manuscript, it should be fine even though the genre isn't erotica. Joe Abercrombie doesn't flinch at the usage of 'cunt', but hey, he writes gritty, dark fantasy, so saying stuff like "her sex" would just look unnecessarily coy (I haven't read all his novels though, but at least this was the case in The First Law and Best Served Cold).
    But this is just my opinion.

    No.
     
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  18. 123456789
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    123456789 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Totally agree, how well or poorly you write your lunch, fighting, and bathroom scenes is exactly how well or poorly you're going to write your sex scenes. It all boils down to the author's power and how he chooses to present his world. If your sex scenes come off as very erotic, it should probably be fair to say that the rest of your novel is meant to be as well. I've never read Joe Abercrombie, because he wasn't around when I was kid, but I imagine the point of his sex scenes is NOT to be erotic.
     
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  19. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Oh, I haven't even read the rest of this thread yet, but I TOTALLY TOTALLY TOTALLY agree with you here. And unless the book is written specifically for children—and these would probably not contain gory murders either—I think you should go for it.

    Sexual relationships get to the heart of what characters are really like. To 'shut the door' in Victorian prudery mode every time they have sex, just cuts off so much we need to know about the people and relationships you are writing about.

    We go inside characters' heads when they murder people, for cripe sake—and that's acceptable to readers, apparently. And yet, when it comes to how a character feels during sex, or what they do to/for their partners during sex, we so often shrink away. I think that's insane.

    Yes, by all means, put the sex scenes in there, the way you think they need to be. I know I did in my novel. I was worried, at first, that readers wouldn't be able to see beyond them, but that's not been the case at all. Very pleasant surprise.
     
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2014
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  20. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I don't see anything wrong with a sex scene if it fits the genre. (So, no to children's and some religious books). While reading, we are experiencing the story along with the POV character. Sex can be an important experience that changes the story. Why should that get relegated to briefly telling, not showing?
     
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  21. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Exactly. Well said.
     
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  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I think it depends on how it blends with the rest of the novel. If the rest of your novel is spare on description, but the sex scenes are in HD clarity, a reader might wonder if the rest of the novel is just an excuse for the sex scenes. But as long as the scene fits, stylistically and in terms of relevance, with the rest of the novel, and there are no restrictions imposed by the target market, then go for it.
     
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  23. L.T.
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    L.T. Member

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    Not everyone may agree with it, but I have read many books where they let you know up front, just like a movie, that there may be scenes that some readers would not want to stumble upon unexpectedly.

    For example, at the end of my book summary, I put the following:
    "[Book Title] is a New Adult (NA) Contemporary Romance about a woman finding herself after years of trying to recover from an abusive past. It is recommended for mature audiences due to mild language, sexual content, violence and reference to alcohol and illicit drugs."

    Of course, being a romance novel, some may already expect this, but I have read plenty of romance books that did not contain sex scenes. After reading many reviews, I have saw that some people can be easily offended if sex scenes are sprung on them.
     
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  24. SuperVenom
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    SuperVenom Contributing Member

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    To be fair the first sex scene sounds like it isn't erotic, and writing it in a clinical way might help the feels of the MC come across (seriously, why in these posts is it easy to make innuendos?), if there is no enjoyment where is the erotica. The partner could be the most sexual being on earth, but we the reader are invested in the MC more. Plus life has sex, just like erotica can have a plot lol, so sometimes as long as it is not forced into it and the plot runs into it, i cant see a problem.
     
  25. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I'm not entirely sure I understood you correctly. If there's an explicit and erotic sex scene in a novel, it doesn't mean the entire novel is meant to be erotic.

    I wouldn't call my and Kat's WIP an erotic story, but it does have one explicit, erotic sex scene. Sex plays a minor role in the story and I definitely wouldn't label it as erotica or even an erotic story even though there are such elements in it.

    As for Abercrombie... I think it depends on what kind of sex you see as erotic: if you like soft music, candle light, and soft caresses, Abercrombie's scenes probably won't work for you, but e.g. if you enjoy a hard fuck in a crummy medieval inn while people are drinking and fighting outside the room, it might get you going. Different strokes and all that since I don't think he's going out of his way to be disgusting or anything, just moderately graphic in a rather dirty, gruff setting.

    I never understood why horrific, graphic violence is okay but sex is still a big no-no. If I write for adults, I expect them to be familiar enough with the birds and the bees that they're not squeamish about a sex scene portrayed in detail equal to that of the action scenes in the same book. If they are disturbed by explicit sex scenes, I'd imagine they're at least as disturbed by explicit violence, and that makes me wonder why they'd read a book containing either to begin with (like those of Joe Abercrombie).
     
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