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Saturday, April 12, 2008

 

Writing sex scenes versus writing porn

I've written about this before, but it's a subject that bears re-examination, because sex scenes are notoriously difficult to write. And, while browsing the Internet the other day, I encountered a most interesting article on the blog of one Greta Christina, a writer who blogs about atheism and sex with equal perceptiveness, and one of her features was an entry called How I Write Porn, which has to be an intriguing question.

The link, be advised, is very possibly not work-safe, as it contains a piece of sample text and some blunt language (also, the author, like most erotica writers, writes the kind of porn she likes to read, which in her case is BDSM, which you may not want your boss to catch you reading), so, though I'd highly recommend the whole thing, and indeed her blog in general, I'll precis it here.

She describes the process of writing porn as a three-stage development, which she defines as the 'skeleton', the 'flesh' and the 'nerves'. The 'skeleton' is what she begins with: a description of a physical action. After that, she develops the 'flesh': descriptions of the sensations and emotions that the action elicits. The 'nerves' are about the meaning, the context and significance of the sex: why they're doing what they're doing, and what it reveals about them.

Greta explains that, while you need a balance between the three, the 'nerves' are the most important part of the story, the part that drives it. Looking at her examples, she's touching on something important (no pun intended with the 'touching on', but as it's a BDSM story, I'd do no better saying 'hit on' or 'struck'): the issue of story versus plot. E.M. Forster famously described the difference between them thus: 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story; 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. With this kind of writing, there's a lot of sense in beginning with the physical actions: porn stories are basically descriptions of who did what, so the physical acts are going to create your story. It's the context, though, the 'nerves', that create a sense of plot. But how does that relate to writing sex scenes where the plot lies elsewhere, sex scenes that are only incidents in a wider, non-sexual plot?

I've never written porn. It sounds like a fun challenge, and I might have a go at it some day if somebody offered to pay me, but mostly I like writing stories about other things. However, I do write stories in which the characters, as people often do, have sex. And it's always important. Sex scenes are the graveyard of many a stylist, particularly when the story you're writing is not erotica.

The thing is, if your story is intended to be a piece of straightforward porn, you can pick a style and go with it. The usual objections to blunt writing are removed; graphic words for body-parts tend to leap off the page in a rather glaring way if your characters spend most of their time dressed. The reader gets to know the characters in, basically, a social context, like you'd get to know a friend, and if your friend suddenly whips out his genitals, it's a bit startling. Overly graphic sex scenes in otherwise fully-clothed books can feel like too much information, like the characters suddenly changing style and going from Regency elegance or lyrical melancholia to porn-speak, which is as disconcerting as if the vicar poured a cup of tea and then started talking dirty. All of which gives a sense of 'whoa!', which is not exactly the mood for sexual bliss. If, on the other hand, the story you're writing actually is porn, there's no reason at all not to use pornographic language. Direct language can be used all over the place without the style taking a lurch.

But if you're not writing porn, you need to match the sex scenes with the rest of the book. At the same time, sex involves unusual sensations and heightened emotions; you can say 'he shook her hand' without missing much, but if you say 'he had sex with her', the reader has missed out on some vital things. What was the sex like? Shaking hands is fairly similar person to person (except for those bastards who try to break your hand while shaking it, who must be stopped), but sex varies a lot. How did it affect their relationship? You can shake hands without it having any real repercussions, but after sex, generally you have to reevaluate your plans. What made them decide to do it? You shake hands because you've met someone or made an agreement with them, but there a wide variety of reasons that people hop into bed. Some kind of sense has to be conveyed.

Reading Greta Christina's article, I started thinking about how I plan and write sex scenes. And the interesting thing is, I do tend to plan them further in advance than most scenes. Rather than beginning with a skeleton, though, I tend to start with a nerve. Or rather, a seed.

Usually, it works like this. At some point, I anticipate, character A is going to do some mattress mamboing with character B. How will it work? What will it be like? Now, I generally don't write sex scenes for the same reason a porn scene is written, which is to say, to arouse the reader. If readers are aroused by my sex scenes, then more power to them, but, while I hope they're not revolted, I'd be a little surprised, because they're generally mood pieces more than movement pieces. That tends to rule out beginning with a physical action, because actions don't in themselves convey mood. But where does that mood come from? Almost always, a single phrase, conceived in isolation from the rest of the scene, some time before I come to write it.

The first and most important sex scene of Bareback, for instance, grew out of two sentences that occurred to me while riding at the back of a bus one rainy night: 'We turn and plunge like swimmers, drowning in air', and 'I did not mistake any of this for love, but I've been alone a long time.' (Originally I used the word 'intimacy' rather than 'love', but it felt too avoidant, and also there was clearly physical intimacy going on which would confuse the point that the narrator was trying to convey, which is that sex doesn't automatically produce emotional closeness.) The rest of the scene was written around those sentences; they were the starting note, the key in which the scene was to be played.

Similarly, the book I've recently finished contains a sex scene, based around the phrase, 'Henry was not gentle'; I changed my mind a few times about how the rest of the scene should go, but that was the important concept to convey the scene for both participants, the crucial character point. And it was important that it should read 'was not' rather than 'wasn't', as well. (Picture what a pain to copy-edit I must be.) To begin with, the sex is between two characters who don't know each other that well and have a degree of formal distance between their emotions: 'was not' is how they present themselves to each other. More importantly, 'wasn't gentle' describes a behaviour, but 'was not gentle' is broader and can describe a personality. Perhaps more importantly still, 'was not gentle' has a softer rhythm than 'wasn't gentle,' and thus makes the lack of gentleness sound less brutal: 'Henry wasn't gentle' is three drum-beats, but in 'Henry was not gentle', the emphasis can move around from word to word, and sounds much less judgemental. Henry is intended for an at least semi-sympathetic character, to whom gentleness has never been taught, and a condemnatory rhythm would mar his presentation. Most of these are rationalisations after the basic fact, which is that 'wasn't' sounded all wrong. Little details matter.

A few weeks ago I wrote a sex scene in the novel I'm working on at the moment, in which I gave myself the added challenge of having it take place between two women (girl-on-girl sex being an experience I forego, though I ran it by a lesbian friend of mine in case of any crashing mistakes). The key phrase that shaped the scene was 'a panic of tenderness'. Because I was writing about an activity I hadn't engaged in, to some extent I had to depend upon the writer's stock-in-trade, which is the ability to imagine experiences you haven't had - but to make it plausible, it was equally important to focus on the elements of the scene that I could speak of with the authority of experience, which is to say, how it feels to be getting in bed with somebody you're just starting to care about.

The thing is, having a sentence to kick things off is actually not that different from how I begin a novel. Not every scene has to have a critical sentence before I can get down to business with it, but very often, there needs to be some crystal or seed from which I can start to grow the story. You strike the note, and the tune can follow. But it's generally either sex scenes or whole novels that work this way; other scenes need less, as it were, foreplay.

Why should this be? One of the ways I describe inspiration is that it's like trying to have an orgasm: you can't will yourself into either, and the more you worry about whether or not you can do it, the less likely either of them are to happen. You need to create the right circumstances, and the right circumstances have to involve enjoying yourself. To this extent, sexual metaphors probably work for beginning a book as well as for sexual scenes; I don't mean that I find it erotic to write sex scenes - generally I don't, which is why I'd be surprised if they turned anybody else on - or even that it floats my boat to sit down and type 'It was a dark and stormy night' (see, I tried it just now, and my main physical sensation was that my ankles are cold. And my fingers. Brr. I am tired of leaving the cat door propped open, but that cat will just not work out how to push on it.) I was considering an explanation along the lines of 'sex and writing are both generative acts', but actually I think I won't, because if I did then I'd have to conclude that a) my coil must be a lot less reliable than the doctor promised me and I have several invisible children hiding around the house somewhere, and b) I am, so to speak, a pretentious wanker.

What they do have in common, though, is that sex and writing both involve change. Change of mood, change of state, change of perspective: you go from the ordinary to the intense, and afterwards your experience is broadened. Both of them at least raise the issue of commitment; I've been living with my boyfriend longer than I've spent writing any individual novel, but if the beginning of anything is sufficiently good, then you face the possibility that you might be in for the long haul. Both affect your life and occupy your mind even when you're not doing them. Both heavily involve your ego. Both involve excitement, the ability to get something going that needs continual stimulation but gathers its own momentum, until it takes you somewhere you couldn't have reached without the process to carry you along.

And writing a sex scene, you have to picture the emotions of the characters. You do that whenever you write, but with sex scenes, the similarities between the two give it something of that beginning-a-novel feeling.

Of course, that might mean that I have an inner porn writer just waiting to get out, but I don't think so. I'm attached to sex scenes that involve metaphors; if I can get round to typing them, I may quote a few of my favourites, but in general, I happen to enjoy writing stories that involve, not just the hot monkey love but the washing-up and bed-making as well. An erotic short story is not unlike a one night stand, or a brief fling: you go in, do the business, and then walk away clean. You have to marry your novels; you're with them for the long haul. Even once they're finished, they're effectively ex-novels, still a big part of your life. (And with the hope remaining that they might one day stump up some alimony. Buy buy buy, hint hint hint.) Erotic novels, of course, are another question entirely, and my sincere admiration goes out to anyone who can write one, because the difficulty of sustaining an even remotely believable story while the characters go at it every few pages is tremendous. They don't altogether fit into this simile, but never mind; reality seldom obeys me as readily as a fictional world, which is probably a good thing, considering.

My point, which may have got lost somewhere in the imagery, is that I like writing sex scenes that have as much possible backstory, that involve characters who exist in a non-sexual context. It's a way of spending Narrative Capital while hopefully generating more. With this aim, you don't need to be too detailed, and can actually disrupt the flow of the novel if you get too graphic; descriptions of emotion may serve you better.

Anyone who does like writing porn, though: my hat off to you, because it's building an entire story out of material that the majority of writers consider almost impossible to handle. There are brave folks out there.

Comments:
I love reading your blog essays. Particularly this one. At the moment (between dissertation writing and revision) I'm writing a story about a couple of exes. There's a terrible temptation to bring them together between the bedclothes, but I'm keeping them apart for the moment. I hadn't even thought about actually writing the sex scene though. I'm not sure I could write a readable sex scene (sex scenes and battle scenes: great to do, hard to write). I also veer away from sex scenes because I'm aware it's something my grandparents might one day read and that makes me cringe.
 
Thanks! :-)
 
Kit,

As you know, I really enjoyed Bareback, and I was going to buy your next book anyway (and all the others you will write). But now you've told us it's got some girl-on-girl action, I'm REALLY looking forward to it! (It's not easy being a sad married man who can't find a publisher, you know?)

Keep up the great work! :-)
 
Oh dear, I'm afraid the girl-on-girl action is in Book 3, which is not yet complete or accepted by a publisher! Sorry about that. Book 2 does have some naked swimming in it, though, plus a dramatic fight scene or two, a thrilling escalation of plot and counter-plot, and a man with no penis, so I hope that'll do...

So you're still looking for a publisher? Hang in there. :-)
 
Thank you Kit. I just wanted to let you know that I still read and enjoy your blog hugely, and can't wait for your next book. But please, the guy with no penis? I hope his first name isn't "Chris"

:-)
 
Nope, it's Philip. And he is not a portrait of anyone I know, as you'll see when the book comes out...
 
can porn take place in a story that's really not "about"
that? if so, how does a writer make the transition?
 
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Writing A Dissertation
 
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Erotic stories are surely signifies our hidden pleasure at top position and are you looking to read through online, visit at erotic short stories.
 
Wow, you really are a fantastic writer! I've never read an essay and enjoyed it this much. Maybe it's just the fact that it was about sex, and I'm secretly a middle-schooler in my soul. But either way, it was a great read.
Yeah my problem is...I have commitment issues when it comes to writing novels. That's why I write short stories. So all my romance/erotic things are a bit wonky, because I don't want to write porn but that's kinda the only format a short story allows.
Also, as someone who's never had sex, I always have to base it around my imagination and previous knowledge.
Anyways, I don't know why I'm telling all this to you. Maybe because I have nobody else to discuss this with!!! So thank you for the article. That's what I was trying to say. Lol whoops.
 
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