The big three. The ones the League of Language and Lewdness Policing love to pounce on. The three things censors gleefully stick behind bars. What makes PG-13 into R. Right there. Sex. Vulgarity. Violence. Where does it belong in your story (if at all) and what purpose does it serve?
I’m going to stick to the realm of fantasy for now, but a lot of what I say will apply across the board anyway. I don’t watch a ton of television. I watch movies a little more, and one thing that always irritates me is the L-shaped bedsheet. You know. The ones that cover a woman’s breasts, but bare a man to the waist. One thing I remember liking about the movie Love and Other Drugs with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway is that as their relationship progressed, it showed in the way they acted around each other in those moments. She didn’t cover herself up or pretend that her blossomy sparkling modesty was an elusive creature that disappeared during sex but came back five seconds later with its nose in the air. They were naked, and they just hung out. To me, that was being honest about how people’s levels of comfort in a relationship evolve and grow as they get to know each other and as the relationship progresses. That’s what stuck in my mind that time, not the L-shaped sheet.
Which brings me to the topic of imagery, which is today’s homage to The 25 — it also fits in with addressing the Big Three in this post’s title. So here’s what WD has to say about imagery:
A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.” Which one makes you want to know what happens next?
Now, revisit a draft of your writing. Try making vague moments more vivid by replacing explanation with imagery. This won’t always be an appropriate solution—sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.
The first examples I think of when I think of imagery are from poetry, Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, respectively:
Nature’s first green is gold.
nobody,not even the rain has such small hands.
Both of those involve figurative language, as poetry is apt to do, but they both put pictures in your head much better than “spring is pretty” or “you have small hands.” While prose is not poetry for a reason, imagery still has a place in it. An important one, somewhere in the middle of the line of important things.
Tie-in time. Censors seem to look at sex, vulgarity, and violence as ants. First there’s one, then another, then the whole picnic is ruined. So they bust out the Raid. However, those things are a part of life. Writers write life. They write people, doing people things. People have sex. They yell “shit!” when some guy cuts them off on the freeway. They have a tendency to hurt each other, sometimes for nebulous sorts of reasons. Those things are a part of our lives, and they’re there all the time. To me, they’re less like ants and more like toenails. Some people try not to think about them, but they’re attached to your feet whether you think about them or not. Even whether you like them or not. There they are. You can run away from them, like my dog tried to when he got grazed by a car and didn’t like the smell of the tea tree oil we put on the wound, but in the end you’re just running away from your own feet, and you look like an ass in an L-shaped sheet. Running away from your own feet. Keep that little picture in your mind.
Let’s talk about sex. Though a lot of people may gasp and bluster about morality or gratuitousness, here’s a little tidbit of a fact for you. 95% of all Americans have premarital sex. That includes all those censors out there. That includes religious communities. That 95% isn’t just us heathens. Nope. Everyone. It’s normative behavior. And the rest of the 5% (which is more like 4 or 3% if you take into account the 1 or 2% of the population that will never have sex, marriage or not) end up doing it too. Sex is a part of our lives. It has a place in fiction and poetry and non-fiction, and I’ll argue that it’s an important one. It’s one of those things that doesn’t make a story, but it can make one more believable. Not all stories need it, but a lot do. It’s up to you how you want to roll with it.
I don’t shy away from it. I don’t write romance novels, and the go-to goofy imagery from those is often about pulsing members and simultaneous orgasms, which I find a bit overdone and silly — but some people dig it, so to each their own. When I write sex, it does occasionally get graphic, because I’m trying to be true to a part of life. I also try to be true to what it’s like. Women and men don’t always finish at the same time. Women (and men) don’t always finish at all. Sometimes sex is awkward. Sometimes it’s angry. Sometimes it’s silly and there’s laughter and giggles. Yes, sometimes it’s full on storm of roiling emotions and smoldering gazes, but sometimes someone farts. Sex, like everything else in life, sure isn’t perfect. However you decide to approach it, be honest about it. You don’t have to give a play by play, but if you’re writing a story that involves a romantic relationship and you don’t mention the physical side of it, that’s either catering to the League or robbing your characters of some fun and depth to their relationship. It’s not all honey cakes and beds of roses, but you don’t need to skirt around the edges like you’re flirting with it. People have sex. If your characters are people, they’ll have it too. It doesn’t need to be gratuitous, but if it’s going to leave a gap when taken out, put it in. (That last was not meant to be taken as sex advice.)
So now we come to the concept of imagery and sex. Ah, yes. Believe it or not, there are “tasteful” ways to write sex scenes. One of my all-time favorite fantasy writers, David Eddings, tends to lead you right up to it, tickle you with a feather, and then slam the door (or tent flap, in some cases) and leave you to imagine the rest. A quick example (not verbatim):
“Are you very tired?” Ce’Nedra asked, archly running her fingers across Garion’s chest.
“Not very tired, no.” Garion pulled his wife toward him.
Sorry, Mr. Eddings, for being too lazy to hunt down that scene, but you get the point. You have no doubt of what’s going to happen. You also have a sense of the tone from that adverb (which I think does exist in that scene, naughty). It’s some solid innuendo, and you know they’re about to get it on. Do you need the play-by-play? Not really. Is it believable? Absolutely.
You can dive right in and titillate your reader by giving that play-by-play. You can talk about Mona raking her fingers across Dane’s back, leaving red welts in caramel skin. You can even throw in a pulsing member or two (just please, please find a different euphemism or be blunt and use big kid words). Think about your characters, how you would “rate” your story (G, PG, PG-13, R…NC-17?), how it relates to your story, and if it furthers the plot or character development. It’s really up to you. Just be honest and make it believable. A well-written sex scene is like a big old lollipop no matter if you give it a careful lick on one side or bite off half of it. If the sex scene fits, as they say. Write it.
Shit. 🙂 I’m already at a thousand words and change. We’ll have to talk about Shit and Other Naughty Words tomorrow, gentle viewers. Until then, stay sexy.