Last Monday night as the Bad Sex Award winner was being announced, I was running the last of six fortnightly writing groups. The group is coming back next year for another run but without me: they’ve got novelist Helen Cross instead. Now, immediately I’m thinking that I envy them and also that I need to leave the group at a good point, ready for her to do whatever it is she will do with them.
Instead, we talked and wrote about sex. This had been suggested weeks before and initially I’d not been interested.
Yet by the end of the run, I did realise both that there is something interesting here and also that if we examined it in just the right way, writing about sex could get this particular group to address something I had already thought their writing needed.
For sex writing is never about sex. It’s always about the characters. But then that’s the case with absolutely everything and sex is no different.
Except that sex is a way to maybe the fastest way to dive very deeply into a character. We always say our characters have to want something and they do so because otherwise they’d just sit at home and there’d be no story. Not everybody wants sex, but for those who do, when they do, it is more than a little interest, it is a driving compulsion that the characters probably don’t even understand.
Compulsion is fantastic because it can be desperate. And desperate characters don’t have time or energy to hide.
We all hide. We hide all the time. You are not the same person when you’re with a partner at home and then when you’re with your family. Or at work. Or in the pub, at a conference, in a club. We hide so much and we fit in so many places that it’s hard for us to know who we really are. So equally, it’s hard for us to know our characters and who they really can be.
Put them in a situation where they may have sex and you see everything stripped away, not just their clothes. Put them in a situation where they are having sex and you reveal their base nature: whether they’re dominant or submissive, whether they’re combative or – I can’t think of the word. Collegiate? Whether they work with their sex partners or whether they’re all for themselves.
And then lastly, put them in a situation where they have had sex and you can have a quiet aftermath that is as explosive with regret as the scene was with flesh. That compulsive drive for sex is incredibly powerful and incredibly motivating but once you’ve had it, it’s completely gone and you are left wondering what the hell all that was about.
That’s when sanity and calmness can return. Which means that’s when regret starts. And regret is a wonderful thing in drama.
Whether I’m writing prose fiction or scripts, I think of it as drama. But this is one case where the differences between those two types of writing are acute.
I offer that sex in prose fiction can be, should be, must be powerful. A friend sent me a manuscript of a novel of hers and she was a little embarrassed because it was a fantasy action tale with sex in it. I told her that the story was a rousing adventure –– and an arousing one, too.
Words have a power to arouse and excite and challenge. Whereas I offer that sex in films and on TV does not. It doesn’t matter what the story is, when a character is naked, you are thrown out of the story thinking how the actor looks. Whether he or she has a flat stomach or if there’s been some CGI and a stunt person involved.
I abhor anything that takes me out of a story so I have no interest in sex in TV or films. But I can have in prose fiction because there the words are digging in deeper. They are revealing characters to me. Through what connects with me, those words are also revealing myself to me. And they can be revealing the author too.
You don’t have to have sex in any story, but if you do, make it matter. Above all else, this is the one type of scene where you’ve got to have more going on than just the physical activity. If you haven’t, then it could be the strongest language you know but it won’t matter.
The group and I discussed lots of this and then I set them a task. Of course it was to write a sex scene but we conjured up a setting and I set them some rules. It had to be consensual sex, it had to be between a couple and they had to write it in the first person. Pick one character and write it from their perspective.
I don’t usually get so specific and prescriptive and I also don’t usually belabour this stuff with you.
The reason I want to tell you that detail is the same reason I wanted them to do it. After the group had written all of this and we’d talked about how we found the job, we did the next part. Yes. You’ve got it: write the same story again but from the other person’s point of view.
This exercise can actually work for anything in any story. If you’re stuck with a story, if you’re finding a character isn’t working, reverse it all and tell the tale from that other character’s point of view.
I’m not saying you’ll keep that version. I am saying that exploring the other character makes that character better – even if you then throw that other version away.
Since I seem to be lecturing you now instead of our usual nattering, let’s have another writing rule. See what you think of this.
I suggest that it’s probably best to write sex in the first person. A narrator is too easy an option for any story anyway, but here their detachment keeps us out of the tale. A narrator can say you touch me on my arm and I appear to like it. But only I can say that one touch stops me better than a blow. Only I can say that a single touch of your hand has me struggle to breathe.
Next, sex scenes make you think about the audience. If your reader is going to be a prurient teenager then throw in knob jokes and be done with it. If the reader is someone who actually does have some extreme sex life, you have to be accurate about it or they’ll stop reading. And if someone is uncomfortable with sex in reality, you can help them and you can play with them in fiction.
We always resist making our readers uncomfortable and it’s partly politeness, it’s partly because we don’t want to be uncomfortable ourselves.
Let it go. Be uncomfortable, be uneasy. If it doesn’t work out, throw it away. But write sex in order to explore how you write characters and how deeply you can go into yourself.
Writing is not like anything else. The more you go inside yourself, the more your writing will connect with other people.
Now, I’m supposed to be planning a writing workshop for children. Stop that. You’re being wicked.