To close the bedroom door or fling it wide open? That’s the question authors face when they reach the point in a story where characters are going to have sex.
The answer to the question is in knowing that sex scenes aren’t about the sex.
As my writing mentor, Jennifer Crusie teaches, a scene is a unit of conflict between two people with opposing goals. Conflict is what makes a scene work, what makes it pop so a reader pays attention. Think of the hottest sex scenes you’ve read or watched on television. At the heart, there is a conflict.
If there is no conflict, the sex scene fails to, um, climax. In those cases, it’s better to shut the bedroom door and leave it to the imagination.
A classic example of shutting the door on sex are Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Their conflict came from their verbal jousting. Once they were done with the banter, there was no reason to show the sex. (Though one wishes that movie censors of the time at least let them share the same bed.)
Castle, a television show that’s an intellectual descendant of the Thin Man, is a modern example of less is more. Castle and Beckett became a couple at the end of last season with a very hot kiss because it was about Beckett trying to show how much she cared about Castle, while he resisted. (At least initially.)
Cut to the current season. The show begins not with a sex scene but with a barely clothed Beckett bringing Castle his morning coffee in bed. Since neither is sure of exactly what the sex meant to the relationship, they talk and reassure each other that, yes, this is real, and, yes, they’re together. There’s a little banter at the end but instead of a sex scene next, they’re interrupted. Which is as it should be, because the conflict in that scene ended when they knew their relationship was on solid ground.
Throughout the current season, viewers have seen little of Castle and Beckett in bed or even kissing. Instead, the writers have defaulted back to their ever-present banter, albeit with an added sexual edge. It works wonderfully.
On the opposite extreme is the Spartacus series on Starz network. This is a show that specializes in conflict-ridden sex. Given the show is soaked in nudity, it’s surprising how much intensity individual sex scenes can contain. There is an obvious difference between the sex in the show as background noise and the scenes in which two people make love.
In the first season, the slave Mira is sent to Spartacus to make sure he can play his part as a stud to a rich Roman woman the next night. He refuses to touch Mira because he doesn’t care about her. But when they finally make love, it’s because Mira has fallen a little bit in love with Spartacus and truly wants him. For his part, he’s come to care for her as a person. Under those circumstances, he’s more than willing. Their first sex is full of Mira’s need to make him love her, whereas Spartacus isn’t even close to love yet, he only wants to feel alive. It’s their different expectations that fuel the scene and it’s absolutely necessary to see them in the act to understand their conflict.
Another conflict-fueled scene is in Spartacus: Vengeance between Illythia and her husband, Glabor. They’ve been busy fighting and hurting each other all season. But after Illythia gets rid of her romantic rival, they make love while caked in blood, a sex scene between that is both horrific and hot at the same time. She’s trying to bring him back to her life, and he finally gives in.
Finding that conflict to make a sex scene work is not easy. I’ve written only one erotica short story, Freya’s Gift, because of that difficulty.
Freya’s Gift has four sex scenes, with a climactic (pun intended) three-way male/female/male sex scene at the heart of the story. A plague has killed nearly all the women of this particular Viking tribe and only by making a sacrifice can the Chief’s wife become fertile and bring new life to the tribe. The sacrifice includes making herself available to another man in the tribe to ensure conception.
This means the Chief must agree to a three-way sex ritual before the goddess Freya with his wife and another man.
This creates all kinds of conflict during the sex. Will the Chief back away? What if his wife enjoys the ritual and her husband (who she loves) rejects her after? What if the other man pursues her after the ritual? What the men want each other?
To answer all these questions, the sex had to be on the page.
Conflict is the difference between tab A into slot B and a scene that keeps a reader glued to the story. Otherwise, it’s just naked bodies moving around.