Monday, February 11, 2019

Sex, what is it good for (in novels)?

Love at First Bite
[PG-13/ R. And, for the record, this is a completely amoral blog post—preaching morals gives me a headache and upsets my ulcer.]

I did this post once upon a time. And while I've even reposted it once (I think), I was skimming through it the other day and contemplating some of the points I made. I've considered that I do need to expand on them. There are even one or two additional points I should focus on, especially now that I've had at least one major series where a substantial subplot was a romance story.... yes, while Love at First Bite is listed under the vampire romance genre, I don't really consider it vampire romance. Why? Too many explosions and Vatican ninjas for that.

1. Sex. What is it good for (in fiction)?

Were this a song parody, the next line would be “absolutely nothing.” But, given that I've had bad experiences with song parodies, I will forgo that.

But, seriously, sex... why bother?  In the context of literature, almost any novel with a sex scene in it has been, in my opinion, a horrid waste of time, energy, and irritates, at least, this reader.

To date, none of my books have sex scenes. Even though every single story has a married couple, or a dating couple, even the "vampire romance" novels have no sex.

Why is that?

Because I find them boring.

No, seriously. They're boring. If I'm in the mood for sex .... well, I'm married now, so that's not an issue. Why the Hell would I want to read about it? If I'm reading an urban fantasy or a thriller, I'm interesting in magic duels, shootouts, or high adventure. Not porn.

I am not certain how much of this is my own personal opinion and how much of it is a critique of how sex scenes tend to be inflicted on the reader.

The primary offender in this is the OSS, or the Obligatory Sex Scene.

My favorite example of this is from a 20 year old book called Mount Dragon, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Our protagonists have been chased through a desert, dying of thirst and heat, chased by a deranged gunman.  But they have finally found water and shelter from the sun
.... they are so happy they start having sex...

Blink. What?

The OSS I just mentioned is quick. It may have been a paragraph. It was unnecessary, came out of nowhere, and if it hadn't happened, not a single thing would have changed in the book.
Looking at it objectively, what is the point of an OSS?

PRO: “Physical intimacy shows the the relationship involved has gone to another level and has thus impacted the characters.”

Objection: Perfectly true, but does that necessitate a five page sex scene? Or even a page? If one wanted to tell the reader that, yes, two people slept together, I can do that right now: “X and Y fell into bed, kissing passionately as they stripped each other's clothes. They then turned off the lights and hoped they wouldn't wake the neighbors.”

Done. Two lines and a bit of smart ass can carry something a long way. It's perfectly PG-13. 890s kids movies were more graphic.

PRO: “Things can happen during the scene that are relevant to the rest of the novel.”

OBJECTION: True, but rarely does it necessitate going into intimate details. In fact, I would suggest that anything relevant to the plot could be covered in the next chapter. “On reflection, s/he noticed something odd while lying on his/her back. S/he didn't really notice it at the time, but now that it's quiet.....”


Exceptions can be made to this rule, obviously. If the couple rolls off of the bed as someone walks into the room, be it with room service or with a gun, then that is a useful detail.

I will even admit that there are graphic sex scenes where one can reveal character. But those are so extremely rare I can name you one author who has pulled it off. With John Ringo's Ghost series, several of the sex scenes are necessary, and two are crucial to the stories they show up in. Nearly all of them impact the characters in some way. And almost all of these scenes can be entertaining for reasons that are anything but sexual. They can be funny.

Why Ghost does what he does (and I don't mean sexual maneuvers or positions) tells the reader more about the character than a hundred pages of sex scenes from any given novelist....

Which leads us to Laurell K. Hamilton. Her claim to fame is that she "invented urban fantasy."  Which is funny, since I thought Bram Stoker did that. For nine novels, her primary series went well. There was sexuality here and there (a major character was a French vampire, after all), but it never really got in the way of the story. By book seven and eight, the main character was sleeping with both a vampire and a werewolf, but the OSS's were few and far between, and they were easily skipped by turning a page. Quite painless, overall.

After book #9, Obsidian Butterfly, several novels contained a hundred pages of vampire rituals of who gets to have sex with who. I skipped them.  I went back for book #15, because it featured the return of Hamilton's best, scariest character: a mild mannered, white-bread fellow named Edward, a mercenary who started hunting vampires because humans were too easy.

However, I had to skip a hundred and fifty pages of the novel. It was one, long and drawn out OSS. Not a menage a trois, but a bisexual sextet among Vampires and were-creatures. Much of the rest of the book had pages of Anita Blake defending her sex life. “The lady dost protest too much.”

Years ago, when the author herself was asked about the overabundance of sex during a Barnes and Noble interview, Hamilton's best defense was that “I only get complaints from men. I had two reviewers tell me that they're disturbed that a woman is writing this sort of stuff. ”


Dear Madam Hamilton: I get disturbed with John Ringo writing about a man and two coeds on a boat with bondage gear. For the love of all that's Holy, what makes you think that a bi-sexual sextet with were-furries would go over any better, no matter who or what you were?  This strange faux-feminism you're using to deflect criticism is based off of an anecdotal incident with two reviewers?  How about "I want more plot than sex scene," are you going to blame that on me being male? Really?

Again, I'll go back to John Ringo, only a different series -- the Council Wars.  One short story is seriously NC-17, and reading through it, I would be hard-pressed to see how it could be written otherwise. With Hamilton's novels, I could skip over a hundred pages and not miss a single plot point. That's screwed up.

Make it sextets with were-furries, they're even worse.

2. “I want a Heroine not an excuse for sex.”

Can I write a sex scene? Sure, they're easy. I've gotten requests from lady friends of mine for erotica (don't ask, long story).

But are they necessary? No.

Did I need intimate details to add to the plot, the character, or anything related to the story? No.

Frankly, I think a PG-13 novel sometimes requires more skill than an NC-17 rated. I find that sex sequences are a cheat, sort of like premium cable—just because you can use four letter words doesn't mean you have to write them into every single line.

I have actually made my lack of OSS's in my novels work for me.

In Love at First Bite book one, Honor at Stake, I had a make out session in a graveyard. I had several women fans tell me that "if this is what making out was like, what happens when you do a sex scene?"

Now, to be fair, I am tempted to do one -- a, singular -- sex scene at some point, when I go back to the Love at First Bite universe. Mainly because there has been a ton of buildup of multiple books, and the last thing I want to do to my fans is to have the fruition of an entire relationship happen offscreen. I will probably end up finding a payoff that's somewhere between being rated R and happening entirely off the page.

But honestly .... having no sex in my books has worked for me. In the Pius books, I've used the lack of sex for jokes (a long-term couple has never had intercourse because every time they do, someone tries to kill them) or I can move somewhere else in the plot and leave a married couple alone, or I'm just developing a relationship.

And hell, Tommy Nolan is married and has sex ... but he's married with one kid in book one, and his wife is pregnant in book three. I don't think I need to spell out what happens in between.

Just because an author can throw in a sex scene doesn't mean s/he must do so. Doing sex scenes well takes skill, and making them relevant takes talent; most people don't have it.

Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer had several moments where our heroine's sex life really was going to get people killed (think back to the killer frat house dorm room). Or one solid comedy routine (that poor, poor house in season 6...).

Sherrilyn Kenyon, a ROMANCE NOVELIST, wrote at least one book where the LACK of sex was a key plot point, and another where intimacy between the hero and heroine was surprisingly crucial to the story.

Ringo was mentioned above.

So, it has been done well. Just not very often.

To answer the opening question: Sex, what is it good for?

In novels... it can be good for something. It just rarely is.

You can check out the series mentioned below.

The Pius Trilogy (5 Book Series) by  Declan Finn

        Love at First Bite


  1. I'm standing in the kitchen packing work lunches, wearing a (very) faded spring break t-shirt and stretched-out yoga pants, and fighting the urge to stand on a chair and cheer. I don't know how many requests for sex scenes I've gotten for my mystery series and, because there is a love triangle, some readers want to "see both sides". NOT. GOING. TO. HAPPEN. I'm not Janet Evanovitch. And even if women are the ones clamoring for it, they'll also be the first to slap the "slut" label on the heroine who's doing two guys at once and can't (or won't) make up her mind!

  2. For that matter, what's any scene good for in a novel? I mean, you could write, "And then the hero killed the dragon" or "And then the detective solved the crime and arrested the murderer" and just leave it at that.

    I write the scenes that I think are important to the story. Sometimes those scenes have sex in them, because sometimes people's lives have sex in them. (Or so I'm told.)

    When you get down to it, no scene in a novel is necessary, because novels themselves aren't necessary in a strict sense. I don't need to know how a made up person handled a made up situation. I read stories because I enjoy reading stories, and I write stories because other people enjoy reading them.

    No scene should ever be in a story because "that kind of story" always has "this kind of scene". (For example, we could just skip all the "first day at basic training" scenes in MilSF novels and I would never miss them.)

    Of the nine stories that I have written this year, two of them have explicit sex, and I think both of those stories need the scenes in question. Two others (including my current WIP) involve sexual relationships, but nothing is explicitly described.

    Why? I'm not sure I could explain or justify why I sometimes describe sex and sometimes just allude to it. It's a matter of feeling for what the story needs.

  3. Let me also point out that there is a difference between a sex scene and an erotic scene. One can describe sexual activity in a way that is meant to arouse the reader, but not all sex scenes are written with that intent. Furthermore, scenes can be written with the intent to arouse that don't involve explicit sex, or even sexual contact between characters at all.


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