Saturday, September 28, 2013

WARM SHEETS: Sex Scenes in Fiction

When I handed the manuscript of Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery to Billie Johnson, in hopes that her publishing house, Oak Tree Press, would publish it, I felt duty-bound to caution her that the novel had a couple of sex scenes. She gave me a look that was half grin, half frown and asked, “Hot sheets?” I replied, “Well, warm sheets.” Apparently Billie wasn’t offended, because the book will be published by OTP in November. 
How much sex belongs in a novel that’s partly about love, and especially a novel set in the free-and-easy counter-culture of the 1970s? And how explicit should the sex scenes be? Both answers depend on whom the writer wants to entertain. Let’s assume we’re not writing for the porn audience. Let’s also assume we’re not writing for young children or prudes. Somewhere between these extremes is an intelligent audience of readers who accept sex as a normal and healthy ingredient of life, especially when we’re writing about the relationship of a couple of lovers.

Still, it’s a touchy subject, and sex described clumsily can appear offensive, laughable, or boring. I propose a few guidelines for keeping sex scenes intelligent and meaningful.

1. Less is more. There’s no need to tell about every time a couple make love. There’s no need to describe in detail every feature of the human body, nor does the reader want a complete laundry list of your characters’ clothing as it is unbuttoned, unzipped, torn off, and cast aside. And remember that every sex act doesn’t end with a fireworks display and a hallelujah chorus.

2. Engage the brain. Remember that the mind is the most erogenous zone we’ve got. Don’t be afraid to inject some humor into the scene if it’s appropriate, or tears if they’re called for. And try to come up with something original, difficult as that may seem. After all, you want your characters to be interesting in everything they do.

3. Remember that fiction is about change. This sex should be important to the plot, not just a dance routine thrown in for added entertainment. The sex act should significantly change either one or the other lover, or both, and it will most likely change the nature of the relationship as well.

I now close by giving a preview of coming attractions, this one being the first, and most explicit, sex scene in Hooperman. It’s rated PG-13. I hope you won’t be offended. In fact I hope you’ll want to read more.

Lucinda walked to the window and looked down on the lights of University Avenue. “That’s our store.” She pulled the shade down and turned. “Uh.…”
Hoop crossed the room to her, put his hands on her hips, and looked into her kind eyes. “Yes?”
“I’m a little nervous,” she said. “First-time jitters. You know. Hoop, could we like turn off that light? I’m kind of shy. I mean, we’re going to do our thing, right?”
“I sure hope so.”
“Thing is, I’m like I said, shy. Because I’m what you might call…heavy?”
Hoop went to the pole lamp and turned it off. “Ceh,ceh,ceh candle?” he asked the silhouette against the window shade.
“Oh. Yeah, that would be far out, I guess.” Without much conviction.
“I duh,don’t have a ceh,ceh,candle.”
She laughed out loud across the dark. “C’mere, you.”
By the time Hoop reached her, she was completely out of her clothes. She didn’t feel heavy. Unless you mean like a rich dessert.
“I’m a little shy muh,muh,myself,” he said. “It’s bib…een so long…”
“Tell me about it. I haven’t had any for weeks.”
“Muh,muh,muh,months,” he said. Years, really, but he didn’t want to sound desperate.
“We better do something about that, my man.” She worked on the shirt buttons while he dealt with the belt buckle and slipped out of his sandals. When their clothes lay in a mixed jumble on the linoleum, they baby-stepped to the bed, where she toppled him down onto his back and climbed in after him, her soft laugh light with pleasure, the scent of her body heavy with desire.

Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery, will be published in November by Oak Tree Press.


  1. Good advice, John. I'm afraid many writers don't follow your three rules. For most of us readers, less is best. We can imagine whatever level of detail we're comfortable with and feel fits the scene. If we want a lot, we can imagine more than you can write. If we want less, then you have allowed us to have less. As usual - good post.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Less is best, if it advances the plot and offers something original or something to think about.

  2. No doubt about it, John. Less is more when it comes to writing a sex scene. We all know how it's done; we don't need a tutorial.
    I have no problem with sex in a novel (or extreme violence or "colorful" language) IF it's necessary to (or will at least improve) the story. Otherwise, I say, use the delete key.

    1. I agree, Pat, and I use the delete key a lot--not to censor myself, but to improve the writing.

  3. Some like it hotter than others. Imagination can fill in the blanks for either when its done as John suggests.

  4. Very toasty scene, John. I like your comment about using humor also and the less is more approach doesn't insult the intelligence of your reader.

  5. This is great advice, John, and I love your excerpt. It seems to tell us details about Hooperman that we need to know, and you show us, don't tell (the still all-hallowed "rule" in fiction writing. I look forward to more excerpts and then, ta da -- the book!