Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Paula Whyman's Six Steps to Conquering Your Fear of Sex Scenes

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Paula Whyman, author of You May See a Stranger (TriQuarterly Books), offers some advice on writing about S-E-X.

Even writers who feel competent at creating just about any kind of scene can be stymied by sex scenes. I’m often asked how I approached these scenes in my story collection. The answer is, the same way I approach any scene. I have in the past compared writing sex with writing about bowling. That is, you don’t need to describe what the bowling ball looks like unless there’s something unusual about it. You don’t need to describe every action, only the defining moments.

Here are my guidelines:

1. Relax.
Too often, writers approach a sex scene like a tornado is threatening: Red alert! Sex scene approaching! Normal writing style must cease now! The result is that we wake ourselves from the dream state in which we usually do our best work, and then we write something plodding, labored, or squirm-inducing, and by doing that we throw the reader out of the story as well. My advice? Calm down. Stop heavy breathing, and just breathe. Tell yourself these are only words, like all the other words.

2. Ask yourself: Is the scene necessary?
Practicing: Dressed rehearsal
Every scene in a story should pass this test. What work is the scene doing in your story? Does it advance the plot? Does it illuminate character? (Extra credit if it does both.) Maybe we need to know that something happened, but we don’t need to actually see it happen. Much of the time, it’s not necessary for your characters to bare all. Let the romantic couple disappear behind a closed door, 1950s-movie style. The reader can imagine what went on. Trust your reader.

3. Remember character—forget yourself.
So you do need the scene; something important is conveyed there. It can be easy to forget in one’s anxiety about writing a sex scene that your character’s actions still must be consistent and true. Remember to filter the events through your protagonist’s perceptions. What would she do in this situation? What would she notice about herself and about the other character/s in the scene? Choose your details carefully and sparingly. We don’t need to know and see everything. Don’t show the reader what he already knows or can presume; describe what’s unexpected or unusual. For instance, in my book, there’s a scene in which the female protagonist is in bed with a man who shoves her hair into her mouth and then asks her a question. She can’t answer, because her hair is in her mouth. Soon, she reveals that he came, and she didn’t, pretty much in those words. There is no abstract description of her physical state, and minimal description of the act itself. The brevity is appropriate to the act. From the few details that are provided, the reader can imagine what this encounter was like for the protagonist.

4. Avoid overzealous overearnest overwriting.
Stay away from awkward metaphors, abstraction, or description that’s too clinical in its word choice and detail. Speaking of words…try to choose the right word for the moment, as you would in any scene. There are, for instance, any number of slang terms for sex organs, and if you find you must use one of these words (note that many a convincing—and hot—sex scene has been written without any reference to a specific “private part”), there will probably only be one word that works without causing the reader to flinch. The right word depends on the situation and the character, so try it different ways. Go to a quiet place and read it aloud to yourself, like you would any scene…but maybe not when you’re at the office.

5. You can’t be serious.
Sex in real life is often funny. If you think about the mechanics in any objective detail, the whole thing seems weird and awkward. In real life, people bang glasses when they kiss or someone gets an accidental elbow in the eye or a knee in the groin. I’m not suggesting you put a humorous sex scene in your story if it doesn’t fit the tone. I am saying that the tone in your story should be consistent. There’s no need to suddenly go somber just because your characters have landed in bed. If the characters are funny with their clothes on, they’re still going to be funny—funnier, even—naked.

6. Show your work.
Choose one or two trusted readers and ask them to be honest about whether there is anything that throws them out of the story. Listen, and revise accordingly.

Now, off to the bowling alley!