Daniel Greene and the Mechanics of Writing Sex Scenes

YouTube fantasy commentator Daniel Greene has weighed in with a discussion of poorly written genre sex scenes:

Now, the examples Greene cites are indeed poorly written… but they are not the sort of thing I see in published fantasy literature. Greene’s examples actually smack of fan-fiction, whereas I tend to find that most explicit sex in published fantasy tends be summarised, rather than detailed. Embarrassing euphemisms also tend to be quite rare – the only ones that immediately come to mind are George R.R. Martin’s infamous “Fat Pink Mast” and “Myrish Swamp.” Oh, and the named moves that Felurian and Kvothe engage in, in Patrick Rothfuss’ Wise Man’s Fear. Really, the biggest literary sin I have encountered with sex scenes in published works tends to be the overwhelming reek of authorial wish-fulfilment (again, see Rothfuss).

On the other hand, as I have noted before, Greene’s genre reading tends towards more contemporary fantasy, rather than older material, so perhaps this is just down to which books we’re each consuming. For all I know, I’m a bit out of date.

With that out the way, I’d summarise Greene’s points as:

  • Embarrassing euphemisms.
  • Anatomically strange descriptions.
  • Omission of foreplay.
  • Overly perfect sex.

On the first two points, I think Greene is describing symptoms, rather than the root cause. The real problem is that writers find themselves trapped between the Scylla of overly clinical description and the Charybdis of poetic euphemism, neither of which are actually sexy. Navigating between the two is a tricky business.

But this in itself is also a symptom of a wider observation. The bald image of the human penis entering the vagina (or any other bodily orifice) is actually uninteresting and unsexy to read about. It is much more interesting – and relevant to characterisation – to show how our characters are psychologically reacting to sexual activity. In other words, what is going through their minds is more important than tab-and-slot mechanics. Moreover, since this turns the sex scene into a matter of character development, you don’t have to worry that you are sliding into pornography, since there is now method to your madness, beyond audience titillation.

So with all due respect to Greene, I’d actually offer an alternative criterion for a bad literary sex scene. A bad sex scene is one that allows description of the physical to trump description of the psychological.

(In fact, I’d go further. Writing a sex scene is like writing a fight scene. Saying that Andrew punches Bob is less interesting than showing us how Andrew feels about punching Bob. Or what Bob thinks about the whole thing).

Greene’s point about foreplay also ties back into the wider importance of psychology in sex scenes. Foreplay is about getting you and your partner in the mood. It’s a gradual build-up of psychological tension. And, well, it’s the job of the writer to lay enough groundwork, so that there is appropriate build-up and pay-off (so to speak) within the scene. Devoting a few lines to describing foreplay (and, more importantly, the characters’ responses) is entirely consistent with that. This is also why I think sex scenes are better suited to a novel than to a short-story – the writer has more space to work with, and more time to develop characters.

On the other hand, such mood-setting does not actually necessitate an explicit description of foreplay. Implied sexual activity – as distinct from pure fade-to-black – can be quite powerful too, when the author works to create an appropriate atmosphere through setting description. Consider this scene, from The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison (1922), a nearly century-old fantasy novel:

But Brandoch Daha, seeing how her face became on a sudden such as are new-blown roses at the dawning, and her eyes wide and dark with love-longing, came to her and took her in his arms and fell to kissing and embracing of her. On such wise they abode for awhile, that he was ware of no thing else on earth save only the sense-maddening caress of that lady’s hair, the perfume of it, the kiss of her mouth, the swell and fall of that lady’s breast straining against his.

She said in his ear softly, ‘I see thou art too masterful. I see thou art one who will be denied nothing, on whatsoever thine heart is set. Come.”

And they passed by a heavy-curtained doorway into an inner chamber, where the air was filled with the breath of myrrh and nard and ambergris, a fragrancy as of sleeping loveliness. Here, amid the darkness of rich hangings and subdued glints of gold, a warm radiance of shaded lamps watched above a couch, great and broad and downy-pillowed. And here for a long time they solaced them with love and all delight.

Even as all things have an end, he said at the last, “O my lady, mistress of hearts, here would I abide ever, abandoning all else for thy love sake. But my companions tarry for me in thine halls below, and great matters wait on my direction. Give me thy divine mouth once again, and bid me adieu.”

She was lying as if asleep across his breast: smooth-skinned, white, warm, with shapely throat leaned backward against the spice-odorous darknesses of her unbound hair; one tress, heavy and splendid like a python, coiled between white arm and bosom. Swift as a snake she turned, clinging fiercely about him, pressing fiercely again to his her insatiable sweet fervent lips, crying that here must he dwell unto eternity in the intoxication of perfect love and pleasure.

Eddison likes his Jacobean prose, but note that this scene does not explicitly describe anything more physically risque than kissing. Instead, the sexual activity is implied in the reader’s imagination, with extensive authorial effort at building an atmosphere of intoxicating delight. The mood itself is set via lush sensory descriptions of touch, smell, and taste, which are normally less-utilised descriptors than hearing and sight, but which here serve to cement us inside the heads of our characters. The one bit of laser-focused visual description of a human body we do get? A tress of hair against a woman’s skin, not a sex organ. It might be a bit purple-prose to modern eyes, but I think the result is much more beautiful than plain descriptions of penises and vaginas, while never actually falling into the trap of using silly poetic euphemisms for genitalia.

(Incidentally, we know that J.R.R. Tolkien read this particular book. His biggest objections were Eddison’s often bizarre naming conventions, and the other author’s alleged delight in protagonist cruelty).

That leaves us with Greene’s final objection – overly idealised sex (simultaneous orgasms, et cetera). To be honest, I think this really depends on the intent of the scene. Fantasy is not Realistic by definition, and so long as the writing does not breach the Willing Suspension of Disbelief, who the hell cares? If the intent is to produce a scene that shows our characters having a Fun Sexy Time, introducing awkwardness (even realistic awkwardness) will detract from that. If the intent is to show our characters awkwardly fumbling their way through an Authentic Human Experience, then by all means go to town with premature ejaculation, or whatever. Artistic Licence is most certainly a thing, and the needs of the story need to come before misplaced concerns about Realism in a Fantasy Novel.

**

Such are my thoughts on the mechanics of writing sex scenes in fantasy. As Greene notes, it is a subject matter that many readers and writers find uncomfortable, and fair enough. For myself, I do not find myself at all weirded out by reading or writing it, but I do firmly believe that a sex scene must serve the story, not the other way around. Moreover the primary purpose of including such scenes in a fantasy story must be to explore character psychology. In this particular case, I think Greene is overly caught up in identifying and cringing at fan-fiction-level writing (criticisms of sex in published fantasy literature tend to lie elsewhere), but I do think he offers some valid reminders of what can go wrong.

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