Tim Chapman is a former forensic scientist for the Chicago Police Department and is the author of A Trace of Gold and The Blue Silence. You can find out more about him here, see his last post here, and get his books here.
A few summers ago, at the Printers Row Lit Fest in Chicago, author Clare O’Donohue and I gave a talk about writing sex scenes. It was essentially a conversation in which we shared opinions and read the nasty bits from a few famous novels, as well as our own. To prepare, I perused books that contained well-known sex scenes: Women In Love, Tropic Of Capricorn, Delta Of Venus, and, of course, Fifty Shades Of Grey. I also read some mystery and crime fiction, including a couple of Agatha Christie stories. Based on this research I devised a highly unscientific way to categorize sex scenes. I broke them into three classifications: Sensual, Functional, and SensuoFunctio.
•Sensual sex scenes use imagery that appeals to the senses and symbols that are sexually implicit. The mood is established, and then—boom—it’s suddenly the next morning. Mysteries, particularly those that follow the rules of the cozy, usually fit the Sensual category if they contain sex at all.
•Functional sex scenes are just that. They’re explicit, describing the action, (insert Tab A into Slot B) often naming body parts, either clinically or with slang or (sadly) euphemisms.
•SensuoFunctio sex scenes establish mood and then describe the action.
My own writing generally falls somewhere in the Sensual model. There are two reasons for this. First, readers often attach their own habits and biases to the characters they’re reading about. We might be doing the same things in bed (or in the kitchen, or the garage, or behind the library), but we do them slightly differently. I like to leave some things to the reader’s imagination. Second, I infuse a lot of my own personality into my characters. I’m not sure I want my readers to know what I’m like in bed (unless I’m writing a comedy).
You’ll notice that I haven’t classified any of this writing as pornography. That’s because pornography implies obscenity. For the record, I don’t find descriptions of sex to be obscene. Gay, Straight, Queer—its all a rich tapestry. What’s obscene are gruesomely detailed descriptions of murder and mutilation and/or rape. There is a place for obscenity in writing. After all, reality is fodder for fiction. I would argue, though, that classics like 1955s Lolita in which the protagonist lusts after a twelve-year-old girl, need to be viewed through a twenty-first century lens.
Here’s the sex scene from my novel The Blue Silence.
They cut through the park to the bike path so they could see the lake while they walked. The sun was down, but the moon was up, and McKinney watched the ripple of its reflection on the water. It appeared to follow them as they walked. Nina put on her sweater and took McKinney’s hand in hers. He noted that there was strength behind the softness. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, and she squeezed back, and then a sort of sexual energy passed between them. McKinney had known on the first night he kissed her that, sooner or later, they would wind up in bed together. Some part of him knew her now, or rather, anticipated her—the feel of the soft hairs at the base of her spine, the taste of salt just above her collarbone, the warmth of her exhalation on his ear. He sensed these things about her. He needed to know them.
They walked without speaking for a bit. A cool breeze blew in off the lake, and a light shower fell on them from a sky that had been clear moments before. Nina pulled herself into the crook of his arm, and they hurried back, ducking into a short tunnel. The air in the tunnel was dense and mildewy. The moon had passed behind a cloud, but they could see the glow of the streetlights at the other end of the tunnel. They kissed for a while, and her fragrance, all the smells that defined her, filled his senses. She took one of his hands from her waist and put it on her breast. He felt her nipple, firm under his palm and, with his other hand, pulled her tight against him. The sound of footsteps along the walk robbed them of the moment. Almost in a whisper, Nina said, “I know this takes away some of the spontaneity, but would you…I mean, if you’d like to…can you spend the night?”
McKinney raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “You’re sure?”
She nodded. “Let’s walk back to the El.”
“The hell with the El,” he said, leading her out of the tunnel, “Let’s take a cab.”
And then—boom—it’s suddenly the next morning.
A question for my fellow authors: How do you write sex scenes?
A question for readers (don’t be shy): Which of my three made-up sex scene categories do you prefer to read?