Sex, Vulgarity, and Violence (Part One)

Oh,my.

The big three. The ones the League of Language and Lewdness Policing love to pounce on. The three things censors gleefully stick behind bars. What makes PG-13 into R. Right there. Sex. Vulgarity. Violence. Where does it belong in your story (if at all) and what purpose does it serve?

I’m going to stick to the realm of fantasy for now, but a lot of what I say will apply across the board anyway. I don’t watch a ton of television. I watch movies a little more, and one thing that always irritates me is the L-shaped bedsheet. You know. The ones that cover a woman’s breasts, but bare a man to the waist. One thing I remember liking about the movie Love and Other Drugs with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway is that as their relationship progressed, it showed in the way they acted around each other in those moments. She didn’t cover herself up or pretend that her blossomy sparkling modesty was an elusive creature that disappeared during sex but came back five seconds later with its nose in the air. They were naked, and they just hung out. To me, that was being honest about how people’s levels of comfort in a relationship evolve and grow as they get to know each other and as the relationship progresses. That’s what stuck in my mind that time, not the L-shaped sheet.

L-Shaped Sheet in Action

Which brings me to the topic of imagery, which is today’s homage to The 25 — it also fits in with addressing the Big Three in this post’s title. So here’s what WD has to say about imagery:

5. Imagery
A successful image can plug right into your reader’s nervous system at times when explanation falls flat. Consider, “Donna felt weak,” versus, “Donna was unable to bring the spoon to her mouth.” Which one makes you want to know what happens next?

Now, revisit a draft of your writing. Try making vague moments more vivid by replacing explanation with imagery. This won’t always be an appropriate solution—sometimes a simple, unembellished statement will be the most powerful choice. But you won’t know until you try.
—Sage Cohen

The first examples I think of when I think of imagery are from poetry, Robert Frost and e.e. cummings, respectively:

Nature’s first green is gold.

nobody,not even the rain has such small hands.

Both of those involve figurative language, as poetry is apt to do, but they both put pictures in your head much better than “spring is pretty” or “you have small hands.” While prose is not poetry for a reason, imagery still has a place in it. An important one, somewhere in the middle of the line of important things.

Tie-in time. Censors seem to look at sex, vulgarity, and violence as ants. First there’s one, then another, then the whole picnic is ruined. So they bust out the Raid. However, those things are a part of life. Writers write life. They write people, doing people things. People have sex. They yell “shit!” when some guy cuts them off on the freeway. They have a tendency to hurt each other, sometimes for nebulous sorts of reasons. Those things are a part of our lives, and they’re there all the time. To me, they’re less like ants and more like toenails. Some people try not to think about them, but they’re attached to your feet whether you think about them or not. Even whether you like them or not. There they are. You can run away from them, like my dog tried to when he got grazed by a car and didn’t like the smell of the tea tree oil we put on the wound, but in the end you’re just running away from your own feet, and you look like an ass in an L-shaped sheet. Running away from your own feet. Keep that little picture in your mind.

Let’s talk about sex. Though a lot of people may gasp and bluster about morality or gratuitousness, here’s a little tidbit of a fact for you. 95% of all Americans have premarital sex. That includes all those censors out there. That includes religious communities. That 95% isn’t just us heathens. Nope. Everyone. It’s normative behavior. And the rest of the 5% (which is more like 4 or 3% if you take into account the 1 or 2% of the population that will never have sex, marriage or not) end up doing it too. Sex is a part of our lives. It has a place in fiction and poetry and non-fiction, and I’ll argue that it’s an important one. It’s one of those things that doesn’t make  a story, but it can make one more believable. Not all stories need it, but a lot do. It’s up to you how you want to roll with it.

I don’t shy away from it. I don’t write romance novels, and the go-to goofy imagery from those is often about pulsing members and simultaneous orgasms, which I find a bit overdone and silly — but some people dig it, so to each their own. When I write sex, it does occasionally get graphic, because I’m trying to be true to a part of life. I also try to be true to what it’s like. Women and men don’t always finish at the same time. Women (and men) don’t always finish at all. Sometimes sex is awkward. Sometimes it’s angry. Sometimes it’s silly and there’s laughter and giggles. Yes, sometimes it’s full on storm of roiling emotions and smoldering gazes, but sometimes someone farts. Sex, like everything else in life, sure isn’t perfect. However you decide to approach it, be honest about it. You don’t have to give a play by play, but if you’re writing a story that involves a romantic relationship and you don’t mention the physical side of it, that’s either catering to the League or robbing your characters of some fun and depth to their relationship. It’s not all honey cakes and beds of roses, but you don’t need to skirt around the edges like you’re flirting with it. People have sex. If your characters are people, they’ll have it too. It doesn’t need to be gratuitous, but if it’s going to leave a gap when taken out, put it in. (That last was not meant to be taken as sex advice.)

So now we come to the concept of imagery and sex. Ah, yes. Believe it or not, there are “tasteful” ways to write sex scenes. One of my all-time favorite fantasy writers, David Eddings, tends to lead you right up to it, tickle you with a feather, and then slam the door (or tent flap, in some cases) and leave you to imagine the rest. A quick example (not verbatim):

“Are you very tired?” Ce’Nedra asked, archly running her fingers across Garion’s chest.
“Not very tired, no.” Garion pulled his wife toward him.

Sorry, Mr. Eddings, for being too lazy to hunt down that scene, but you get the point. You have no doubt of what’s going to happen. You also have a sense of the tone from that adverb (which I think does exist in that scene, naughty). It’s some solid innuendo, and you know they’re about to get it on. Do you need the play-by-play? Not really. Is it believable? Absolutely.

You can dive right in and titillate your reader by giving that play-by-play. You can talk about Mona raking her fingers across Dane’s back, leaving red welts in caramel skin. You can even throw in a pulsing member or two (just please, please find a different euphemism or be blunt and use big kid words). Think about your characters, how you would “rate” your story (G, PG, PG-13, R…NC-17?), how it relates to your story, and if it furthers the plot or character development. It’s really up to you. Just be honest and make it believable. A well-written sex scene is like a big old lollipop no matter if you give it a careful lick on one side or bite off half of it. If the sex scene fits, as they say. Write it.

Shit. 🙂 I’m already at a thousand words and change. We’ll have to talk about Shit and Other Naughty Words tomorrow, gentle viewers. Until then, stay sexy.

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About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on September 18, 2011, in writing process and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I definitely have a hard time with sex. It’s funny, because I’m not an R rated kind of person, but I’m an R rated kind of writer. It takes effort to write a sex scene and then cut it back to something tasteful. I liked the example you gave from Eddings. And I think this ties into the ‘pacing’ piece of advice: letting the reader fill in the gaps.

    Thanks for posting.

    • It can be tricky in fantasy writing, because (as I will write about tomorrow…and maybe the next day) violence and vulgarity push the rating up as much as sex does, so while characters might be in a violent graphic mess of blood and entrails, you might not want to go into sex, which is fine. Even if you do write somewhat graphic sex scenes, I think it’s a fine line to walk between adding to and detracting from plot/relationship/development.
      I also think there’s a time and a place for it, and sex scenes can fall into cliche just as quickly as anything in writing. I write urban fantasy full of really bad bad guys and vampires who drink blood and shapeshifters who need to eat to survive and witches who only die before their time if they’re burned or dismembered, and that doesn’t create a G-rated atmosphere from the get-go. I try to be creative and find which times to be graphic and which to let the reader fill in the blanks, but for the tone of what I write, it ends up being a bit on the gritty side and thus more graphic.
      Eddings is awesome — you should read the Belgariad and the Malloreon (two five book series that make up a ten book series) if you like fantasy. One of my favorite things I ever read that he said was that he got sick of fantasy where the characters never ate a meal or went to the bathroom. Ha. He’s awesome.

  2. Emmie, thank you for a well-reasoned, balanced and, above all, frank piece on this divisive topic. I shall tweet this post, as I think as many people as possible should read it.

  3. Oh, goodness, I think I’m in love. With your writing, that is. And with you, a bit, too. 😉 I laughed so hard (yes, out loud) several times, especially at the part about farting during sex. I’m so glad you “went there”! Thanks for such a great, practical yet entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable post. I will be following. If you ever get a moment, I’d love you to check my blog out, too.

  4. And I also love David Eddings. I think his writing was one of my main inspirations for becoming a writer when I grow up. Oops, looks like I already have. Somewhat.

  5. “If it’s going to leave a gap when taken out, put it in.” Beyond being a great “that’s what she said” joke (sorry, I couldn’t resist) I think that line encapsulates a lot of what writing is about. Every single day, every few minutes, I find that I’m asking myself “Do I really need to explain this?” or “Will my readers care about this tidbit of minutiae?” It can be a struggle, but I know that in my reading I would much rather have too much than too little, you know?

    And I think it completely applies when it comes to censor-able scenes as well. Of course, as writers we need to be aware of our target audiences and our own reasons for writing these things into our work (a few times I’ve caught myself adding something in just to make the scene feel edgier, which is silly) but I feel like in general, “if it’s going to leave a gap when taken out, put it in.” Thanks, Emmie, for a great post!

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