The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Wednesday, October 03, 2007

X is for X-Rated

Well, actually it’s called NC-17 these days, but I think we all know what I’m talking about. Sex. And like violence, sex can be used to reveal character, move the plot, or simply to add spice.

Adding spice is probably the least (legitimate) usage of sex in writing. There are other, lower uses: to degrade characters, to shock the audience, to deliberately flirt with taboos, etc. There is a line that is difficult to define, and ultimately, this is where that ephemeral thing called “taste” slips in. For some people, the bounds of good taste are “what would my mother think of this.” Fine, but that often leads to excessive limitations, especially among those people who don’t have a healthy line of communication with their parents about sex.

I can probably do nothing more honest than to present my own views here. In novels, I consider that sex is the single time in our lives when every aspect of our personality is most clearly revealed. All human senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing are simultaneously engaged. Intelligence, creativity, emotional health, morality maturity and judgment are all on the table. Sex is such a universal that the safest assumption to make is that EVERYONE is having it, and if they aren’t, there is something specifically wrong. Not always true, but the way to bet.

What will your character do to supply himself/herself with sex? What lines will he cross? What aspects of her personality will she repress to have that intimacy? You would be well served to seriously, deeply, consider what sex means to you and to others. Look at the way it has been controlled in religions around the world and through time. Look at sexual attitudes in different cultures and societies at different levels of technological development. Devise a theory that makes sense to you.

Then—as you take your character through his journey, you may find that sexuality rears its lovely head. What is the dance that the two characters choreograph on the way to bed? How do they negotiate their needs and wants? How much is subtextual, how much explicit? How much is controlled by social rules, how much by animal needs? Where and when does the spiritual realm enter into this?

Years ago (long before I was married!) I was unhappy with the way I wrote love scenes. It bothered me that I could write fight scenes better than love scenes—after all, I’d had a lot more sex than street fights. But that touched on the problem. In fighting, I’m used to analyzing distances, pace of engagement, environment, psychology of the opponent, techniques, etc. In sex, there was no such separation of mind from action.

What I felt I needed was a dispassionate engagement, where I could observe the dance without getting caught up in it. So what I did was choose a love scene from a good movie (specifically, THE BIG EASY) and find an actress to act it out with. For weeks, we practiced the scene, and then performed and videotaped it. Perfect. For the first time, I felt I could understand both the inner and outer aspects of a love scene.

Find your own way to understanding. But the primary rule is one of FEELING. You need to be clear on the emotion you want your audience to feel, and work to convey that as elegantly as possible. Study great love scenes with different emotional contents in different films and books.

And then, of course, there is home practice.

Yum.

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