The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air

James Scott Bell

If you read Kathryn’s post earlier in the week, you know that an uptick on hits to this blog can been traced to past posts about sex scenes, cordite smell and thriller writing.

So I have shamelessly put all three in the title, and thank you very much for stopping by.

Now, to make this relevant and not “bait and switch” (perhaps another popular topic?) I offer you the following three opinions:


I realize there are certain types of lit where the “obligatory sex scene” (OSS) is expected. Erotica, some category romance, Barry Eisler books. But people know what they’re getting.

In other fare, the OSS is a bit 1975. Back then it seemed every movie had to have that sex scene, whether it made plot sense or not (e.g., Three Days of the Condor).

I’m against obligatory anything. If it doesn’t make story sense, don’t include it.

As far as explicit description, that may be showing its age, too. Renditions of body parts, ebbing, flowing, heaving, oceans, rivers, volcanoes, tigers, flames, conflagrations, arching backs, majestic canyons, verdant meadows of ecstasy, dewy vales of enchantment, flying and falling, flora and fauna and just about anything else involving motion, loss of breath, water metaphors and sweat seem, well, spent (oops, there’s another one).

You know what works better? The reader’s imagination. If you “close the door” but engage the imagination, it’s often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?

One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madame Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon (Part 3, Chapter 1 if you’re interested). We were so close to including an enhancement drug in the mix to make the scene more ‘sexy’. Brands similar to ExtenZE were taken into consideration! All the description is from the driver’s POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.

Now, I do appreciate well written sexual tension. That’s a major theme in great fiction, especially noir and crime. So were the great 40’s novels and films any less potent for not showing us what we know went on in the bedroom?


This is an underused sense in fiction, but quite powerful. Novelists are usually pretty good with sight and sound. But smell adds an extra something.

Rebecca McClanahan, in her fine book Word Painting, says, “Of the five senses, smell is the one with the best memory.” It can create a mood quickly, vividly. Stephen King is a master at the use of smell to do “double duty” – that is, it describes and adds something to the story, be it tone or characterization.

In his story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” King has a middle aged salesman checking into yet another budget motel. His room, of course, has a certain look and smell, “the mingling of some harsh cleaning fluid and mildew on the shower curtain.”

It is truly a smell that describes this guy’s life.

Use smell properly in your fiction and it won’t stink.


For the writers here at Kill Zone, it’s all supposed to add up to thrills. We have various techniques at our disposal for this, but we also know that clunky writing can pull you right out of our stories.

Like this recent movie I watched. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t like to run down the other fella’s product. Here’s what happened. A brilliant detective is playing cat and mouse with a couple of killers who love the game. In the climactic scene, said detective has figured it out, and shows up at a remote location, gun drawn, telling the two killers to hold it! One killer has a gun, the other watches. Detective tells the one with the gun, who is on the brink of shooting someone, to put the gun down and walk over. So killer follows directions and puts the gun down . . . right where killer #2 can easily grab it!

Which he does. Not a cool move for the brilliant detective. But it was put in there so the rest of the scene could play out in thrilling fashion.

Only the thrill was gone, because the detective was so dumb.

And so we labor, day after day, to write our books in a way that will thrill you and bring you into the action, without doing something dumb. We try. And when you tell us you like what we’ve done, via email or otherwise, it makes our day.

Sex. Smell. Thrills. How have you seen them used or abused in fiction?

28 thoughts on “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air

  1. Great post, especially on sex scenes. With any kind of action in prose, bedroom or otherwise, what’s more interesting is the consqeuences for the characters’ relationships, the complications it adds to the story, the loyalties that are tested.

  2. Excellent advice on all three subjects. The sex aspect of any good novel should always be more in the reader’s head than on the page. However, I’ve had readers write to me and ask that I put some sex scenes in my stories. I’ve always used illusion for the interactions between my H/H because my audience includes many teens and pre-teens. I have to keep their mothers happy too! I’ve tagged your blog to follow. Thanks!

  3. I laughed out loud when I read your headline this morning, Jim! Talk about the power of describing smell: I spent a long moment pondering the type of sex that would leave a smell of cordite in the air. Then of course I had to run over to StatCounter, and determined that your post is starting off our Sunday traffic with a bang (sorry about that one, folks)–of the top 20 keyword searches that landed people at the blog, half of them included the word “sex” in the search phrase (one misspelled sex, but got here anyway). I just love data diving!

    As to annoying things about sex scenes in literature: Whenever I read a thriller in which the characters fall into hot sex almost immediately, and the female erupts into…ahem…audio, I start thinking, “male fantasy fiction.” There should be a subgenre in the bookstores just for books that include those types of scenes. Right next to the bodice rippers.

  4. Great stuff today, Jim. That little movie that plays in the reader’s head is way more powerful than any explicit details we can write. Definitely, when it comes to sex scenes, less is more. BTW, you left out my two favorites: flotsam and jetsam.

  5. I loved this! I don’t really know what cordite is (I write YA and so I’m not even going to look that up, my readers won’t know it, either), but I was intrigued. You’re absolutely right about the smell and the thrill. And I love your thoughts on sex–the same could be said for cursing and several other OSS ‘things’. Thanks for sharing your thoughts–this was a great post.

  6. dirtywhitecandy, you have made a most excellent point. It’s the “after” that counts, and the characters must be affected by it, their lives complicated by it. I much prefer the before (tension) and after (complications) than the during. Thanks for the comment.

  7. WriteOne, the “illusion” idea is apt. That’s what the reader sees, and we can create that by indirection.

    Kathryn, I love how my shameless title is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Thanks for giving me the idea…

  8. Joe, your synonyms are duly noted. Perhaps a collection should be compiled. Hm…

    Chantal, I do agree. Anything that is “obligatory” because the author thinks it’s what is “expected” or will “sell” should be left out.

  9. Jim,
    As always, a gem of instruction.

    The late Robert B. Parker’s books contained sex between Spenser and Susan, and in his latest between Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. But it was never spelled out, just left to the reader’s imagination. Too many writers don’t realize that sex is not a spectator sport.

  10. Right on, Doc. Sex is obviously part of reality, but we have to remember that fiction is not just plain old reality: it’s a stylized rendition of it. We have the power to shape it for our purposes, and do so with skill and cunning.

  11. Hi Jim!
    I must say that I had much the same reaction as Kathryn Lilley. 🙂 For some reason it brought James Bond movies to mind. Must have been the cordite.

    And sense of smell is something I’ve been trying to pay special attention to lately in my writing. It’s so easy to miss those opportunities if you don’t look for them. Don’t forget to tell the gang that at Mt. Hermon this year. Good advice as always.

  12. Good post, Jim. But to maximize your hits, you should’ve called it “The Thrill Of Sex With Cordite In The Air, As Written By Disproportionately Fewer Women”.

  13. Thanks for stopping by, Jill “Soon to Hit the Bookshelves” Nutter.

    And Mike, your devious bona fides are well established. I’ll remember your advice.

    Kathryn has clearly captured the spirit of this discussion.

  14. so let’s apply the cordite/air/sex thing to ty and sr. mv….am i safe in assuming that it wouldn’t be nice to off a nun….so ruling out the cordite in the air premise….would it be the other choice….then we could figure out the “i will” ending. ‘cuz now, i’m thinking “i will….what???….love you forever…wait for you forever…remember you forever….or maybe something as simple as “get a jump shot”. any help on this???? kathy d.

  15. The shameless title and writing crack me up! The words of wisdom are great, too. In most cases, less is more. Readers and audience DO have brains AND imaginations!

    I think kids’ movies/stories use the sense of smell more often. Kids are really in tune to what stinks!

  16. I think you’re bang on about smell being so important!! I try and include smells as much as I can since smell accesses parts of the memory that sight and sound often skip…plus, there’s something fun about describing a setting in olfactory terms, as opposed to simply visual.

    As for sex scenes…I usually just skip them when I’m reading a book. I have yet to read a well-written one!

  17. Nice post, Jim. Pertaining to the movie scene you mentioned–I hate that! I cannot count the thrillers I’ve watched that were going great, and then something completely dumb happens that makes it way too easy and unrealistic for the bad guy to take back control of the scene. You’d think writers and directors would “get” this, or is it just a cop out?

  18. Brock, that’s why they get paid the big bucks. I tell new writers to constantly ask, “Would my character REALLY do that?” You have to think it through.

  19. Regarding the smell of sex and cordite:

    What if we just spray pheromes on on those pages of our books? Or cordite on those other pages.

    of course that’d be tricky with e-books.

  20. Basil, that’s not a bad idea. Remember when they talked about “Smellavision”? We could have a little spray deal attached to the Kindle, like they have in airport bathrooms.

  21. Smellavision seemed like a two edged sword. Great for the food network, but I don’t know if I’d want it for a horror flick…or dirtiest jobs.

    It also reminds of something I saw years ago. Activated Charcoal underpants with an odour covering chemical that activates in the presense of flatulence. In other words, it made one’s farts smell like fruit.

    Now when ever smell potpourri or when my kids open a fresh box of Fruit Loops I lose my appetite.

  22. I smell a new top dog on our daily blog post hits- Jim, you are truly shameless. That’s it, I’m putting “sex” as the title of every post from here on out.

  23. I smell a new top dog on our daily blog post hits- Jim, you are truly shameless. That’s it, I’m putting “sex” as the title of every post from here on out.

  24. Sex in novels is awkward. It turns the reader into a Peeping Tom, and the world really doesn’t need any more of those.

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