By PJ Parrish
Today I want to talk about sex. The dirty deed. The two-backed beast. The Nasty. Le Freak. Riding the Pony. Rock ‘n’ Rolling. Aardvarking. Boinking. Shagging. Doing the No-Pants Dance.
And I want to ask just one question: Why are crime writers such wusses when it comes to sex?
I had to lay aside a nice post I had started for today about settings, and now I have to talk about sex because of the current book I am reading. It’s by a well-known thriller writer and I was having a good time with it until last night. That’s when he got to the sex scene. It was awful. No, worse than awful. I laughed. And now I am having trouble getting back in the mood. So forgive my testiness today.
What the heck happens to some writers when they have to write about sex?
l tell you what I think happens. They get as self-conscious as pimply prom dates. Crime writers can meet murder head on and not flinch, can even render death poetic. But faced with having to describe copulation — especially in the context of — gasp! relationships — they can turn out the most dreadful, unbelievable, embarrassing treacle.
Let’s crack open a page here:
“But the hand was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns — oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest — no, the hand was cupping her entire right — Now!”
That wasn’t from the book I was reading last night. That writer shall remain nameless. I might have to face him someday in the Bouchercon bar. That passage above was written by Tom Wolfe in I am Charlotte Simmons.
Otorhinolaryngological caverns? Did this guy EVER get laid?
At the risk of being offensive here, I will suggest that it is usually the guys who fall apart when sex rears its ugly head in their books. Not that women crime writers haven’t turned out some leaden bedroom prose. But I’m thinking it might have something to do with the “guy relationship” thing. Male crime writers tend to get squeamish when they have to write about the emotional stuff. So when the impulses of the heart (or even just loins) propel the hero(ine) into bed, things get icky fast. And guys, especially thriller writer guys, tend to chomp onto the cliches like a rabid Jack Russell. Like: Why is the woman always hot to trot with no warmup? (This was the basic problem with the book I was reading last night).
Believe me, I sympathize with any of you who have problems writing sex scenes. Before I turned to writing mysteries, I used to write what in the Eighties was euphemistically called Women’s Contemporary Fiction. (Big fat sagas about internecine family intrigue with sex scenes). I became pretty good at sex, if I do say so myself. So I know how hard it is to write about it without looking silly. For starters, you have get your folks out of their clothes. And then you have to get the plumbing connections right. And then — and here’s where most writers lose it — you might have to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like two four-year-olds making mud pies.
Okay, I have a confession to make. For six books into our series, we had managed to avoid our hero Louis Kincaid having sex, probably on purpose. Once, I even got a fan letter from a lady in Maine asking me why Louis never had sex. But in A Killing Rain, he fell in love with a woman, Joe Frye, and it was finally time for Louis to get some. My co-author sister Kelly and I knew the scene was coming, and we decided it had to be on camera. No wussy fade to black this time. So there we were, sitting in my office with our Ferrante and Teicher computers. I had drawn duty to write the sex scene, but man, I just couldn’t do it. It just seemed so darn…yucky, given our hardboiled style. But there was Louis and his woman and it was my duty to light their fire. And I froze.
Kelly, hearing no typing, turned and asked, “Okay, what is it now?”
“I can’t do this. I got them out on the dark porch. You take it.”
So we switched chairs and Kelly gave it a go. After a moment, I realized I hadn’t heard any typing. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I got their clothes half off. You take it.”
I rolled back and gave it another shot. Nada. Dry as dust. I had lost that lovin’ feeling.
Finally, we sat side by side and sweated it out. It was brutal. But eventually, Louis got laid without us resorting to a From Here To Eternity beach cop-out.
Now, lest I be accused of guy-bashing, I’ll allow some men to weigh in here. Here’s C.J. Box, at the Montana Festival of the Book, talking about how he does it: “My protagonist is married, so there are no sex scenes.”
Here’s Neil McMahon, in an interview talking about his first book, Twice Dying, where his man and woman ended up in a motel room. He tried to slide by with a few sentences. But his editor demanded a full-blown sex scene, saying, “All right. This is it. You’re going to have to write this. It’s going to have to be explicit. This is a deal-breaker.” So I wrote it, McMahon said.
For a more thoughtful take, let’s go to my good friend Jim Fusilli, talking about his book Tribeca Blues: “Sex is a theme in Tribeca Blues — covert sex, back-alley sex, the ramifications of that kind of thing. So there had to be a sex scene between two people who have genuine affection for each other. In the context of the story, I think it works. It’s sensual but not salacious. It wasn’t easy to write. I felt a little squeamish. I don’t know. I’m not a prude, but maybe I had too many years of Catholic school or something. You know, if you’re going to write it, you have to write it well. You’ve got to feel it and make it real. You can’t be saying “wee-wee” and “boobies” any more than you can say “throbbing member” or “heaving love mounds” or some bullshit like that. It’s got to be as believable as when you’ve got him walking down the street.”
At least Jim has the guts to meet the subject head on.
Not all guy crime writers shy away from sex. Some embrace it. Max Allan Collins and Jeff Gelb have produced some sophisticated erotic mysteries. But those are the small exceptions.
In closing, I’ll give the last word to a woman –veteran mystery novelist and Edgar winner Dana Stabenow: “There are a ton of people, critics and writers alike, who say that in detective fiction it should be the classic Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character who have to be loners. That’s changed a lot with the advent of women writing in the mystery field, because women tend to emphasize relationships. For about 5,000 years that was pretty much all we had, our lives revolved around relationships and our husbands and our families and our children. So there are a lot of women reading mystery fiction and I think publishers are going to publish what they can sell — and if they can sell mysteries that have an element of relationship in them, then that’s what they’re going to solicit writers to produce.”
And damn it, that includes sex.
I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe we need convention panels or workshops to teach this stuff. All I know is I am glad I don’t write romantic novels anymore. Frankly, sex just wears me out. Writing it, that is. I’m too old now. And you know, I am much happier killing people than having sex. But maybe that is a female thing.
The only sex scene I made it all the way through was Rosemary’s Baby. Usually I either laugh or skip it.
Yikes. That was a toughie! Sorry am late in replying to you all but had a pickleball tournament today. No, I didn’t win but at least I didn’t embarrass myself.
Sex scenes are easy, if you have a Commodore ** or better and can write code. Simply couple a couple with a randy number generator and a sexicon, and let the code algorhythmically replace the beeps (I hope this isn’t too racy for Killzoneblog):
Eagerly, he beeped her beep and beeped his beeping beep deep into her beeping beep.
“Beep!” he cried.
“Beep!” she yelled.
Beeping, they fell apart.
Repeater as needed.
You made my day. Thanks.
Excellent topic. I love noir crime stories, and I think sex goes well with those tales. Lawrence Block is great with that and the legendary Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt cornered that market in the pulp days.
Thanks for the names Philip. Am familiar only with Block. Will tune into the other guys.
If actually showing the intimate details of a sex or love-making scene is necessary to advance the storyline, then sure, put it in. In that case, I recommend writing what makes you uncomfortable (so the truth). On the other hand, much can be said for an emotionally heated warmup—usually via tense, breathe-through dialogue—followed by a closed door to give the characters their privacy. At which point the reader’s mind takes over and s/he experiences his/her own best version of the scene.
“The door boomed shut, and plaster dust erupted all around the frame.”
Indeed. See James’s example below from “Moonstruck.” Hot warm up and no on scene sex. It’s terrific.
Ah, a post that hits home (not that any of yours don’t, Kris).
I always enjoyed the relationships in mysteries – Spenser and Susan (et al), Rina and Peter, and there doesn’t always have to be an on-the-page explicit sex scene, but reading about the ‘at home’ lives of the characters always makes the connections stronger.
I cut my teeth writing romantic suspense, which I call “Mysteries With Relationships.” But when I wrote my first true mystery, Deadly Secrets, I got so much flak from readers for showing about 300 words of simple foreplay that I ended up taking it out and republishing it. I kept the relationship, but the sex was all off the page.
I was at a romance writer’s conference years ago when Barry Eisler was trying to increase his female readers after finding out the guys were giving his books to their wives after they’d finished them. He figured he could double his readership. A small group of us (all women) was standing around and he asked if we were given an anonymously written sex scene, if we would be able to tell whether a man or woman wrote it. We all said yes.
You hit it when you said the guys seem to have trouble writing emotions. Men and women are hard-wired differently, and yes, there will be variations.
I did a couple of posts about men not being women with chest hair both at my blog and here at TKZ.
Confession. I’ve cut back on my ‘on the page’ sex scenes in my more recent books. My editor questioned it, but in the romantic suspense genre, things tend to play out too quickly for real relationships to develop, and physiology says when a body (be it human or otherwise) is under stress, the first thing that gets shut down is the reproductive system.
(BTW, Kris, that CJ Box response must be his standard, because I heard him say it, too.)
And sorry this comment rivals the length of the post.
Funny you mention Barry Eisler. One of the best panels I was ever on was with him, another guy whose memory escapes me and Jonathan Santlofer. God, it was hilarious. We each had to read one of our own sex scenes. I wish I had it on tape. But I remember Barry talking exactly about trying to reach women readers.
The difficulty with writing good sex scenes may be part of a bigger problem. Crime fiction starts with a crime and the investigator role. Conan Doyle never had to go much beyond this. But now crime fiction wants to include more of the personal lives of the main characters.
But too often that element seems tacked on and, to me, doesn’t ring true. I love Harry Bosch, but the scenes with his daughter and the scenes with his various lovers just don’t ring true or interesting. Similarly with Faye Kellerman’s Rina and Peter Decker, at least as the series progresses. We’ve got rather ordinary people and rather ordinary interactions in these series: Harry and Maddie dealing with totally typical father-daughter problems in uninteresting ways. Peter Decker and Rina squabbling when Peter comes home tired and doesn’t get the response he wants from Rina, or Peter getting upset when his daughter tells him she’s quitting grad school and joining the LAPD (Serpent’s Tooth).
The “personal” and “interpersonal” seem tacked on, not deeply and originally developed and not really germane to the story.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons good sex scenes are hard to include in crime fiction.
Mosley’s Leonid McGill stories are the exception. But Leonid’s family not only consists of extraordinary individuals (each is, in one or more senses, a statistical outlier), but Leonid’s family relations are integral to the stories. (However, I don’t recall explicit sex scenes in the one’s I’ve read.)
So, do crime novels tend to have a (structural?) problem with developing the personal/interpersonal elements of their characters’ lives?
And does this have anything to do with the lack of good sex in the novels?
Typically, detectives’ family members exist only to be menaced by revenge driven perps. Reader/viewers often think: “Oh, dear. In Act III, I’ll bet Petunia is going to be kidnapped by “Rude Rudolph, the Mad Gasser of Tooting.”
“But too often that element seems tacked on and, to me, doesn’t ring true.”
Yes, I so agree. Your comment brings to mind a book I read a couple years back by an excellent crime writer whose work I always admired. But with this new series, something went astray as he tried too hard to give the hero (who was troubled enough in his past) a lot of personal relationship baggage. And it was none too fresh — ie bitter ex wife and estranged kid. It just felt, as you said, tacked on.
I think a part of it is not wanting to cross “the line” between a mystery and erotica. Odd that 350 pages of murder, red herrings, investigations, and the killer being caught, will get “one stared” on Amazon for ten pages of Det. Hunk meeting Hot Honey in a bar and going back to her place. But it will.
I do not mind sex with my murders – on paper, but they are hard to write. I look for where everything goes. I could not tell you how many sexy scenes I have read that require a second right arm to do “this” and “that” at the same time.
If I remember Helen and Phil manage to get steamy in Elaine Viets’ Dead End Jobs in a way that is eyebrow raising without being a plumbing lesson.
Ha! Always loved Helen and Phil’s trysts. They felt real.
OK I had to look up otorhinolaryngological. That would take the steam out of any relationship.
First off, Kris, I’ll defend my man Tom Wolfe, the best American novelist of the latter part of the 20th Century. I Am Charlotte Simmons is satire and Wolfe’s style is a rollicking, linguistic symphony…Beethoven’s 9th as played by Spike Jones. (I just finished re-reading The Bonfire of the Vanities and it is sheer brilliance.)
Next…how did the noir, books and film, of the 40s and 50s manage to teem with sex without showing body parts? And where does it say you have to do it today or it’s a “cop out”? No, it’s a copulation out, and unless you’re writing erotica where it’s expected, it’s stylistically more impressive to get the heart racing without the anatomical elucidations and synonyms for “climax.”
One of the best loves scenes of all time is in Moonstruck. Ronny (Nick Cage) and Loretta (Cher) are in a heated argument over Ronny’s brother, Johnny, who is engaged to Loretta. You have to see it again to get all the sexual power emanating from the screen before Ronny picks her up and carries her to the bed.
Ronny: I don’t believe this is happening. I was dead.
Loretta: Me, too.
Ronny: What about Johnny?
Loretta: You’re mad at him. Take your revenge out on me. Leave nothing left for him to marry, nothing but the skin over my bones.
Ronny: All right, all right! There will be nothing left.
After that, seeing the action would be, you’ll excuse the expression, anti-climactic.
So heave me no oceans. Cascade me no waterfalls. I’m closing the door, and what you cook up in your imagination will be better than mere words.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t pick on Tom Wolfe, but it was too juicy to leave out. And you are dead-on right about the Moonstruck scene. So sexy.
Absolutely this is a tricky subject for many writers, Kris. For me, if the story needs an actual sex scene, then yes, try to put yourself into the (really resisting puns here this morning) places of the characters involved, and convey the emotion of the scene through the action. On the other hand, it may not be necessary, as Jim’s example above from “Moonstruck” showed.
In my “Empowered” series, I had a slow burn romance which eventually becomes physical. I went with fade to black after they both expressed their love, kissing and holding each other, in a scene which was also about the threat they and their group faced. In a real sense, the emotion of the scene was consummated right then, so I wanted to end on that not.
Terrific post, and a very fun read. “I had lost that lovin’ feeling” made me grin.
Have a great day!
When I wrote romance, I found the love scenes harder to write than the action scenes, but they are much the same. Create a plausible scenario, have the right scene and situation, have the relationship build up to that point in earlier scenes, then go full five senses. And the real secret. It’s not about body parts; it’s about the characters’ emotions toward each other.
And there’s no shame in closing the bedroom door if that feels right for the book.
That’s a good point that writing a crime action scene and a sex scene are actually very similar. Get the choreography right, don’t overplay your punches and wrap things up and move on. 🙂
Very entertaining, Kris! 🙂
I’ve never considered how hard a sex scene might be to write. And I love that picture of you and your sister . . . priceless.
I happen to be one of those readers who like the relationship thingy very understated. I know what’s going on behind those closed doors, but I really don’t need to see it. Very prudish of me, no doubt, but there it is.
So, all things being considered, I wouldn’t presume to try to write a sex scene. I’d rather write a fight scene, a bear-mauling scene, or a car chase scene.
A little lovey-dovey goes a long way with me. 🙂
I agree…less is more. In thirteen books in our series, there is one sex scene. C’est suffit, mon amour.
I write thrillers. The action is kinetic, the stakes are always high, time is always short, and most sex scenes stop the forward movement. They’re the whaling chapter from MOBY DICK. (While the pun is unintended, it’s pretty funny, I think. A sperm whale, no less.) Every novel from the mid-sixties through the mid-eighties had the obligatory sex scene that always felt appended and unnecessary.
“We will return to your regularly scheduled story after we take this quick break for boinkage.”
Twenty-seven books over 26 years, and nary a sex scene. No one has ever sent me a complaint letter.
I need this on a T-Shirt.“We will return to your regularly scheduled story after we take this quick break for boinkage.”
“Maybe that is a female thing.” So true! I’d much rather kill people than write a sex scene. The two times I had to face it, I got in and got out, so to speak. 😉 Perhaps it’s because I pour so much of myself into my characters (real emotions) that to show sex would mean exposing that part of my life, and I’m not willing to open my bedroom door. Or I’m just a wuss.
Nothin’ wrong with being a wuss, Sue. I have a PhD in wussness. 🤡
I start by considering the target audience – and the range of them – and then set about creating enough detail so that those readers will be able to complete the scene from their mental databases – to their own satisfaction.
And I consider whether the more extreme points of the range will be outraged or baffled, and adjust.
The audience for erotica and the audience for Jane Eyre don’t, in my mind, overlap all that much – and I’m squarely in the middle of the latter, and I think, from their reviews, so is my target audience.
The last thing I want to write is more explicit than that – but adults are adults, and they don’t like being fooled. And the occasional advanced teen should be able to trust the PG-13 label.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee is still a reasonable model for a male point of view; the slight datedness is a plus. The books are still incredibly popular. I read them very young.