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Writing Sex Scenes for the Non-Genre Novelist

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For mainstream, non-genre novelists, writing sex scenes into a story line poses some serious questions. Unlike pornography, which is intended to arouse sexual excitement, literary novelists are concerned with insight, revelation, pace and tone. They must consider whether any extended graphic portrayal of sex is indigenous to character and plot development, and not merely a distracting detour offering the reader an erotic impulse. It can also be a clear sign that the story is flagging and that the author needs to reach for a kind of artificial sweetener to jolt his reader alert.

In several of my novels, such as The Casanova Embrace and The Ties That Bind, which deal with the dynamics of relationships and the mysterious nature of love, I have wrestled with the style and architecture of the sex scene. Some readers have called my sex scenes excessive and too graphic, and they may have a point. It does require some discipline on the part of the author not to get carried away. After all, we get our material from our imagination and the subconscious, that eternally bubbling cauldron, which produces our darkest thoughts and fantasies, many of them sexual.

Unlike erotic Romance Fiction and numerous novels that specialize in arousal formulae, literary writers must ask themselves some hard questions before putting their characters in flagrante delicto.

  • Is graphic sex natural to the character's development or necessary to enhance and illustrate the story line? Remember that for centuries, sexual activity in stories from the Bible, ancient legends and myths, Shakespeare and the great classic novels and plays was rarely graphically illustrated, yet always lurking. In those great enduring masterpieces, whether by deliberate government censorship or social taboo, the act of sex was implied, subtle and disguised. Despite this, an underbelly of below-the-counter pornography always existed.
  • If the author believes that graphic sex, now permitted and commonplace in the mainstream, is an appropriate event that requires specific detailing, the question arises as to how to refer to the private parts of the characters. The goalposts of vulgarity have moved considerably in the last couple of decades, but using the "P word" or the "V word" often carries the risk of offending the reader, even though the descriptions may be both accurate and appropriate. Creative authors have come up with euphemisms for such parts, although one wonders if they are as evocative as their real life counterparts.
  • Often there is a sense of personal climax, no pun intended, in human relationships, where the act of sex is a necessary bonding mechanism between lovers. It cries out to be described in detail, to illustrate a kind of ecstatic culmination. In such a recounting there is a spillover into the pornographic which cannot be avoided, and, in my opinion, should be written in joyous detail.
  • There are also occasions when sexual assault and rape often require descriptions to illustrate base human behavior. In such cases, authors must decide how far to go in their depiction. Discretion is a fine line for an author, and no hard and fast rule could ever offer instruction. Here again, the author must decide if such details are necessary to enhance the story and not merely a serving of titillating horror.

It is unlikely that we will ever go back to the dark veil of censorship and social disdain towards sexual conduct that inhibited past generations. Sexuality is both basic to our nature and necessary for our survival as a species. It belongs in novels, but only if it is integral to the story, and not merely an excursion into a domain that has little to do with the true substance of the novel.

Warren Adler has recently released Cult, a psychological thriller about the global phenomena of sects built up on tactics of manipulation, brainwashing, and violence. Best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas), The Sunset Gang (starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Doris Roberts), Private Lies, Funny Boys, Madeline's Miracles, Trans-Siberian Express and his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series are only a few titles that have forever left Adler's mark on contemporary American authorship from page to stage and screen. The Sunset Gang also premiered Off-Broadway as a musical with music composed by the noted composer L. Russell Brown and lyrics by Adler himself. The New York Times called it, "A bittersweet musical about aging and desire... a deeper examination of love and loyalty among people over 60."

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