Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Would You Like Some Sex with That Romance?

Yesterday I was talking to an aspiring author who is working on a romance/mystery novel. He said to me, “a love story doesn’t need to have sex in it.” I’d have to agree, of course. A burger can be perfectly tasty without fries on the side, know what I mean? My favorite love stories, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind, do not include graphic sex. The question made me reflect on why exactly I prefer to write love stories that do have sex in them.

A lot of erotica authors like to write about sex, period, and there may or may not be a love story, and it may be quite secondary. Personally, I think the best way to go is both, because of the nature of romantic love. In my view (and Carl Jung’s, at least according to my interpretation), romantic love is borne of the deepest cravings of the psyche. It’s about unmet needs and yearning for balance and fulfillment. The psychological hungers that inspire people to have infatuations and fall in love are intense and powerful and usually uncontrollable. Just like sexual desire and lust.

Love stories can be memorable for a number of reasons, but I believe they work best when the two people involved are drawn to each other in a way that is uncontrollable and also frustrated by circumstance. Mr. Darcy craves Elizabeth Bennet in spite of believing her to be beneath him. It’s quite titillating to watch his desire struggle with his intellectual beliefs. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester yearn to be together but his marriage to his mad wife stands in the way. When in a fit of desperation he attempts to marry Jane anyway, his insane determination has very sexual undertones. Scarlett O’Hara’s longstanding infatuation with Ashley Wilkes is the one thing that can drain her of all her spunk and render her helplessly submissive.

In short, these fictional folks all experience desire of extreme intensity. They don’t take off their clothes, but the same factors that drive people to lust and sexual interaction are present and intensely active. These characters and their emotions resonate with readers. We’ve all felt like that at one time or other, and emotions like these were all tangled up with the sexual desire we experienced.

So that’s the romantic love part of the picture. To the writer who wishes to communicate most powerfully about sex, it’s the set-up you’re required to do to achieve that effectiveness. Leaping right into the bed with the naked bodies and the thrusting and moaning can get a rise out of a reader, sure. But the stakes—and emotional engagement—are raised greatly if the psychology of arousal and desire has been brought into play.

So, if that’s the important part, do you really need to go into the sex itself? Why is the explicit love scene so necessary?

Personally, when I write the sex scene I do it not so much to describe a series of actions, but to say more about each character’s reaction to achieving intimacy with his/her heart’s desire. How they touch each other, what they say, how they engage in the physical act, all tell us more about romantic yearning and the satisfaction of same.

I picture Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth on their wedding night, mixing wild passion (in contrast to the restraint required by Regency society) with exchanges of delightful wit. It is primarily their shared wit that brings them together, and it would have to be an integral part of their lovemaking. That’s a scene I’d love to write.

Mr. Rochester is obviously a fiery soul, which is no doubt part of his charm to the reserved, meek Jane. I’m sure he would be likewise in bed, while at the same time exerting a paternal tenderness that is balm to the soul of the orphaned girl inside Jane. Also a lovely encounter…sigh.

And as for Scarlett, she ends up with Rhett Butler, who is definitely more of a kindred spirit than Ashley. But I’ve always felt the reason Scarlett and Rhett didn’t make it was that they are too much alike. It is because of Ashley’s quiet, serious nature that the passionate and wild Scarlett yearns for him. Would I like to try putting those two in bed? Only if I got to write Scarlett succeeding in breaking down Ashley’s reserve. That’s why the incident in the film when she gets him to kiss her is so memorable; you gotta love a scene when sexual desire is so powerful it gets someone to abandon his principles.

So to me, writing in the sex just cranks the romantic love up a notch. You get to paint the picture of two people’s adoration of each other with some additional, intense colors. You get to use their sexual encounter as an illustration, or a metaphor, or both. Just as bedroom behavior is an intimate glimpse into the psyches of the lovers, a bedroom scene can say things about characters that no amount of PG description, action and dialogue can.

The guy I spoke to about his book admitted to me that he simply doesn’t know how to write sex scenes. I say, better to know that about yourself and write other fiction, than force it when you just don’t have that particular knack. Because unlike most everything else that happens in life, very seldom is real life sex something you can base your fiction on. It’s fun enough, don’t get me wrong, but not often anything to write home about, as the saying goes. So writing sex puts demands on the imagination like little else.

Nevertheless, if you can pull it off, it’s like adding fries to your burger. Only with more heart palpitations and less trans fat.

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