On Writing: Sex in Mainstream Fiction

Sex is growing more common in mainstream literature, science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, and even horror. Every genre outside of romance is starting to see more and more sex being added to it, for better or for worse. It is a subject that the conservatives among us, myself included, just don't want to talk about. All it takes is one look at 50 Shades of Gray to understand that it is a subject that needs talked about.

It feels like ‘the talk' that parents have with their kids at some point or another. Assuming that talk ever happens. That, fortunately, is a discussion for elsewhere, although the parallels remain.

Is the inclusion of sex a requirement in commercial fiction? We've seen the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray balloon and turn into an epidemic on par with the zombie apocalypse. We only need to take one look at George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice to see that there aren't a whole lot of lines left for Martin to cross. Incest, rape, regular sex, it's all there in one shape or another, whether it is done openly or behind closed doors.

The blunt truth is this: Sex scenes in non-romance genre fiction is on the rise. We're not just talking chaste kisses on the cheek followed up with a sly comment about two characters heading off for a good romp in the bush. We're talking full out, erotic-level sex scenes in non-erotic fiction.

The line between erotica and non-erotic fiction has been blurred, and it's been blurred significantly.

Why has sex in genre fiction (or any form of literature) become the norm?

In part, I think there is a general shift of mentality that makes people more comfortable with reading erotic fiction. We're exposed to sex in movies and on television on a daily basis, so it doesn't come as any surprise to me whatsoever that this is becoming the norm in genre fiction as well.

Honestly, I never thought I'd see the day where I'd have to filter my fantasy reading material by whether or not it had a lot of sexual content. There is a sadder truth here as well. It is getting much harder to find books in any genre that are safe for kids to be around — assuming, of course, you don't want your children reading smut.

I love fantasy novels — and I don't mean sexual fantasy novels. I mean magic, swords, and adventure in worlds unknown. Sex is an aspect of life, but it wasn't so long ago that I could read fantasy without the erotic fantasy added in.

The past few titles I have acquired all included sex scenes. I don't just mean a chaste kiss and closed doors, leaving the sex to the imagination. I mean full-out borderline pornographic sex. The type of sex my husband wouldn't say no to — ever. The type of sex I'm pretty certain would require a chiropractor, painkillers, and a month of time to recover from. I've seen tamer smut-romance novels.

I don't like this. If I wanted to read sex, I'd go find some erotic material to read. At least practiced authors of that genre-type know what they're doing and don't fumble about it with all of the grace of two virgins under the influence of ten beer.

Many of us like the idea of romance, and of seeing our characters fulfill their desires for one another. I think that the influence of movies, television, and a more open-minded society have lent a hand in allowing and encouraging sex in non-erotic fiction.

That doesn't mean it should be added.

It is okay to exclude the sex.

Nine out of ten times, when I encounter sex in a non-erotic novel, I wince. I don't just wince, I flip past the train-wreck that is in progress. Let's face it. Most non-erotic writers really can't write a sex scene confidently.

It is okay to exclude the sex. Don't force it. It makes those of us who do appreciate good erotic fiction wince. Worse, it does something far worse than just cause mental anguish.

Bad sex scenes ruin good books.

There, I said it. Nothing ruins a book worse for me more than a sloppy sex scene. If you're going to try to manipulate my base instincts, go big or go home. While my husband might appreciate the rare author who does a really good job of it, I've no interested in an awkward scene that makes me as embarrassed for the characters and the author as it does for me, who has been subjected to this bad sex scene.

Pointless sex scenes ruin good books.

There are, at times, where sex is a valid plot point in a book. There are, at times, where the sex enhances a story, rather than taking away from it. Pointless sex scenes, where characters indulge for the sake of indulgence, doesn't develop the characters. It doesn't offer anything than an outlet for someone's sexual frustrations.

Sex isn't a crime in non-erotic fiction, but it needs to be approached with tact. Sometimes, the mystery of what happened behind those closed doors is much more satisfying than the flustered attempts of a writer to trying to explain how and when he did what to her or how he did what to him or however your characters roll.

Your readers have imaginations. What you come up with probably isn't nearly as good as what your reader can come up with on their own.

If your readers want to fantasize about how your characters have sex, more power to them! The mystery of the act is, at least for me, much more satisfying than the actual act itself.

Let's face it, the build up is much more interesting than the actual sex. You can build up sexual tension and close the door without ever crossing the lines of decency. better yet, you'll leave a better impression on your readers than if you include the sex.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Usually, these exceptions involve erotic fiction or a non-erotic fiction written by an old hand at erotic fiction.

This isn't to say that erotic authors are able to always pull off good sex scenes. That's not the case. There are many erotic writers who are just as awkward as their non-erotic author counterparts.

The trick is knowing when to exclude or when to include the sex.

Every book is different, and every author has a different way of handling sex. The most important thing is to know when to exclude the sex. Personally, I don't include the actual act. Here is a quick and dirty list as to why:

  1. I'm not comfortable with writing it.
  2. Just knowing the characters did the naughty is sufficient for the plot and romance development between the characters.
  3. It isn't necessary.

There are, however, reasons that I feel the inclusion of the actual act of sex may be warranted. Here is a quick and dirty list of those reasons:

  1. It is necessary for the characters, the plot, and the romance development of these characters.
  2. The author is one of the rare skilled at tactful sex that goes all of the way and uses it in conjunction with point 1.

Unless you're comfortable with writing sex, you will create a sex scene that is uncomfortable to read. It takes a lot of work and effort to write a sex scene that is tasteful. It is extremely easy to turn a sex scene into little more than smut.

If you want to write smut, there is a huge audience for erotic fiction. If you're comfortable with it, good with it, and enjoy writing full-fledged sex scenes, try your hand at erotica. It might suit your career expansion.

Writing sex for the sake of writing sex, however, is something I just don't agree with. Go ahead, call me a prude. You'd be correct. There are probably a lot more folks out there who disagree with everything I just wrote. Fortunately, this is my opinion.

My opinion is still this: Bad sex scenes ruin good books.

So, how do you know how much is too much?

This is where beta readers are a huge asset. Gather a group of them. Break this group into thirds. One third should enjoy erotica. One third should be a conservative prude.The remaining third should be neutral, neither loving nor hating erotic scenes in non-erotic fiction.

Ask all of your beta readers how they perceived the scene. If the conservative prude winces, but the erotica-lover really enjoyed it, lean on the neutral third parties to find out just how they dealt with your sex.

If the erotica-lover winced, you know you have a serious problem. Likely, you won't get the approval of your conservative prude readers, but you might get an idea of how much you turned them off your book.

This is important, because when someone picks up a non-erotic, non-romance fiction novel, they likely aren't looking for sex. Some will be neutral to its inclusion, some will be pleasantly surprised, but others will be offended or disappointed that they picked up one of ‘those' books.

Of course, this is just a guideline on how to address the concern of erotica in non-erotic fiction.

Don't expect to get lucky just because 50 Shades of Gray was so popular.

Including sex, I think, has increased as a reaction to the response to 50 Shades of Gray. This knee-jerk reaction to include sex due to the popular success of a fly-by-night novel doesn't so much as annoy me as it reminds me of a bunch of sheep chasing after $50 bills tied to a galloping horse. While there is a chance you'll get that $50, the reality is you probably won't. Worse, you'll look really silly chasing after a horse with bills tied to its tail.

Ultimately, the choice is yours on whether or not you include sex. But, if you're going to include it, tread carefully. There is a reason that mainstream fiction is often not erotica. Consider your genre, and consider the people who read your genre.

Consider whether or not you can write sex with tact, integrity, and skill.

Most of us can't.




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