The Expurgated Bits

I’m not known for writing sex scenes. I hate them, actually. I am not very good at them. I’d rather write action or description, or dialog, or even bridges (which are deadly) than sex.

My sex scenes are either too prim or they go straight to porno. Honest sex is hard, because it has to expose the emotional motives for the act as well as being well-balanced in action and description with the right degree of delicacy or explicitness. It’s where a lot of sexually explicit stories fall down for me: the sex scenes don’t have the same feel as the rest of the story, or the actions of the characters during sex (or sex with that person/thing) don’t make sense. (Or it seems like something the writer threw in because the outline said “sex scene here.”) Violence doesn’t have this problem: it truly is mechanical and bound by physical laws. Motivation and aftermath complicate violence, but they can be removed from the physical description of the act and layered in at some other place. Violence can still be badly written, but the reasons are not the same. Writing sex, at least for me, is really hard to do right.

You should see the original version of the sex scene in Underground. It’s just plain bad. Not dirty; bad.

A local Mystery writer once told me “Don’t leave out the sex! When you write about real life, you have to leave the real bits in, and real people have sex.” While this is true, I don’t think you need to put the scene in if it doesn’t move the story or character development forward. Sex for the sake of sex, just like violence, or technical details, or in-jokes and linguistic cleverness just for themselves, is pointless.

There are a lot of real life things we don’t include in writing. We don’t mention every trip to the bathroom, or every minute the characters spend sitting in traffic, or watching TV in the evening, or having their hair cut, or doing the laundry…. Not only are those moments boring, but they may just be Too Much. If it doesn’t do something for the story, leave it out.

Now, it’s not that my characters aren’t having sex (or all those other things); they are. And I hope I’m a good enough writer that my readers know there’s a full life going on for those characters out of view behind the stage of the immediate plot. That’s part of the measure of good writing: building believable characters who bring the aura of a real life with them into the story. And it’s part of the reason I’m not as creeped out by the idea of fanfic as some of my friends. If I’ve done a really good job implying the depth and reality of my characters, my readers should be able to imagine what they might be up to on some other day, in some other place. And that’s where fanfic becomes a compliment to the writer, not an imposition on their work; you’ve given the reader a deep enough and true enough picture of the character and their world, that the unseen details of a life can be imagined painted in by someone else.

Now, I don’t necessarily want to be shown these stories–if there are any. Not only may I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to wave the “copyright infringement” penalty flag, but I may be sadly disappointed in the way readers interpret or force the characters. If, for instance, I should find a story featuring Harper screwing Edward, that would definitely make me scowl. Didn’t I make it clear enough that she can’t think of vampires as humans? And since she’s really a bit straitlaced on the sexual front, she’s not going to be tearing it off with the paranormals. But is she boffing Quinton’s brains out? Yes, every chance she gets! Is there something a bit weird going on between the various vampires? Oh, you can pretty well bet on that. Ben and Mara are plainly doing the nasty when they have time–they didn’t make Brian out of twigs and clay you know.

Upon occasion, I write out the scenes that never show up. Most of them actually aren’t sex, but other strange situations or backstory that help me understand the characters better. A few of them do show up–some of Harper’s scenes with her mother in Vanished came out of “what would ever motivate Harper to change her opinion of her mother? What would make her call Veronica ‘mom’?” Many will probably never make it into a book and most really don’t need to.

And then there are the problems of vampire bites, ghost sex, magical compulsions, and tap-dancing zombies. Just to name a few….

Eventually, I suppose I’ll get around to posting some of the actual expurgations and deleted scenes on the website, but for now, I’m just thinking. Are you?


About Kat Richardson

Writer, editor, eccentric pain in the tail, bestselling author of the Greywalker novels.
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13 Responses to The Expurgated Bits

  1. Elaine says:

    Love the word “expurgate”! Haven’t tried to write a sex scene yet. But I did feel that your allusions to Harper and Quinton’s sex life were good. I really don’t want all the information. I’m a bit squeamish that way. Like the first love scene in “Brokeback Mountain.” That was more than I needed to know.

  2. MD says:

    “While this is true, I don’t think you need to put the scene in if it doesn’t move the story or character development forward. Sex for the sake of sex, just like violence, or technical details, or in-jokes and linguistic cleverness just for themselves, is pointless.”

    Yes! I totally subscribe to this. Unless you’re really good at writing sex scenes (because you’re original or evocative or plain hot), you should always have a reason to include a sex scene. Otherwise it will feel forced and like a filler. I know I’ve felt cheated when reading a book that was a string of sex scenes connected by the barest plot. Mind you, I like a good sex scene. But I like plot and good characterization more.

    I wouldn’t ever dare say I’m particularly good at writing sex scenes, but I think it helps to imagine what other emotion you want to convey with your sex scene. It helps set the tone of the scene and between all the technicality of moving a into slot b (which is boring anyway) you can concentrate on that emotion instead.

  3. JD Rhoades says:

    You should definitely post the straight to porno ones.

    But seriously, folks…

    Sex is (or should be, at least) a Big Deal. It’ should be a major turning point in the relationship between two characters (or maybe more; there’s a scene in Spider Robinson’s TIME PRESSURE…never mind).

    You can’t just drop a sex scene in there because “oh, look it’s page such and such, time for the hero(ine) to get laid.” And yeah, I’m looking at YOU, Laurell K. Hamilton (and, to be fair, at about 3/4 of the male thriller writers out there).

    Just as in real life, it needs to MEAN something, for good or ill.

  4. Quite a few of my friends are really good at the sex scenes, and they write stories in which the sex is a plot-mover or character-developer. They play to their strength.

    But it’s not mine.

  5. Andrew says:

    Just so you all know, I’ve never tried my hand at writing, let alone never have written one. However, you all have put in really good points on the subjects.

  6. Heheh… well we feel “passionate” about good writing.

    And Dusty: I love you. *smooches*

  7. hagelrat says:

    I think I have rather been put off sex in urban fantasy, I want noir and fantasy. I agree that your allusions to Harper having sex are much better than actually watching her. Sex has it’s place but not in the Grey for me.

  8. Pogonip says:

    Sex is not a spectator sport. Not to me, anyway. Not even while peeking through the slats of the plantation blinds.

    Not that I am opposed to a well-worded seduction scene, but please, please, please spare me the anatomical step-by-step.

    The power of suggestion is…….powerful!

  9. Mary says:

    I love your books BECAUSE sex is not a main issue. I am so overdosed with too much sex in other Urban Fantasy novels…
    I really love the action and the great characters in your books – and hope you will keep it that way. =]

  10. Not planning on changing it. (Unless people stop buying them.)

  11. Sharon says:

    While I don’t need sexual acts in the stories I read, I do love good romance type stuff. Lots of my favorite paranormal mystery writers (Alt, Damsgaard) use sexual tension between characters in very real ways. It is the anticipation of what might happen that I enjoy.

  12. Rae says:

    In my opinion, good sex can really enhance a story, bad sex can ruin it. Writing sex is as difficult as writing comedy, and it is all in the timing.

    The problem lies in not necessarily how far you go or how graphic you are, but simply in what words do you use? Do you use anatomically correct ones or do you use common or slang ones. It’s the old penis v cock argument.

    I have never thought good sex (and I am talking about writing it not doing it) sat comfortably on a page when anatomically correct words were used, but some people can be put off by something cruder.

    I have written sex in fanfic and it is bloody difficult. I am sure it is even more difficult in a professional story.

    I thought your treatment of Harper and Quinton getting it on in Vanished was a really great balance between getting them to that point in the story and making it believeable (without hearing waves crash on the the shore) and not being too graphic.

    Out of interest how long did it take you to get that sex scene right? How many rewrites are there on the editing suite floor? Enquiring minds etc.


  13. One original, two complete redrafts, and a couple of tweaks when that was all I had time left for. I still think it’s less than perfect to a greater degree than anything else in the book–except the unfortunate info-dump. Very hard to get the balance right.

    I have friends who are amazing with sex scenes. Richelle Mead, for instance, writes wonderful sex that is delicately balanced and in-character as well as useful to plot, not the mechanical “insert sex scene here” sort of thing.

    Vocabulary is definitely an issue. My editor and I had to work pretty hard on the scene in underground to get it to sound right AND work right. Another reason working with the right editor can make all the difference in the world.

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