Sunday, June 5, 2011

Let’s talk about sex

by: Joelle Charbonneau

Yeah – I thought that would get your attention. Everyone knows that sex sells. You just have to look at advertising campaigns to see proof of that. Sex sells in fiction, too. The romance genre racks in billions of dollars in sales every year. Not that every romance is teeming with sex. But a great number of romances do have at least one steamy scene between the covers.

Sex sells.

And yet – as I look at my favorite mysteries and thrillers I realize that very few if any of them contain sex scenes. Yes – there are romantic relationships. Very often these romantic relationships are sexual ones. But just when things are getting heated up the scene ends and the story moves on.

Why? No, I’m really asking this question. I doubt that the mystery and thriller readers have an aversion to sex. If we took a poll of the DSD bloggers I’m betting we would find that all of us are quite fond of it. So why don’t we see as much of it in crime fiction as we do in other genres? Is it because the writers aren’t very good at writing sex scenes? Is it because readers don’t want to read them?

Personally, I think it’s because the pacing of a thriller or mystery doesn’t leave room for a lot of those scenes. The best sex scenes aren’t simply about getting hot and sweaty. The best sex scenes help develop a character in a way you can’t get without the scene. Mysteries and thrillers often find other ways of creating this emotional depth.

Or maybe I’m wrong? Maybe crime fiction readers everywhere have been clamoring for more sex scenes and the crime fiction writing universe just didn’t know it. Here’s your chance to let us know. Do you think that some of the books you’ve read might have been better off with a sex scene or two? Do you think sex scenes should never be in mysteries and thrillers? And if there is a sex scene in a book you are reading, do you actually read it or do you skim through it? Does sex sell a book for you the way it does for cosmetics or does it just make you want to chuck it at the wall? Inquiring minds want to know.

23 comments:

Robert Carraher said...

It's interesting taken in a historical context of the genre. One of the distiguishing factors of early hardboiled crime fiction, which was pretty much American Crime Fiction diverged from the 'cozy and lockedroom mystery' of the Brits, was the use of sex, as well as violence to advance the plot Then when you look at the mid 40's up through the 60's - think Gold Medal Books, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mickey Spillane, etc... - sex was definitly part of the equation. But when you go back and read those books today, you realize just how tame that sex was. A single femme fatle in a fur coat and nothing else in the detectives room at 2am may have been pretty risque in 1942, but by todays standards, not so much. I think that the "level of sex" has remained pretty much the same in todays crime fiction, where the "level of sex" in other genres has gotten more graphic.

Jay Stringer said...

But if the creators put in all the sex scenes, what would be left for fanfic writers?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sex is, ironically, a bit of a turn-off for me. The main reason is that sex rarely adds value to the story being told if I'm reading crime fiction or thrillers. It not only slows the pace, it derails the main (ahem) thrust of the story. How often do we follow the character into the bathroom while they do their business? How often do we see them shopping at the grocery store? How often do we drive with them down the streets from work to home on a normal day? Or visit the doctor, dentist, chiropractor, hairdresser?

The point is, we rarely do. We don't write those types of scenes because they don't add value to the story. When we do write those scenes, it's because seeing the stack of grapefruit is going to twig a memory and make the protagonist come to some realization about the case/story, or knowing how desolate the back road they live on is will be important later... something like that.

If sex was going to "sell" me on a book, I'd be reading erotica. Otherwise, I only really expect it on the page when it adds to the character development and the story. Sex for the sake of sex is like violence for the sake of violence; gratuitous. I wouldn't put it in (insert joke here) without feeling it added to the story.

That's my perspective, anyway. And I've written death by foreplay, so while I'll admit with my first book I wanted to avoid sex on the page, I'm more than willing to put it there if it needs to be there now.

Dana King said...

A sex scene stops the action, or at least the forward motion. I'm not a fan of thrillers that rush through a series of ever-increasing apocalyptic events, but even scenes that exist primarily to develop character set you up for something to come. All a sex scene tells you is how they screw; if you get inside someone's head like you would in a bar or ball game or even family discussion, then the sex must not be very good, or the character wouldn't be thinking about this other thing, would he? Maybe that's okay if you want to show sex is unsatisfying for a character, but then it's not a very good sex scene.

They're just too hard to balance.

John McFetridge said...

I skim over fight scenes. I just find them boring, too much detail and inevitable outcome.

But sex scenes can be really well done. Look at a TV show like Rome, the sex scenes were great and used for all kinds of things, the same kinds of things any other scene is used for. Same with The Sopranos.

And people are afriad of sex, even talking about it messes people up so I don't see how not talking about it can be good.

Benjamin Sobieck said...

I'm with Dana and Sandra on this one. If I want to read sex scenes, I'll pick up a romance or peruse the latest on Smutwords, er, ah, Smashwords.

I read crime fiction for the pacing and the intrigue. Sex is just gravy (pun intended).

Diana said...

It's not sex that sells the romance genre it's love and romance. There is a difference.

You can read a romance novel and skim over the sex scenes without losing anything to the story. But, you have to skim in case they stop for some reason or say something important. If you count the number of pages in a romance novel where the characters are actually having sex, you'd probably find less than ten pages.

It's the anticipation of sex that ratchets up the tension, not the consummation of it. Once they've done it, the tension is gone.

I've read thrillers and mysteries with sex scenes in them. It's like reading Penthouse Forum: bland and boring to read. And while the male character had a lot of fun, the female character was probably faking it.

If you're going to put a sex scene into your story, then go study the bestselling romance authors and see how it is done. Nobody writes sex scenes better than they do. :)

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Robert - The historical context is an interesting way to look at it. Yeah - the level of sex really has remained the same.

Sandra - you totally cracked me up and made a lot of great points. If sex is in the book it needs to add value. That value can be adding emotional depth or an aha moment that we wouldn't have otherwise gotten. Yeah - we don't see that a lot.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

Dana - I disagree that a sex scene only tells you about the mechanics. Well, okay - a lot of them are, but only when they aren't written well. I think that there are things you can get during a well-written sex scene that could move the characters in the story forward, but I think those kinds of scenes are very hard to write.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

John - I agree and I also agree that many people aren't comfortable with writing the scenes or even talking about the subject. I think well-written sex scenes are probably the most useful in very character driven mysteries and thrillers where you can see a real change in them during he scene or when the choice to have sex creates conflict or a moment that only can be created with something so emotionally charged.

And yeah - I tend to skim through a lot of fight scenes for the same reason I skim through poorly conceived sex scenes.

Diana - You are totally right - romance isn't only about sex scenes. Although I have been amazed how editors in the last several years have pushed their authors to make the books hotter and hotter. For me, there can be too much of a good thing. And yes - I think that thriller and mystery authors who chose to insert (okay - laugh if you must) a sex scene into their stories could learn a lot by reading some of the best selling romance authors. The best sex scenes always have a journey that isn't just about the sex. If it is only about mechanics it shouldn't be in the book.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

To me it kills the action, and I'll skip over them. Movies & TV do this all the time. Thanks to DVR, I can fast forward through them, which can be pretty funny at 4x FF and redefines "quickie"

nelizadrew said...

Let's try this again.

This is what turned me off to Evanovich. She was a fun diversion early in grad school, but then it turned all "do I sleep with him or him" and I was all, "I don't care." Over it.

Oddly, in my WIP it turns out my MC having sex with her high school sweetheart is a great way to show a different side of her, but it's more how he sees her versus how she sees herself versus how her boyfriend sees her that's interesting. Where they put what? Not so much.

Laura K. Curtis said...

I find it intriguing that people think sex stops the action. Perhaps it's because I don't like "ticking clock" thrillers so much, but I don't think there's any reason sex inherently should stop the forward motion of the book. The book that comes to mind immediately for me is Barry Eisler's Inside Out. Plenty of sex, not a hint of romance, no mechanics, and it definitely advanced the plot. James Rollins, if I recall correctly, tends to put sex into his books, as well. It's been a while since I read one, so I can't point to exact scenes, but pick up Black Order and see.

I get very sick of people pointing at romance and saying "oh, it's just smut." It's not smut. There are all levels of romance, from "sweet" and "inspirational" (no sex at all) to "erotic." What romance books have in common is the *romance,* not the sex.

For the most part, I think you don't find the same level of sensuality in crime fiction as you do in other genres is that so often characters are really under the gun. There's not time to develop relationships.

In mysteries, as opposed to thrillers, you so often have long-running series characters and I think to a certain extent writing sex for those characters becomes more complex. Do you want to peer into the bedroom of someone you know you'll be seeing over and over, book after book? It's a more personal relationship between reader and character.

All that being said, a large chunk of the romance market belongs to crime fiction. Where sex meets romance meets crime, you have romantic suspense. So maybe that's where the writers who enjoy penning sex scenes as well as fight scenes are spending their energy.

Steve Ulfelder said...

I find it sexier to cut away from sex scenes. The flirting and come-on are the intriguing and, IMO, the genuinely sexy part. After that, the mechanics are a buzzkill. So the exception occurs when the sex can reveal something about a character.

When I read a sex scene in most any novel, I react one of two ways: "Ew" or . I can't remember the last one I found erotic.

A few years back at a conference, I attended a panel on writing sex scenes. Each panelist read one from their work, and they were all great. But guess what? They weren't sex scenes. They were comedy scenes built around the ridiculousness of sex.

Kristi said...

I'm going to have to side with Steve here - sometimes the sexiest scenes are the ones left to our imagination. The lead in up to the actual act can generate the most sexual tension. Sometimes the mechanics just take away from it.
Great discussion, Joelle. I loved reading everyone's thoughts on this.
I love sex scenes when they are done extremely well, but I think most of us agree that this is touch and rarely happens.
www.kristibelcamino.com

John McFetridge said...

I find it intesting, what we feel should be left to our imaginations and what we like to have spelled out in novels.

Al Tucher said...

I agree with Robert that our reticence about sex has a great deal to do with the powerful continuing influence of Chandler, Hammett, and others who wrote at a time when they couldn't be explicit.

I do think sex scenes can reveal crucial things about a character that explain the character's actions. In my stories about prostitute Diana Andrews I have written about sex that is mechanical, brutal, unsatisfying, or desperate, all (I hope) in the service of the story. As Elizabeth Benedict wrote in The Joy of Writing Sex, "A great sex scene doesn't have to be about great sex."

Robert Carraher said...

Any element in a story should "move the plot", devevlope the character or, in short serve to tell the story. Senseless dialog, violence for violence sake, little asides that serve no purpose bog down a story. Gratuidous sex does the same thing. But when you use the subject of sex to move the plot, develop the character etc.. It adds value. Take the following line from The Long Good Bye, "Then her hands dropped and jerked at something and the robe she was wearing came open and underneath it she was as naked as September Morn but a darn sight less coy." that is so much better than any anatomy lesson.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I like when characters fuck in crime novels. Explicitly.

--A.N. Smith

Patrick Alan said...

Well, what you are talking about is a different genre. There is crime fiction with sex.

It's called Romantic Suspense.

I'm sure there is crossover in the audiences, but probably not enough because they are shelved in different parts of the store.

This may change with ebooks and the ability to 'shelve' something in multiple places.

Anonymous said...

"Well, what you are talking about is a different genre. There is crime fiction with sex.

It's called Romantic Suspense."

Nope. I'm talking about crime novels with sex in them. Not a separate category. Geez, people, loosen up. Really.

--A.N. Smith

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I would disagree that adding sex into a mystery or thriller makes it romantic suspense. The genre expectations of romantic suspense are very different. Romantic suspense is a romance that happens to be entwined with a suspense plot. The romance is at least half of the story arc. In mysteries and thrillers, there can be a relationship, but it is often a smaller arc in the plot. While I think romantic suspense is a great genre, you won't find many editors who buy both mainstream mysteries/thrillers and romantic suspense. The romance is the ultimate focus of the romantic suspense books - which is why the sexual component is undeniable in them.

Robert Carraher said...

I've got to agree with Joelle. Romantic Suspense is a whole 'nother breed of cat. Crime Fiction involves, well, crime. Be it police procedural, a detective novel (and the detective can be anybody from a psychologfist to a lawyer and even a detective), a lot of "Noir" is crime fiction as well. And, there are a few authors that include quite a bit of sex in their crime fiction. James Ellroy, Lawrence Block got quite explicit in a few o the Mathew Scudder Novels, Vickie Hendricks, just to name a few. Explicit sex is just not as much a part of the genre as it used to be, but as I pointed out, the way it used to be was pretty tame by todays standards.