Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Anatomy of a Sex Scene, Part 1: The Setup

Last week, I posted an article for CC2K's Sex Week arguing that romance novels are often used for the same type of sexual release in women that pornography is used for in men.  In preparation for that article--and honestly, also because it was fun--I read a lot of romances.   Seriously.  Take a look at the books I've read since January 1; I'd say about 75% of them are romances--as in, they may have other factors (paranormal, usually, because this is me), but they're primarily romance.  Of the rest, almost all of them have some kind of romantic subplot.  Hell, I think the only book I've read in the past few months that didn't have a sex scene was Clockwork Angel, and that's only because it's YA!

So it makes sense that I've been thinking a lot about sex scenes, both as a reader and as a writer.

Within the romance world, sex scenes come in all shapes and sizes (whoa, bad pun).  You have the Jane Austen-esque novels that don't show anything at all.  (Did anyone even kiss in a Jane Austen novel?  Much as I love Jane Austen, there's some definite sexual repression going on there.)  You have the Nicholas Sparks-type novels where you might get a sex scene or two, but they're...tasteful.  Discreet.  Imagine the written equivalent of a PG-13 movie.  It's enough that you know what's going on, but not enough to really be enticing.  Then there are sex scenes that are quite graphic and descriptive.  The level of descriptiveness can definitely vary a lot.  I've been going a bit off the beaten path with my book selections these last few months, so I've read some sex scenes that have definitely pushed my own personal boundaries.  But I've also realized that the boundaries between romance and erotica are becoming murkier all the time.

If we're sticking to non-erotica romance, and you wanted to rank, on a scale of 1-10, the hotness factor of sex scenes...J.R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series would be a 10.  (And, just for the sake of honesty: yes, I am jonesing at the moment.  Lover Unleashed, the ninth book in the series, will be released at the end of March.  I'm psyched about this one, because for the first time in the series, it's the female character we've been following for several books, not the male.)

I love BDB.  It would be so easy to dismiss these books as a guilty pleasure, because they're romances about vampire warriors and the women who love them, but the truth is Ward does her work extremely well.  She's created this incredibly complex world with incredibly vivid characters.  Whereas other paranormal romance series may only be loosely related to one another, BDB has an ongoing, overarching plot.  Although the "main couple" is the focus of the book, side characters and plots are always integral to the story, especially as the series has developed and the world has grown.

Ward's sex scenes are incredibly hot.  Yet they're all incredibly different, always an outgrowth of the characters being featured and their relationship.  For example (spoilers ahead):

--In Lover Eternal, Rhage fears he'll never be able to really "give" himself to Mary because whenever he gets close to her, the beast that lurks within him awakens.  (He's afraid he'll shape-shift into the beast and eat her.  I'm sure there's something deeply Freudian about that.)  So ultimately, Mary proposes he has himself chained to a bed so that she can see if she's able to take him without the beast appearing.  Their relationship has been, up to this point, very loving and tender.  Mary seems fairly inexperienced, and Rhage is quite protective of her.  It's not surprising that she's kind of freaked out when she sees him chained to the bed (versus thinking it's kinda cool and kinky), but that she tries to tough through it...or that, when Rhage realizes how nervous she is, he kisses her and performs oral sex on her until she has orgasmed and is more comfortable.

On the other hand...

--In Lover Unbound, Vishous is definitely into S&M, as a dominant who very much gets off on control.  In life, he's smart, cunning, and ruthless.  When Jane enters his world, she's one of the few people who is able, and willing, to go toe-to-toe with him.  When Vishous takes Jane back to his apartment and allows her to take him--becoming, for once, the submissive partner, it's an incredible moment.  Yes, having Vishous bound and gagged is very kinky, but the important thing is that he's giving her control--something he had always clung to, prided himself in.  He's giving himself to her.  And though Jane's a little overwhelmed by his Dungeons R' Us setup at first, she quickly finds herself getting into the action.

End spoilers.

So there you go.  Both of these involve someone being tied up. But they both evoke different reactions from the characters.  (Afterwards, Mary indicates she doesn't want to repeat the experience, whereas Vishious and Jane are later shown much enjoying their games of dominance and submission.)  And both scenes make perfect sense in the context of these books, and these relationships.

I could probably go through and describe sex scenes from each of the eight books, just from memory.  They're all very different--who knew you could have sex so many different ways?  But sex scenes in fiction aren't just about positions or fetishes.  Instead, they're about characters and feelings--which is why I argued that romance novels are often more effective as sexual releases for women than porn.  It's harder, if not impossible, for us to separate the sex from the feelings, and from that particular relationship, whatever it may be.

There is one somewhat graphic sex scene in my WIP.  On my scale of hotness (a 1, just for the sake of argument, being Nicholas Sparks), it would probably be about a 6 or a 7.  But as I'm going through my revisions, I'm not quite happy with it.  It's tender and soft and kind of poignant...but that doesn't make sense in the context of these characters.  These are two people who were crazily attracted to one another on first sight...but also hated one another.  Their dynamic is hard and contentious and lustful--even moreso now that I'm doing revisions.  Two people who don't like each other much (or like each other more than they'd want to admit) and don't trust each other might have sex.  But they wouldn't have soft, sweet, "lovemaking" kind of sex.  No!  It'll be hard and rough.  It might even be a bit violent.  And it'll also be crazy hot.  6 or 7?  I've got to crank that up to about an 8.5 or more!

But, as I said, it's all about the relationship.  The type of sex fictional characters have should be, as in real life, an outgrowth of who these characters are.  For my two, it makes sense for them to have hard, violent sex.  In another story, with other characters, that might not work.


Carolyn Crane said...

Your retelling of those BDB sex scenes made me really appreciate the way Ward uses sex as such a vibrant part of the story. Never skippable. I love how you say the sex scenes are an outgrowth of who the characters are. Though in a way, they are sometimes an outgrowth of who they want to be (which, now that I think about it, is the same thing!0

Beth Woodward said...

Carolyn: You're absolutely right. One of the things I love about J.R. Ward's books and the relationships therein is that each of them are so unique. I've read other PNR series where the characters and the relationships start to get mixed up in my head. Never with Ward. Her characters are always so vivid and vibrant--the Brothers, especially--and the relationships are very distinctive. The sex scenes follow suit.

Along those lines--I've been following Ward's retro BDB quotes of the day on Facebook, leading up to the release of Lover Unleashed. I'm 3 for 3, so far. I think that speaks less to my obsession with the series, and more to the way the characters are so distinct and identifiable that you can tell who's speaking just by a few lines.