Monday, July 9, 2018

Let's Talk About Sex

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Let’s Talk About Sex.

I can hear your thoughts. Right now. Dirty, dirty.

And now you’re thinking a question: Why are we talking about sex in a Mystery Monday blog post?

And the answer is simple: Why not?

At the core, a mystery is just like any other story. And at the heart of any good story are interesting characters and the interesting things that motivate them. One of those things is sex.

So, we’re going to talk about it. Keep in mind, that within the confines of the particular subgenre of mystery that I write, sex is completely expected. Noir is gritty and more realistic than other subgenres. Cursing is allowed. Sex is allowed. Violence is definitely allowed.

If you only ever want to write cozy mysteries or police procedurals, avert your eyes, I don’t want to make you blush. For those that remain, let’s talk.

There is a puritanical thread that runs through the undercurrent of American society which tells us that sex is bad; sex is embarrassing; sex should be glossed over in books unless they’re naughty books. This means that, for most novels, it’s left up to the reader’s imagination. 

You know the drill (stop snickering and grow up, will you?), it goes a little something like this:

Step 1: Two characters flirt; they’re attracted to one another. 
Step 2: One of them, usually the woman in a heterosexual encounter, says something overtly sexually provocative. Think about the ending of Angels and Demons when the chick says to the nerdy professor, “Have you ever been with a yoga master?” Oh my. The possibilities for creative positions, am I right? 
Step 3: The music swells, the lights dim, and the rest is left up to your dirty little mind.

And this script has its place, unless you’re writing erotica or romantic suspense, then get busy describing the people getting busy, that’s what we paid for!

But for the rest of us, this creates a quandary. How much sex is reasonable? And how much is just plain prurient? And again, this comes down to what kind of story are you telling.

To figure this out, you first need to decide on your own comfort level with writing a steamy sex scene. Over time, I’ve found that I have no problem at all describing what body part goes where; however, when I tried to describe two people sexting each other and masturbating, I turned such an unnatural shade of red that Firstborn asked me if I’d eaten something spicy.

The next question to discern is whether your characters, in the natural course of their relationship, would get it on. Like really get it on and really like it. 

Assuming the answer to both questions propels you forward, the next thing to figure out is the most important: Does it move the story forward?

Sex for sex’s sake is what erotica is for. And, if that’s your bag, by all means, write some steamy erotica, there’s money to be made in getting people voyeuristically laid. Ask Sidney Sheldon.

But for mysteries, sex serves a completely different purpose:

It’s a distraction.

In last month’s Mystery Monday post, I talked about using sleight of hand to hide clues in plain sight. 

Sex is a convenient device to distract readers from clues that they should be paying attention to and get them to focus on the relationship between two characters instead.

I stumbled upon this literary device almost on accident, if I’m being honest, but boy oh boy does it work.

In my first novel, That Old Devil Sin, the two main characters' attraction to one another is a huge focus of the first thirty or so pages. And in between the snippets of their relationship, major clues are hidden. Right there where you can see them. 

The first big sex scene between them happens to be the meat in a clue sandwich, in fact. But it works because it’s so much more than that. It’s not just a literary device to distract the reader’s mind from important information. It works because it steps the reader through something more critical to understanding the story: These two people are falling for each other. 

Reading about them deepening their relationship in a physically meaningful way is another useful tool for character development. The fact that it also says, “Hey, look over here at two naked people, not at the bits of information your brain is trying to thread together right now!” is just an added benefit.

You see, my main character, Q, doesn’t just invite Ben into her bed. She invites him into her life. She takes him into her sanctuary and shows herself to him. And he does the same.

As the series has progressed and Q and Ben have solidified their relationship, sex is still a big part of who they are as a couple. They have the hots for each other. Like bad. Hiding that from the reader, hides who they are together. By showing their private moments, the reader is also given the information they need to understand who this couple is and what they care about when their clothes are on, too. It also helps to show how Q learns to overcome one of her fatal flaws: her impulse to isolate.

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Let’s be clear, I’m not advising you to throw in a sex scene if it doesn't fit your story. What I am advising is for you to consider it if you are about to state or imply that two characters are about to fuck, make love, screw up against a wall, or otherwise engage in sexual intercourse. 

Would knowing how they do any of those things propel the story forward in a meaningful way? Would it help the reader to understand why they interact with each other the way that they do? And, it allows you to distract the reader by making them blush for a paragraph or two? Then rock on.

And there is another reason why I advocate exploring human sexuality in a mystery. At its core, a mystery usually involves violence. Horrific violence. The murder of another human being. That’s terrible. And yet, we have an entire genre of fiction devoted to it.

Within the confines of that same genre, describing the way two people physically demonstrate love, attraction, or affection shouldn’t be out of bounds. It’s always been a bit of a point of contention for me whenever I read a review of a thriller, a mystery, or a suspense novel that says, “Oh, but the sex was just too descriptive.”

You’re reading or writing a book about MURDER, usually of a woman, but reading or writing about two consenting adults indulging in a pleasurable act is out of bounds? Come on.

Because that’s the truth underneath a good mystery. The reason people do the things they do. Why would they kill another human being? Why would they risk their life to save another human being? And, if we’re being honest, sex is one of the answers to both of those questions, so, as writers, we should never be afraid to explore that in a realistic way if that’s what the story calls for. And if you make your readers blush and get their little thrill on for 100 words? Right on.