Friday, October 23, 2020

Sometimes Less is More

How do you handle sex in your books? Or, if you don’t, why not?

by Paul D. Marks

Well, there’s sex and there’s sex. No, I don’t write really steamy sex scenes. If people want that they can go to Fifty Shades of Arousal, romance novels or porn, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t sex in my stories.

I’d say I approach it more obliquely. We know the characters have or have had sex, but we don’t get the play by play like from the Howard Cosell scene at the end of Woody Allen’s Bananas (see link). It’s funny as hell and sort of makes fun of the overly purple sex scenes. 

Click here to see YouTube clip

Just as with violence, I don’t want the sex to be gratuitous. And, believe me, when working in Hollywood plenty of sex and violence were added to scripts strictly to have sex and violence where it wasn’t really needed. Also added were other elements that seemed extraneous. But that’s for another post, I suppose.

I like the sexual relationships in my fiction to reflect on the larger relationship between the characters, as well as being a reflection of their character. In the third Duke Rogers novel I’m currently working on (after White Heat and Broken Windows), a character sleeps with Duke essentially as a way to deal with her own issues of insecurity and doubt. The relationship between her and Duke is tentative and very confusing for Duke, and shows his own ambivalence about relationships. So what they do sexually is less important than conveying the idea that both Duke and his love interest are flawed people with fears and insecurities. And sex is intimated at in other stories and novels of mine. It’s just not explicitly described like in a high school sex ed class.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity

Sex scenes can also often stop the forward momentum of a story, especially if they’re not integral to the plot in general. But in particular, it drives me crazy when the characters are on the run, in grave danger, but they have the time and inclination to stop everything and have sex. I think of movies in this regard. We’ve gone beyond the time when filmmakers and screenwriters added sex because there was an opening up of social mores and the end of the Hollywood Production Code. When all that loosened up filmmakers went bonkers adding sex and violence, much of it gratuitous, just because they could.  They were spreading their wings. I like to think we’ve gotten that out of our systems so that when we do have a sex scene it’s more integral to the plot. But seeing some of today’s movies, I’m not so sure about that…

Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice

I like this exchange from In a Lonely Place, one of my favorite movies, between Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart, as they stand in the kitchen. She’s in a robe, all bleary-eyed from having just gotten up. He’s doing his best attempt at making breakfast. They’re not in a bedroom. They’re not having sex. Not even kissing. But as Bogart says, in other words, their little vignette is a good love scene:

Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame

Laurel Gray (Grahame): [referring to a scene in Dix's script] I love the love scene  it's very good.

Dixon Steele (Bogart): Well that's because they're not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one. Me fixing grapefruit. You sitting over there, dopey, half-asleep. Anyone looking at us could tell we're in love.

In the old days, movies had a code, so things were left to the viewer’s imagination. When Rhett carried Scarlett up those stairs, we didn’t have to see the culmination, our imaginations filled in the blanks.

The famous anklet in Double Indemnity

During the code days, you couldn’t show graphic sex, but somehow the filmmakers got the point across. Maybe these bits seem quaint today, but they worked. In both Cain adaptations, Double Indemnity and Postman, sex isn’t even imminent in the scenes where Fred MacMurray and John Garfield first spot Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner, but you know it’s there and you know it’s coming sooner or later.  There’s nothing graphic in these scenes, but they’re still steamy as hell. And I would say the beach scene in From Here to Eternity is one of the great sex scenes of all time, yet there’s no actual sex in it. And the one from Ghost World, in particular, I think is played for laughs, making fun of those earlier tropes.

Double Indemnity: We first meet femme fatale, Barbara Stanwyck, wrapped in a towel. A few minutes later she descends the stairs and we see her sexy little anklet. It’s clear she’s seducing Fred McMurray and we don’t need to be hit over the head with it.  

The Postman Always Rings Twice: Here John Garfield sets eyes on Lana Turner for the first time. Again, we really don’t need everything spelled out here. It’s clear what’s going on without having to get all the details.

From Here to Eternity: Possibly the sexiest scene ever filmed and all they do is kiss.

Ghost World: When they cut to the toy “rocking” horse, the implication is pretty obvious and funny at the same time.

So, I don’t think sex has to be particularly graphic to get the point across or to be, well, sexy. In fact, I would argue that too much detail kills a sex scene and is boring. Sometimes less is more.

But if you just need a sex fix, here’s some songs about sex that might do the trick. (I do like these songs, I admit.) Be warned, some graphic content, but these are not obscure songs. My wife says some people don’t get my sense of humor sometimes and I thought these would just add a light, but sexy note, to this piece 😉. And, while I do like these songs, as I say, I’m also adding them here strictly for prurient interest, he said in jest.


So, if people want to read particularly graphic sex scenes, I guess my stuff isn’t for them, at least up till now. If a story calls for it in the future, maybe. But if you want some good mystery-thriller-suspense, then I hope you’ll check out my works.


And now for the usual BSP:

A great review of Coast to Coast: Noir at Just Reviews:

Each story is filled with sadness, tragedy and each character experiences death in a different way. The titles alone are eerie and will give you the chills. A fabulous collection of well written noir short stories told in different settings with  characters that work in meat packing plants, feed companies, markets and not very lucrative jobs causing their downfalls and falling for the need to complete jobs that most would turn down. A superb collection for readers that want something odd, different and dangerous.

-- Fran Lewis, Just Reviews
And a very nice review of The Blues Don't Care at The Irresponsible Reader:

Marks hits the right notes with his prose and characters, creating a mystery that appeals on many levels. I recommend this for mystery readers looking for the kind of thing they haven’t read before.

--H.C. Newton, The Irresponsible Reader

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Jacqueline Seewald said...

Sometimes sex scenes should be part of a novel and sometimes not. In my own books, it varies. In Death Promise, the sequel to Death Legacy, there are sex scenes. The novel is a mystery but the chemistry is between a male psychiatrist and a woman detective. In my new 5th Kim Reynolds mystery Blood Family, sex scenes would slow the plot and are not included.

GBPool said...

I leave the sex scenes behind closed doors, but in most cases there are other priorities and I go in that direction instead. And you are right about some of those scenes stop the action. I prefer telling a story without starts and stops. Good examples you provided, Paul.

Terry said...

Great post, Paul. I'm so tired of gratuitous sex in TV series these days. It's like at the beginning of many perfectly good series, there has to be a sex scene. The meeting of the eyes, the tearing off of the clothes, the hazy body part shots--that have nothing to do with the story.

At least in books you can skim. Not that I don't like a good sex scene, but most of them are not. They are just boilerplate. A little suggestiveness can go a long way.

Jacqueline Vick said...

Filmmakers had to really think and be creative to get their points across. We've lost that to a large degree. I think the same goes for writers. Everything the reader needs to know is in the lead up. There isn't any point to showing the follow through unless it's a comic scene or something necessary to the characters comes out. Otherwise, it's just for titillation, and that's a bore IMHO. :) Another point. I once sat next to an author who writes very sexy books. I'm looking at this plump, gray-haired granny-looking person and thinking "Aw, man. I've seen inside your mind." Those are thoughts I don't want to share or share in. :)

Anonymous said...

I know some authors so determined to avoid sex that they act like it doesn’t exist. They effectively neuter their characters. I acknowledge that my characters have sex, but don’t show it (violation of the show don’t tell rule). I regard Double Indemnity as one of the sexiest movies ever.

It’s very difficult to write a sex scene that doesn’t read like a how to manual. I’ve beta read for authors who write scenes like this and I (gently!)
tell them that the best sex scenes are subtle and brief. I stop short of advising them to leave the sex to the romance writers—-they know what they’re doing.

Madeline Gornell said...

Excellent,comprehensive, and thought provoking post, Paul! And generating some good comments! Enjoyed reading all. I had forgotten that Woody Allen scene....

For me, when I'm reading or watching movies/DVD/TV, what's important is the relationships,charisma, and shared values between the characters. Sex, if detailed, is just the follow up on those aspects, not that important as a story/character aspect.

As a writer, it's challenging enough writing scenes that don't include sex(smile) much less having to write an actual sex scene(smile again).

I must admit, when much younger, way back in the dark ages(teenage to young adult years) my memory is, the more graphic sex in a novel or movie, the better! So age of your readership could impact your thinking about sex scenes, and how they're handled?

Susan C Shea said...

I liked the dialogue from the Bogart film. The more someone talks about sex (a la the Woody Allen sex scene), the less sexy it is. In "Love Always," the stand-in actors for the porn film are funny because there's absolutely nothing sexy in their work - they could be working in a laundromat. But when they're themselves, they're tongue-tied with lust. Good post and thanks for all the clips.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. I agree, sometimes they should be in and sometimes not. As long as they serve the plot and characters.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. I think some things are definitely better left behind closed doors.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Terry. I agree with you that a little suggestiveness goes a long way. Some things are better left to our imaginations. As for the series, I’m surprised the body part shots are hazy :-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jackie. You had me laughing out loud about the gray-haired granny writing the sexy scenes. There’s an old Irene Dunne movie (Theordora Goes Wild) where she writes steamy novels on the sly and presents prim and proper in day to day life. But then I think her cover is blown.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Maggie. It seems really weird that some authors act like sex doesn’t exist. Maybe it doesn’t in their lives ;-) . And I agree, Double Indemnity is very sexy without showing the actual sex. It would be difficult, if not laughable, to read sex scenes that read like manuals.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thank you, Madeline. For me, that Woody Allen scene is one of the funniest ever. And I thought it really helped point out what I was trying to say in this piece. As you say, it’s challenging writing actual sex scenes. I think that’s art in itself. And you’re probably right about age having something to do with one’s perspective. Definitely, too, the relations are more important than the mechanics of the sex.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Susan. That’s what I like about the Woody Allen scene, it punctures those tropes so well. And when it came out Howard Cosell was the perfect person to do the interview. I think I’ve seen Love Always but not since it came out. I’ll have to see if I can get it. And glad you enjoyed the clips.

Earl Javorsky said...

I think the sex scenes in my Charlie Miner books are a lot of fun, but there's nothing sexy about them. The women he hooks up with are too preoccupied with their own motives and neurotic distractions for there to be any erotic element. The hookups are just unhinged encounters that happen to include nudity. The nature of these encounters--not the sex, or perhaps even the failure to have meaningful sex--does, I like to think, lend itself to character development and plot.
On the other hand, when sex starts on TV, I usually glance at my phone and scroll through a distraction until dialog resumes.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Earl. I think it makes them interesting on their own level when the people are, as you say, preoccupied with their own motives and neurotic distractions. As someone mentioned above, definitely more interesting than a sex manual description…

EdEarl's Daddy said...

Whether you're graphic or subtle about sex and violence, you have to be driving the story forward. And it has to fit or help define the characters.