Let's talk about sex. Or not. Should writers go there?

Sex. Kind of surprising how much the topic comes up when talking about mystery writing. Or maybe not surprising. I was an English major, and, as all you fellow English majors know, everything is about sex.

As most readers who enjoy mysteries know, there are different sub-genres and they have different approaches to sex. Cozy mysteries, those of the no violence onscreen, small-town, cute characters and frequent cats, may allude to it, but that’s all. The less cozy the mystery, the more likely there is to be sex. Hard-boiled? Often hard core.

At least that’s the general idea.

No News is Bad News has a scene with sex in it, but is it a sex scene?

No News is Bad News has a scene with sex in it, but is it a sex scene?

But no writer — of mysteries or anything else — should take including sex or not including it lightly. My impression from much of what I read in current fiction, both mysteries and other genres, is that the writer gives less thought to the sex scenes than any other scene in the book. That’s a mistake.

I’ll say right now that you won’t read a graphic sex scene in any of my mystery novels. Sorry to disappoint. I’m not a prude. I feel like I have to say that because I want you to understand that the lack of graphic sex in my books is not a moral decision, it’s a writing decision.

I can write a bang-up XXX sex scene. Just so you know. Someday I’ll reveal my secret erotica pen name and you can go on the Internet and check for yourself. Am I kidding? Maybe. Maybe not.

But in a lot of books I find graphic sex…distracting.

It’s pretty simple: Everyone has different tastes, a different idea of what’s hot or exciting. Readers also have their own ideas about who the characters are. If I as a writer start getting down to the nitty-gritty, I take a big chance that readers who have different sensibilities, who see the characters their own way rather than mine, will suddenly be jolted out of the dream world I worked so hard to put them in and back into cold reality and the knowledge they’re simply reading words that someone else put down on a page.

Does that make sense?

Look at it this way: I don’t do into a lot of detail describing my characters. I give a hint here or there, but I let readers form their own pictures based on what the characters say and do. I find that readers have much more finely drawn ideas of what the characters in my books book like when it’s left to their imaginations.

That same philosophy guides my attitude toward writing a sex scene. Writers work hard — or should — to make sure every line of dialogue a character speaks, every decision each character makes, is true to that character. Those are the specifics I deal with as a writer. It’s more difficult to do, though, when sex is introduced. It’s a third character and one most readers have very specific ideas about and the delicate balance that’s been developed in the book can very easily be thrown off. Some writers are great at it. I prefer to let those reading my book use the same imagination they’ve been using all along to fill in the blanks.

This isn’t to say that my characters don’t do it. In fact, there’s a sex scene in the first chapter of No News is Bad News, the book I just finished. The scene isn’t gratuitous, it has a role in the plot as well as contributes to some character development. I’m not going to spoil it, but I will say the point isn’t to get anyone worked up. An early reader of the scene, in another iteration a few years ago, told me it wasn’t sexy enough and my protagonist’s reactions weren’t very romantic. Good! That’s just what I was aiming for.

In fact, I don’t think of it as a sex scene at all, but more of a scene with sex in it.

As the book went through several revisions, the scene moved closer to the beginning until I got concerned about it being “too soon.” Would readers who haven’t read the first book in the series, Cold Hard News, be uncomfortable with people they’re just meeting taking their clothes off?

But then I reminded myself that it’s not a sex scene. It’s a scene with sex. Actually, it’s a post-sex scene and then a little later there’s a remembering what led up to it sex scene. Does that sound like a lot of sex? It’s only as much as you make it.

My philosophy about sex scenes isn’t an absolute for all writers. I’ve read scenes that are red hot and a great addition to a story. I’ve read others that are such clunkers that it left a bad taste for the rest of the book.

Like everything that goes into crafting a book, a writer has to think about it. How will it fit with what’s going on in the book? Will it be an uncomfortable distraction? Like all the other scenes, does it move the plot or character development along?

The only real advice about putting a sex scene in a book that is true for every writer is to make sure it works.

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. The second in the series, No News is Bad News, is due out in July. The first, Cold Hard News, was published last year. Follow her on Twitter: @mmilliken47, on Facebook at Maureen Milliken mysteries, and check out her website and sign up for email updates, at maureenmilliken.com


About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
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9 Responses to Let's talk about sex. Or not. Should writers go there?

  1. Ray Daniel says:

    I have this, um, “friend” who was unable to get past the first sentence of his first novel without using the word “sex”.

    Does he have a problem?


  2. sandy says:

    Two years ago I took a wonderful Elizabeth Benedict Crime Bake class on writing sex scenes. And surprise, the drama was pretty much not about sex. She had the room brainstorm all the various reasons and emotions and motivations around sex: power, money, lust, revenge, curiosity, ennui, tragic patterns from learned childhood abuse, joy, generosity, fear, disarming for purposes of investigation. We got up quite a huge list. Then she had us mix and match two very different reasons why two characters might be feeling they wanted sex or why they engaged in sex or avoided sex. The more we flung two different reasons into the equation, each partner having a very different agenda, the more interesting the scenes got. The more the differences rubbed up against each other (sorry!) the more we could plumb character and spark plotting. I’ve tried this list thing with other large concepts like “Tell the Truth” to find different ways characters can operate within a large concept especially when they think they are on the same wave length, ways that heighten tension and deepen voice. Sometimes it might be easier to write about sex, if it’s not about sex.

  3. Skye says:

    You make some interesting points, and I agree. I personally don’t care for graphic scenes of sex or torture; however, like you, I believe that some sex left to the imagination but controlled by the writer is perfect.

  4. Chris Holm says:

    The first panel I ever did was called “Sex, Violence, And All The Good Stuff.” I had, at that point, never written a sex scene. On it, Scott Phillips said something that really resonated with me. (I’m paraphrasing, because I was so terrified to be in front of a crowd, I’ve blocked out many of the particulars.) Outside of erotica, sex scenes shouldn’t simply titillate. They should be sad or funny or weird or sweet or otherwise unexpected. They should inform character and/or advance the plot. If they can be cut without altering the story, they shouldn’t be there in the first place. (That mirrors my feelings on action sequences, by the way.) I’ve since (in THE KILLING KIND) written an explicit sex scene, which is as intentionally unsexy as I could make it. But damn if it didn’t inform character and advance the plot.

    • I know that the sex scene in The Killing Kind worked because, looking back, I can’t remember a lot of it. That’s actually a good thing — it meant it blended in with the book rather than stuck out and jolted me back into reality. Your comment totally jibes with my feeling on the whole thing — I agree on action sequences as well. Nothing can throw a book off the rails more than a scene that isn’t part of the flow, no matter what the overlying “topic” is.

  5. Maureen, Well stated and I agree. In my crime drama series I felt the same way. Gratuitous sex is rarely if ever necessary.

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