The Problem with Sex Scenes

Sex sells. Sex makes the world go ’round. If you don’t believe me, talk to any young man in any culture, and you’ll find that he’s preoccupied with sex whether he admits it or not. It’s no accident that the world’s oldest profession involves sex or that the VCR, DVD, and Internet really took off due to pornography. It’s part of our primitive core that we just can’t shake.

I grew up in the deep South. It’s the only place in America where a couple can deny the existence of sex as they drag their six kids into church on Sundays. We didn’t talk about it, yet teenage pregnancy was more prevalent than in other parts of the country. My own mother tried to convince me of the existence of the stork well past the point that such a story has any feasible plausibility. Needless to say, the “If we don’t talk about it, they won’t know about it” approach didn’t work.

Luckily, I escaped the morbid obsession with shame and denial and developed a healthy attitude about sex. It’s something to be enjoyed – responsibly, of course. Despite my more open attitude, I hate writing sex scenes in my novels. I find most sex scenes in books to be unrealistic or trite. The ones I have written never seem to have the same texture that I imagine in my head. Maybe my upbringing is coming back to haunt me, or maybe I’ve seen too many movies where sex is idealized.

Take the classic movie, Top Gun for example. The sex scene between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, in my opinion, remains one of the best ever put on the screen. A lot of that has to do with the chemistry between the actors as it does in real life, but I can’t imagine that it was written the way it was acted. In fact, if I were to read the scene from the script, I’m almost certain I would roll my eyes and cringe half way through because writing sex scenes is difficult, and let’s be real, true-life sex is never like that scene where everything moves smoothly and a ballad from Berlin plays in the background.

One thing I try to do when I have to write a sex scene is imagine it playing out on the big screen and writing only about the essential visual elements of the scene. The reader’s mind will fill in the blanks – in fact, depending on the mind, it may end up better than it’s written. Otherwise, I mostly avoid writing about sex. I’d rather leave it as implied or cut out at a key moment before the characters get to the point of sex. That works most of the time, but it’s not always the best approach.

In one of my books, the protagonist is a full-on jerk and a misogynist who uses one of his female friends for sex. Many of their interactions revolve around their inexplicable sexual relationship. It’s hard to convey what’s going through his mind if I always cut out when he has a scene with the woman, so I had to write several sex scenes without making the book sound like a cheesy porno. Reading back through it on the subsequent edits, I feel I achieved the right balance. Nevertheless, the sex scenes don’t make me think of Top Gun.


Sex may make the world go ’round, but it’s a delicate balance when writing about it, especially when trying to make the scenes realistic and believable. I tend to avoid them, but sometimes, the essence of the story requires it.

The Lull in the Middle

It’s inevitable as I work through a novel that I reach a point where the story stalls. It’s happened on all six of the novels I’ve completed, and it has reached that point with my current project. I don’t start a project unless I have a strong premise for the story arc. I usually know the beginning and the ending based on the story concept, but how to connect the two is often wide open. Even with an outline I run into this issue because the middle doesn’t always work out as planned.

Why does this happen? The problem lies in how the story and characters evolve. My outline provides the guard rails for the story, but I don’t follow it religiously. I like to let my characters go in a direction that feels natural, and I’m not afraid to change the trajectory of the story if it suits the character. Sometimes, secondary characters become main ones and vice versa. Sometimes, story elements emerge on the fly. This can create issues later when I try to pull the story back toward the main arc.

For many years prior to the last four, I’ve struggled through this part of writing. Novels that I started way back in the day often went into the drawer during this phase never to see the light of day again, but the big difference now is that I know I just have to keep writing even if I get a little off track with the story idea. The endless editing phase makes all the difference in the world – that’s where I tighten things up and make the final choices that give the story its shine.

If I’ve learned anything over the last four years it’s that the first draft is really just a very elaborate story concept. During the editing phase, I hack up the story into many bits and pieces and put them back together in a way that makes the novel more appealing. It’s hard for a new novelist to get his head around this, and I didn’t really get it until I attended the Novel Writing Intensive back in March. Now, the lull in the middle doesn’t bother me so much because I know the story will turn out very differently than it is today. I just have to power through the lull and get the draft out so that I can start the real writing.

Concept: Into the Caldera

My visit to Yellowstone National Park sparked an interesting story concept that I’m still developing. It’d be a new genre for me – psychological thriller. I’m excited about the potential, but it’s far from a full-blown project at this time. Usually, these things have to germinate for a while before I work on them. Below is an excerpt of the idea. More to come…maybe.

Scott Murrow drove into the storm careening left and right as each switchback took him further from the small town of Cougar, Washington and closer to the base of Mt. St. Helens. The Marble Mountain Sno-Park seemed nowhere in sight on the semi-dark highway shrouded by thick pine trees that let little of the light of day through. The sliver of sky above them rumbled with occasional thunder after a streak of lightning in the distance. The rain fell like a curtain before his eyes. He could barely see the nose of his red Dodge Dart as it cantilevered at each turn in the treacherous road.

Scott glanced over to Marc in the passenger seat but said nothing. His best friend stared ahead through the same cloudy windshield, an expression of concern clutched his face. Another switchback forced Scott to return his attention to the road. Silence held inside the car save for the pelting rain drops and the whine of the car’s engine as it climbed the hill.

Finally, Marc broke the silence. “Are you sure this is going to clear up?” he asked not taking his eyes off the road.

“That’s what the weather forecast said,” Scott replied. Another sharp turn grabbed his attention.

“We can’t camp in this,” Marc said. He seemed uncommitted.

“Sure we can. It will pass.”

“Lightning is dangerous. I didn’t come here to get killed.”

“We’ve been planning this all summer. We can’t back out now. I have the permit. We’ve wanted to do this since we came out here. Give it time. It’ll pass.”

“Yeah, Marc. Don’t be a pussy,” Jennifer said. She had been sitting quietly in the backseat, so quietly that Scott had forgotten she was there. She had talked incessantly all the way down I-5 from Seattle, but when they turned off the Interstate, she had stopped talking, almost like she was sulking in the backseat. Scott had looked into the rear view mirror a few times to see what she was doing, but he could only see the side of her face as she stared out the window.

Scott laughed uneasily and glanced at Marc who seemed more annoyed than amused. Marc usually fed off good-natured teasing, but he stayed quiet.

“She’s just kidding,” Scott said to his good friend quietly.

“Okay,” Marc replied without looking at him. He kept his eyes plastered on the wet roadway ahead of them. The pine trees waved frantically at them in the wind as if they were warning them of peril ahead.

Another hairpin turn diverted Scott’s attention momentarily. He regretted bringing Jennifer along. They had just met a couple of weeks ago, and in a rash of excitement he had told her about their trip and invited her along without consulting Marc. He barely knew Jennifer, but he had been friends with Marc for practically his entire life. They’d done many hikes together – just the two of them. They’d been planning this camping trip all summer. It was one of the benefits to moving all the way out to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.

“It doesn’t look like it’s letting up,” Marc said.

“It will. Trust me.”

“You mean trust the weatherman.”

“Yeah, trust the weatherman.”

“You two crack me up,” Jennifer interjected from the backseat. “You worry more than a couple of girls.”

Scott glanced back at Jennifer. He gave her a disapproving look in the hope that she’d be quiet. Jennifer just smiled at him playfully, and then, he remembered why he had invited her. He had never met such a beautiful woman, much less one that was interested in him. For a brief moment, he wondered why exactly she was interested in him. It didn’t make sense. She was clearly out of his league. A turn pulled his attention away.

“Is that the entrance up ahead?” Marc asked.

Scott squinted through the blowing rain. “I can’t tell,” he replied.

Marc leaned closer to the windshield. “I think it is.”

“Geez, you two are blind as a bats. That’s the entrance. Even I can see the sign from back here,” Jennifer boasted.

The men ignored her, but Scott slowed down to take the left turn into the Sno-Park. The rain finally let up as they drove into the park, but the wind still rippled through the trees and the dark clouds cast a ghastly pale light upon them. It was mid-afternoon, but it looked almost like dusk.

As he pointed the car right into the empty parking lot, Scott hesitated. The restrooms were on their left. “Anyone need to go to the restroom?” Scott asked.

“I do,” Marc replied.

“What about you?” Scott asked into the rear view mirror nodding to Jennifer.

“I’m fine.”

“You sure? Once we get on the trail, the woods will be your bathroom,” Scott said.

“I’m sure.”

“Have you ever peed in the woods before?” Scott asked.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Jennifer replied giggling at her own comment.

Scott laughed nervously and nosed the car into the spot in front of the restrooms. Marc jumped out. He watched his friend disappear behind the door of the men’s room.

For a moment, the two remaining passengers were quiet until Jennifer broke the silence. “Look what I have.” She held out an open palm between the front seats. A bunch of colorful pills filled the center of her palm. “Want one or two?”

“What are those?” Scott asked.

“Fun pills.”

“Seriously, what are they?”

“Ecstasy. Fun pills.”

“Are you kidding? We don’t do that shit.”

“Why not?” Jennifer slumped back a little, sulked.

“We just don’t. I’m surprised you do.”

“Only on the weekends when I’m having fun.”

“What about your volleyball scholarship? Won’t they take that away if they find out you’re taking drugs?”

“They have to find out,” Jennifer replied defiantly. She withdrew her hand, but Scott didn’t see where she put the pills.

His regret bubbled up again until Jennifer put her hand on his shoulder and leaned up and kissed him on his neck. “We’ll have fun anyway,” she whispered. Excitement ricocheted down his spine.

Drops of rain splattered across the windshield as a gust of wind waved the trees like dark shadows converging upon them. Marc emerged from the restroom and trotted back to the car.

“All better now. It’s chilly out there. We’ll need our layers for sure,” he said as he shut the car door.

“I hope you packed well for this trip,” Scott said turning back to Jennifer. She smiled at him.

“I have two strong guys to keep me warm. I’m not worried,” she said. Her smile grew wider and her eyes sparkled at him and his friend. Her comment gave him pause but he just laughed it off as he backed the car out of the spot and drove around to the trailhead. He parked in the spot closest to the trail.

“Ready to get started?” Scott asked.

“Let’s go!” Marc replied.

Jennifer said nothing but followed the men out of the car. Scott opened the trunk and pulled out his bright blue backpack. Marc grabbed his dull gray one, and Jennifer pulled hers onto her shoulder in one quick motion. After a few moments of adjusting the straps and testing out the loads, all three seemed ready to go.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Jennifer asked playfully.

“Marc has it all in his head,” Scott said looking at his good friend.

Marc smiled. “Follow me,” he said as he stepped toward the trailhead.

The rain had stopped, and the wind had died down with only a slight breeze. The air was still chilly for a late August day, and the damp smell of the forest engulfed them as they entered the trail. The muted light strained by the steel gray clouds above them provided just enough visibility to see the trail clearly. The thump of three pairs of feet on the compacted trail was the only sound that they heard as they headed toward Mt. St. Helens.

Marc led the way with Scott and Jennifer falling closely behind him. Scott glanced back at the beautiful blonde woman behind him and wondered what was going through her mind. He wondered why he had invited her. This was supposed to be his and Marc’s last hurrah before classes started back at the UW. He felt like he had ruined it in some way. He sensed that things would never be the same after this trip. Unease and dread washed over him as he walked further into dark forest.