Sex Scene Advice From Diana Gabaldon

Every once in a while I trip over something that begs sharing. This is one golden nugget I had to squeeze in.

My favourite series of all time is Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. The 8th installment in the series is due out this month, and the first book, Outlander, is to debut on the American network, Starz, this August. I won’t even start on the details of the story – I couldn’t do it justice – but I do have to share this little snippet posted today on Diana’s Facebook page. For any romance writer, this advice is priceless. I know this, because she nails it. Every time. Enjoy!

Copyright 2013 Diana Gabaldon – This is the Introduction to a short book titled “HOW TO WRITE (AND _NOT_ WRITE) SEX-SCENES. #DailyLines #INTRODUCTION #HOW TO WRITE (AND _NOT_ WRITE) SEX-SCENES #standaloneEbook #notoutyet

THE QUICK-START FIVE-MINUTE GUIDE TO WRITING SEX-SCENES
(for those in a hurry)

 


Where most beginning writers screw up (you should pardon the expression) is in thinking that sex scenes are about sex. A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids. That being so, it can encompass any emotion whatever, from rage or desolation to exultation, tenderness, or surprise.

Lust is not an emotion; it’s a one-dimensional hormonal response. Ergo, while you can mention lust in a sex-scene, describing it at any great length is like going on about the pattern of the wall-paper in the bedroom. Worth a quick glance, maybe, but essentially boring.

So how do you show the exchange of emotions? Dialogue, expression, or action—that’s about the extent of your choices, and of those, dialogue is by far the most flexible and powerful tool a writer has. What people say reveals the essence of their characters.

Example:

“I know once is enough to make it legal, but…” He paused shyly.

“You want to do it again?”

“Would ye mind verra much?”

I didn’t laugh this time, either, but I felt my ribs creak under the strain.

“No,” I said gravely. “I wouldn’t mind.”

Now, you do, of course, want to make the scene vivid and three-dimensional. You have an important advantage when dealing with sex, insofar as you can reasonably expect that most of your audience knows how it’s done. Ergo, you can rely on this commonality of experience, and don’t need more than brief references to create a mental picture.

You want to anchor the scene with physical details, but by and large, it’s better to use sensual details, rather than overtly sexual ones. (Just read any scene that involves a man licking a woman’s nipples and you’ll see what I mean. Either the writer goes into ghastly contortions to avoid using the word “nipples”—“tender pink crests” comes vividly to mind—or does it in blunt and hideous detail, so that you can all but hear the slurping. This is Distracting. Don’t Do That.)

So how _do_ you make a scene vivid, but not revoltingly so? There’s a little trick called the Rule of Three: if you use any three of the five senses, it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional. (Many people use only sight and sound. Include smell, taste, touch, and you’re in business.)

Example:

The road was narrow, and they jostled against one another now and then, blinded between the dark wood and the brilliance of the rising moon. He could hear Jamie’s breath, or thought he could—it seemed part of the soft wind that touched his face. He could smell Jamie, smell the musk of his body, the dried sweat and dust in his clothes, and felt suddenly wolf-like and feral, longing changed to outright hunger.

He wanted.

In essence, a good sex scene is usually a dialogue scene with physical details.

Example:

“I’ll gie it to ye,” he murmured, and his hand moved lightly. A touch. Another. “But ye’ll take it from me tenderly, a nighean donn.”

“I don’t want tenderness, damn you!”

“I ken that well enough,” he said, with a hint of grimness. “But it’s what ye’ll have, like it or not.”

He laid me down on his kilt, and came back into me, strongly enough that I gave a small, high-pitched cry of relief.

“Ask me to your bed,” he said. “I shall come to ye. For that matter–I shall come, whether ye ask it or no. But I am your man; I serve ye as I will.”

And finally, you can use metaphor and lyricism to address the emotional atmosphere of an encounter directly. This is kind of advanced stuff, though.

Example:

He’d meant to be gentle. Very gentle. Had planned it with care, worrying each step of the long way home. She was broken; he must go canny, take his time. Be careful in gluing back her shattered bits.

And then he came to her and discovered that she wished no part of gentleness, of courting. She wished directness. Brevity and violence. If she was broken, she would slash him with her jagged edges, reckless as a drunkard with a shattered bottle.

She raked his back; he felt the scrape of broken nails, and thought dimly that was good–she’d fought. That was the last of his thought; his own fury took him then, rage and a lust that came on him like black thunder on a mountain, a cloud that hid all from him and him from all, so that kind familiarity was lost and he was alone, strange in darkness.

Like that.

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Writers: Learn From The Good Wife

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t caught up with The Good Wife’s latest episode, and don’t want to know what happened, don’t read on…)

The number one rule of writing: ‘Kill the baby.’

What?!?!

Yes. Kill the baby. Or in this case, Will Gardner.

Will and AliciaToo often, writers miss the mark on this one, and lose their readers in the process. Here’s the thinking on that.

Of all the lessons I’ve learned through writing, reader reactions, classes, and forums, the best advice to come my way, without question, is:  ‘kill the baby.’ The exercise went like this:

The assignment:  Once upon a time, there was a village in the forest. It was a happy village. Everyone was loving and healthy and the village was a wonderful place to live. Until one day, people started to get sick and die. The people were devastated by their losses, and began to fear for themselves as the sickness ravaged their friends and family. Finally, the wise ones of the village decided to break the law of the forbidden land and cross the river to ask the evil one for help. The evil one agrees to help, but the price is high. The cost is one baby…. Finish the story….

It is remarkable how many ways there are to cheat death. We did everything we could to save the child. Some of us had a plan to get the baby back. Some would somehow use a second boat to fool the evil one. Others would give him a sickly child who would die anyway. We could go with the ‘it was a dream’ plan. How about negotiating for three old people. We were prepared to do anything but give up that baby.

In the end, our instructor shook his head in pity at us. We’d done exactly as he expected. Not one of us gave up the baby.

His advice? Kill the baby.

Bad things happen in real life. Bad things happen in stories. Let the bad happen. Type through your tears. The tragedy must be respected. To lessen the loss is to cheapen the story. You, the writer, are responsible for the plot. You owe it to your reader to tell the best story possible. And the readers will remember your story longer, the stronger the feelings they’re left with. In the end, you’ll be able to pay for therapy with all the money you’ll make from the sales of your book.

We all went back and killed the baby. It was difficult. But we certainly understood the point of the lesson.

Think about endings that have left you feeling like you just wasted hours reading a good story – or watching a movie – only to have the ending ruin the entire experience. Or better yet, offer up ‘alternate endings.’

Not every story has to end in tragedy. But every story needs its fair share of emotion – good and bad. Protecting your characters makes them bland

Robert and Michelle King, great writers.

and uninteresting. Challenge them and let them tell their story.

Robert and Michelle King, writers of The Good Wife know this. And, risking the wrath of loyal fans everywhere, killed Will last night. They have their reasons.

But in the end, it all boils down to good writing.

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How To Become A Writer

So the manuscript submit form seems to be working now. It was no small feat, and my rusty brain had to go all the way into the code to do it. But, as always, the harder the task, the greater the sense of accomplishment.

There are those who would say that writing a novel would present an insurmountable challenge. Having written two myself, I would argue. But when asked for my best advice for writers, it’s like a trance settles over me and I might as well be talking about a life-altering love affair. Though, now that I think about that, I probably am. There’s writing, and there’s getting published. They are two completely different animals. And while I’ve often shared my best advice for getting published, let me share my joy in the process of writing.

Write. Everything. Research can wait. Grammar can wait. Spelling can go away altogether. Whether you use a keyboard, typewriter, or pen, write. Write from your mind. Write from your heart. Write what you know. Make stuff up. Nothing has to make sense. Nothing has to connect. Just write. And watch what happens. Give it time. Commit to the process. A year from now, compare what you wrote this week. Then let’s have a conversation!!

Create your own process. With a full-time job, two kids, and a household to run, writing was the last thing I had time for. But when that ever-loving husband of mine stepped in, writing became my salvation. He insisted we take advantage of my job’s payroll computer purchase plan and buy our first laptop. He insisted I find someplace – outside of the house – to write. And he gifted me the time to do it. Every Saturday, he would drop me, my music, my laptop, and my quietly-smuggled snacks, off at the local library. I holed up in my reserved, enclosed cubicle, plugged in, settled down, and left my life behind. For seven solid hours, I sat on my butt, and rejuvenated my soul in ways I’d never dreamed possible. In time, every commute to and from the job, every minute spent folding and ironing – okay I don’t iron, but you get it – every minute I had to myself, I was writing. I was going through dialogue, scenarios, reactions, characters, plot twists, and ideas in my head. By the time Saturday rolled around, I was busting! The novel didn’t happen in one long line. I wrote it in bits and pieces, as I’d had time to develop it in my head. The fact that it fit together in the end was nothing short of miraculous – leaving me in awe at some of the remarkable connections I had made. When it was done, I was a wreck. Noticeably so. My husband’s answer to my despair? Start another book. Done.

Develop your skill. As the creative side of writing begins to take hold, start to hone your skills. Take a writing course. Learn some grammar – and prepared to be amazed at how much you’ve let slide… Take a keyboarding class – though I got by in the beginning with my grade 9 typing skills, 100,000 words later, I was, and still am, typing in the dark with my eyes closed, as fast as I can think! Join a writers’ group. Learn how to research properly. When these compulsory skills start to come more easily to you, the work of writing well melts into the joy of writing.

Open your mind. Rediscover your imagination. Spend time brainstorming ‘what if?’ Resist the urge to jump in on a current fad; the world will have become bored with that idea long before you can finish your masterpiece. Consider different styles, genres, lengths. And don’t be surprised when your budding romance turns into an all-out adventure.

Watch your characters. These will be some of the most fascinating people you’ll ever meet. And they will be as real to you as anyone you’ve ever encountered. Don’t try to make them do anything they wouldn’t naturally do. Let them grow – we don’t need to know everything about them in the first chapter. Let them surprise you.

Give yourself time to enjoy the process of becoming a writer. If you’re thinking this is a great way to make a living and you’re sure you’ll be the next Rowling, don’t quit your day job. In fact, stop writing now. You’re in it for all the wrong reasons. But if you’re thinking of this as an outlet – a creative way to purge your mind of the overflow of ideas it tries to hold on to, a way to vent your emotions, a way to share an idea, then get started. Find what works for you, and don’t stop.

There are plenty of people who ask what, exactly, in this age of publishing chaos, is a writer. Can I call myself a writer? When am I considered to be a writer?

The short answer is, if you have to ask, you’re not a writer. Just write. You’ll know when.

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