Tag Archives: how to write a sex scene

An Interview with David Gordon

30 Oct
David Gordon's novel The Serialist swept a series of major Japanese literary awards and was turned into a major motion picture in Japan. His new story collection is White Tiger on Snow Mountain.

Photo Credit: Michael Sharkey               David Gordon’s novel The Serialist swept a series of major Japanese literary awards and was turned into a major motion picture in Japan. His new story collection is White Tiger on Snow Mountain.

David Gordon’s first novel, The Serialist, was made into a major motion picture in Japan. It also won the VCU/Cabell First Novel Award and was a finalist for an Edgar Award. He is also the author of the novel, Mystery Girl, and, most recently, the story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain. His work has also appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Purple, and Fence. Gordon was born in New York City, attended Sarah Lawrence College, and holds an MA in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Writing, both from Columbia University. He has worked in film, fashion, publishing and pornography.

To read his story “Man-Boob Summer” and an exercise on writing sex scenes, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the sex scene in “Man-Boob Summer.” It contains actual sex, not just a reference to it, and it’s both realistic and sexy. This is notable because there’s so much awful sex writing in fiction (notably Tom Wolfe’s attempt in I Am Charlotte Simmons: “the flood in her loins washed morals, despair and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his”). So, I guess the key to a good sex scene is no metaphors or abstract language. What else do you keep in mind as you approach a scene like this?

David Gordon

Yikes, that is a choice example. And, as so often with bad metaphors, it is impossible to really picture: A  cloud that floods loins? A cologne flushing out morals and despair? Poor Charlotte!

I think your rule of thumb is good, and while I hope I never cross that line, I might crank up the intensity of the language, depending on the mood of the scene. I think that is my real rule: Treat a sex scene like any other scene. And the first step of writing any scene at all is to ask do I even need it? Is it essential to the story? Most lame sex scenes, whether cringe-inducing or just boring and generic (cut to slo-mo heaving) share the characteristic of being unnecessary. So, just like a scene of dinner or walking home or anything else, why is it essential? Why can’t we just say, “They had sex” or “They had dinner,” or “After dinner, they had sex then walked home.” If it is necessary, it is adding something vital that moves us forward, not always plot maybe, but telling us something, about these people, their relationship, their world: something is revealed. Then, all my stylistic or tonal choices, the amount of “cologne,” is based on that. In other words, I want to write a good scene, not necessarily a “sexy” one. In the end whether it turns romantic or erotic or awkward or sad depends on the people and the moment. After all, every kiss is different.

Michael Noll

You describe characters’ bodies a lot in the collection. In this story, there’s the description of the man with “one pendulous female breast” and the lifeguard, whose “legs were long and slender, and…kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” What I love about these descriptions is that they’re in motion, as opposed to static, and they lead to drama (especially the legs). Is this something that comes to you naturally or the product of revision?

David Gordon

Hmmm, good question. This is not something I have really thought about before, so I suppose it is “natural” in the sense of intuitive. But, that said, those specific wordings often come during revision, which is to say they come out of the process of trying as best I can to make the story feel real and alive, to myself and to the reader. For me, this does often mean trying to get at as much movement and physical or sensual information as I can. I tend to think that the way people sit and move, the light in the window and the smell of their coffee is as important as what they’re saying or thinking. I don’t mean necessarily being very detailed or longer, since some these descriptions are quite short, but to try as best I can to make something really happen in language, the way you can say a sculpture of person walking is happening in stone. Even if it is just one verb, I want the right verb.

Michael Noll

How did you know where to end the story? It ends after a sex scene and just before, the last sentence seems to suggest, another sex scene is about to begin. There’s a sense that the characters are beginning some kind of relationship, however fleeting. Were you tempted to write about that relationship, or did you always know where the story ended?

David Gordon

David Gordon's new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, "Man-Boob Summer," was published in The Paris Review.

David Gordon’s new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, “Man-Boob Summer,” was published in The Paris Review.

I knew that scene was the last scene. I actually had a very strong sense of that moment, the turn where things change between them after sex—I wanted that feeling of a sudden slap in the face, a sudden chill—and I began to wonder, who are these people and how did they get there? So I had that in mind and I sort of wrote toward it. But at first it ended a bit sooner, on the more dark or melancholy imagery. Then later on—I think I might have even already shown the story to some people who found it really sad and heavy—I just felt like I wanted to let a little bit more light or air in at the end. Just a little though…Really, it sounds strange but it is like I’d gotten to know this non-existent person in my mind and I thought, yes, this is what she would do.

I agree with you that the relationship feels like it will go on but maybe just for another day or week or hour even. I wasn’t thinking about continuing the story, not at all, I knew this was the end, but about finding the right tone or mix of colors to express how I saw them right then, if that makes sense. That was the feeling I was trying to find all along—that scene. Think of it as a painting: I was trying to just paint in every emotional facet I could to show what was going on between these two people and who they were separately and together, and to me anyway, that felt like the last little touch. Maybe I’d write it differently today. Who knows?

Michael Noll

Your work plays with genre quite a bit—not just your novel The Serialist, about a ghostwriter writing the memoir of a serial killer who may still be actively killing—but also the last story in this collection, “The Amateur,” which is a hard-boiled story about organized crime and murder. What draws you to these kinds of stories? I’ve recently heard several writers try to explain the difference between genre and literary fiction, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by their answers. What do you thinks separates the two—if anything does?

David Gordon

I think it is one of those things where the more you try to define it more mixed up it gets. Which is fine, since as a reader there is little difference to me—I like what I like—and as a writer I am just happy to have what I think is a good idea. I will really do anything that works or helps me get it written. Sometimes in these stories I have also drawn on horror and sci-fi—for imagery and for structuring devices that I think help make a scene feel exciting or tense or surprising. I mean, certainly scholars can talk about a genre like crime or sci-fi having its own historical development, but as a writer, I think about genre as form. These are forms I can explore, use, change or ignore the same way a poet can write free verse or rhymed, use a sonnet or a haiku—and to think of one as inherently better than the others seems absurd. In The Serialist I found that having that form—a detective story—shaped the narrative but also sort of focused and drove it forward, but “The Amateur” is almost the opposite: I had that idea for years, but could not figure out how to write it until I found myself thinking about Borges and those really brief stories he has that contain a novel’s worth of material in eight pages, and then about classic sort of framed tales like those by Conrad or James. So there you see some very high-brow literary teachers helped me write my pulpy New Jersey crime story.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a Sex Scene

28 Oct
David Gordon's new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, "Man-Boob Summer," was published in The Paris Review.

David Gordon’s new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, “Man-Boob Summer,” was published in The Paris Review.

Every year, the British journal Literary Review announces its Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the year’s worst sex writing in a novel. This year’s winning passages are, as usual, notable for both their physiological specificity (areolae) and vagueness (hole) and their awkward use of metaphor and simile (“the hard pearls of her nipples, like tiny secrets”). The authors of these prizes are not unknown; this year’s list contains two of the best-known and most respected writers in the English-speaking world, Philip Roth and John Banville.

Such passages can lead to despair: if even good writers write bad sex scenes, what chance do the rest of us have? One solution is to find good writing about sex, such as can be found in David Gordon’s new story collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain. The sex scenes manage to be both erotic (or not, depending on the situation) and literary. The first story in the collection, “Man-Boob Summer,” appeared in The Paris Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

The work necessary to make a sex scene believable often begins before the scene takes place. One way to set up the scene is by setting up the possibility of sex. Sometimes this can be literal; for instance, Mary Gaitskill’s story “A Romantic Weekend” establishes very early on that the characters are taking a weekend getaway to have sex (and a particular kind of sex). Other times, the setup is more subtle. For example, “Man-Boob Summer” is about a down-and-out writer who spends time at his apartment complex’s swimming pool. He watches the swimmers and, quite naturally, notices their bodies.

At first, the descriptions of the swimmers have no hint of sexuality. For example, here is a “blond and stocky” woman:

“thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair.”

Here is her son:

“blond and wan, and no matter what he was doing—floating in the man’s arms and practice-kicking, jumping into the pool, eating a cookie—he screeched incessantly in this high, petulant squeal that set my teeth on edge.”

And finally, there was the woman’s husband, whose body inspired the story’s title:

“there he was, rising from the pool, mustache drooping, water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank, and I saw it, one flat male breast and one pendulous female breast.”

In short, Gordon uses the family to create a standard of beauty for this particular place, and then he introduces a character who breaks that standard. Notice the difference in this description of a lifeguard:

In fact, her legs were long and slender, and they kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.

This difference in appearance—the difference in the details that the man notices—drives his behavior. He begins to flirt:

“Hey,” I asked, “do you think if you had to, you could really lift me out of the pool? You’re kind of little. Don’t they have some kind of height requirement?”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Try it and see.”

At this point, the story has focused our attention on the lifeguard’s body, especially her legs, and created a kind of sexual momentum. We’re not surprised when the sex scene arrives:

We undressed quickly, peeling off her shoulder straps and slipping her suit down her legs, pulling off my T-shirt and trunks. She climbed onto my lap, and we jostled a bit until I was inside her, and then we just sat there like that for a while, mouths together, chest to chest, not moving, except for our breath. She stopped kissing me and spit in her hand, then reached down in between us, making a serious face. Then she began to move against me, and grip me harder, and I took her in my arms and pushed her onto her back as her breathing raced and she put her nails into my chest and I brushed back the hair from her eyes. Later, after it was over, we both lay on my towel and she smoked. Again, it was silent, but this time the quiet felt uneasy, and when I tried to put my arm around her, she shrugged me off.

Notice how quickly the scene happens and how little their bodies are described. We’ve already seen the bodies, and so now the focus can be on the sex itself, on movement: peeling, slipping, climbing, jostling, breathing, kissing, spitting, moving, gripping, pushing, brushing. This focus on movement is important because a) it avoids forced, eroticized descriptions of body parts and b) it allows the sex to take place in only four sentences. Finally, the movement uses commonplace verbs and not clichéd, sexual verbs like thrusting or throbbing.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write a sex scene using “Man-Boob Summer” by David Gordon as a model:

  1. Establish a standard of beauty. In stories, as in life, sex usually starts with noticing someone and finding them attractive. This person may or not be classically beautiful. What’s more important is that he or she stand out from the other people in the room (as Flight of the Concords made clear). So, start by describing the other people in the room. The descriptions should carry some sexual charge: neutral, negative, or positive. The setting matters. At a community pool, as in Gordon’s story, regular people are almost naked and looking like real, almost-naked people. At a public function (work, party, church), people are generally dressed to look their best. At certain kinds of parties (night clubs), people are dressed to accentuate their sexual appeal. Therefore, your standard of beauty ought to reflect the setting. The standard also raises or lowers the bar for the person who breaks the standard: it’s easier to be the best-looking person in the room in some places than others. Regardless of the standard, show the bodies in close, physical detail.
  2. Break that standard. Make someone stand out, either because everyone finds them more beautiful or because one person finds them more attractive. Again, focus on close, physical detail. However, it’s not enough to say that so-and-so has a better butt or better legs or a prettier face. You need to sensualize the descriptions. It’s the difference between “water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank” and legs “rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” Focus on movement, but unlike the action of sex, you’re focusing on more subtle movements. Imagine that your narrator or character is trying not to look at someone but every time he or she moves, the narrator’s eye is drawn back to him/her. What small, perhaps unconscious movements attract the eye?
  3. Act on the attraction. In other words, flirt. If sex is going to take place, then an initial encounter must happen first. If the encounter is successful (i.e. if the attention is desired by both people), then the words become as sexualized as the movement: “She stuck her tongue out at me. ‘Try it and see.'”
  4. Write the sex scene. If the previous passages do their work, the reader believes that the characters will have sex. Therefore, very little setup is needed. We don’t need to see the bodies in great detail. We don’t need to see the foreplay. In other words, the scene can happen quickly and consist primarily of sex (action) rather than looking. So, write sentences that are active, rather than static. Use verbs that you’d normally use in any scene, not verbs that have become sexualized by pornography. Keep the prose flowing. Avoid abrupt stops of punctuation (unless they mimic the action of the sex). Get to the end of the sex since what happens afterward will tell us a great deal about how to understand what just happened: “this time the quiet felt uneasy.”

When you read “Man-Boob Summer,” you’ll see that even though the story is about two characters who have sex, most of the story is setting up the sex and then showing what comes after. In other words, the most important parts of a sex scene are not the actual sex but everything else around it.

Good luck!

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