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Posted by on Jul 8, 2014 in Thoughts on Writing | 4 comments

How Much Sex Is Too Much?

This might be too much

This might be too much

If you thought I was going to help you figure out whether you’re a sex addict in this blog post, you’ll be sad to learn that I’m not qualified to do that. Google is probably going to be your friend. Although, I am more than qualified to sing “Everything is Awesome” at you while manically dancing like a lego person, which may not actually be very useful to your needs…though it does give me an excuse to sing the damned song that’s been stuck in my head since seeing the movie over the weekend.

So, anyway. We’re talking about sex in fiction today. More specifically, we’re talking about how much sex it takes to kill a story.

But we’re not talking about erotica. I’m led to believe that there’s no such thing as too much sex in those stories. I mean, I’m under the impression that there wouldn’t be much to the stories if they didn’t have loads of sex, so…let’s just exclude that one since it’s going to throw off the curve in kind of a dramatic way.

In fact, I’m probably only going to touch on romance, romantic suspense, suspense and mystery. Why? Because that’s what I’ve been publishing for the last 17 months. We can talk about vampire/were-cat sex in the comments if you really want to, but I’m going to stick to what I know for the post, if you don’t mind.

From the reading perspective

I know this will probably shock the hell out of anyone who’s been following the utter lack of activity on my Goodreads profile, but I’m a reader first. I’ve been a reader since well before I could figure out how to write letters. Definitely since before I had my first extraordinarily bad plot idea and turned it into a book. I was seven or eight. It was truly horrific – not the genre, the writing and the plot. Imagine if Freddy Kruger got dropped into a day in the life of the characters fromĀ Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

And it was illustrated with my thumbprint turned into a mouse.

Did I mention they were all mice? Yeah. The main character was Freddy Mouser. So so very terrible.

Anyway. I’ve always been the type of reader who got annoyed by sex in the books I was reading. My problem wasn’t that there were sex scenes, it was that I didn’t like the way the author handled them. This was particularly true of the mysteries and thrillers I read. They would have this romantic aspect to the story and then they’d totally phone it in when it was time for the characters to get sweaty. If you’re going to give me a paragraph of half-ass sexiness, just fade the scene to black and don’t waste my time.

You’d think that would make me the ideal romance reader, right? Nope. I was always annoyed by how little plot there was to weave together the sex scenes. Like, last night…hubby and I watched a movie he’d gotten from HBO On Demand. Movie started with a rather strange sex scene. Did I care about the characters? Nope. Did I have any idea who they even were? Nope. It was just a sex scene for the sake of having a sex scene. Very disorienting.

And the movie itself never got any better.

So, no, I’m not happy with a book that’s filled with sex when the scenes don’t serve to further the overall plot or an aspect of character development.

From the writing perspective

The one piece of advice that every author receives from everyone and their butcher’s brother is that they should write the story they want to read and kind seem to find. That means I have to write books that include sex scenes that further some aspect of the plot or character development. That means I can’t just plop a sex scene in via manuscript roulette and hope that it’s hot enough to work.

And, seriously, that also means that I can’t phone in my sex scenes by writing a little nondescript paragraph that wouldn’t make me turn several shades of tomato red upon learning my grandmother read it.

You know, I think that nearly every unhappy review my books have received had some variation of the “too much sex” complaint. And that’s okay. My ideal book to read (which is consequently what I’m writing) isn’t going to be everyone’s brand of vodka. There are people out there who want a little hot kissing action, but want to stop short before the moaning starts. Others would prefer the characters stick to some chaste hand-holding until they somehow magically become married by the last page. That’s cool too.

How much sex is too much for a book? Totally subjective.

Personally, I think there need to be as many sex scenes as are necessary to the story without turning it into an orgy of innuendo. (Note to self: write a book called ORGY OF INNUENDO.) That said, there’s a limit. I once read a romantic suspense book that was roughly 450 pages. The first sex scene, I kid you not, went on for around 60 pages. I’m not sure how the characters didn’t seem bored by the end of that one because I know I was. There were probably 10 subsequent sex scenes that were only in the 10-20 page range. I’m no schoolgirl, but it was uncomfortable.

Also, I was so sick of reading these people in bed – in the car, on the floor, on a desk, in some dangerous situation where they should’ve been trying to get away instead of get it on – that I was actively rooting for them to break up or die by the end of the book just so I wouldn’t have to read anymore about their amazingly graphic sex.

Seriously, people. Y’all think my writing is graphic? I’m not even comfortable writing, much less saying, half the words that filled these scenes. Why did I even finish this book?

Because it was before Kindle so I paid good money for the hard copy. I’ll force myself to read the worst books in the world when I’ve paid full price for them.

When too much sex actually isn’t too much

Since I’ve been rather vague, let me give you a more concrete number on what I find works for me when I’m writing. Three sex scenes is about the limit of how much I’m willing to write for characters in my standard 300-350 page suspense book. The characters may be going at it like bunnies for half the time they know each other (I’m looking at you, Jackson Caldwell), but I don’t need to write it in detail. Besides, when you’re dealing with a new couple, there are really only three times that are necessary to the plot/character development:

  • Their first time together
  • The first time it means something more, especially if the L-word is in play
  • Make-up/break-up sex.

I might write some hot and heaviness leading up to sex scenes that don’t happen just to keep you guessing about when they’re finally going to hook up, but those are the scenes I prefer to show. Granted, when you move forward in a series with the same couple, there’s really only so much make-up sex that’s worth writing, but there are still other scenes that can help with development.

THE SHATTERED ALLIANCE is the book that really tripped me up and forced me to break my unspoken three-scene rule. I had a new couple I had to try to get together that had better chemistry than I probably intended when I started writing the book. Then I also had Jackson trying his damnedest to win back Jenna (things weren’t all bubblegum and sunshine for them between books).

It was never my intent to have Jackson and Jenna in any love scenes on the page. Without getting too spoilerific, there’s a scene where they got into a fight before they could have sex that got changed in the final draft of the book because I realized the only reason they were holding back was because I was interfering with the story. They still got in the same fight in the final draft, but frankly, it was a better read for them to be yelling at each other while getting dressed in the immediate aftermath. It would’ve been a mistake for me to keep out the scene just because of the three-scene sex rule.

And then there was this problem with Skylar Montgomery. I knew that she was going to be a very different kind of woman than Jenna was when I started the book. I didn’t necessarily realize how having a more sexually adventurous character would mean she was totally okay with using sex to get what she wanted.

I won’t say more about that. If you’ve read it, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

There was a point where I thought about cutting some of the sex scenes, but ultimately they all got to stay because they served a purpose. Not only did they create more issues for the characters to overcome which furthered the plot, but I was able to reveal more about those four characters than I would’ve otherwise been able because the reader got to see the couples in sharp contrast to one another. In particular, there’s a very slight reveal about the character of Parker Ramsey that you could easily miss if it wasn’t being juxtaposed against Jackson’s character. I mean, most people probably still miss it until they get to the third book, but at least I’ve done my job as the author by not making it totally out of the blue.

Of course, I know there will be readers out there who could read that explanation of why the various scenes made it into the book and still think there was too much sex in it. That’s cool. As I said, this is subjective.

So, what are your thoughts regarding sex scenes in fiction? Are you a proceed with caution reader or a the more the merrier reader? And what should I name the characters in ORGY OF INNUENDO?

Be sure to leave me comment with your opinion. I love hearing from you!

© 2014, Sydney Katt. All rights reserved.

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  1. I struggle with writing those in my stories. I’m not good at it at all. I might have a school girl mentality somewhere, or I’m too nerdy. I just don’t see it fitting well into my genre. I don’t enjoy SF with much sex. I also avoid movies with too many of those, especially nudity. Some say it’s also part of my OCD that plays into that. I don’t know.

    Now, what’s interesting is that I’m not “usually” a fan of sex scenes when reading, but in your case, I actually loved how you did it in Agents of Deceit. I’m sure I will enjoy many more in the rest of the series. How you wrote yours didn’t bother me. Perhaps you zoned in more on the romance aspect rather than just plain ol’ descriptive humping. lol I have come across those, believe it or not, yeah, not my cup of tea.

    • There are some stories where I’d rather the author just didn’t write the sex scene. I was reading a dystopian story not too long ago where the guy was thinking about having sex with his wife in such coarse, disparaging terms that it killed it for me. I just decided the guy was a total asshole and am partially rooting for him to get killed in the last book. I didn’t need him to be Mr. Rose Petals and Candlelight, but if I could’ve gotten some indication that he had any sort of love for the woman he was married to…eh. Doesn’t matter.

      Yeah, there are some where I feel like I’m getting an anatomy lesson. Decidedly not hot. The emotional component has to be there. I have one book that’s about 70% done and I’m having a bear of a time with the sex scenes because the chick is so detached from her emotions that every scene is falling flat to me. When the romance of two minor characters is hotter than the main couple…it’s a problem. Still trying to fix that one.

      • Totally know what you mean! If you can’t do them, don’t, is what I’d say to most people challenged in that department, like me. Although, I’ve to admit, I am learning quite a bit from you.

        I remember my editor made me rewrite a small love making scene over 3 times. I was doing the old fade out trick, and then making them wake up together, as in it’s implied. She wanted me to write something a bit more elaborate and descriptive. I finally managed, but nothing steamy. I guess it served its purpose, indicating that the two MCs who were madly in love, finally got to do it near the end of the book.

        I think now I can do a better job at that, thanks to the Undercover Series! It’s been quite inspiring. :)

        • In the first draft of the book you read, it was pretty much just fade to black. I went through a phase where I put all four completed manuscripts in a virtual drawer and wrote fan fiction for something like six months. Since everyone already knows the characters so well that you don’t have to do much description, it was like a boot camp for learning to write hot scenes since that was basically all people wanted to read. I won’t go so far as to say that any of those fanfics were particularly good (as I was made painfully aware of a few months ago when I reread something like 300 pages of posts from a fic that I’m using as source material for the Ritual Awakening trilogy), but that definitely seems to be where I crossed over from a little foggy to full-on steamy.

          You might try checking out the top free Kindle books in the romance and erotica sections. I say free so that you won’t feel like you’ve wasted any money if you totally hate them. After reading several, you can usually get a good survey of sex scenes that run the gamut from sweet to explicit anatomy manuals. I especially like to read the short ones that only take a commitment of one or two hours. Even when my husband has to toss me strange looks because of the gagging sounds I’m audibly making over some of the forced plots I’ve read (yes, I actually do that sometimes so that I can get it out before it’s time to review it, if I can stomach a review), I still feel like I’m getting a better idea of what the market is currently like. Even though I may not be writing straight up romance (and I know you certainly aren’t), the techniques you’ll find used (by the writer!) in good romance novel sex scenes transfer well to other genres.

          Also, acknowledge that pretty much all sex scenes totally suck in the first draft. Even if you’re a writer who can write in a fairly final draft form straight from the beginning (I am), your sex scenes will still need a few additional passes that the rest of the mss may not need. For instance, my first draft sex scenes tend to be more focused on the physical, on the blocking of who’s standing/laying/straddling where, similar to directing a stage play. The second pass may be where I fill in the emotional/mental aspect of the scene. Second pass takes a freakin’ lifetime since the internal is where sex scenes sizzle or fall flat. Any subsequent passes are just about using slick writer tricks to polish the writing and make sure that I’ve only used words that would make sense based on the character’s head we’re living in at the point. (If a character wouldn’t think about the human body in slang terms, why would I include them in a sex scene from their perspective?)

          In retrospect, I maybe should’ve done a forum post with all this. Oh, well. I tend to chat wherever I am at the moment.

          Oh…your comments are only going to moderation because you keep using different emails. Unless you have more emails, your comments should automatically post instead of going through moderation going forward. (I’ll double-check my settings to be sure.) :)

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