Sex, Relationships and Balance in Fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot on the subject of sex in fiction. There are a lot of reasons for that, and no, 50 Shades isn’t even close to being one of them. Surprisingly, the whole debate about New Adult is on my list. But the biggest reason is my own writing.

I make no secret of the fact that I don’t write YA fiction. It’s not any bias or anything against YA. That’s just not quite where my ideas go or what I tend to want to explore when I’m writing. What I don’t often say is that my stories quite often include sex to some extent, the novels more so than the shorter works. I’m not trying to hide it, but I don’t bring it up most of the time because to me, it seems obvious that stories about adult relationships should include sex. I believe that it’s a normal natural part of the relationship, so exploring that in fiction always feels natural as well.

But the question I’ve been pondering lately is how much to include. In both the Mirrors of Bershan and Necromantic trilogies, it was there, but not in anything I might call an excessive amount. It was how much the story needed. That, to me, is always the key, how much is needed. Like any other plot element, the sex should be part of the story, not there purely to titillate, but also as a vehicle for the story, part of the way the plot progresses. I’ve read books where it was put in for what felt to me like the wrong reasons, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. I’ve talked to enough others to know that I’m not the only one who notices when it’s shoehorned in.

So, why is this coming up now? Because Unmasked contains a significantly greater amount. I’m not talking about the book suddenly being erotica, but it’s definitely a bigger part of the story. I’ve considered toning it down some, but every time I do, it feels wrong, like I’m being dishonest to the story I’m telling. Because it is part of the story, make no mistake. Unmasked is very much about power and relationship dynamics, and sex is part of how that’s being expressed. There’s more to the book than just sex, other ways I’m exploring the dynamics between the two main characters, but that’s the most important one, for a lot of reasons, including the effect it has on Cayle. He is and will forever be changed by both the act and the emotional content that goes along with it for him.

As in all things, I consider balance a fluid thing, never the simple 50/50 split that would make things simpler (although 50% of the book being sex would actually require me to put more in than I already have, I think). So I’m trying to figure out if I’ve achieved the right balance here. I’d like to think I have. I’ve certainly avoided it becoming long, detailed descriptions of each act. But I’m still not sure. Maybe I’m just being hard on myself again, and I’ll find on going back for edits that I did better than I thought. There are other elements to the plot, as I mentioned, and it will tone down on its own in many ways after the first book. This, of course, gives me another headache, in the form of reader expectations. Assuming the book turns out well and the audience doesn’t walk away thinking “Ick,” how will they react when there’s much less of it in the subsequent books? Maybe they’ll be disappointed, having expected more after Unmasked, or maybe they’ll be happy to see things return to a more normal (for me) level. I suspect I’ll find out at some point, because I do intend to publish this book when it’s ready.

It’s no wonder I haven’t slept well the last couple of nights, looking at all this stuff I have going around in my head. No, none of this concern is going to keep me from writing the first draft as I conceived it. I’m trying to keep it in the back of my mind and not worry about it too much, yet it keeps tugging at my thoughts. And, of course, in my case, there’s the added dimension of reader opinions and expectations regarding sex in Fantasy/Sci-Fi, but that would have to be a whole other post, as it’s a big debate on its own. Hmm, maybe I should make notes for that one.

So, I guess my question is, what does everyone else thing about the subject (not limited to my own books) of sex in adult fiction? Expectations, dislikes, disappointments, any thoughts you might have.

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About Julie

I'm a writer and photographer. I always have something with me to take notes for ideas or writing projects I'm thinking about or have on the go. I also like to go around with my camera and take pictures of anything that strikes me as beautiful or evocative. I'm perpetually working on one story or another, while waiting for enough distance to judge the last one (or more). I'm always working on several projects at once, developing the next book, even as I'm editing the last. Beyond that, there's always plenty of scraps and twists of ideas rolling around in my head, eventually turning themselves into full blown stories.
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15 Responses to Sex, Relationships and Balance in Fiction

  1. Em says:

    I’m fine with it as long as it moves along the plot and isn’t just gratuitous. We had an excellent lecture about writing sex scenes in my writing class last semester actually.

    And I can completely relate to the “no, I don’t write YA” thing obviously. With the explosion of YA fantasy recently that seems to be assumed. But I classify mine as adult because it does have sex and um, quite a bit of violence. Anyhow, I’m straying from my thoughts here. I also wanted to say that when I started reading more steampunk I ran into sex scenes a lot more often and started looking into whether this was a trope of the genre. I found that it wasn’t a stated trope, but it still seems to occur in that genre regularly enough.

    • Julie says:

      It does seem to be changing, the sex in fantasy thing. I’ve seen a number of discussions in a few forums about it lately, and there seems to be two camps. Those who prefer the wink-nod approach, and others who say they don’t see why it isn’t there more.

      Steampunk is, I think, a more recent sub-genre, so maybe people have felt more free to include it because there isn’t as much history of it not being included. Not sure, but that’s interesting to know.

      As for moving the plot along and not being gratuitous, I think that description should be applied to every element in a story, not just sex (though it’s a good way to look at it there). I’ve seen plenty of things used to the point that I felt it was excessive and didn’t add anything. More things to ponder. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. kanundra says:

    Sex is a big part of life. We can’t ignore it, so being open to it being there is a good thing. As to how much, like you say the story is key, don’t do it if it feels wrong. I pondered myself about including sex in my story. But it doesn’t need it, so I didn’t. The facts and the relationships are there, but I didn’t need to go into the nitty gritty, job done. I have written it in for other parts of the story though… as a writer we have to decide. I am sure you made the right choice. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Julie says:

      Thanks for the vote of confidence ๐Ÿ™‚ Time will tell about making the right choice. Writing is full not only of choices, but opportunities to re-evalutate those choices.

  3. jmmcdowell says:

    I think you have to go with what feel right, no matter the genre “norms”โ€”if there are any anymore. (I think the explosion of indie publishing is really blurring those lines, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.) While sex is mainly implied in my writing, I don’t steer away from it in my reading as long as the story line and characters interest me. But I’m with youโ€”throwing it in there “just because” or to try to capture the 50 shades audience wouldn’t be the best route in my book, so to speak. As long as it moves the story forward and/or gives needed insights into the characters, then it belongs.

    • Julie says:

      I suspect you’re right about the effect of indie publishing. It seems to be broadening things, allowing people to get things out that the houses might not be willing to take a chance on. It’s also getting some stuff out there that isn’t ready, but you take the bad with the good or nothing ever changes, right?

      • jmmcdowell says:

        You know, for the first (and perhaps only) time in my life, I see myself taking part in something new. Will I succeed? Fall flat on my face? Choose beta over VHS? I don’t know. ๐Ÿ™‚ But this new world of publishing will eventually shake down, settle, and become “the new normal.” We may have to wade through some bad, but I think the good will find a way to rise to the topโ€”as it always has. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        • Julie says:

          You’re reading my brain, aren’t you? ๐Ÿ˜‰ That’s about how I feel about having taken the risk of self-publishing Bound. I can’t say where it will end or how, but there’s something exhilarating about being part of it.

        • Let me just say, Beta vs VHS was an excellent reference. We had a betamax in my house as a kid. It’s great to be the underdog.

  4. R. K. MacPherson says:

    When I wrote Stormcaller, I believed the romance story required a sex scene, despite the fact that the protagonist and her girlfriend are 19 and 20, respectively, and I didn’t want to simply fade to black. To push myself, the romance subplot (and its sex scene) takes up an entire chapter, roughly half talkie, half nookie. The reason for that was I, like you, felt the sex needed to do more than titillate, that it needed to express things, too.

    In my less humble moments, I’m proud of that chapter, but it wasn’t easy to write. That said, at least one beta reader, whom I normally think of as Mr. Anything Goes, said the sexual content walked right up to The Line, but didn’t cross it.

    I can live with that.

    In your case, so long as it really has a place in the story, and delivers something more than evocative descriptions, I think you should definitely keep it.

    • Julie says:

      I sort of have to keep it. The first book partly turns around it. It’s a matter of making sure, when I get to editing, that I haven’t crossed The Line your friend mentioned. We’ll see. I’m still too far from the end to think too much about it, though that end is getting shockingly closer by the day.

      That chapter does sound quite balanced, and I’m glad you cared enough that it was difficult to write. I suspect that, when stuff like that’s easy to write, it’s because the author isn’t being respectful of the power it can have in the narrative (maybe it’s different for people who are naturally erotica writers, and maybe even romance). I think that we do have to respect that power as writers though, because it’s another one of those elements that can wreck a story if you screw it up, based on my own reading experiences.

  5. dex says:

    I think you nailed it: “it seems obvious that stories about adult relationships should include sex.”

    I don’t think you should either strive to include it or strive to avoid it, but do what you’re doing. What I do, too. When your characters decide it’s gonna happen, let it happen. Allow your description of it (word count, graphic nature, level of intimacy) to follow both the story and (for lack of a better way to say it) the characters’ wishes.

    Stephen King has said, when challenged about the language in his books and his characters swearing, that he writes that kind of dialogue because that’s how people talk. And it is. The same should be try of relationships, including the sexual aspect. People are sexual beings. Sex (of all kinds) happens. Let it.

    That’s my two cents…for what it’s worth…

    • Julie says:

      Excellent points, and I agree with Mr. King about the language. People don’t speak properly most of the time. They swear, they use bad grammar and I’m often grateful I can’t see how they spell when they talk. ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Thanks for the encouragement on my approach. I do tend to go with a general approach on everything of “what the story needs” because I too believe that story should be the ultimate decider, that it should be paramount. I mean, isn’t that what we all read for in the end, the story?

  6. I find that the degree of detail simply needs to fit the purpose of the scene. In my novel, “Manifestation,” one of the main characters has four sex scenes throughout the book, but most of them aren’t even “scenes” so much as implied/summarized. The first time is a single paragraph, only 93 words. The second time is really just showing the morning after, with the sex implied for the night before. The reasons for these scenes being so short is that their main purpose in the plot is to show how the MC reacts to them: without emotion.

    The only scene with more detail (over 600 words) is one where the primary focus is on the emotions involved (and the fact that she’s starting to HAVE emotions about it). The real purpose of the scene is to show the growing relationship she has with the guy, and easily 75% of the scene is discussing her thoughts and feelings. In fact, the entire reason the prior two scenes EXIST in the story is to show a strong contrast between the lack of emotion then, with the building emotions later on.

    So to me, it’s all a matter of how and why it fits in the story. The more important the scene is, the more it moves the plot along, the more detail it will have. I’m expecting a scene (with the second main character instead) in the second book that might take up most of a chapter, because it’s a very deep and very integral part of her relationship. That’ll be far more detailed and “adult,” because it’s more important to the plot.

    • Julie says:

      Exactly. I think it’s about what’s appropriate in the context and having it at the level and detail that serves the story. With Unmasked, the sex is actually part of how this relationship is navigated and it has much further reaching effects than Cayle expects.

      As for word counts, most of the scenes are actually fairly short, focusing on overall sensations, emotions and needs, rather than Tab A Into Slot B syndrome. I’m not that interested in the physical details unless they serve some greater purpose, like the way you touch someone revealing emotion or thought.

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