Finding The Line and Knowing When To Cross It

sex and violence PART 2If there’s one thing the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomena has reminded us of it’s that sex sells. Not exactly news. So do violence, gore and profanity. But how much is too much and how little is not enough?

My daughter told me that she saw the new movie, Lawless, saying that she liked a good shoot-‘em-up now and then but didn’t really go in for the bloody, gory, violent stuff that takes place in this movie. But she LOVED the movie, said it was Oscar stuff all the way. What made it okay in this movie for her but not in another?

From the reader’s perspective, this is pretty subjective and fiction is a big enough tent to accommodate every taste from the tame to the torrid. But it’s a different issue for writers who have to find the line between too much and too little and know when and how to cross it.

Writing good sex scenes is very tough to do without being trite, lame or boring. It’s so difficult that The Literary Review created the Bad Sex In Fiction Award – The 2010 winner, Rowan Somerville, attributes his victory to sentences like this one:

“Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”

My late mother didn’t think I walked on water. She thought I taught walking on water. So, it was particularly humbling when in her review of my first book, Motion To Kill, she told me that while she enjoyed the book, the sex scenes were rather dry. And when you’re mother gives you that kind of news you’re in trouble. And before you unload with a barrage of “stick to writing what you know” one-liners, try writing a hot sex scene that doesn’t reek of a letter to Penthouse.

It’s no accident that the panel on writing sex scenes is the most popular panel at writer’s conferences. If you want to read it done right, check out Miami Purity by my good friend Vicki Hendricks.

I think writing violence and gore is easier but you still have to be careful not to pour it on so thick that the impact drowns in the excess. I’m more interested in how the violence affects my characters than in the act itself.

So, gentle readers, let me hear from you. Do you like your fictional sex discreet or do you want it hot, down and dirty? Do you want your violence off-stage or in your face with buckets of blood?

2 Responses to “Finding The Line and Knowing When To Cross It”

  1. Joe McGaha

    Sex scenes can go either way, depending on the way they fit into the story (either discreet, or down-and-dirty). Violence as well. In a piece that revolves around a violent group of people, sometimes it's necessary to actually tell all and show all…painful as it may be for the viewer (that's the point, really).

  2. Joel Goldman

    Thanks, Joe. You make a good point. How can you write a slasher story without the slashing? How can you write Fifty Shades of Grey w/o going graphic? I suppose you can't. It all comes back to a fundamental rule – does the sex or violence advance either the character or the plot.