Category Archives: Tropes & Archetypes

The Monster Mash: Writing Sex Scenes, Part One

A guest post by Joshua Essoe.

This is an intimidating subject, and one I think many authors have a lot of questions about. Should the characters indulge in a little horizontal refreshment? Do they or don’t they? Should I or shouldn’t I?

In loving someone else, we really do discover things about ourselves. The act of sex opens up all kinds of emotional territory for us, and it’s great to show characters discovering themselves through their physical loving of one another.

First, let’s decide if your story needs a love scene. Just like any other scene, ideally, it should do three things–advance the plot, show character progression, and turn you on . . . I mean entertain. If the sex can reveal character, or advance plot, or increase tension, you should consider including a little limb mingling in your story. Especially if the genre encourages it.

I read an awesome quote from Delilah S. Dawson who writes the Blud series:

“Remember in Mallrats, where they were doing the dating show, and the suitors were asked if their kisses were like a soft breeze, a firm handshake, or a jackhammer? Gil answered, “Definitely a jackhammer, I’m in there with some pressure and when I’m done, you’re not the same as before. You’re changed.” And we laughed, because he was a douche. But your sex scene should be like that: it should move the story forward and somehow affect the characters emotionally. Maybe the hero learns to open up, maybe the heroine decides she wants to be more aggressive in her real life, maybe they’re just having what they think is a last fling before a giant orc battle. But it has to mean something, or else it’s just porn.”

So here are some things to consider:

A) Is a character’s personal life necessary to the story?

B) Should the sex be explicit or implied?

C) What genre is it for?

Each genre is going to cook the meat and potatoes a different way, and have different expectations and limitations. Do your research and find out what is required, and what is prohibited. Keep in mind that just because a story has a sex scene in it, it doesn’t make it erotica any more than an action story becomes a romance because there is a romantic relationship in it.

Sex scenes and romances are all about the tension. They’re about building that moment that readers are waiting for. That moment where one thing turns to another. That first kiss after all those “innocent” touches, or all that longing. It’s that slow build to that first moment where the clothes finally come off, or the first time that one character finally admits that they love the other. The buildup is where it’s at. That’s what’s interesting and engaging. The reward of the actual kiss, or the I-love-you, or the sex is nice, but it means little without the buildup of characters and those characters’ desires. Wine and dine your readers before taking them home. Everybody enjoys some foreplay.

Terry Goodkind did a masterful job of creating romantic tension in his first few Sword of Truth books. We really wanted Kahlan and Richard to get together just as much as we were invested in the central conflict being resolved. When they finally kiss and when they finally get together, however briefly, it is immensely satisfying.

Another excellent lesson from that series is that the tension of their love affair decreased exponentially with each new book that kept them apart. With the repetitive pulling apart and coming back together, it became frustrating. You can’t be a one-trick pony, no matter how good that trick is; you have to show your readers new problems, give them new conflicts. There’s only so long readers will be willing to wait, and only so much they’ll be able to stand before getting frustrated or bored and putting your story down.

You have to keep up the cycle of tension, but it has to be fresh tension.

So, okay, the characters really do need to do the pickle tickle. It’s necessary to the story, okay? How do you handle it?

Unless the tone and mood calls for it, unless the characters and the story call for it, don’t be needlessly crass. There are plenty of ways to describe things, and use implied information to inform your readers of exactly what is going on.

In one sci-fi manuscript I read, the writer plunged me into gratuitous sex scene after gratuitous sex scene with no build-up or tonal foreshadowing, and seemingly without purpose besides the writer’s desire to write raunchy sex scenes. It was like having a picnic on a cloudless day that abruptly begins raining frogs on you. It didn’t make sense and was quite jarring.

Language is important. The specific words you use are important. Don’t write a book that has a little flirtation, and then jump into a chapter where one character is practically raping another. Don’t abstain from using any harsh language, and then use all the filthiest words you can come up with when you get to your sex scene. Your story needs consistency and everything must be set up so that you are appropriately managing your readers’ expectations.

Tone is important, but don’t be afraid to have a funny sex scene either. Coming-of-age sex scenes, for example, could be just as much about the humor in the awkwardness as it is about that life-changing event for the characters. You can still do funny, and tender, and sexy all in one scene if you want. Life is nuanced, and so should your sex scenes be.

In part two, we’ll take a deeper poke at how far to go, tropes, and character penetration. Until then, don’t write anything you’ll regret in the morning.

Joshua EssoeAbout Joshua Essoe:

Joshua Essoe is a full-time, freelance editor. He’s done work for best-seller David Farland, including the multi-award winning novel, Nightingale; Dean Lorey, lead writer of Arrested Development; best-seller, James Artimus Owen; and numerous Writers of the Future authors and winners, as well as many top-notch independents. He is currently the copy editor at Urban Fantasy Magazine.

Together with tie-in writer Jordan Ellinger, indie success-story, Michael J. Sullivan, and traditionally published author and NY Times best-seller, Debbie Viguie, he records the weekly writing podcast Hide and Create

When not editing . . . ha ha, a joke. He was a 2014 finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and lives with his wife, and three horrible cats near UCLA.

All You Need Is Love

Love doesn’t always mean romance.

Let me say it again.

Love does not only mean romance.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like the way so many movies and books portrayed romantic love as the ideal be-all and end-all of human existence. I wasn’t interested in romantic love; if anything, I was kind of disgusted by it. I remember feeling disappointed that there were so few heroines who would turn down romantic love in favour of remaining free and unattached, able to take off on another exiting adventure with no need to give notice to a boyfriend or husband. I remember the medieval festival in school, where I was the only girl who chose to be a knight instead of a princess (even though everyone was given the choice between knight and royal), and how I wanted nothing to do with the passive role where traditional romance made the woman into a prize to be won.

I decided that I was going to tell stories about characters I wanted to be. Stories without mushy stuff. Stories without love.

Only that wasn’t what actually happened.

As it turned out, my characters did experience love, even if they weren’t big on romance. Most of them had friends. Some of them had children, adopted or biological. Some of them cared for parents or grandparents or other family members. The most devoted warrior cared for her comrades and her country. The most daring adventurer cherished her belief in knowledge and discovery, and risked her life for that belief. The most dashing pilot loved his aircraft like a child. These characters might not have experienced romantic love, but they felt love all the same.

A character who doesn’t love anything or anyone rarely cares about anything. Love is the strongest form of caring that there is, and strong emotions mean high stakes and dramatic potential. Who wants to read about a character who feels no passion, experiences no attachment, has nothing to lose, and can’t summon any feelings about it? An utterly apathetic character is hard for readers to be interested in, because if the character himself cares about nothing, why should we care about him?

So let your characters love. Let them develop friendships. Let them have families, if the story allows for it. Let them care passionately about a cause. Let them believe in something: a goal, a religion, a duty, another person.

What happens when a character is torn between two things they love? This need not be a romantic love triangle. What if a character has to choose between tending a sick relative and following their dreams? Between their religion and their new friends? Between their two children? Between serving their country and raising their family? These conflicts can create all kinds of tension without involving romance.

Sometimes I think it’s a little ironic that I’ve actually written some romance stories. But even when I’m writing romantic elements in stories, I try to stay away from that old, abhorred idea that “falling in love” meant a heroine giving up her life of adventure for the sake of a man.

Sometimes romantic love means a bittersweet annual liason between a pacifist doctor and a female revolutionary.

Sometimes romantic love means the dashing gentleman pilot and the young man who fixes his airplane falling in love with one another.

Sometimes romantic love means sacrificing everything to save your partner…and failing, and your story is about what you do after that.

Sometimes romantic love means a turncoat and a pirate setting off together to found a new colony in the depths of uncharted space.

Romantic love is appealing to many readers. It’s also an important part of many people’s lives. These are only two reasons why so many stories contain romantic elements, and why romance as a genre is so successful.

I also, though, want to remember the readers who have been burned by romantic love, and want a story about a character who picks himself up and learns to live again. I want to remember the readers who don’t experience romantic attraction and who are looking for characters who represent them and speak to them. I want to remember the readers who, like me, are tired of forumlas and stereotypes and narrow definitions of what romance can (and by implication, should) be.

So let your characters love. Let them love strongly and deeply: family, friends, hobbies, careers, beliefs, and ideas. Let the things they love create conflict for them. If they experience romantic love, let it be as challenging and complex as any other form of human attachment.

Let love in fiction represent the multi-faceted presence of love in real people’s lives.








Do You Wanna Know What Love Is? Do You Want Me To Show You?

Some like it hot. Others just plain don’t like it, hot or cold. I could either be talking about oatmeal or love. Unfortunately, we couldn’t figure out a month’s worth of posts about oatmeal, so we opted for love.

But not just any old love. Complicated love. Confusing love. Forbidden love. Exhausting love. Unique love. Carnie love. Maybe not carnie love, but maybe someone should start talking about it, gosh darn it, because love is love! And while we have our individual experiences, we share one thing: we’ve all been touched by it. How we’ve been touched by it is a whole ‘nuther conversation.

But we’re about to have that conversation. How can you make love between two characters unique? Should you or should you not marry your cat? How do you reach outside your own experience to create unique, surprising love between characters? How can you get that guy to stop stalking you? We hope to answer most of these questions this month.

You can look forward to posts from all of your favorite bloggers, along with special guest posts by author Lisa Mangum, her talented filmmaker husband Tracy Mangum, Cthulhu convert and author Stephan McLeroy, aspiring author and illustrator Victoria Morris, and editor/hair god Joshua Essoe. Join us as we celebrate love and relentlessly pound the crap out of it this month!

When Life is Larger than Life

A writer friend of mine has cautioned me about borrowing storylines too faithfully from real life. Her words of caution read as follows: “Fiction has to make sense; reality doesn’t.”

If a story doesn’t hold together–if information is missing so that readers don’t understand why or how important events happened, if characters undergo situations without learning or growing or changing in any meaningful way, if the conclusion doesn’t leave readers with a sense of satisfaction–it’s considered a failure on behalf of the writer. But these sort of things happen in real life all the time.

Readers who pick up a murder mystery story can rest assured that by the end of the book, they’re going to know whodunnit (and usually how and why). Real life, on the other hand, is filled with examples of murders that were never solved, missing persons that were never found, and criminals who were never brought to justice. These situations, while realistic (indeed, real), don’t make for satisfying murder mystery stories.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to write a successful story in which a mystery remains unsolved – I think of Minority Report, where the hero’s missing (and never found) child provides motivation for his decisions – but the plot of Minority Report is not centered on the missing son.

Another important factor to consider in fiction is suspension of disbelief. If a character or plot point is too outrageous or implausible, it can shock readers out of the story. It can make a serious story unintentionally humorous, ruining the tone and the mood, or it can leave the reader feeling frustrated and disappointed if they thought they were beginning one kind of story and ended up with another. (No spoilers here, but I recently read a book which began as a realistic-seeming crime story and, in a daring move halfway through, a supernatural element was revealed. I thought it was great, but afterwards I found mixed reviews, depending on the willingness of the readers to shelve their disbelief, accept the unexpected supernatural premise, and continue reading.)

So what do you do when your real-life example is so much larger than life that it stretches plausibility–even though it really happened?

Audie Murphy – the most decorated American soldier of the Second World War – later became an actor and played himself in a movie based on his autobiography, To Hell and Back. Murphy himself was not the typical action-hero–he was shorter and skinnier than the archetypal figure–and though he filmed the movie as an adult, he fought when he was still a teenager. Many of us are used to movies “based on a true story” containing gross exaggerations for dramatic effect. In this cas,e though, comparison between historical accounts and the movie suggests that the film understated Murphy’s heroic deeds. In a world where the usual formula is to overstate the fictional version to make a more dramatic story, To Hell and Back is an example of where real life has been toned down to make the story seem plausible to an audience unfamiliar with the actual history.

My writer friend, who is English, has been following with great amusement the saga of Rob Ford (the mayor of Toronto) over the past year. From conflict of interest trials to admitted public intoxication and crack cocaine use, from lewd comments to investigation by police, and with videos of the mayor drunk, swearing and threatening people posted on Youtube, Mayor Ford is like a reality TV show playing out on the nightly news. He’s real. He’s all too real. And he still intends to run for office again.

But my writer friend says, “You couldn’t make him up.”

You couldn’t make him up, because who would believe in him? Who would believe that the mayor of a provincial capital would conduct himself in this fashion? Try swapping Rob Ford for the leader in a military thriller or political drama. How many readers would be able to suspend their disbelief?

Maybe you could get away with him in a screwball comedy or cheesy cartoon–the genres where viewers aren’t supposed to take anything seriously.

“But he’s real,” you say. “It really happened.”

Now that it’s happened, while he’s still public knowledge, a writer could get away with a serious story involving a crackhead mayor. Before the scandal broke–or in ten or twenty years when Ford is forgotten–not a chance.

Fiction is a craft. By all means, borrow ideas or plot points or character concepts from real life, but be ready to revise them to suit the needs of the story. In the end, the goal of fiction isn’t to provide an accurate historical account, but to tell a coherent and engaging story. Sometimes that means simplifying events, adding explanations, and ramping up drama. And sometimes…just sometimes…that means toning characters down, when real life is just too much “larger than life.”