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What’s the secret to writing good sex?


Article first published as What’s the Secret to Writing Good Sex? on Blogcritics.

You can admire an awful lot in My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead, a collection of short stories about love of all kinds compiled and edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. There is lush and evocative prose in Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”. There is meaningful and moving role play in “The Hitchhiker’s Game” by Milan Kundera. There’s perfectly distilled decay and restlessness in William Trevor’s “Lovers of their Time”.

You can also learn a great deal, both as a reader and a writer. In Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Little Dog” we realize that subtleties are vital to deft and developed characterisation. Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is the perfect showcase of profound and realistic dialogue. Various stories somehow convey the emotional frustration and torment of love that is never reciprocated.

It’s a thoughtfully composed book, bringing some of the best fiction about love, a word that can mean so many things, together in one place to try and paint one enlightening and complete picture. It takes you on a journey. It’s a journey that never tries to ram truths down your throat but nevertheless you discover them.

Along the way I thought I worked out the secret to writing good sex. Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by “good”. I don’t mean arousing or satisfying for the participating characters. I mean sex that is not simply erotic, sex that doesn’t detract from the purpose of a story but enhances it, sex that is believable. I mean sex that is well written but not overwritten. Sex should not stand out like a sore thumb in a narrative or be self conscious or awkward.

It’s a very difficult thing to get right. It’s all too easy to verge into soft porn or erotica. Perhaps even worse is resorting to cliché, being at once graphic and far too high minded about the physical act. There’s a fine line between a tasteful romantic coupling underneath the stars and the trashier sort of Mills and Boon escapism. That’s why there are awards for bad sex writing. At the time the writer may have felt as if they’d hit the nail on the head, as though they were composing a masterpiece; which makes the eventual failure even more humorous.

This leads me to one of the factors I thought I’d discovered. Writers that succeed in writing good stories about or featuring sex, anticipate the humour and embarrassment by including their own. In Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t”, the central couple never actually manage to consummate their young love. Dybek tells the story from the young man’s point of view, at times almost poetically. We feel his disappointment and stifled desire, even his hinted at longing for concrete emotional connection.

But the lists of places and situations in which they failed to do the deed are also inescapably funny from an outside perspective. They come closest during a well written fumble on a beach. This passage is tense, varied and vivid, as well as tragic and funny. The condom springs from his grasp into the sand. He has to dust the sand off of it, struggling not to kill the mood as lightning erupts in the sky overhead. For a second he thinks they are already doing it, prompting more meaningful language about “a gateway into the rest of my life” and “groping for an Eternity” which is immediately cut short. Police cars arrive, lights blaring. A body is washed up on the beach and she is haunted by it every time they try again.

Something else I thought I’d learned about well written sex is that being shameless and colloquial helps. In director and writer Miranda July’s short story, “Something That Needs Nothing”, the protagonist uses sex to empower herself. This is a tale with some serious things to say, many of them linked to sex. The narrator is in love with her best friend and they begin the story living together. But she is devastated when Pip leaves her to live and sleep with another girl. Pip had never wanted her like that. To get over it, and earn the money to pay the rent, the narrator begins work in a sex shop, being paid to perform through a screen for masturbating men. By the end of the story Pip wants her back, attracted by the narrator’s new found confidence, developed through a disgusting act. However when she eventually has to remove the wig she wears for her work, the spell is broken.

“Something That Needs Nothing” is an intelligent and engrossing story about identity. It shows how sex can be a sham as well as a weapon and a unifying force. It’s mostly written in a chatty style, which is crucial to not just realism and characterisation, but the impact of its points.

I’m not saying that sex can’t or shouldn’t be erotic on the page. “Something That Needs Nothing” and “We Didn’t” both have sensual moments. But I thought a certain frankness helped ensure the quality of a story featuring sex. Fluffy and over the top, dramatic description seemed to be a one way route to cliché. However then I remembered the sex in “The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera.

This story is about a couple on a road trip, who decide to role play that the woman is a whore for a night. The deep effects of this are unexpected and again big themes like identity and relationships are covered uniquely. The penultimate passage features this line: “On the bed there were soon to be two bodies in perfect harmony, two sensual bodies alien to each other.” Out of context this could be from a terrible Mills and Boon book. But the insight of the rest of Kundera’s story allows him to dabble in cliché.

So perhaps there are no rules set in stone after all. Great writers can approach sex however they like, providing they have something to say about it. After all, clichés are clichés for a reason; they always contain truths.

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Lets do Something Different – Weird and Wonderful Places to Watch Films


 “Shall we do something different?”

Yes please. Different is good. Different is a much needed break in routine, a relief from the crushing weight of the same-old-same-old cycle and an antidote to incoming insanity. Different is the much missed friend putting an end to the loneliness, at least for a while. Different is a reminder that life is full of innumerable things to make your heart leap and your mind spin excitedly.

Most of the time though I’m a useless person to ask for something different to do. It might be because I’ll be perfectly content in your company doing something mundane. Or it might be that no matter what we find to do, I’ll be unmoved by your presence and wishing you into someone else.

I’d like to think it’s because I think and dream too big. “Different” whisks my imagination off to alternative, culture rich lives in majestic European cities, seedy exploring and wandering in the downtown sprawl of Tokyo or star gazing from the core of the Big Apple. “Different” means a totally new me, another identity in another world; sitting in sleek sci-fi surroundings or standing at the corner of a glamorous Hollywood set from yesteryear. Maybe a different me would be knuckling down to a novel, screenplay or acclaimed biography.

Whilst I do spend too much time conjuring these far from feasible fantasy scenarios in my head, in reality I am narrow minded and imprisoned by the familiar. We all know what it’s like to be bound to the events of a set cycle and the trick to fulfilling lives is packing your itinerary with interesting and varied activities. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s all about character and personality.

Everyone has a carefree friend and they’ll probably tell you to be spontaneous. They’re the ones who come up with the different ideas. My organisation fetish is perhaps incompatible with this zest for life and ability to not just put on a brave face or forget your worries, but forget you have the capacity to worry. These are the people that will pluck two random and achievable everyday things out of the air to create an enjoyable, “different” experience.

And so I come to the point: last night I watched a film with a friend on a laptop on a rural hill. She won’t be offended if I say that she’s not exactly carefree and laidback, so we were both rather surprised when she suggested such a random idea. It was a regular local beauty spot “with a twist”. It was different. Wonderfully and refreshingly different.

It some ways it hardly matters what the film was. The novelty was the important thing. Even having a laptop in my car, combining two things that I use everyday for the first time, provided inexplicable satisfaction. It might have been simply that a portable computer was truly mobile and that in theory we could watch a film or play solitaire anywhere my petrol tank could take us. I think I overcame most of the technological thrills to be gained from a laptop a while ago now though, so all I can really say, once again, is that it was different, it was new, and that this is what was so pleasing.

We watched Flight 93, a drama about the fourth plane to crash on the 11th September 2001 and the only one not to hit its target, due to the bravery of the passengers onboard. It was a rather heavy and “emotionally harrowing” thing to watch in the dead of night on a blustery hilltop. But we’d been meaning to watch it for AGES and maybe the delay deserved a grand, a different, setting.

I’m not going to review Flight 93. It has its faults, from dodgy CGI to flimsy characterisation, and felt like very melodramatic TV drama, but its aims in telling such a story were admirable. If this is a review it’s a review of a location.

So transforming a sweeping vista of a countryside valley into a personal cinema experience was easy – but was it worth the relatively minimal effort?

Well the “wow factor” of having stunning scenery casually in the background to the action of the story, was almost non-existent, because it was pitch black. We both agreed, obviously, that it was a more beautiful and stunning sight in daylight. However the dots of light twinkling below, decreasing in number as the film progressed, were a more interesting backdrop than the usual living room picture or bedroom clock.

What about the atmosphere? I think this was definitely enhanced in some ways by our elevated location. Given the film’s subject matter, the height of our position went a tiny way to making us feel in the air on a plane, certainly more than sitting at home. I guess we were also in a vehicle and the handbrake groaned a couple of times, so we may have felt a fraction of that helpless dependency on machinery.

The most atmospheric thing was probably the howling wind. Wrapped in darkness, I could feel the isolation of the people on Flight 93, separated from their families and loved ones by deadly danger. I felt I could imagine their intense loneliness a little better, filtering it through my own memories and the solitary surroundings of my car. And the sound of that wind rocking us was just a hint of the noises that would have terrified them.

Perhaps the best thing was the privacy. It’s great to watch films as part of an audience, each person reacting in their own individual way and passing on part of their experience to those around them, but films like Flight 93 are built on the personal. Our very different auditorium allowed us to digest our own reactions to Flight 93 in comfortable darkness, whilst also sharing our thoughts with the very best company, not just strangers or any old popcorn muncher.

I live in England and the drive-in cinema is an American phenomenon but even stateside it’s something that has largely become cultural heritage. What I learnt this weekend though is that getting out there to watch films definitely has its merits, particularly with the right friends.

Forgive me if I got overexcited about this. I’d love to hear the best and strangest places you’ve watched films. I know it’s possible to take the cinema anywhere these days, so go on, surprise me. Or surprise yourselves with a cinematic excursion.