Thursday, March 20, 2014

Showing, Telling, and Sex


They always tell you to “show, don’t tell.” Showing an event instead of merely telling about it makes your story real. It means that your readers see and hear and feel what you are writing about. If you just tell what happened: “Claire was disappointed,” your readers get the information, but there’s no emotional connection. When this sort of thing happens: “Lillian dropped her eyes and bit her lip. Henry hesitated a moment, watching her, then shook his head and walked out the door,” we can feel Lillian’s disappointment and Henry’s frustration. And we care much more than we did about Claire’s discomfort. 

 But there are limits. Graphic and explicit descriptions of violence or sex will put your book on the trash list. Bringing your readers too close to evil will leave them feeling so dirty that they’ll put down your book and never pick it up again. I know, I’ve done it. As a reader, I’ve walked away from some very well-written books because they described wickedness so vividly. Villains are important and fascinating, but I don’t want “a tour of their revolting world.” 

Evil is not the only thing that can be offensive. Sex, even though it’s something God-ordained, is a tricky subject, especially if your audience is young or conservative. 

A year or so ago I read a book that was very well written and I enjoyed a lot. One thing about it made me uncomfortable, however, and has kept me from recommending it to any of my friends. In one chapter, the main character and the young man she eventually marries are alone together, at night, in an isolated house. 
And it happens. 
I don’t know exactly how graphic the description of their “moment” was. I started getting uncomfortable with the descriptions of her feelings about one sentence into the paragraph, and skipped ahead to the next chapter. (The couple suffers the consequences of their unwise decision, but eventually gets married.)

Writing love scenes is hard. How do you not shy away from the subject but at the same time be considerate? How do you “show” enough but not too much? One extreme is to be sickeningly sensual, the other is to be disgustingly prim and prudish. 

In the conservative culture I grew up in, “too sensual” is extremely easy to be. Too easy. The funny thing is, Song of Solomon in the Bible is probably the most sensual thing I’ve ever read. Clearly, God does not fear human passion. 

This is what I think: Insinuation will take you miles. Sexual implications are everywhere. This can be annoying when you aren’t trying to imply something and people read it in anyway. However, when you are trying to imply something, it’s nice. You don’t have to describe in very much detail. You don’t have to go very far. Describe the kiss and let the screen go black. Make it clear what happens, but don’t give us the details.
Those of us who know where babies come from will know exactly what happened after that kiss. And those who don’t shouldn’t find out from you.

Don’t hide from sensuality, but don’t wallow in it either. Accept it without blushing and then close the bedroom door. Let your characters love. 
Privately.