Sex: How To Utilize It Effectively and What Is Considered "Too Much"?

by Todd Rogers
(Sacramento, CA)

Question: It's been a long time since I have asked a question, and I have been getting SUCH GREAT advice in the questions that hit my inbox almost daily.

I really love this site and what you do here, Glen!

My question today revolves around a topic central to many a storyline.

That topic is SEX!!!

In my "sci-fi epic" there aren't any preconceived notions regarding sex (be is heterosexual, bisexual and/or homosexual in nature), and so it's gotten me thinking.

To appeal to the broadest readership possible, what do you think the best use of sex, as an extension of a personal relationship especially, should be applied in a story's plot or similar throughlines?

What would be considered a good boundary not to cross?

Hope this question finds you well, as always!

Answer: I think you are in danger if your aim is "to appeal to the broadest readership possible." Trying to please every group can mean pleasing none of them very well.

For instance, if you want to please certain religious niches, you would have no gay sex, no bisexuality, and no sex at all outside marriage. Even masturbation might be taboo.

If you are trying to get read by the largest number of young adults, you might need to rule out sex altogether because, in certain jurisdictions, schools and libraries won't buy YA books with sex in them.

On the other hand, if you are writing literary fiction, pretty much anything goes -- and I mean anything.

Adult women readers are all over the map regarding sex, if we are to judge by category romances, which range from erotica-by-any-other-name to the aforementioned Christian romances.

And while the culture in general is more accepting of gay relationships than ever before, there are still some straight male readers who aren't keen on male on male sex scenes -- and don't want to be seen reading them (though for some reason, almost everyone is okay with lesbians).

I think you have to decide who you are writing
for. If you are writing soft science fiction that leans literary, go ahead and include your gay or bi sex scene. If you are writing hard SF for straight men over 50, you might be more cautious.

Assuming you aren't intending to write erotica, sex can be used to mark certain turning points in relationships.

Suppose you have a four-act structure with the relationship between the main and impact characters as a major throughline. The structure goes something like this...

Act One: Their initial relationship is established or revealed.
Act Two: The relationship deepens or gets more complicated.
Act Three: The relationship crisis is either a black or white moment.
Act Four: Resolution

Now you could use a sex scene in one or more of these acts, depending on your audience's tastes but perhaps not in every act.

For instance, a tragic love story might have a sex scene in act three to mark the climax of the relationship (the white moment), before one or both of the lovers die in act four.

On the other hand, a romance might put a sex scene in act two, to mark the deepening of the relationship. (In a tamer romance, this might just be a kiss or near-kiss.) This would be followed by a break-up in act three (black moment) and a miraculous make-up and culminating sex scene in act four.

Or you might begin with casual sex in act one, followed by a complication in act two (e.g. the main character discovers the person he/she slept with is his/her sister's fiancee, or already married, or his/her new boss).

Alternatively, you could use sex with a different partner as the complication in act two, creating a romantic triangle.

The point is to use sex to illustrate a turning point in the relationship, rather than gratuitously. In fact, the more the sex is integral to the relationship arc, and the more the reader empathizes with the characters, the less likely you are to have anyone criticize it's presence, regardless of anyone's gender.

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