Tuesday, July 5, 2011


It’s gonna to be a long, hot summer, and you’re probably wondering how you’ll get through it. What do you think about when the nights are hot and heavy, it’s impossible to move without sweating, and the smell of someone's perfume or aftershave hangs in the air? Well, if you’re INSIDE TOP SUSPENSE, you think about sex.

So that’s our topic this time. How do you mix sex, murder, and suspense? Do they go together at all? When you write sex do you close the door and cut to the next scene? Or do you give readers all the details? Top Suspense gives you our opinions, starting with the Mistress of Erotic Suspense, Vicki Hendricks. You'll also hear from Lee Goldberg, Ed Gorman, and Naomi Hirahawa.

Hope you’ll join the conversation, too… it’s bound to be a hot one.

From Vicki Hendricks

Since I’m first on this topic, I'll start with the most basic part of writing: words. Whether you’re writing a suspense novel or any novel, the choice of language level for a sex scene has to be made by carefully considering the characters and the type of writing. For example, is the point of view you’re using a shy college professor or an ex-con? In a suspense novel you want to be realistic, so you would not use romance language—a common error—but you might not want to dip too far into slang either. It always takes plenty of rewriting and reading aloud to get the right tone, since there can be a fine line between sounding like a “normal” sexual participant and a physician writing for a medical journal. However, sometimes, you can get down and dirty in order to bring out a gritty character, especially in noir. Here are the three basic categories:

Romantic (abstract and soft, sometimes clichéd)
For example: member, rod, loins, love juice
cave, mound, peaks,
the earth moves

Realistic (concrete, physiological)
For example: penis, testicles, semen,
breasts, vagina, lubrication
orgasm, intercourse, climax

Slang (concrete, idiomatic, graphic and visual)
For example: cock, balls, jism,
pussy, tits, clit,

Of course, there are many other words to choose from, especially in the slang category, but I’ll save the titillation for my novels. Make your own list. It’s fun!

From Lee Goldberg

I think the words you choose to describe sex...and the body parts...has to be a reflection of the characters and their attitudes...and the overall tone of the book. To me, writing a sex scene is less about the sex itself than what the scene is supposed to accomplish as far as revealing character or furthering the plot. It shouldn't just be there to turn the reader on...even if you're writing erotica. The sex act, in and of itself, will be mere coupling between two creatures...and certainly won't be compelling, entertaining or arousing if the reader isn't emotionally invested in the characters. Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from my book WATCH ME DIE.
I guess something I learned from “Mannix” was true. Being a private eye really is an aphrodisiac to women. Carol had never attacked me like that before.
I’m afraid the surprise and excitement were too much, because I came in about three minutes. But I don’t think Carol minded; it calmed me down and allowed me to concentrate real hard on getting her off. And believe me, it took my complete attention. Pleasing a woman, especially Carol, isn’t easy and with me, at least, there’s a lot of potential for embarrassment and humiliation.
She rewarded me for all my hard work with a nice, squealing, writhing orgasm that nearly broke my nose on her pubic bone, but I didn’t mind. I even jumped in, literally, to enjoy the last few squeals of it with her.
It was so dark, and things happened so fast, she never saw my cuts and bruises, so she mistook my occasional groans of pain for pleasure.
Carol fell right to sleep afterwards.
Between the sex, the pain, and the things on my mind, I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked. But I get laid so rarely, I’m willing to sacrifice just about anything for it, especially sleep, when I usually dream about having sex anyway.
While the scene is explicit, more by implication than actual description, it's not about the choreography or body parts. It's about attitude and character -- or, at least, I hope it is. To me, that's how you get around the pitfalls of writing the sex scene.

From Ed Gorman

The late poet Charles Bukowski once said something to the effect that no man is more dangerous than when he’s having trouble with the woman he loves. Especially if she’s left him for someone else. I don’t know about dangerous but I do know that I’ve seen a good number of swaggering macho men brought low when the women they’re with say time out or even goodbye.

The power of love and sex has caused wars; certainly it’s caused murders. No one wears jealousy well but most of us cloak ourselves in it from time to time. Nothing animates a story like love and sex. And betrayal.

Some stories work perfectly without graphic elements such as Somerset Maugham’s killer short story “The Letter” (and great Bette Davis movie) or loaded with it such as Nabokov’s LOLITA. As the writer the choice is yours.

As for me, I tend to favor the late John D. MacDonald’s notion that after awhile the ”gymnastics” of sex get dull when what you really want to know is how the two people (or since these are modern times the three or four or five people) feel about each other.

But as somebody who decades ago wrote many porno house name westerns I appreciate sex in stories if the writer gets to the psychology of the scene. If it’s just rutting that’s fine but we live in an age when various sexual encounters have been properly categorized-there’s the grudge, the pity, the merry fornicator, the deeply in-love, the monotony-breaker and the well know Patriot. And those are just a few of the categories I learned from carefully reading Hustler’s letter columns.

From Naomi Hirahawa

I will be the first to admit that I’m probably the “softest” of this bunch here at Top Suspense, in that I don’t write explicit sex scenes (more so in my short stories) and suspense usually comes in the form of historic betrayal and feelings rather than the end of an Uzi machine gun. But that is not to say that “Sex and Suspense” is not key in any kind of storytelling and especially in genre fiction.

First about sex – replace it with passion and that’s what makes the world go-around. Even if you write the coziest of cozies with an amateur sleuth like I do, your detective must understand human passion because it often fuels murder. And in writing genre fiction, you must touch people emotionally and sensually.
In terms of actually writing sex and romance scenes in a traditional mystery, it is a delicate balancing act. My sleuth is now in his seventies and there’s a potential romantic interest ten years his junior. Will I perpetuate the stereotype that once someone reaches their golden years, there is little sex? How will I continue this relationship without turning off my core readership who might be uncomfortable traveling in this arena? Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions – I just have to follow my character and see where his passion takes him.

Some tips to think about when writing a traditional mystery:
When in doubt, always think about your character and his/her POV. What turns him or her on? And there’s no need to go back to the 1940s and their tropes i.e. femme fatales. What does the love interest smell like? What does his or her hands and fingers feel like? A peck or simple squeeze may unleash passionate feelings that will keep your protagonist up at night.
With passion come other uncontrollable feelings, like jealousy and despair. Here’s your chance to add more conflict to your character’s life. Have fun with it!


  1. I learned early on about the difficulty of writing sex scenes when my mother read my first book, Motion To Kill. She told me that she liked everything about the book except that the sex scenes were a little dry! What do you want, I said to her, I'm working without tools!

    That said, I agree with both Vicki and Lee. Sex scenes for the sake of the sex rarely work. Like everything else, they have to fit with the characters, the plot and the feel of the story. A hardcore scene dropped into the middle of a cozy is a bad idea.

  2. It seems to me the characters tell you when and how they will fornicate, as it were. Some are seedy enough that nothing but raw language and hot sex will do. Others require a choice based in part on how their relationship will eventually pan out. Violence is easy for me to plan out and write. Sex...not so much :D

  3. Great post! I love that you provided an excerpt example. I read so many blogs about how to execute a task in writing without saying, "Here. Look. This is what I'm talking about."
    I tend to pick apart sex scenes in Thriller’s I read because so many seem 'off'. (However, giving them benefit of the doubt, I don't imagine there are too many thriller writers out there specializing in sex scenes.)Because of this, I avoid writing them like the plague myself. Probably not the best approach...:)

  4. Fantastic post! I've been writing thrillers for years and I would so rather kill someone than get them in bed to have sex. Still, I firmly believe relationships - including the sexual aspect - must be beliveable and up the suspense ante in any story. I don't shirk from it any longer but definitely have found my comfort zone.

  5. Good topic, and one I'm going to blog about as greater length sometime. I wrote [clears throat] Midcentury Erotica early on, and probably stayed too long at the fair; when I was done with it and moved on to Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matthew Scudder, I found both of those narrative voices remarkably reticent when it came to discussing sexual matters. Sex happened in the books—nothing weird about Matt and Bernie—but it generally happened off-stage, or between section breaks. Same with Keller.

    A couple of stand-alones (Random Walk, Small Town) were otherwise, and it seemed appropriate (to me, anyway) for Small Town to push the sexual envelope. (Where are they pushing the envelope, Mr. B? Oh, shut up.)

    And in the forthcoming GETTING OFF, where I hide behind a transparent pen name (Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson) all bets are off. So are the gloves, and hell, so are the condoms. My characters not only use the C word; one of them tends to chant it. And the things they do, and tell each other about. . .man, I never could pull that stuff in midcentury erotica.

    Some years ago, when she was several years younger than I am now, my mother told me there was one small thing to be said for growing old. "Every year," she said, "there are a few more things I just don't give a shit about."

    As in so many things, the woman got that one right.

  6. Your mother was a wise woman, Larry.

  7. Ah, so true. And she gave birth to a provider of hot blooded midcentury erotica as well. Doubtless sparked my youth enormously (cough)

  8. To me the mechanics of any sexual encounter tend to be of far less interest than the new direction in which it propels those involved. It's a pivotal point in any relationship. The fact that it happens is of more importance than what happens.

    I once met a writer who reckoned that he wouldn't be able to write a sex scene until his parents died.

  9. I love this topic. Suspense and sex are intertwined and integral to the stories I write. My novel, Vestal Virgin, is driven by the sexual appetites of all the main characters.

    I agree with Lee, sex for the sake of sex doesn't interest me. I'm interested in what sex reveals about the characters, and it needs to drive the story forward. I really enjoyed Lee's excerpt, and I prefer suggestive scenes to explicit gymnastics.

  10. Thanks, Suzanne. Glad you weighed in... I mean with a title like "Dating My Vibrator" you didn't really have much choice...:)

  11. I love this topic, too. Lots of great advice from some great writers. One thing I'd like to add is that sex in fiction doesn't always have to be "good." Think about it, how many times have you had sex in your life and how many times has it been earth-moving, mind-blowing, rock-video awesome? I love reading sex scenes that are awkward, imperfect, unfulfilling, or even downright ugly. So many thriller writers slave over their action scenes, trying to make it all gritty and realistic and then the characters jump in bed and everything turns miraculously porno-perfect. Remember, even good sex isn't always perfect.

  12. Like Lee and my other esteemed colleagues, there has to be a reason for the sex, usually to show the reveal the characters but also to show the characters state of mind. And as Christa mentioned, the sex isn't always good. In my books, when the sex is good, it's usually off screen. In Fast Lane, the sex is miserable, joyless and with a psychotic edge to it to reflect what's going on with my psycho noir protagonist, Johnny Lane, who's basically a miserable, joyless character bordering on the edge of a psychotic breakdown. In Pariah, the sex is used to show what's going on with my South Boston mobster out of prison, Kyle Nevin. When he first meets up with Nola, he's just out of prison, and feeling mostly impotent about his status and power in the city, and so no matter what Nola tries she's unable to get a rise from him. Later, after Kyle pulls off a violent street crime, the sex between him and Nola in a clothing store's fitting room is dangerous, violent, and show's that Kyle is is fully back o his carnivorous self. At one point, Kyle describes a scene with two beautiful women that plays out like a penthouse letter fantasy, and then admits the truth in this note to his editor (Pariah is written as a work in progress by Kyle):

    To Ed.: I swear to God, this is the only place in the book where I’m taking “artistic license”. I figure if I can come clean and admit that I left that hot Hispanic stripper working away on nothing more than a limp piece of rigatoni, than I can embellish things a little here so I don’t come across like a total schmuck. Up to the point where that crazy fuck Sheila showed us how she was clean as a whistle between the legs, everything happened exactly as I said. After that, though, things went a little different. Mixing the coke and that pill was a bad idea. Doing those last lines left me feeling like my heart was being ripped apart. Fuck, it was embarrassing, both girls screaming like I was dying, and then the EMT workers carting me away to Boston City Hospital with my dick as hard as a piece of oak and pointing straight to the moon. It turned out it was nothing serious and after a day’s observation they let me go. Only a handful of people know about this—Nola, her blonde friend, the EMT workers, and a few people at Boston City. So far none of them have said word one about it, and I don’t think they’re going to. Still, after the shitstorm that hit me smack in the face with my first book, I don’t want to see this one crucified over one small exaggeration. If you think there’s a chance of this book being given the “James Frey” treatment because of the above, then take it out. But I don’t want what really happened to be mentioned. – K. N.

    What it comes down to is, just as with violence, plot and character, if there's no underlying purpose for a sex scene, it's gratuitous, and needs to be removed.

  13. Christa, I love the idea of writing bad sex. I'm just afraid I'd write it badly too...

  14. Lots of excellent thoughts. I agree with Lee that sex should provide insight into characters and relationships. It's like presidigitation, the sex misdirects the reader while you sneak your character exposition out of your sleeve.

    I try to be explicit without being too graphic when I write about sex, but I can be downright pornographic when they talk about it, assuming the dialogue is in character. Here's an example. The main character is in a restaurant men's room when his friend-with-benefits, a female police lieutenant, walks in:

    I put my foot on the sink to tie my shoe and hear the door close behind me. I look in the mirror and see Gloria locking the deadbolt. Her skin looks almost green but I can't tell if it's the CFL lighting or the fact that she's already pickled.

    "Hey shailor." Drunk as a Russian poet. Whatever fragrance she's wearing clashes with the saccharine urinal-cake smell that infuses the air.

    "Ladies' room is down the hall, Gloria."

    "But you're not." She twists me around, jamming my back against the wall-mounted air drier, mashing her body against mine.

    "This isn't the time or the place."

    She kisses me hard. Despite my discomfort, the risk of being caught excites me. She reaches down and feels my ambivalence through my pants.

    "I guess your brain hasn't notified your dick."

  15. Christa,

    I couldn't agree more. I am so tired of sex scenes in thrillers where the lovers are confident and fantastic, erections last forever, the women are multi-orgasmic, and everyone's climaxes part the heavens. Nobody leaves the scorched bed dissatisfied. Far, far from it. It was one of the myths I was trying to puncture with the sex scenes in WATCH ME DIE. My protagonist, Harvey Mapes, is anything but a perfect lover. In fact, most of the time, he comes way too soon and finds most aspects of sex, besides his own desire for lots of it, confusing and fraught with potential disappointment, humiliation and recrimination. It was so much easier, and so much more fun, to write than the cliched, high-performance, sex that is the norm in the mysteries and thrillers that I read.


  16. Libby,

    I honestly believe bad sex is easier to write than fantastic sex because it's based more on character, and dare I say reality, than the porn movie fantasy sex in most thrillers today.


  17. Strike that... I don't mean bad sex... I mean sex that isn't perfect, where the two participants don't necessarily come together...or do everything right for one another...or where hard-ons don't stay hard for hours on end..and yet everything still turns out happily for the lovers.


  18. You know what they say about sex.

    "When it's good, well, its amazing, it's wonderful, it's the greatest thing in the world. And when it's not so good, well, even then it's not so bad."

    Oh, hell. I'm sorry, scratch all that. It's not sex they say that about, it's Indian food.


  19. It's not sex they say that about, it's Indian food.

    When you think about it, scenes with sex and scenes with eating can go badly in very similar ways - I've winced and fallen out of the story many a time when the author's had a character taking a forkful of this, chewing on that, and it makes me realise that a string of physical acts do not a narrative make, and it's only action filtered through a character's perception that brings story to life.

  20. James Salter still writes the best sex scenes in American literature. Mostly because of his indirectness.

  21. When I am disappointed with sex--in novels, that is--it is generally because the writer didn't strike the right balance for me. I don't normally want a step by step instructional manual as to who put what where, but I also don't want to jump from the characters kissing to after they're finished the deed. I'm difficult to please when it comes to sex--in novels, that is--but as long as I believe the characters would do what they are doing in bed (or on the floor on kitchen table or wherever), and the tone and vocabulary is in keeping with the character and the rest of the book, I usually end up fulfilled.

    Holli Castillo

  22. Though I was a normal horny adolescent (albeit one who wrote fiction and thus maybe not so normal, after all), I found that too many sex scenes in the novels I read fifty years ago were all of a piece (no pun intended--yeah, right!)--i.e., possessed of a lexical sameness and mechanical predictability that ultimately rendered them unexciting. This was even truer in some of the hard- and soft-core porn novels friends of mine were into but which I could never get through because they bored rather than stimulated me.

    Then there's the exception: Lawrence Block's comic epistolary sex novel RONALD RABBIT IS A DIRTY OLD MAN, a used copy of which I first discovered and read in the early Eighties. I worked for a local indie bookstore at the time, and found it was still listed in BOOKS IN PRINT. But when I called the publisher to order copies for the store to sell, I learned they had none in stock and had no immediate plans to reprint it. It was reissued in 2000 by Subterranean Press. If you haven't read it, find a copy and do so. You'll grin your way through it at the very least, and probably more than once laugh out loud.

    Getting back to the thrust (no pun intended--yeah, right!) of this topic, I read an interview years ago with Donald Hamilton, creator of Matt Helm, in which he pointed out that readers know what happens in the bedroom. It's the lead-up to and the aftermath of that event that are more interesting. I agree, but with one reservation. If something out of the ordinary (read "kinky") occurs that defines or affects a character, it might need to be shown, or at the very least mentioned after the fact. In any case, Hamilton adhered to his rule in the Helm novels. The one thing all the books had in common? No matter how tenuous, even antagonistic, her relationship with Helm might be to start with, every woman called him "darling" after they coupled.

  23. Barry,
    I used to hate the sex scenes in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm novels. They always went something like this.

    Matt looked at her. Sharon looked at him. And they tumbled into the bed, yielding to an urgency that could not be denied.


    The next morning, over the smell of sizzling bacon, Matt quizzed Sharon on what she knew about the Embassy attack in Jakarta.

    I made the example up, but you get the idea. It became unintentionally funny.


  24. I was just re-reading the posts and comments, and something Naomi said (finally) resonated with me. I think I like passion more than sex. I love to read about characters who are obsessed with another characte: their physical attributes, character traits, etc. In many ways, reading an account from their POV about another character is sexier than them actually having sex with that character.

  25. Lee:

    I don't remember the scenes in the Matt Helm novels as being quite like you describe, and I'm too lazy to go look up some of them, but I understand what you mean.

    Then there's another extreme of unintended comedy when a writer slathers it on with a trowel, as demonstrated in the following passage from NO CHANCE IN HELL by Nick Quarry (a pseudonym of Marvin H. Albert):

    "...There was a roaring and pounding of blood in my ears, a hot liquid urgency coursing all through me...I pulled her closer in a rising madness and she was all coiled, supple strength sheathed in springy softness by turns provoking, refusing, demanding, retracting, assaulting...And then her teeth were sinking into my shoulder, stifling her gasping cries of pain and delight, and a furious whirlwind of savage sensation swept me and I was attacking her slim agile wickedness in a mounting, driving frenzy...."

  26. Nothing like a little slim agile wickedness to brighten your day.

  27. Great topic! I am writing my first novel and am having to address these issues. Since my protagonist is a young woman, I will run it by my 20-year-old daughter and see if it flies. I had my husband read the first 100 pages and when I asked him about a scene I thought was sexy, he went back to one I hardly thought about. Men are different than women and different things turn them on. He will be a great source for info too as well as a willing participant in any scenes I need to play out. Hahaha!