So, in honor of Valentine’s Day, it’s what you’ve all been hoping for. The all sex and nudity rant!
No, there won’t be any pictures.
A while back I mentioned a simple definition my friend Brad once told me. Porn is when you show everything. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing sex scenes, murder investigations, or high school reunions. What we don’t see is always far more interesting than what we do.
Let me explain this with a little set of stories.
I once had a friend who liked asking people “moral” questions. If you remember the brief fad of The Book of Questions, you know what I’m talking about. Would you rather have a year of no money or a year with no friends? If you had to give up one sense forever, what would it be? That sort of thing.
So one happy hour, over drinks and sushi, she asked me if I would strip to my underwear on the bar and dance for a thousand dollars. I laughed and said probably. Then she rephrased the hypothetical–would I be willing to strip naked and dance for $10,000 if all my friends were there in the bar?
“For ten grand? Absolutely.”
“With all your friends there?” And she rattled off the names of a few of our female friends to make it clear who would be seeing me naked.
I pointed out that $10,000 (at that time) was serious life-changing money for me. Plus our friends were all experienced adults and we’d all hung out at the pool and the hot tub several times. Most of them could probably figure out what I looked like naked without too much trouble. So what was the difference?
To prove how flawed and masculine my decision was, she called one of our female friends. Said friend also agreed she would strip naked for the cash. She even pointed out the same logic–that most anyone could figure out what she looked like naked, so what’s the big deal?
We’re all grown ups. While there is a titillation element in seeing–or reading about–someone naked, at the end of the day most of us all look the same without clothes on. Yeah, there’s some variety in sizes and skin tones, but it rarely involves a lot of surprises. So spending a lot of time describing her boobs, his ass, or their genitals is going to get old pretty quick.
Not only that, but we all have different standards of what’s attractive. We notice different things about each other. So spending too much time describing nudity in prose runs the danger of describing stuff the reader has no interest in. And like any bit of character description it brings the story to a grinding halt while the writer describes how firm Chad’s glutes are.
Plus… well, sex scenes have the same challenge as any action scene. Quite often things happen faster than it would take to describe. So too much detail slows things down–and not necessarily in the good way.
Story two. This one’s for the screenwriters, but everyone can follow along.
A few years back a friend asked me to look at a script he was writing. It was a low-budget horror idea involving a group of friends at an isolated cabin by a lake, deep in the woods, but past that it went in some pretty clever directions. The writer (we’ll call him Rex) knew that simple, ugly truth of moviemaking–sex sells. He’d told me ahead of time that he’d tossed in a bit of nudity and the like to appeal to investors.
So I was paging through the script a few nights later and discovered Rex had randomly inserted (no pun intended) a hardcore lesbian sex scene right around the end of act one. Three solid, fairly graphic pages of boobs, toys, and a little bit of bondage. It was so graphic, in fact, it would’ve been a dealbreaker for late night Cinemax. maybe even Vivid Video. Sex sells, yes, but not everyone wants to invest in pornography. And the scene on the page was hardcore pornography plain and simple (by both the definition above and internet standards).
By Rex’s personal standards, his sex scene wasn’t that explicit. He actually thought it was a bit tame. And, yeah, in some ways, for some people, it probably was. We all have own likes and dislikes in the sack. Going into too much detail can handicap you there as well. I could find this attractive, but it might freak you out. Likewise, you could be all for trying that, which might make me cringe in fear. As I’ve said before, the trick is knowing how your intended audience is going to react to something, not how you and your close friends are.
Y’see, Timmy, bringing up gratuitous sex and nudity in screenplays can be risky, because it immediately slots your story one way or the other. If it’s not what a reader’s been told to look for, you’re done right there. So when it comes down to it, you should be writing scenes that could have graphic sex and nudity… but don’t require it.
Yeah, yeah– Joe Eszterhas made a fortune writing nothing but explicit sex in the early ’90s. Keep that last part in mind–he was doing it twenty years ago during the spec boom and on the tail end of the sexploitation decade.
A great example of writing a scene with the potential for nudity–but not requiring it–is a shower scene. There are plenty of cheesecake shower scenes in hundreds of films, but there are also lots of low-key G-rated ones. If the script just says “Phoebe is lathered up in the shower,” it’s open for interpretation and people will picture what they want to see. If it’s two paragraphs of Phoebe slowly rubbing liquid soap all over her body, the range of possible interpretations shrinks a bit. So why reduce your options if you don’t have to?
Same thing with someone changing their clothes. We don’t need details to overcomplicate it. Although you may want to consider your character’s motive for changing, too. Maybe showing everything is the whole point of that moment…
In closing, sex always makes things more complicated. So think twice before diving into it.
Next time, we return to our regular, prudish rants, and I’ll tell any screenwriters following along a few ways you can make sure a reader will groan on page one.
Until then, go write.