Friday, January 16, 2015

On-the-Page vs Fade-to-Black; How Do Your Characters Like Their Sex?




Photo by Jonathan Cohen

I'm a fairly new writer. My background is business and technology. Fiction is my first love, but some aspects take me out of my comfort zone. In fact, I didn't want to tell friends or family about my writing journey, unsure where it might lead. 

I've gotten over that. 

Now that I've come out of my writing closet, the question I'm asked most often is; “Does your book have any sex?"

Um, no. It's a thriller.

People nod politely and offer their two cents. “More people will buy it if there’s sex.”

Perhaps they're right. 

Many thrillers do include bedroom scenes. One of my long-time favorite authors, Stephen Whiteoften kept the bedroom door closed, but still alluded to his main character as a sexual being.  White ended his 20-book series in 2013 with a great 250-word scene. It’s quite apparent what’s happening in the bed without many descriptive words beyond ‘breasts.’

We all color the story with our own perspective. Ten people reading the same book will each take away something different. When I asked five readers if Stephen White’s character ever had on-the-page sex, everyone had a different answer, ranging from; “Never!” to, “Oh, yes, he had sex all the time. Remember, when he left his wife?”

(For the record, White’s character did not leave his wife.)

Some readers want more details before a scene fades-to-black. The euphemism, on its own, indicates shades of gray. 

Which leads me to my next rant. At what point does on-the-page-sex make, or break, a book?

FIFTY SHADES OF GREY sold 100 million copies. My stepdaughter recommended the book, with the disclaimer, “I want you to read this book. But we can never talk about it.”

I read the first book with a train-wreck fascination. E.L. James’ controversial trilogy was all about the details.  Her characters did not leave much for reader imagination. I didn’t read either of the next two books, figuring my sexual education was complete.  But I will raise the question, would the book have had such overwhelming sales without the sex?

Probably not.

Books allow us, as readers, a little voyeuristic peek inside someone’s head. Many think of series characters with the fondness of an old friend. To be allowed inside a friend’s head, with access to their thoughts and feelings is the singular beauty of fiction. 

Researching this article, I referenced Forbes The World's Top-Earning Authors, (recall my background in business?) and created a table to look at the trend (see below). Surprisingly—or not—E.L. James pushed James Patterson out of his number one position in 2013. It should be noted that Ms James did not have a book released in 2013, while Mr. Patterson released fourteen.




The authors (above) in red are more generous with details before their fade-to-black scenes. The shift to the left seems to indicate that readers do want more detail from their characters. In 2010, only one (red) author placed in the top five. Last year clocked three out of five. 

How much on-the-page sex is right for your readers? And are you, as a writer, comfortable going there?



For me, it’s complicated. I think I’m going to work on my alluding techniques. 



16 comments:

  1. Great topic! I've also been watching the Fifty Shades success with interest. Sex sells, of course. But sometimes there is more literary skill in the art of subtlety. Suggestion. Imagination. Your final point about alluding techniques hits home with me. Sometimes the imagination can be hotter than words on the page,

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    1. In my opinion, it's a fine line. I do think readers want to see more than true "fade-to-black." But, what's hot for one person, isn't for another. That's where the reader imagination can be best.

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  3. My first couple ebooks & short stories were all about the fade-to-black, but I've worked to open things up more because I agree with Charlotte - unless you're writing a cozy or sweet romance, people wanna see some skin. There are sides to a character that only come out when they're naked (literally), and you can push issues like trust and acceptance way further in a sexy scene than you can any other way. If there's not plot/character/goal-motivation-conflict built into your scene, though, even the naughtiest bits are going to be blah. Nice post!

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    1. The reader/whiter/character arc is complex--finding the balance for each is key. My plan is to listen to writers with more experience, and try not to push too far beyond my comfort zone. :-)

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  4. It's more tantalizing to conceal than reveal

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  5. Personally, I like to read and write full, luscious sex scenes that awaken the body and titillate the mind. Doors flung wide open for me! :D

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    1. Did you read 50SOG? What did you think?

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    2. I did read 50SOG. I tackled the novel like a clinical study of the erotic psyche and threw my writer/critic hat away, jumping in as a reader instead to try and break down what it was that this book had to get everyone so riled up! I learned a lot. It uses the number one female fantasy (a woman relinquishing control to someone else so that she can experience and embrace her sexuality without explicitly asking for it) and plays it up brilliantly. The great dichotomy is that while she (Anastasia) is lead along on this wild sexual initiation, she is still firmly in control of her boundaries (even when she decided to push them, it was still her choice). There is enough open door detail in the book to make your mother blush, yet it highlights and capitalizes on a burning fantasy that recognizes many people want to experience more, want to experiment and play with their sexuality ... which they can safely explore in the pages of a book, all without mother finding out. ;)

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  6. Interesting post. I'm on the other side of the issue having written and published erotica, I find myself veering back to fade to black. Writing sex initially was fun and exciting, but then it started to feel like that was all I was writing. I've heard rumors that erotica sales across the board are dropping and I wonder if this is true if it's because sex is going mainstream.

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    1. I think everyone wants to be mainstream because its the biggest shelf space. As a marketing person, I have to wonder how many books 50SOG, would have sold without an online platform. As a fade-to-black writer. I'd like to work on the art of taking the reader to the bedroom door, opening it, and taking a little peek inside.

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  7. OK, so growing up I read a lot of Jackie Collins & Danielle Steel. In fact I just bought the Kindle version of "Butterfly" by K Harvey about a very expensive brothel for female clients. Plus my PornHub account would make some blanch. Yet I still get squirmy when there's sex on the page or the screen.

    -A

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    1. You've hit the nail on the head Alex. It's impossible for the author to know what makes the reader too uncomfortable to buy the next book.

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  8. You've hit the nail on the head Alex. It's impossible for the author to know what makes the reader too uncomfortable to buy the next book.

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