Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sex in Thrillers: Bad idea, or do you expect something-anything- in those 300+ pages?

by Jamie Freveletti

I just re-read Sara Paretsky’s post on bad sex in mysteries and am still laughing over it, so I thought to address the topic in thrillers. I don’t have sex in my novel, but one can always have an opinion, right?

Question 1: Am I the only one who reads a thriller and waits for the protagonist PI/FBI Agent/Crook/Amateur Sleuth/ Woman on the run from paramilitary guys that are trying to kill her (my novel) to meet up with the opposite sex? Doesn’t it add just that extra bit of interest?

Question 2: Can you think of a thriller where the protagonist doesn’t consider some extracurricular activity with the opposite sex? The rules here are simple: They don’t have to actually do the deed, they just have to think about doing it. I just ran a quick mental list and I can’t remember one without at least the hint of a possibility.

(Wait, here’s one: Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. But that’s a short story, so it doesn’t count. Likewise anything by Poe-clearly sex and opium don’t mix).

Question 3: If it’s a truth universally acknowledged that a protagonist in possession of a mystery must be in want of a hookup, then why do sex scenes in thrillers so often fall flat?

While I agree that it can be a bit absurd for the protagonist to take time out from a firefight to get it on with that good looking CIA agent (although there is the shark tank scene in “Beat the Reaper” to consider), I still think once the fight’s over it might be time for some witty repartee over a smoking gun, or even a celebratory "damn, we're still alive!" sex scene. Sadly, often these scenes just don't work. It might be because as thriller writers we immerse our characters in so much strife that to slow down for something like sex seems contrived.

Question 4: And how about the thrillers where the love scenes worked? More rules: it doesn’t count if the scene skips from the first kiss to the two of them lying in bed smoking cigarettes and discussing Proust.

I’m interested to hear your thoughts. And make no mistake, I’ll be adding the titles of “thrillers with scenes that work” to my reading list!

29 comments:

Lauren said...

Almost tweeted about this once, but didn't want to hurt any feelings as folks knew what I was reading. It drives me NUTS when a book is rolling along and then the author creates a relationship/sexual encounter/whatever just to have it in the book. There are series I read where no matter what the circumstances, the hero gets laid. It's ridiculous. If it doesn't fit the plot, PLEASE SPARE US!

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Hey, Jamie!

I think what Lauren said is the key. A sex scene has to move the story forward just like any other scene. It can never be a "time out." It must carry just as much conflict and tension as any other part of the novel. You're switching types of conflict/tension when writing personal or emotional scenes, not giving the reader a break from conflict/tension.

Dana King said...

"I’ll be adding the titles of “thrillers with scenes that work” to my reading list!"

At least it won't eat into your free time too much.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Sounds like everyone's in agreement with the "sex scenes in thrillers are contrived" camp.

Jen Forbus said...

I totally agree. I started to mention Michael Lister's DOUBLE EXPOSURE but then remembered that his protag does think about his significant other, but it flowed and was logical, which is probably why I forgot about it. It was naturally a part of the plot.

My pet peeve: thrillers that throw the sex scenes in to show how macho the male protag is. Has nothing really to do with plot, it's just necessary that the macho hunk sleep with a different woman each adventure he has. Oh Please!

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Only Sex scenes that are done poorly are contrived. When they're done well, they raise the stakes and tension in a thriller just like any other good scene. I like sex scenes in thrillers, but they have to be done well. I also like violent scenes in a thriller, but they have to be done well. :)

Jamie Freveletti said...

I agree with Ann that it can be done--(but apparently hasn't been yet?).

Re: protag that sleeps with someone each novel,---hmm, is he single? Then maybe that would work, but not in every novel. Gotta shake it up here and there and have him lose out once in a while!

Kevin Smith said...

Not sure if anyone out there read John Sandford's "Rough Country," but in this instance he took a character previously known as a freewheeling single guy and threw him into an exceedingly slow to develop sexual encounter...The tension was very well-maintained, and the resolution of the encounter -- without giving anything away -- was very entertaining.

Mike Dennis said...

When an author inserts a sex scene into a tense thriller, the thrill is gone.

How's that for irony?

Anonymous said...

I recently read an author where every book ended with the main character setting a wedding date with their significant other, which was driving me crazy. I liked the plot of the books, but the love story angle was off. Found out later the author was also a romance writer.

Anonymous said...

I inclination not agree on it. I assume warm-hearted post. Specially the title-deed attracted me to study the unscathed story.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Kevin: I love John Sandford and thought I'd caught all the Virgil Flowers installments, but I missed "Rough Country!" Thanks for the suggestion.

Anonymous: Setting a wedding date at the end of each--hysterical! But I gotta think that a romance writer would be the ideal one to add a scene in a mystery. Maybe those wouldn't fall flat.

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