- Go Big or Go Home
- Make it Count
- Repeat Yourself
- Hold the Complexity
- Put it In Context
Monday, February 15, 2016
I love musicals, have for most of my life. There’s this thing that people sometimes say when you talk about musicals, usually rather derisively: “I don’t understand why people just burst into song!” The folks who say this often don’t care for musicals much, and don’t know them very well. They assume the songs are inserted, are distractions, are pointless. They assume that the songs don’t do anything in the story, aren’t part of the movement of plot, make it less serious or important artistically, could easily just be taken out and everything would be much better. The songs make them uncomfortable. Embarrassed, even. They feel like they are too full of feelings, too unabashed, too much.
People say similar things about sex scenes. They assume that they are inserted, that they distract from the story, that they aren’t part of the movement of the plot, make the story less serious ahrt, could easily be taken out (and should be). They imagine story to be inherently better without explicit descriptions of sex, much like people assume theater to be inherently better without song and dance numbers. They are uncomfortable with fiction that integrates the reality of sexuality into the stories it tells about people’s lives and relationships; it feels too unabashed, too much, too intense.
So, as erotica and erotic romance writers, we have at least one thing in common with the folks who write show tunes: we experience a similar kind of derision. But I think we have more common ground than that. I think folks like us who write sex scenes could learn (or be reminded of) some important things about our craft from examining what makes a really good show tune.
One of the first things about show tunes is that you have to commit. In musical theater, the song won’t work unless the writer commits to it, unless the actor brings all their intensity and concentration to the performance of it. You must go all out. The writer and the actors can’t be tentative, can’t sit in the muck of insecurity or embarrassment, can’t just put a toe in. The writing will fall flat, will feel awkward. The audience will notice the actor’s unsureness and the breaks in performance, instead of being caught up and carried along.
Let’s watch an example of what I mean. The writer of “Quiet” from the musical Matilda really commits to the internal experience of the character, to showing that to you in the lyric and the music and pacing. There’s a bunch of risk taking in this song, of not holding back. The actress also deeply commits to her performance. They both go all out, and you get a song that is intense and powerful and full of rich characterization and movement.
It’s the same with writing an amazing sex scene. You have to commit. You can’t get caught up in nerves about language, or trepidation about being that kind of writer. You have to get over the lump in your throat and make your characters do and say the kinds of things that are needed for this sex scene. You have to be brave. You have to get dirty with your characters, be in the moment with them in their vulnerability and desire and fear and love and rage and whatever else they might be feeling as they fuck.
Another part of what makes for a really good show tune is when the writers let it get as big as it needs to be. When it really takes up space in the moment, is deeply embodied, is treated as important by the characters. When the music builds and grows and fills you as you listen to it. When the dancing is given real size and space and evocative movement and deep expression. Basically, when folks break into song in a musical it's a Go Big or Go Home moment.
For example, check out Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “I Am Changing” in Dreamgirls. This song takes up space. It’s an important turning point in the story, and it is a showstopper, a gorgeous blend of musical styles, a pivotal moment in the character arc where you really feel for Effie big time. It also really builds, emotionally, musically, and her performance takes that up several notches. The way she’s so deeply embodied and in the song, the way she owns its size and intensity and moves with it, makes me hold my breath when I watch.
I would argue that our sex scenes can only be improved by letting them get as big as they need to be. What do I mean by that? Letting them be intense. Letting them take up space in the story, both in word count and in actual importance to the characters and the narrative. Letting the sex scenes have big feelings and be deeply embodied in big sensations. Letting them build and build and take over the way really amazing sex takes up all your senses.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the deep misunderstandings of both musicals and erotica is the idea that show tunes and sex scenes are extraneous. In my favorite musicals, the songs are critically important, necessary to the movement of plot, the illumination of character, the setting of tone and scene, the creation of conflict.
In the musical In The Heights, the song “Breathe” is where we first really meet Nina, a central character. This song shows who she is, her concerns and fears and conflict. It illustrates the central tensions in her life and her character arc in the play. It’s an incredibly rich and layered song, both musically and emotionally. That helps us get to know her as a character, to see the ways she is struggling, and also sets a tone for the play as a whole, the layers of voices and musical styles and concerns that are central to this specific story, the raw truth that is right out there in this musical. This song makes the story move, gets us invested in her and what she’s dealing with, helps us connect and care about how she’s going to grow throughout the play.
I would argue that the best erotica and erotic romance does this as well. That our sex scenes need to be this necessary. That our stories are better when the sex moves the plot, makes us care about the characters, shows the reader some of the tensions and conflicts inherent in the story. Ideally, our sex scenes are not extraneous, cannot be excised without destroying the story. We do our best work when we make each moment count, make it show the reader something critically important about the characters or setting or plot or conflict, make the sex mean something, do something in our story.
One of the things that show tunes do really well is use repetition. They repeat musical themes, words, choruses, dance moves, and they do this with purpose. They build story through this repetition, moving the plot at each point so that the thing that repeats catches us in its net and drags us along. They build intensity through repetition, layering it on top of itself, each time gathering more tension, holding more emotion. They draw attention to important themes or metaphor through repetition, so you are prepared for the crisis, can hold the twists and turns of story because it makes more sense, feels right.
Take a look at the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening, and their performance of “Touch Me”, a crescendo moment in the play itself, where the sexual tension that has been building throughout the play releases in ensemble. There are so many layers of repetition in this performance, from the words “touch me” and the morphing of “where the figs lie” to “where the sins lie” to “where the winds sigh”, to the musical themes that build and repeat, to the way the dancing shifts and keeps evoking earlier moments in the song. The repetition helps to build and build through an orgasmic experience, and it is beautiful and intense and evocative and complete.
Erotica that uses repetition can create a similar kind of nuanced and evocative reading experience. There is a certain kind of satisfaction that comes with repetition, when used judiciously, that’s why it’s a favored tool for musicians and orators and poets. I’m personally quite fond of it, and I think it has made a real difference in my own erotica. I would argue that repetition can be used to help create hot and beautiful and emotional and intense sex scenes. That we can repeat and morph repeated phrasing to good effect. That we can illuminate important things about character and story by drawing attention to them through repetition. That we can build, and build, and build to orgasm, through repetition.
In musical theater, songs often hold tension, nuance and complexity. They have multiple layers, different elements working against each other to show the complexities and nuanced specificities of a particular situation. In particular, melody and tone can work in counterpoint to lyric and emotional valance, in ways that make a song gorgeous in its complexity.
I want to share two examples side by side, because I think they play with similar contrasts. “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company is classic Sondheim at his writing best, where the cheerful refined melody is deeply contrasted with a bitter rage that is numbed by alcohol and expressed through biting, self-deprecating humor. This performance of the song by Carol Burnett is deeply nuanced, illuminating the complex contrasts of emotion and tone. It’s a song that holds the emotional center of the musical itself, with all of its tensions and fears about marriage and respectability.
“Paradise” from the new musical Allegiance, has a similar counterpoint, between the upbeat cheerful tune and bitter rage at the oppression of Japanese American internment. The song holds so much complexity and irony in it. It shines with all of the tensions contained in the play and the ways that the characters survive the oppression they are experiencing. The bitter comedy, the way the dancing enhances the supposed cheer with an underlying rage at injustice…this song is deeply nuanced. These elements work in the song because they are interwoven; it makes it possible to hold all of it because of the ways these things play off each other.
Like a showtune, sex is better when it’s complicated, even if it appears simple on the surface. When our sex scenes can play with contrast and tension, hold many different emotional realities at the same time, or sink into the nuances of how our characters connect, they are better for it. We get to know the characters more, we have a richer palate to play with as we explore desire, and we have ample opportunities for humor, all of which can heighten sexual tension and create deeper more satisfying story.
You may have noticed that many of the examples I have given above are deeply rooted in setting and context. I firmly believe that this is one of the deepest strengths of musicals, the way they can be so culturally specific, so deeply contextualized, so grounded in a very specific time, place, and cultural context. Instead of aiming for generalities, these songs choose to illuminate deep specificity, rooting it very concretely in a particular context.
“Ring of Keys” from the musical Fun Home is another song that does just that: we connect with it as an audience because it is focused and specific and sets its roots deep in the actual childhood experience of Alison Bechdel, telling a detailed story about an intensely beautiful moment of connection. This is a deeply queer story about her seeing a butch for the first time in her life, the ways she recognized herself in this stranger, felt connected and held. It is gorgeous, and it works so well precisely because it is planted so very firmly in the cultural context of her particular upbringing. It is the details and the nuances that make the song.
When we write sex scenes that are rooted in a particular time, and place, and cultural context, they are richer, more complex, more beautiful because of it. The very specificity of them creates so much possibility of recognition and connection for our readers, makes things more clear and concrete, brings senses alive. Putting the sex we write in deep context can be incredibly powerful.
As a writer, I soak up influence and knowledge from so many sources, and other art forms feel like they contain so much to learn from. I talked show tunes here because I love them, but it is my firm belief that we as writers can learn so much from visual art, from all forms of music, from theater and dance, from other genres of writing, and that our work will be more layered and beautiful because of those influences. In summary, I recommend applying the following lessons from show tunes to writing sex scenes:
*To access the songs I used as examples all in one place, you can check out my playlist.