George Bernard Shaw once wrote “A pornographic novelist is one who exploits the sexual instinct as a prostitute does. A legitimate sex novel elucidates it or brings out its poetry, tragedy, or comedy.” Exactly! And how do you do that? Through characters.
When I read a sex scene in a script, I’m not usually moved by the mechanics of the act itself. I’m drawn to the emphasis on the characters in the scene and if the writer is doing something interesting beyond the clichéd emotion of euphoria. That’s the difference between exploiting sexual instincts and elucidating the poetry, tragedy, or comedy of sex.
So let’s explore some of the ways sex can be crucial to a story. It can, first of all, be a way to get to a truth about a character. Chinatown was all about obtaining truth through knowledge of sexual behavior. It opened with Jake revealing to a man photos of his wife having an affair. The story moved on to what may be Mulwray’s affair with a young girl and ends with a devastating revelation. I’m sure you know the story. If you don’t, you’re not much of a screenwriter. Hehehe…
In any case, there is a scene in a bathroom with Jake and Evelyn, which precedes the sex, where Jake removes the bandage off his face. She’s shocked by his deep physical scar, just as Jake will later be shocked by her emotional scars.
a way to get to a truth about a character.
Then, he allows her to dabble peroxide on his nose in a moment of trust. Jake notices a black mark on the green part of her eye. She tries to shrug it off as “a flaw in the iris,” “a birthmark of sorts.” Uh huh. Interesting that we have two characters both avoiding talking about the past (Evelyn and her father, Jake and Chinatown) while both have deep scars to share. Then, we cut to Jake and Evelyn lying in bed having obviously had sex, and we’re given more subtle clues to the murder mystery. The phone rings. She answers. She tells Jake she has to leave. Jake mentions that he recently met with her father, which gets a subtle, yet important reaction. Evelyn is visibly shaken, has to cover her breasts with her arms, and she quickly goes to the bathroom. Some scars can only be seen when we’re naked emotionally and physically.
Sex can be a way to chart a character’s arc, too. A character’s attitude toward sex is one way in the beginning of a film and completely different by the end. Masturbation was the vehicle to showcase Lester Burnham’s character arc in American Beauty. You may recall the opening sequence where Lester tells us in voice over that he’ll be dead in a year and that he’s already dead spiritually. We’re given a scene where we’re to look pitifully at Lester “jerking off in the shower,” which will be, as he says, “the high point of my day.”
Sex can be a way to chart a character’s arc, too.
Later, when Caroline catches Lester masturbating in bed, she becomes furious. Lester tells her, “I’ve changed. And the new me whacks off when he feels horny!” In the beginning, masturbation illustrated how desolate he was, but later, it signified the new, assertive, independent Lester Burnham.
A sex scene can also be a way to reveal different sides of your characters. It can, on the one hand, illuminate a character’s hypocrisy, as an individual says one thing in public and does something quite different in private. On the other hand, you can have a character that simply behaves one way out in the world (timid) only to be completely different in the bedroom (tiger).
A sex scene can also be a way to reveal
different sides of your characters.
I love the scene with Faye Dunaway and William Holden in Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. This woman was so passionate and so sexy in the office that a guy can only wonder how fantastic her love life must be. However, when you finally get her into the bedroom, you are revealed just how totally cut off she is from her emotional and sexual roots. She will not stop talking about the ratings and the network and the TV shows. But she will pause briefly for an orgasm:
She busily removes her shoes, unbuttons her blouse, whisks out of her slacks down to her bikini panties. She scours the walls for a thermostat.
...Christ, it’s cold in here...
(turns up the heat)
You see we’re paying these nuts from the Ecumenical Liberation Army ten thousand bucks a week to bring in authentic film footage on their revolutionary activities, and that constitutes inducement to commit a crime. And Walter says we’ll all wind up in federal prison...
Nubile and nearly naked, she entwines herself around Max, who by now has stripped down to his trousers. The two hungering bodies slide down onto the bed where they commence an affable moment of amative foreplay.
(efficiently unbuckling and unzipping Max’s trousers)
...I said, “Walter, let the government sue us! We’ll be front page for months! The Washington Post and The New York Times will be doing two editorials a week about us! We’ll have more press than Watergate!”
Groping, grasping, gasping, and fondling, they contrive to denude each other, and in a fever of sexual hunger, Diana mounts Max. The screen is filled with the voluptuous writhings of love. Diana cries out with increasing exultancy...
(in the throes of passion)
All I need... is six weeks of federal litigation... and “The Mao Tse Tung Hour”... can start carrying its own time slot!
She screams in consummation, sighs a long, deliciously shuddering sigh, and sinks softly down into Max’s embrace. For a moment, she rests her head on Max’s chest, eyes closed in feline contentment.
(after a moment, begins purring)
What’s really bugging me now is my daytime programming...
(Next week: A ROLLER COASTER NAMED DESIRE)
– Mystery Man
In his own words, Mystery Man was “famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. A homebody jetsetting around the world. Brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.”
MM blogged for nearly 4 years and tweeted for only 4 months, then disappeared – mysteriously.
The Story Department continues to republish his best articles on Monday.
Here, you’ll also be informed about the release of his screenwriting book.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.