Friday, June 14, 2013


This was only meant to be a joke. I write the blog to talk to you but a couple of weeks ago the Birmingham Rep reprinted one entry, then the Writers' Guild did another one and I could see numbers going up. It was nice. As ever, my mind wandered to getting us all biscuits. But then last week I dissed Star Trek Into Darkness and within the day had doubled the number of people who'd read the blog in the whole week before.

Well, I said. Next time I'll write about sex and see what happens.

And that was about as far as the thought got. I did ponder being serious and giving you advice or maybe even reaching deep down inside myself to reveal some of those desires we all have. Possibly even admit a fantasy to you. I'm not ashamed of this: there is a sexual position I'd like to try. It's nothing very kinky, it's just that maybe one day during sex, I think I'd like to be present.

But then writing that line made me think about how you'd have to search really hard to find any sex in anything I write. This could well be because I write Doctor Who audio dramas and, please, it's a family show. And there's not a huge amount of sex in Radio Times magazine.

Only, even thinking back through my script pile, sex doesn't feature much at all. I do remember a friend complaining that nothing happens in a particular script of mine – ooh, it was called Other Women: I like that title, I must use that again somewhere; oh, look, I just have – and he moaned that it was just people talking or having sex. We'd swapped scripts at that point and his had nothing happening either: just the end of the world, or the universe, or something. I remember alien tentacles. And he was right about Other Women: unless you were interested in the people, they weren't interesting and nothing happened. Similarly, I wasn't interested in his characters so let the world end, or the universe, or something.

Sex isn't interesting. Not in TV or film.

I mean it. Will they/won't they tension is remarkably powerful but once they do/did, it's all over. Certainly the tension, often the series, always the movie.

Equally, if someone takes their clothes off in a film, I don't think you're watching a character any more, I think you're noticing the actor's body. Even if only for a moment. I don't know. It could be a male thing, it could be a me thing.

But Dar Williams said something especially smart once. I haven't been able to find the quote for you so I'll have to paraphrase – and I'll also have to set it up less eloquently. She wrote a tremendously moving and deceptively simple song called When I Was a Boy. I'd quote you the whole thing because it's as intricate and powerful as a poem but the key lines for today are:
I was a kid that you would like, just a small boy on her bike
Riding topless, yeah, I never cared who saw.
My neighbor come outside to say, "Get your shirt,"
I said "No way, it's the last time I'm not breaking any law."
Notice the 'small boy on her bike'. It's not a mistake. It's another case of a writer using the wrong word and thereby making a far more powerful point. But you need to hear the whole song for that. For now, the story continues.

Some years after writing this song, Williams was performing it at a festival. I want to say Lilith Fair but I'm not sure. I want to say that it was an all- or a mostly-women event. The Lilith Fair concerts didn't exclude men from the audience, did they? I adore the music from those concerts. Anyway, whatever the festival, this particular gig was at least very much mostly women in the audience and Williams says she thought about taking her top off during that song.

But she didn't.

Because there were cameras.

And here's the thing I think was so smart, so perceptive: she said that cameras are male.

It could be ten years since she said that and I still think about it.

I can't let you out of a story. If I've actually managed to get you into a tale or even into this blog's nattering, the idea of deliberately chucking you out is abhorrent. And I think sex, shown on screen, does exactly that. I suspect that if I looked, I might – might – just possibly be able to find you a dodgy photo on the internet. I know, it's unlikely. But if I ever did manage to do it, you know that posting it here as some kind of an example would change the blog totally. You would see that image before you read a word and this would no longer be about drama or even sex, it would be about Page 3 porn and the like.

Sex increases the ratings but it changes the content and it decreases the drama.

For me, anyway.

But this fascinates me because one reason I write about people instead of the universe ending in tentacle-based peril is sex. Let me pin it down more precisely: I find immense, seismic drama in the instant before sex.

We are all this cauldron of desires and fears and for most of the day we go around hiding both from everyone. We cover ourselves in clothes and an awful lot of pretence. I hesitated over telling you that gag about my favourite sexual position being "present" because for it to work at all, I needed you to believe I could be telling you the truth right up to that word. That was difficult. But then it's supposed to be. Drama is difficult, drama is telling the truth. Not necessarily telling you something real, but telling each of us something true even as we are lying.

And so there we are, wrapped in our clothes and our culture and our neuroses and we are so practiced at it all that it would surely take dynamite to break through to the real us.

Yet there is dynamite. Thank god there's dynamite.

There's a reason I think we use the word naked. It does mean nude but it also, to me, means more than clothes being opened or shed, it means us being opened. Revealing our skin is revealing what's under that skin, what's inside us. It means revealing our desire. Our hope. Fear.

Desire is the dynamite. Wanting someone in a way that's more like your very body and soul yearning than it is your mind thinking or being at all rational. The complete need for this person. The need that makes you blush, makes you incoherent.

And if it's dynamite for opening us up, it is primacord explosive wrapped around your waist because of the risk. Admitting your desire to yourself is one thing, but admitting it to this other person is geometrically, exponentially, infinitely harder. You're laying yourself bare and all of the power of your cauldron is irrevocably put in their hands. In every physical and emotional way, you are giving yourself to them and in that instant they may reject you.

There's no going back from that: you can try saying you were kidding, but nobody's ever kidded.

It is do or die inside.

So I find romances and romcoms deliciously tense. That's silly, even preposterous of me because there surely has never been a modern romance tale that didn't end happily. But as the couple tentatively lean in for that first kiss, I feel like they're playing with live ammunition.

These are terribly male types of analogies and metaphors, aren't they? I'm not trying to be masculine writing about romcoms, I just don't know another way to convey the totality of the damage done by rejected love and desire.

Also, I've just realised why I wrote the qualifying word 'modern' back there. Wuthering Heights. Oh, my lights, the power in that novel. Emily Bronte knew all this stuff, even if she did write weird narrative structures and never thought to include tentacles.

When I watch a romance, a romcom, a drama, I am truly edge-of-seat until the first kiss. After that, I'm not fussed. Sex, nudity, cor, phroaw, whatever, do what you like. Have an orgy on screen for all I care. I'm not saying I'm either prudish or even trying to claim that I am somehow immune to body parts, but sex on film isn't explosive, it isn't story, it just isn't drama.

I started writing this to you as a gag and yet I've actually learnt something about myself: I've learnt that although I have mocked films before for cutting to rippling waves on the ocean or whatever, it turns out that I am actually quite fine with a kiss and –



Adaddinsane said...

Exactly. Mostly.

"Shakespeare in Love" didn't end happily.

"Castle" got away with "it" in exactly the way "Moonlighting" didn't.

I have a rule: "Sex, violence and profanity are completely unnecessary except when they're essential."

Sex scenes are fine (I wrote one) - as long as they are critical to the plot and tell you something about character.

I recently read two erotica novels: one was appalling, the sex was just badly written porn and story was terrible.

The second was a brilliant story, the sex had everything to do with character and moved the plot along.

William Gallagher said...

I'm still waiting to see how Castle keeps it going but yes, absolutely, it pulled that off. But ah, Moonlighting. So sad that fell apart.

But what was the second erotica novel?

Elaine S Moxon said...

I agree with Adaddinsane that sex scenes are alright, provided "they are critical to the plot and tell you something about the character". I do not write sex for the sake of it.

I have included a brief scene near the start of my book for the purposes of explaining the strength of a spiritual connection between two characters. It is nothing more and so I did not dwell on it with flourishes of literary prose.

Later on I have a very detailed sex scene between two other characters. This is to portray a previously unseen tender side to a character who has spent the entire book fighting back all emotion. As such a device, it conveys how their partner has unlocked this hidden side of them. So my character grows emotionally.

It cannot be escaped however, that sex sells film/TV/literature for many reasons, though I believe it works best when used in moderation as a plot device.

(And yes, such a shame Moonlighting lost its way.)

William Gallagher said...

I wonder if sex works better in books. There's the general stereotype that women are more affected by language and men more by images but I think a charged moment in a novel reaches deep into both the characters and the reader. Where a film just displays an actor.

For once my habit of calling everyone who acts an actor, rather than dividing some of them off into actresses, may not be serving my point. Films display a lot more actresses than actors.

And there was a thing recently where Helen Hunt is nude in some film or other and before I even heard what the movie was or read any reviews of it, I was reading comments about how old she looks. That's not an audience that was into the character, that's an audience looking for cellulite and botox and breasts.


Hilary Hadley Wright said...

Outstanding food for thought. As ever.

In my screenplays I have yet to move the characters past a kiss, but I'm writing a novel into which I've put a couple of sex scenes. Didn't feel comfortable writing them (partly squeamishness, partly 'does this fit, tonally?'), but they seem necessary; it's a double-stranded fish-out-of-water story, and each protagonist goes through a clash of culture and expectations and emerges changed from the encounter. What your piece has taught me is that it's the desire that counts, and, like Castle, letting the encounter move the story forward.

(As an aside, I really do hope Castle keeps it going. The writers have handled it very adroitly so far with their new dramatic questions. Fingers crossed.)

William Gallagher said...

I am more and more certain sex works better in prose.

Very unusually, I do a pair of scripts about the same story and the difference is when they're set. One of them is first half of an evening in a hotel restaurant and one of them is the night in the bedroom.

Same characters, same story, same issues, just – seriously unusually – two completely different ways to touch the same points.

I like them both but I was working with a guy on the second one, let's call it the Bedroom Edition, and he was pressing me to increase the sex. There was plenty: the whole thing opens with the couple smashing through the hotel room door in the middle of sex.

But he was saying you could have it that he can't get out of one trouser leg, you could have it that room service comes in, he had all these very strong ideas for how it could extend and I felt like I HAVE SEEN EVERY ONE OF THESE A THOUSAND TIMES so smash through the door, bang on the floor, done, felt stronger.

It felt more real to me. But maybe he was right, maybe I was actually getting the sex over with as fast as possible because I wanted to move on, because I wasn't getting the worth for the characters. I don't think so, but I saw a rehearsed reading of a play that featured a rape scene and it left me shaking even more than I'd expect because it was there in front of me. Maybe there's a way to stage proper consensual sex that is powerful and speaks to me as much as it does to the characters.

But I admit that where there's been an opportunity to pitch this play, I've gone with the Hotel Restaurant Edition instead. I don't think it's prudishness, I think it's more that the play is a will they/won't they/why would she/who is he kind of thing.


Hilary Hadley Wright said...

I think you're right about prose. Although there are, of course, always exceptions. I'm thinking of Body Heat, where that first highly charged sexual encounter is the catalyst for all that follows. Kasdan said that the script was meant to turn the reader on -- he was, after all, looking to get his first directing gig greenlit, so what better way to sell it than with sex?