Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll

By Andrew E. Kaufman

As an author, I find it difficult to write about murder without taking a trip to the Dark Side. After all, I think on some level we sort of expect that. Logically speaking, if you're going to have a killer, then you're going to have deviant behavior. The two seem to go hand in hand. But just how dark and how deviant?

For me, I draw the line where gratuitous begins, and most often, that's where I find trouble lurking between the pages of novels. Using sex, drugs, or violence just for the sake having it or for shock value does a book little good. In fact, I think, it'll do more harm. Readers know the difference, and they know when they're being played. If you don't believe me, check out some of the emails I get. These folks know their stuff, and many understand plot structure as well as any author.

In my novel, While the Savage Sleeps, there is violence. No question. It's graphic and it's frequent. But here's the thing: it's also absolutely necessary. Not only are the plot and the characters driven by it, but the final resolution also depends on it. Without that element, the story would fall flat and the reader would likely feel short changed. Context is the key, and I think a good question for any author to ask him or herself when considering whether or not an element belongs is: Would this story suffer without it? If the answer is no, then chances are you don't need it, and chances are the reader will feel the same way.

As for sex, typically, I don’t put it in my books—not because I’m a prude or that I have anything against the act itself. It’s just that logistically it doesn't seem to make sense.

Here’s an example: There’s a killer on the loose, and Sam and Linda are running for their lives because he’s hot on their trail. If all that weren’t enough, Detective Holiday thinks Sam could in fact be the killer. The clock is ticking and the two must not only prove Sam’s innocence, they must also find the real suspect.

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking sex is going to be the last thing on Sam and Linda's minds. Not only that, but it would seem in addition to slowing down the pace, adding this element would also detract from the story. Now I'll agree that there are authors who can expertly weave sex into a suspense thriller rather seamlessly, and I applaud them for that. It just so happens that I’m not one of them. But from what I’ve read, neither are a few others, and when I see it needlessly thrown in, it comes across as contrived and gratuitous. It’s also the exact point where they lose me.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the F-bomb, namely, whether or not it belongs in novels. I'd guess the answer depends on the reader’s tolerance level. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, and I use it whenever I feel it’s necessary in terms of character development. My job is to make fiction seem real, and the reality is, people do use the word. I also believe that when implemented correctly it can add authenticity to a character. Think of it this way: if a cop said,“darn it” in a novel, would it make you want to continue reading? Not me.

Of course, throw in a drug-addicted, sexually compulsive, cussing sociopath, and really, anything goes. Again, it’s all about context.

Overall, I know opinions on this subject vary, and as an author I’m always interested in knowing what readers think. So I’d like to ask: Do these elements bother you in a book, and just how far is too far?


  1. Excellent post, Drew. I agree with you. If my life is on the line, there's not going to be a quick time out for some hanky panky. It's a little more acceptable in a romantic suspense, but even then it can take me right out of the story. As for the f-bomb, I don't drop it much myself, but people say it all the time. And I think it would sound a little ridiculous to hear the cop or sociopath say "phooey" or "fudge" in it's place in a novel. I want believable characters or I'm done. Luckily, I haven't read anything yet that has gone too far. I hope I never do.

  2. As a writer and a reader, it's all about story and character. I quit reading one best-selling author after one novel. The f-bomb littered every page. What's with that? It did not move the story forward, nor did it further develop the character. I also know publishers who have requested sex scenes in manuscripts because 'they sell better.' Both are ridiculous.

  3. We're on the same page! I write fast-moving stories, and my characters barely have time to eat a meal, let alone pause for sex. Still, I manage to include some sexual tension/attraction, because that's real.

    I don't use the word f**k unless it's true to the character or the intense moment. In Secrets to Die For, the opening scene is intense and the character is a meth addict, so he says the word a few times. One reader commented that she loved the story but would not read my work again because of it. Yet...she clearly read past that first scene and enjoyed the story. I'm sorry to lose her as a reader, but I've had too many great comments on that opening to regret anything.

  4. Great post, Drew! And excellent comments so far. I personally don't have the tolerance level for graphic violence in horror - it gives me nightmares! But I love a good thriller, which wouldn't be thrilling if it was watered down - the violence is an integral part of the plot. I guess the difference is how much gory detail is provided/accepted, and that's a personal preference of both authors and readers.

    I definitely agree with your points on sex, and Nissie's and Peg's comments. I love Sandra Brown's steamy romantic suspenses, but she knows how to throw a sex scene in when it makes sense.

    I've read and heard in workshops that one f*#k on the page should be equal to about 10-20 in real life (or something to that effect), as they go farther on the printed page. So just sprinkle them and other swear words in here and there for authenticity (and more for bad guys). And when I'm editing, I've often suggested a stronger word. I just can't see a cop saying "darn" at times of stress!

  5. So much of what you posted here is exactly what I ave said when this topic comes up among writing friends.

    I do not use the f-word in my books, but the characters who would say that do not use a replacement word. I'd never trust a book where the meth-head said, "Fooey!" I'd put that book down like most everyone else.

    That said, using "creative" writing, I am always successful in letting the reader know the f-bomb is being dropped without ever explicitly saying so.

    Some useful phrases for newbies:
    "A stream of expletives flew from his mouth as he headed down the hall."
    and an easy one,
    "Jackson cursed and punched the wall."

    I use "tamer" curse words in my work, but only when appropriate. Something I've seen that is enough to make me put down a book is to have the narrative cursing when the characters don't. That's freaky because every time the narrative describes something with a curse word, I feel like the book is cursing at ME. Thankfully, you only see this in less experienced writers.

    As for sex scenes--Drew is dead-on. Hot sex scenes drag down a horror or thriller novel when the action is the thing the reader is following. In books where sex is the plot device (erotica) and a major plot point (as in Fatal Attraction), it makes sense, but the majority of fiction is just telling a story, and hot-n-heavy sex scenes not only derail the flow, but also change the feeling of the reader and the story...

    All of my novels have a sexual element because they are important to the plot, and they are often provocative and arousing. But using talent, a good writer can create this tension in the reader without being X-rated. And not only for an moral reasons -- how about for professional reasons? The less cleavage shown, the more enjoyable to look because the imagination takes over. A good storyteller tells his or her story with words, keeps the reader enthralled, and does nothing to pop them out of the story.

  6. The use of curse words doesn't bother me in the least. I grew up in a home where the F-bomb was used on a daily basis. Sex just for the reason of sex is another story. There's a difference between a romantic love scene between two people who care about each other, and a sex scene used as filler. I hate that about some books and will more than likely put the book down and walk away.

  7. All very good points, and I'm happy to see most agree. I think it's a thin line that authors walk, and at times, hard to tell where it starts and where it ends. Always nice to hear from both readers and authors for a reality check.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts, Drew. I struggled with language in For the Helpless, because there are some seedy, rough characters. I finally went with what was real.... the profanity is where it needs to be when it needs to be there. It's still very mild, but I hope believable. When I read crime or horor novels where the characters are having sex every ten minutes, I find it pretty hard to believe. Sorry, but I certainly wouldn't be tempted by the throes of passion while running from a crazed maniac.
    Great job! Can't wait for your next baby to come out!

  9. First, I wanted to say congratulations on your latest honor. I saw over on your andrewekaufman blogspot blog that While The Savage Sleeps was chosen as a finalist in The San Diego Book Awards Association yearly competition. And that on the heels of the Bitten by Books Battle of the Horror Authors win. Awesome and well deserved in my opinion.

    As for your opinions about sex, drugs, and violence ... you're right. There are many different opinions on the subject and I think it not only depends on the characters but also the reader. I wanted to see "more" between your main characters, however, I've read some of your reviews that indicate others thought that hint of romantic interaction that was there was unnecessary. I'd say your reviews and kudos are a good indication you found the right mix for the majority of your readers. YOU chose what was right for your characters and, in that, you created a great story. I'd say that's the important element. If an author knows his characters, he/she will know if it fits and, if it does, the readers will respond favorably.


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