My first novel, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, contains two sex scenes. The first catches Luz de Maria and Eddo as they fall in love with an emotional depth new to both of them. The second is when they reunite after each separately survives violence at the hands of a Mexican drug cartel. The sex scenes illustrate the raw emotion of their relationship and both characters’ weaknesses, all of which are important plot elements.

The hidden Light of Mexico City

The book is not a casual romance novel but a political and romantic thriller. As I wrote, I looked to some great thriller genre role models. Martin Cruz Smith’s ROSE, as well as several of his Arkady Renko novels, contains sex scenes that expose an unexpected physical relationship that is integral to the plot. In the Renko books, Arkady’s life is punctuated by doomed love affairs. In one of fiction’s most memorable sex scenes, he takes an unfaithful lover on the floor so forcefully that her head thumps rhythmically against the wood.

By the same token, the sex scenes in Ken Follett’s TRIPLE created a bond between characters and led to confessions about the main character’s secretive background and emotional turmoil.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I can honestly say I read TRIPLE many times and aimed to have HIDDEN LIGHT’s sex scenes advance the story in the same way. Given the Amazon reviews (4.8 out of 5 stars and proud of it), I think readers got the point.

Related: Read The Hidden Light of Mexico City, Chapters 1-2

That’s the reason to add a sex scene. To advance the plot, show emotional development, and dramatize a relationship with greater heft than a dinner date. It works best when the sex scene lives within a strong fictional framework and storyline.

When HIDDEN LIGHT was published, some family members were upset over those sex scenes. Asked if the scenes were the fault of a publisher out to woo readers. Added in later by someone else to spice up the book. Won’t buy it. Can’t read it. Certainly won’t review.

I was surprised at the level of controversy but not offended. Books with sex aren’t for everyone. My mystery and suspense novels are full of intense relationships, however, and there will be more sex scenes.

In my latest suspense novel, AWAKENING MACBETH, their physical relationship moves history professor Brodie Macbeth and Iraq War vet Joe Birnam along a trajectory of trust and loyalty that is pivotal to their very survival. In the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, sex is a bit more off-screen. But Emilia Cruz and hotel manager Kurt Rucker are both very dynamic people and the reader is aware of the sexual attraction between them.

Sex in fiction can be a controversial subject. Are you for or against?

10 Comments

  1. Marianne

    Hi Carmen,

    I really love your books. I bought them all and am eagerly anticipating the next one.

    I remember there is romance and love in your books, but I don’t remember any specific sex scenes at all. Which is how I like it, so as a reader I would say your approach to sex in your stories is the perfect mix.

    In general, I don’t like graphic sex scenes in novels at all. It seems boring and pointless. It’s one thing to portray by skillful use of language that the loving couple made love. Okay, that adds to the story. It’s another to start writing soft porn scenes that would stand up in Anne Rice’s East of Eden. (Or maybe that was hard porn. It was certainly creative porn but got boring and I never finished it.)

    If I am reading a legal thriller, police procedural thriller or murder mystery, I am not looking for gratuitous sex scenes. I don’t want to know what some persons hands did with some other persons body parts and for how long and the noises and emotions they felt.

    I find myself skipping the scenes to get on with why I am reading the book, which is for the story.

    The worst and most gratuitous I have ever read by an author who in my opinion should have known better, was Ken Follett in the book Lie Down with Lions I think it was. Some people are escaping through an Afghan desert and have been for days. They are filthy, sand storms, incredibly hot, etc, and Ken has the man give the woman oral sex in a cave. Okay whatever, BUT: It ‘tasted like honey’. I was like ‘you are kidding me, what is wrong with this idiot writer?’ Any healthy young female who has gone camping or backpacking for days in very hot weather with no hygiene facilities which is what was going on in the Afghan escape scene – especially with the filthy circumstances Ken was making sure to describe as part of his story – knows the likelihood of her hooney tasting like honey were very small indeed. Why did he have to put such gratuitous details in there? It didn’t add to the story and it was so unreal, from someone who is such a high quality writer, that it ruined him for me as a writer. I’ve never read one of his book since. But that’s no loss. There’s tons of awesome writers on Amazon out there.

    • Carmen

      You made my day! I’m hard at work on 42 Missing, the next Emilia Cruz. Lots of surprises coming up!

      I remember Follett’s Lie Down With Lions scene as well, because the woman in the scene was a nursing mother and he used that fact in an uncomfortable way, which I won’t describe here. I still think that in most of his books Follett uses sex to reveal his characters’ hidden emotional struggles, cement relatiosnhips, and advance elements key to the plot. But that cave scene was just icky.

  2. Becky Aiken

    You certainly ask thought-provoking questions! This one has provoked my thoughts for several days now. I think that the argument that sex is a part of life and so you should include sex scenes is specious. What goes on in the bathroom is also a part of life, but readers don’t want to read details about your characters … um, relieving themselves. I think you should include sex scenes if they show how the characters relate to each other in them, if they show the character of the character in the give and take of sex. The sex scenes in your books are good. They are revealing and frank without being clinical. Keep writing them!

    • Carmen

      “Show the character of the character in the give and take of sex.” Exactly! Can I quote you?

      • Becky Aiken

        Be my guest!

  3. DV Berkom

    It’s interesting that you brought this up, Carmen. I recently received a review for one of my books where the reader complained that the story read like porn. I had to laugh, since my sex scenes are few and far between. Perhaps it was the subject matter (child sex trafficking, and no, there were no scenes of sex with a minor–there were barely any sex scenes at all). Which brings up another point–I write about controversial subjects that may make people uncomfortable, but that too is life. It surprises me that more people don’t subscribe to the adage ‘if you don’t like the content, then don’t read the book ‘ (or watch the movie, or…)

    As you said in the post, sex scenes can be quite effective in showing the dynamics between characters in a story. I’m not a fan of sex scenes that don’t move the story forward in some way (read: gratuitous), and don’t think many require explicit description of the act (I mean, most of us have a pretty good idea what happens, right?), although that too can be effective, depending on the scene.

    I don’t think it does anyone any good when writers censor themselves just because a reader (or family member) didn’t like something. Freedom of expression is of paramount importance, especially in times like these. Personally, the day I change my writing style to conform to someone’s idea of morality or a proper novel or whatever, is the day I quit writing.

    • Carmen

      Bravo for that comment! I know that your books handle sexual topics in a mature fashion; whether that be character development or plot progression. Neither of us shy away from tough subjects in our books because exposing these things matter to us. If we are going to write based on someone else’s ideals of morality, as you put it, whose would we choose? Little Bo Peep? El Chapo? The range of choice is quite extensive. No, to thine own self be true. Now go have a glass of wine and pound out that next chapter.

      • DV Berkom

        What a fine idea 🙂

  4. Leah McClellan

    Good to bring up this issue, and great points, especially about family. Do I want my little brothers reading sex scenes I’ve written? I don’t know whether they have or not, but hey, it’s fiction, and it’s my writing, my life. If they’re uncomfortable, that’s their problem, not mine. I don’t need to defend myself.

    Sex is part of life. Fiction reflects life. Therefore, sex may or may not be present in fiction for any number of reasons, just as sex (or sexual tension or attraction) may or may not be involved in “real life” situations. *How* it’s presented is a separate issue, seems to me.

    I’m neither “for” nor “against” sex in fiction. Or sure, of course sex is great in a novel, but a great novel need not include sex scenes. It depends on the story and the characters.

    • Carmen

      Leah, thank you for the thoughtful response. I agree that it depends on the story and the characters and how the author wants to show their emotional state. I always think fiction is the most interesting when the characters develop and aren’t simply static creatures. That’s life, isn’t it?

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I'm author Carmen Amato. I write mystery and suspense, including the Detective Emilia Cruz police series set in Acapulco. Expect risk, power, corruption. And relationships with heat.  More

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