Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Let's Get it On*

One of the things that makes reading such a pleasure is that reading allows one to use one’s imagination. That’s one reason why talented authors follow the “show, don’t tell” rule. There’s no need for a lot of excessive detail if the reader can imagine a situation or create a mental picture. And in fact, readers’ imaginations are powerful tools. Most of us can imagine all sorts of things without the author telling us, and our imaginations can draw us right into a story. To me, also (and this is just my opinion, so feel free to disagree with me), inviting readers to use their imaginations is a sign of respect for the reader. It tells the reader, “I trust you to fill in the blanks and make of this what you will. I don’t have to lead you by the hand here.” And authors don’t. That’s why novels where violence is implied, but not graphically described, can be so suspenseful. And it’s why scenes where physical intimacy is implied, but not explicitly detailed, can be so provocative.

Let’s face it; intimacy is a part of human life. In fact, it’s how human life starts. In crime fiction, it’s even more important. After all, lust is a very common motive for murder. It’s also a motive for keeping secrets, for “hiding” a murderer, and for a lot of other suspenseful things that happen in crime fiction novels. And it’s realistic. So it wouldn’t make for a very authentic genre if there were never any “bedroom scenes.” On the other hand, in a well-written crime fiction story, the main focus of the story is the mystery. Anything – including steamy scenes – that takes away from that focus also takes away from the story. Those scenes may be attention-getting, but in the end, if they aren’t an integral part of the plot, they can take the reader out of the story. And even when they are an important part of the plot, it can be even more effective to leave something to the reader’s imagination.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to spend the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. What Christow doesn’t know is that his old flame, famous actress Veronica Cray, has taken a getaway cottage near the Angkatell home. She’s never forgotten Christow or stopped loving him, and she’s been hoping for an opportunity to cross paths with him again. On the Saturday night of the Christows’ stay, Cray visits the Angkatells on a pretext and persuades Christow to see her home. He doesn’t need much persuasion, as he’s never forgotten her either. The two leave together and Christie makes it clear what happens between them that night. In fact, when Christow is shot the next afternoon, Cray becomes a suspect in his killing in part because of that night. And yet, there’s not a single bit of explicit description.

You could say a similar thing about Dorothy Sayers’ work. For example, in Strong Poison, Lord Peter Wimsey meets and falls in love with mystery novelist Harriet Vane. She’s on trial for the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes, and there’s plenty of evidence against her, too. Wimsey wants to clear her name so that he can pursue a relationship with her and when the jury can’t agree on a verdict, he gets his chance. Throughout the novel, Sayers makes it perfectly clear that Vane and Boyes slept together. And yet, there’s not one explicit word or salacious description.

There’s an argument that Golden Age novels such as Sayers’ and Christie’s were like that because of the social taboos of the day. That’s true of course; however, there are also plenty of much more current novels that tell the reader exactly what goes on between two people without giving minute detail. For example, Deborah Crombie’s Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover and former partner Gemma James are very much attracted to each other and once they become lovers, they make no secret of it. And yet, Crombie doesn’t “bash the reader over the head” with explicit details. For instance, in In a Dark House, Kincaid and James are working on a case that involves a set of mysterious warehouse fires that seem to be arson, and the death of a woman whose body was found after one of those fires. At one point, James has made what she thinks is a connection between a missing woman and the body in the warehouse. So she visits Kincaid and asks to speak to him privately. It’s pouring rain, so the only place they can talk without being heard is the car of one of Kincaid’s team members. James tells Kincaid about her idea, but then one thing leads to another… We know exactly what happens in that car. And yet, Crombie doesn’t give any explicit details. The reader’s imagination fills in the gaps.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District series is like that, too. That series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. Her partner is book dealer Marc Amos. They certainly have their troubles as a couple. In fact, many of Edwards’ fans think that Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other major character in the series, would be a better match for Scarlett (A-hem, Martin! ;-) ). But one place in which Scarlett and Amos seem to have fewer problems is in the bedroom. Their physical attraction has been a large part of what’s kept them together. And yet, even in steamy scenes, Edwards doesn’t go into un-necessary explicit detail. The same is true of “steam” between other couples in the series. Edwards makes it clear what happens, but leaves the details to the reader’s imagination.

Colin Dexter does a similar thing. In his Inspector Morse series, there are often plots and sub-plots that involve love affairs. Morse himself falls prey more than once. And yet, Dexter doesn’t give chapter and verse, so to speak, about what happens behind closed doors. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure and later, that of his former scout Ted Brooks. One woman who’s figured in both men’s lives is prostitute Ellie Smith. Considering the way she earns her living, Dexter could have gone into all sorts of detail in this novel, but he doesn’t. As the novel progresses, Morse and Smith find themselves attracted to each other, but even then, Dexter leaves the spicy details to the reader’s imagination. That’s also true in The Jewel That Was Ours, in which Morse and Lewis discover the murderer of Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. One of the suspects is Kemp’s former mistress Sheila Williams. As the novel goes on, Morse is attracted to Williams, and in fact, they spend the night together. And yet, Dexter doesn’t get explicit in describing that relationship or the one between Williams and Kemp. He trusts the reader to do that.

For writers of cosy mysteries, it’s especially important to find a way to tell the reader what goes on between two people without getting explicit. Cosy fans typically don’t want those details. But even authors of other kinds of mysteries can engage the reader and draw the reader in by leaving something to the reader’s imagination. Does this mean there shouldn’t be any explicitness in crime fiction? No. Everyone’s got different tastes and a different definition of what “counts” as too much detail. Besides, in some crime fiction, those details are an important part of the plot. But it’s more than possible to let readers know exactly what happens in the bedroom without spelling everything out. That can fire the imagination more than the gritty details can.

Ps. Did you notice something? In this entire post, there’s one particular word I haven’t used. Did you figure it out? Of course you did. You see? You didn’t need me to lead you by the hand. See what I mean?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Marvin Gaye song.


  1. Yes, I noticed which word you didn´t use :D

    Another important point for a writer is to consider your audience. Once I wrote a parody of an erotic scene during my Danish writing course. ALL my readers laughed at the silly scene, but did I get the same reaction from English readers? Not quite.

  2. Dorte - You're quite right about the audience. Your story is a really clear example of how important it is for a writer to get a sense of what her or his audience wants (or thinks is funny, etc...) or doesn't. I think it's even a good idea to find those kinds of things out before sending a book out for publication. It takes more time, but one targets one's audience better.

    ..and I figured you'd notice the missing word ;-).

  3. Don't need to mention it. I can't get it out of my mind.

  4. José Ignacio - I think a lot of people feel exactly the same way.

  5. Ha! I didn't notice which word until you asked - and it was a great post! I'd so much rather read dialogue and slow gentle romantic build up (as happens between Wimsey and Vane, for instance) than always reading explicit description.

  6. Deniz - Thank you :-). And I know exactly what you mean. There are some novels where you can see why there's explicit description, and when it adds to the plot, OK. But my personal preferences is the slow build-up, too. I much prefer things implied than spelled out to me. And yes, Sayers did that quite well with Wimsey and Vane, didn't she?

  7. I love how subtle and complex the Wimsey/Vane stories are. Their journey to romance is so complex and deep without anything blatant, yet they remain my favorite love stories. Thanks for the great tips.

  8. The Subtle, slow build-up of relationships tends to add another layer to the intrigue. Leaving something to the readers' imaginations is good.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. On the issue of people knowing each other in a Biblical sense I always think that less is more - as you proved with this post we've all got perfectly good (smutty?) imaginations and we can guess what is being implied without having it all spelled out for us - graphic descriptions usually have me skipping ahead (or laughing)

    I have just finished Martin Edwards' The Serpent Pool in preparation for the next installment of the series, The Hanging Wood which I am lucky enough to have as an ARC. I am definitely keen to find out what happens between Hannah & Mark & Daniel ...but having come to know Martin's writing I think I'm safe from really explicit descriptions no matter which way things go.

  10. Faith - That's just it; the Wimsey and Vane stories are quite subtle. They don't include blatant "hits over the head," and yet it's clear that a deep and strong love affair is growing. It is a good love story :-).

    Mason - I agree; leaving something to the reader's imagination does add a layer of intrigue. I think it gets the reader personally invested in a story, too. And that personal investment keeps readers engaged in the novel.

    Bernadette - That's just what I've always thought. Readers are perfectly capable of imagining things without every detail having to be given to them. And too much detail can be really off-putting. It certainly does take the reader out of the story - the main focus of the plot. I agree with you that less is more.

    And I'm as eager as you are for The Hanging Wood. As I'm sure you know, I'm a fan of the Lake District series, and I really want to know, too, what happens to Hannah, Daniel and Marc. But no matter what happens with them, we're not going to be subjected to un-necessary graphic detail.

  11. It certainly adds another dimension to any mystery and sometimes it is a most welcome break from the ugliness of murder. I'm all for that. Unfortunately, my instinct is to go for the laugh rather than the moonlight and candles.

  12. Elspeth - You know, I hadn't thought of it that way, but you're quite right. It is a nice contrast to the awfulness that is murder. But honestly, I wouldn't call it unfortunate that you go for the laugh. I wish I could. I was born without the humour chromosome, though...

  13. Sex. Oops, sorry, did I say that out loud. You had me filling in the details with my own imagination. I agree with you, I don't need sex scenes in my mysteries. If I want that sort of thing, I'll read romances. In my first book I used the word shag but didn't elaborate any more. I think people will enjoy my book without the sex.

  14. Clarissa - I'm quite sure they will, too. You make a good point that people who want to read bedroom details can read spicy romances or other books that feature those details. Mysteries are absorbing to crime fiction fans because of the plots, and those don't necessarily require explicit scenes to move them along.

    And yes, you did type that out loud ;-).

  15. Now you make me feel so stupid. I've read The Hollow at least three times (two of which in the last five years), and I never really chose to believe the two of them actually just talked that night. Yes, seriously!!!
    Maybe it was because he had a wife and a lover, and I didn't think he would really have the energy for a third!

    Personally I can do without overt descriptions and very often just gloss over them if they are there. Not that I am a prude or anything - I just do not enjoy reading sex (there I said it) scenes, unless it is a parody.

  16. Rayna - Oh, no need to feel stupid. I think we all see different things when we read, and the fact that that was something you didn't see just makes it...something you didn't see. Besides, you've got a point. Christow was already quite busy, so to speak, and it's hard to think of him taking up with yet a third person.

    And I agree with you; a person can prefer not to read explicit scenes and still not be a prude. I'm not much of a one for those kind of scenes, either, mostly because I like to use my imagination when I read. Hard to do that if everything is right there. And yes, you said it :-).