Okay, you knew that I was eventually going to write this post, didn’t you?
The first rule about writing sex scenes is that you have to know your audience, and that there are no hard-and-fast rules. At least that’s what I’ve come to conclude, because different people’s tastes vary widely. Some readers enjoy erotica–or at least a steamy romance in which sex serves as a suitable proxy for emotional connection. Others detest any story that has any sex in it whatsoever. Most are somewhere in between.
The reason for these wide differences in reaction is because of the nature of sex. Sex itself is just a biological function, a physical act, like eating or peeing. That’s why many people, including me, find raw sex scenes even more boring than The Alchemist.[*] And that’s the primary reason I’ve never really gotten into erotica. But sex is also one of the most powerful and profound human activities, because we link it with a wide variety of deep emotional needs, including our need for attention, emotional and physical intimacy, family stability and security, status, and even spiritual growth.
So how you treat sex scenes will depend on how you think about sex. And in the following tips for writing “interesting” sex scenes, most likely, they’re about how to make them interesting to me. Know your readers; use your own judgement.
[*] I considered taking a jab at Twilight there. Indeed, raw sex scenes are more boring than Twilight. But while The Alchemist may be overall slightly more enjoyable to read than Twilight, that’s not because the story is less boring than Twilight.
8 Sex-Scene Tips
Use sex sparingly, and always to push the story forward. Remember the plot! Every scene pushes the story forward, or else edit it out. In particular, make sure sex scenes contain conflict. Conflict imparts momentum. And without conflict, you have no story. It’s easy to let sex degenerate into mere activity, especially since it involves a lot of repetitive activity. But when you write a sex scene, you have to remember why the activity is important and continually show that to the reader.
Focus on character needs. Sex, at its base, satisfies a physical need. But because it is such an intimate act, it also has emotional components. The emotional implications of sex will impact your characters in ways unique to their personalities, circumstances, and needs. Make sure the scene fits into your characters’ stories, deriving from their needs, following their arcs.
What you imply holds more power than what you reveal. Your reader’s imagination will do plenty to fill in the gaps, as in any description. Reveal the significant points, those details that have a compelling effect on the characters’ story, but leave other details to the imagination.
Be careful of sex jokes. I’m not saying not to make sex jokes, if that’s what you want. But if you make a joke, just make sure you meant to make a joke. There are few goofs more embarrassing than a double entendre that you included by accident. Beware of unintentionally funny euphemisms. And if you do intend to make a joke, beware of “mixing the ridiculous with the sublime,” as my Dad says. Sex touches a whole range of powerful emotions, which is why it can make an effective subject for comedy. But you want to be careful about invoking the comedic and serious at the same time, or your readers may get confused and simply conclude that you have poor taste.
Focus on the sexual tension, rather than on the sex. Don’t try to use sex as a substitute for real emotions or solid storytelling. Remember, if you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story, and sexual tension can indicate story conflict. Extraordinary changes require extraordinary forces. And extraordinary sex requires extraordinary motivation. So you should increase the tension before the act itself. And the longer the scene goes on, the more you will have to raise the stakes to keep it interesting.
The two sexiest organs in the human body are the mind and the skin. You can often avoid references to the genitals or other parts of the body usually associated with sex. Or at least use such references judiciously. Rather, use all the senses, and explore them broadly and deeply. Explore thoughts and emotions as well, including sexual tension.
If the sex scene you just wrote doesn’t make you horny, you’re probably doing something wrong. This is the kind of sanity check you should always apply to any scene you write, that it touches your emotions just as you would have it affect your readers’. Usually, if you’re writing a sex scene, one of the emotions you want to invoke is sexual excitement.
Write what you’re comfortable with, but don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. That’s part of the writing experience, to play with unfamiliar parts of your psyche. On the other hand, you might want to write what you know, at least to avoid action that’s impossible in real life.
The first is a snippet from From the Ashes of Courage, one of Gail’s flashback scenes from when she and George were married. It almost doesn’t even qualify as a sex scene.
Somewhere between bed and breakfast, however, I relaxed. George spoke to me affectionately, convinced me that I’d do better on the test if I took a break and spent some time goofing off. His craziness sometimes allowed me to loosen up and be crazy, too.
He served us fresh clam rolls. We ate. Then we danced in the living room. We laughed. George pressed his body against mine. His arms wrapping around me, he held me, and it had been too long since he last held me like that. He caressed my cheek with his hand and leaned in and kissed me.
Before I knew it, he was exploring my body on the living room floor, and I his. His body covered mine like a blanket, his kisses sprinkled their way down my neck and over my lips.
We felt so… together, in the moment together. That’s the only way I can think of to describe it.
The other sex scene I’d like to draw your attention to is in Talyn, beginning at p. 150. (Click here to preview the scene via Google Books.) Here are some snippets:
I turned to tell him that I would only be a few minutes with the horses, and he kissed me. No warning.
[ . . . ]
It was the first step to the end of the world, and I felt it when I took it–felt the firmament shift beneath my feet and ghosts sliding up behind the edges of my eyes–and Ethebet preserve me, I took that first step and kept right on walking.
[ . . . ]
I had every reason to push away from him. I had every reason. And I, who had never ignored reason before, ignored every sane thought in my head and kissed him back with everything I had in me, every yearning and every hunger and every wish I had pushed aside and refused to let myself look at again.
[ . . . ]
I wanted him. All of him. Right then, right there.
I stared into his eyes–eyes gone dark with hunger, centers black and huge–and my heart galloped in my chest like a wild thing. His upper lip trembled, his breath came fast, his body against mine was hard in all the best places.
“I bite,” I said around the sudden constriction in my throat.
“Good.” He growled, and his grin was wolf-sharp. “If you treat me right, so do I.”
“Beds are boring,” I said.
“Anyplace that won’t give me splinters is fine with me,” he answered.
The scene continues for five pages. I’ve taken out big chunks, marked by “[ . . . ]” above, not because those chunks are boring–they’re not–but for brevity. What fascinated me about this scene is that even though it’s explicit, Talyn spends more time talking about her own perceptions and reactions than about the actual sex. And just when I thought the scene was about to end, Holly ups the ante, increases the tension, and gives it new life. That’s how she went on for five pages.
This scene also has a very important role in the larger story, because it shows how Talyn–a strong woman with an unshakable sense of identity–is falling to Skirmig. That’s a character conflict, which Talyn debates with herself even in this sex scene, and that makes the scene key to Talyn’s story.
Sex scenes are actually not much different than any other scenes. If you focus on the story, make it your first priority, then you realize that sex is just a plot device, just a tool that gets you from a blank page to the story you want to tell. Just like any other plot device. Keep that in mind, and you’ll find it much easier to stay on the track.