“Love scenes feel very mechanical. But our whole job is to make it look real.”
– Erika Christensen
**Disclaimer: This post may not be safe for work.**
When most people think of February, I bet Valentine’s Day isn’t far from mind. When people think Valentine’s Day, I bet sex isn’t far behind.
Sex has become less and less taboo over the years, but people still seem to be a little squeamish when doing the deed becomes the main topic of conversation—so as writers, let’s put aside the nerves and talk about it for the sake of well-written sex.
As a writer and a reader, I want a couple of things from sex scenes. I want a natural flow. I want showing, not telling. I want heat. I also want a point. This doesn’t necessarily apply to erotica as a genre, because the sex can be gratuitous, therefore this post is not about erotica. You erotica writers write your sex scenes with a flourish and without abandon!
But a gratuitous sex scene in any other genre is generally a no-no.
You’ve heard the advice before that everything, everything, should further your plot. Every decision your characters make. Every conversation. Every accident. Every minor character…everything should drive your plot forward.
And this definitely includes sex.
**Disclaimer: I am about to share three of the most common things achieved by writing in sex scenes, but these are not the only reasons to include them.**
1.| Start or end a relationship.
I do not mean that a new relationship can’t occur without sex. Of course it can. Most of the time it should begin without sex to keep things realistic. But, it can be used to strengthen bonds between two people, or if used to show infidelity, it can be used to shatter bonds between two people. Sex can cause conflict just as easily, if not more so, than it can solve it.
Maybe two people have what they think will be a one-night stand, only to discover there is a much stronger connection than originally thought.
Maybe a husband succumbs to the flirtations of his next door neighbor.
Maybe a married couple make love before one of them goes off to fight in an intergalactic war, one where no one has returned alive…and a pregnancy results.
The possibilities are endless.
2.| Change a character’s personality.
This could be a good thing or a bad thing that happens to the character. In Sex, Love, and Technicalities I wrote a very bad experience for one of my characters that led them down a self-destructive path. I’ve read other books where a character has exceptionally good sex and came out of the experience renewed with self-confidence. Either the light or dark path can change the trajectory of a character’s path.
Maybe a princess is violated by one of her suitor’s guards, and she abandons castle life to live among the commoners.
Maybe a slightly depressed woman in her mid-fifties is pursued by a younger man, and when she gives in she realizes how much more she has to live for and it turns her whole life around.
Maybe an otherwise sweet and unassuming young man has a sexual experience that leads him down the dark road of sexual addiction.
Again, the possibilities are endless.
3.| Achieve a goal.
Let’s not pretend sex can’t be used as a tool to get what one wants. A promotion, maybe. To get out of trouble. Revenge. To gain information. There are any number of things one might obtain by using sex.
Maybe a young spy uses sex as a way to gain entry into someone’s room and finds the incriminating evidence she needs.
Maybe a young teacher has sex with a school board official to secure funding she needs for classroom materials.
Maybe a reporter has sex with a politician to get the big scoop.
If you guessed I was going to say the possibilities are endless, you’re right.
So, now you know what you want to accomplish in your story by having your characters hit the sheets. How do you go about writing the act?
**Disclaimer: I am about to share with you three of the most popular ways to approach sex scenes, but these are not the only ways to approach them.**
1.| Hide it.
I know. How is this writing in a sex scene? More or less, the sex is hinted at, followed by a scene break. Let’s look at what hiding the sex looks like:
Fiona and Devon enjoyed their bottle of wine, laughing at each other’s bad jokes, and learning about one another’s childhood fears. When her glass emptied, Fiona slipped off her heels and let them fall to the floor. “Come with me,” she said, and held her hand out for his.
Devon paused a moment before entwining his fingers with hers. He had an idea of what she wanted, and the bulge in his pants proved he wanted it too, but what about their working relationship?
“Don’t be frightened,” she said, leading him into the bedroom. “I don’t bite…unless you ask me to.”
We don’t see them have sex. It’s heavily hinted at, what with the wine and presumed excellent conversation and entering the bedroom, but then we’re left to wonder what went on once the door shut. How might the next scene begin, then?
Devon woke at the squeak of the bathroom door. He sat up in bed, his head still swimming in the clouds. “Everything all right?” The memory of their earlier activities stirring his manhood to attention again.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Fiona said, peeking her head from around the door, her toothbrush dangled from mouth. She disappeared again for a few moments, finally emerging wearing nothing but a sparkling smile. “Since you’re up, mind if we renegotiate the Parisian contracts?”
When might hiding the sex in a story be better than actually writing it?
1.| Writer inexperience or discomfort. Nothing reads as awkwardly as a poorly written or rushed sex scene.
2.| The act of sex in itself isn’t significant. In the above example, it didn’t matter that Devon had ripped abs, or that Fiona looked like a Greek Goddess in her black, lace teddy. All that mattered was, from what we can surmise, Fiona used sex as a bargaining chip for contract negotiations.
3.| Genre/age appropriateness. If you’re writing something younger audiences might pick up, it might be better to leave a lot to the imagination.
What about when things need to be shown?
2.| Go for emotional vs. physical reactions.
This is actually how I prefer to write my sex scenes, and how I wish some other authors I’ve read would’ve written theirs. We aren’t so focused here on the mechanics of sex: His arm here, her legs there, the angle of thrust, etc. Let’s rewrite Fiona and Devon’s scenario so we don’t see a scene break, and instead we see more of what happened in the bedroom.
Fiona eyed Devon as he sauntered across the room. Delicious was a word that came to mind, and one she hadn’t expected. Eager to get things over with, she’d already abandoned her dress in a heap on the floor, but Devon seemed pleased to prolong the experience, leaving a trail of clothes with each step.
She gulped. “You must do cross fit.”
“I do. Yoga?”
“Pilates. Only for a year,” she said behind a smile. “Thanks for noticing.”
He snaked his arms around her waist and eased her onto the bed, pulling her into a kiss so laced with desire she lost all memory of how she’d gotten there. He moved with much more expertise than she thought proper for a pencil-pusher. Fiona knotted her fingers into the sheets and cried out in glorious release. She had had no intention of enjoying herself, but the evidence of her good time pooled beneath her.
We still didn’t get into the mechanics of sex, but now we are at least in the room with them. Without a flashback, internal dialogue, or future conversation, we could never have known by skipping the sex scene that Fiona enjoyed herself despite only intending to get her way in negotiations.
When is this route the most appropriate way to write the sex?
1.| The details are in the emotions. If you need your character to experience something emotionally during the act of sex, but the mechanics of the sex aren’t of high importance, this is a much more highly effective way to write it.
2.| Writer ability. This particular way of writing a sex scene is more palatable than writing it explicitly for writers who aren’t comfortable with it, yet who still need to convey something with sex.
3.| Genre/age appropriateness. If you’re writing for an age bracket where sex is a part of life and it wouldn’t be natural not to include at least someone having sex, but it also wouldn’t convey what it needs to if you hid the scene, then this gives you a happy median.
3.| Get down and get dirty.
Quit wagging your tail, I’m not going to be rewriting the scene again. There’s plenty of good smut for you to turn to after this post. (Might I suggest three of my favorite writers with erotic works out there: Vania Rheault, Jewel E. Leonard, and Joshua E. Smith, all links to Twitter.)
Tips if you choose to go this route:
- Don’t get bogged down in the mechanics. Unless it matters where her elbow is, or that his foot is balanced on the second shelf of her bookcase, don’t include details like this, they’re distracting. You also run the risk of head-hopping and giving details that shouldn’t be known. If someone is on all fours, they aren’t likely to know their partner is gritting their teeth.
- Don’t use silly euphemisms for genitals. In fact, most of the time you may not even need to name body parts, silly or otherwise. If you do, and you start using names like her secret garden or his glorious man-rod, you’re going to lose your readers. This reads comically. If you’re writing a sexy comedy, then these may work for you. Your readers will get the giggles. Clinical words don’t work well either most of the time. People read penis or vagina and they’re sent straight back to sex-ed, where, again, they got the giggles.
- Focus on other body parts, instead. When you have your characters in the throes of passion, readers know they’re connected at the genitals. Stretch your skills and expand the reader experience by directing our attention to other areas, evoking all five senses. The scent of her perfume mixed with perspiration. The guttural growl he makes. The crispness of champagne juxtaposed with saltiness as it is lapped up from one’s navel. The glimmer of moonlight striking her diamond necklace. The sting of a riding crop on one’s buttocks. All. Five. Senses.
- Make it real. Real sex isn’t a highly choreographed pornography. People think during sex, they get toe cramps, they laugh. Positions sometimes do not work. Sometimes climax isn’t achieved. Real sex is far more interesting to read than porn. Let your characters be vulnerable to all that can go wrong during lovemaking. This especially holds true if you’re writing about someone’s first sexual experience. First times are often times awkward and the things someone notices or obsesses over during their first time are different than someone who frequently has sex.
- Don’t forget your research. I’m not being coy here and encouraging you to watch porn. But if you plan on writing about something you have no experience in, you’d damn well better research it because someone out there, lots of someones, are experienced and they will call you out on it. Want to write about a man using Viagra, but you’ve never encountered it? Research it. Want to write about a dominatrix, but you’ve never made it out of missionary? Research it. Don’t talk about butt plugs and nipple clamps if you flush at the mention of flavored lube.
Aside from writing erotica, where this type of sex scene reigns supreme, the number one reason I can think of to incorporate this type of scene is because it is what works best for the story. I have read a few books over the years where this sort of scene was used, but it was apparent there was little to no thought behind why. Perhaps it’s just fun, and that’s okay, but it should never come across as thrown in just to, I don’t know, pad your word count, unless you’re aiming to win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award—yep, that’s a real thing.
That is all I have today. Feel free to tell me your favorite and least favorite traits in sex scenes, you never know who you might help.
Until next time, my lovelies! Happy reading and writing! xoxo