The Truth about Writing Good Sex Scenes
This is an area many writers feel weird about, and by “many writers” I mean most of the writers I’ve encountered, myself included. We’ve all giggled over what a bad sex scene looks like, and no one wants to be the one who writes something that other writers — or readers — make fun of. But how do you write a good sex scene? And what do we even mean when we say “good” in this mostly un-talked-about area?
Now, let’s make an important distinction in this matter before we really dive into it. For the purposes of this article, I am not talking about writers who specialize in erotica, although much can be learned from writers working in this genre who are brilliant at their craft. The writer of erotica is producing material in which sex has the starring role, and their audience picks and chooses their stories based on that criterion. What I’m talking about here is for writers of litfic, or sci-fi/fantasy, or even something like memoir — genres in which sex, if there is any at all, plays a more minor part that contributes to the narrative whole.
One of the first traps a “regular writer” can fall into when writing sex scenes is to zoom out too much. They were happily tripping along inside of their character’s mind, recording everything they saw like a magical video camera and transferring all that wonderful action to the page, and then they hit the sex scene. Suddenly, they jump out of their character’s head. They start feeling like they’re making an X-rated video, and so they shift into the mode of the director without pausing to note the shift. Now they’re arranging limbs and deciding on positions and giving the characters corny lines that make everyone cringe.
What happened is that the writer got uncomfortable when the sex started. They deflected the situation by putting narrative (and emotional) distance between themselves and the character. Instead of recording everything that happens through their character’s eyes, they are now in the position of telling their character what to do. And characters don’t like that.
That’s when we end up with a scene that feels forced, or silly, or inauthentic.
The second most common problem springs from our expectations of what other people will want to see when they read about two characters getting intimate. We either assume that readers will want perfect bodies, or perfect emotions. But our characters most likely won’t have either. They might be fictional people but they’re still just people. There’s also the simple fact that most readers don’t find perfect people especially compelling to read about. After all, none of us have perfect breasts or perfect relationships so why would we expect our characters to?
If you’ve successfully planted yourself back in your character’s mind for their big lovemaking moment and you discover that they’re feeling self-conscious about their weight, or their age, or any other of a million tiny little things we humans obsess over, put that in the scene. Fears and doubts and all that other tragicomic human flaw stuff is what makes characters complex. Perfect one-dimensional characters hold the reader’s interest for a few minutes. Complex characters will draw your readers deep into an entire series.
The third obstacle writers struggle with around sex scenes is language and phrasing. We’ve all been taught that some words are not for polite company and others should just never, ever be said, period. As the writer, you’ll have to draw your own boundaries about what is and is not acceptable to you in terms of language. However, a good rule of thumb is to keep things plain and simple when describing basic functions and body parts. Some writers try to dress things up too much or camouflage what they’re really saying and that’s when we get into using horrible euphemisms like “heaving mounds” and a whole host of quivering other things.
Stay in your character’s head, be the video camera and record what you really see. If one character touches another character’s breast, say just that. Using extremely descriptive words when plain speaking will do the trick can really drive up the silliness factor of what could have been a decent sex scene.
And lastly, be true to the story. I’m writing this post because I’ve been writing my own sex scenes this week, to go into my current WIP. I was telling my husband about my struggles and challenges around it and he asked me, “Well, do you need to be that graphic? Can’t you just gloss over it and move on to another part of the storyline?” It was just the question I needed to hear because it made me stop and think. After reflection, I realized that yes, it did need to be that graphic and no, I couldn’t gloss over it. The sex scene I was writing is an important part of the storyline and the development of my two main characters.
Most importantly, let go into the experience. Love and desire — and sex — are all important parts of the human experience. It’s okay to write about these things honestly, even if we never get over feeling just the tiniest bit self-conscious about it.