Michaeline: Writing Sex Scenes

A couple embracing on a hayloft

Is there a secret to writing sexy scenes? Image via Wikimedia Commons

Sex scenes can be scary to write. We live in a strange sort of pop culture that delights in sharing details, details, details, and this is fine up until the point when a description is suddenly branded Too Much Information. The reader enjoys an open and frank conversation about whatever, when suddenly the writer turns the corner into something that’s just a little too personal.

The scary part is that we, as writers, never quite know where that turn is. It’s not marked with signposts. One reader might switch off at the first mention of bodily fluid, while a different reader will devour descriptions of the most depraved and degrading acts, only to be turned off by something that most readers accept as just part of the modern written sex scene – heaving bosoms or a quivering member.

So, I suppose, like so much writing, the first rule is write to please yourself.

Personally, I tend to deal with sex scenes in the same sense that Juliet McKenna outlines the best way to deal with an attacker: run away, if you can. (See her blog post “A Martial Arts Perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Attack Us.’”)

But sometimes you just can’t run away. Sex changes a relationship, and secrets are often revealed in the intimacy of the moment, secrets that never see the light outside the bedroom.

Or maybe you are just having fun writing a seduction and don’t want to stop and close the bedroom door. Lucky you!

The second rule is rely on your experience and imagination, and try not to just re-filter second-hand experiences you’ve read about. Want some examples of bad sex scenes? There’s always The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award. You can find it here, but they want you to sign up for emails, so you may have to read the page through a blue shade and around the sign-up box. Still, it may be worth it. The winner was quoted in The Atlantic Online here, and The Atlantic complains that it isn’t bad sex writing, per se, just bad writing period.

I think this is an important point: writing matters, whether the topic is sex or conflict or hair or long-lost sisters. We may snigger more at bad sex writing, but bad writing is bad writing.

The Literary Review link contains at least one example of some so-called bad sex writing that I like – a short passage by Erica Jong that has a woman comparing her lover’s discovery process to “Adam just discovering Eve’s pussy”. There’s something innocent and eternal about that comparison.

And here, The Times Literary Supplement discusses some books that get it right and wrong. It does get a bit sniffy about genre, but there’s a terribly funny passage from “The Princess and the Penis” by Joanna Walsh which is worth seeing for clever wordplay.

TLS may get sniffy about genre, but the point is taken: sexy writing must move the story forward and/or tell us more about the characters we’re sharing our adventure with. It must illustrate some sort of human truth. If we can do that with a light touch, with humor and care and love, then we’re doing quite well.

I think the third rule to writing good sex scenes is to put away the censor; put away the voice that sounds like your mom gasping in shock; put away the literary critic in your head, and just write it. Then re-write it until the writer inside you is satisfied with the result.

And if, even after locking those critical voices in your mental attic, you still can’t write it, close the bedroom door gently and run away! Not every sex scene needs to be displayed to the reader. Trust yourself, and write it your way.

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Writing Sex Scenes

  1. I think choices about how much to show on the page has to do with the characters, too. In The Demon Deals the Cards, Dara is uptight ahd prudish (also strong, kind and truthful). She wouldn’t enjoy having her sexual exploits displayed for the world to see, so I mostly close the door on her sex with Belial.

    In The Demon’s in the Details, Keeffe is a young artist. She’s a lot more open about sex. When her sister teases her about breaking her own rule and sleeping with a client, she just shrugs. “It was really more of a guideline.” The book is about the collision of art and technology, so the scene where Asmodeus convinces her to try out the sex toy he’s invented is important to the story, to the growth of their relationship and to our understanding of how he views women in general and Keeffe in particular. It’s painted in graphic detail. I keep thinking I’ll take it out (because I’m a little old lady and it kind of embarrasses me), but every time my finger hovers over the Delete key, the writer in me yells, “Leave it alone!”

    • Leave it alone, Jeanne!

      I agree that the choice about how much to show on the page has to do with the characters, and I also believe it should be consistent with the tone of the story, to keep the story promise. A while ago I read a smart, funny steampunk story that changed tone completely in the sex scenes, which were super-graphic. They weren’t bad, but they didn’t belong in that book, and it threw me totally out of the story. I actually wondered if the author had subcontracted them to another writer 😉 .

      I also think what happens between the characters must be in character and should be so specific to them that it couldn’t belong in any other book. The Asmodeus scene sounds perfect for his character and for that particular story.

    • Leave it in!! LOL, if the publisher tells you to take it out, rethink the situation. Do you ever get the feeling that some of your best work isn’t really quite you? I do . . . I often will look at something and think, where the hell did that come from? I like it though.

      So, your little old lady doesn’t get the final vote. Your writer does!

      Great point about sex (and really everything) coming from the character. I suppose if we want exciting “emotional truths” on the page, we should all be writing about sex-crazed murderous psychopaths with terrible childhoods. Sometimes, the reader can read between the lines and come up with an emotional truth that’s more exciting (and very much more personal) than anything we could ever write.

  2. I agree that you should leave that scene alone, Jeanne! As Michaeline says in her post, the sex scenes should move the story forward—or reveal character, or explain motivation—otherwise, they’re just dead meat on the table, so to speak. And it sounds like that scene of yours might go to the heart of your story.

    In my current WIP, I’m writing more sex than I ever have, and other than the first sex scene–which is also the first scene in the book—I’m not sure it does any of that. But I have a long way to go and many revisions to make before I sleep, so I’m not going to fret about it at this point.

    • Another great point — anything goes in a first draft. If you are tempted to go super-graphic and have the kind of full-on hot-monkey sex that would leave yourself gasping in delight, early drafts are the time to do it. Anything can be deleted — but having it on page can lead to other great things.

      And who knows? It might just get to stay in the book.

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