Elizabeth: Really Good Sex (Scenes)

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I had absolutely no idea what to write about for today’s blog post, so I decided to do some research (aka “read”) for a while instead while waiting for inspiration to strike.

Fortunately for inspiration’s sake, the book I randomly pulled from my TBR pile turned out to be little more than a series of sex scenes strung together by a barely noticeable plot (thank goodness it was a freebie).

It was disappointing, because I was hoping to get some pointers for the contemporary novel I’m working on, but it got me thinking about the difference between a sex scene that helps move the story along and one that could be removed without any discernible impact.

Naturally my thinking led me to the internet and to a couple of great posts over at the terribleminds site:  25 Humpalicious Steps for Writing Your First Sex Scene by guest poster Delilah S. Dawson (Author Of Wicked As She Wants) and 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Sex, by Chuck Wendig.

These two blog posts, along with several others I found during my search provided some good suggestions and things to keep in mind when writing sex scenes.

What’s Changed?

How are the characters different at the end of the scene?  Are they more comfortable together?  More awkward?  Does either one regret what just happened or rethink their involvement?  Are there ramifications for what they just did?  As we learned at McDaniel (and countless other places) the purpose of a scene, any scene, is to move the story along and show the characters growing and/or changing.  If they end up the scene exactly the way they started it, then maybe the scene doesn’t need to be there at all, whether they had great sex or not.

Word Choices

There are sites out there with examples or “cringeworthy” sex scenes from novels.  In many cases it’s because of the word choices, not because of the action in the scene.    If a scene moves the story along and definitely shows the characters changing, but makes you think “ick” or roll your eyes or skim/skip, then that scene is not as effective as it could be.  Everyone has their own preferences, so you’re not going to find an answer that works for all readers, but it’s something to think about.

Word Choice Corollary

This is a story, not a doctor’s office, a how-two manual, or an essay for your college entrance exam.  Clinical terminology can make the scene feel cold and, well, clinical.  Scouring the thesaurus to find those ten-dollar words instead of more commonly used terms can draw attention away from what’s actually happening in the scene and focus the reader’s attention on the words themselves.  Don’t do that.


Though it applies to all scenes, it is extra important in sex scenes to keep track of the details.  Who’s wearing what?  Where are they positioned?  Is what you’re describing even anatomically possible?  Whatever your characters are doing, you want to make sure it wouldn’t take three arms and body parts of unusual size to reach everything they’re supposedly reaching.  When the details cause your reader to stop and go “wait a minute,” then you’ve broken the flow of the story.  In the book I just read, for example, the heroine put on a skirt in the beginning of the scene, only to have the hero remove her shorts a few paragraphs later; and somewhere along the way his tattoo moved from his arm to his back.


The best advice I found during my search was the recommendation to go back to my favorite stories and see how they did it.

“See what works for you and what doesn’t. Notice how the author builds to it, what the characters say and don’t say, the words and euphemisms and cliches used. Or– best homework ever– have sex.” ~ Delilah S. Dawson

So, what makes a sex scene work for you?  Do you have any for recommendations of books that you think had really effective scenes?  You know, for research purposes only.  🙂

9 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Really Good Sex (Scenes)

  1. Some of Jenny Crusie’s sex scenes work phenomenally well, and I think it’s because they hinge not just around around conflict, but around metaphors that are very specific to the characters involved. In Welcome to Temptation, when Phin discovers Sophie has a fantasy/sexual trigger about being discovered having sex, he wields that knowledge to give her the most explosive orgasm she’s ever had. The scene with the chocolate donut in Bet Me is legendary not just because food can be as sensual experience as sex itself, but because donuts represent all the joy of food that Min’s been denying herself.

    I’ve been playing around with a book featuring a character who’s a Brandon MacMillan/Cesar Milan type dog trainer. I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for his personality–he’s a natural alpha, he’s a guy who lives very much for the present, when he meets the heroine, he instantly categorizes her as being an Afghan Hound–glossy and high maintenance–and his best friend is a Basset Hound–placid, slow-paced, highly loyal. But I haven’t given much thought (yet) to what this means for him in the sack (beyond the obvious).

    As usual on this blog, you’ve given me much to think about!

    • Jeanne – glad the post has given you something to think about. You are spot-on about those scene’s in Crusie’s books. I also think the scene in Faking It is done well too. Tilly and Davy get together, but she spends the whole encounter trying not to shout out “I’m an art forger”, which leaves him wondering what the heck is going on. It contrasts well with the scene later in the book when they get together again without secrets hanging over their heads.

      Your dog trainer character sounds interesting. Would love to hear more about where you are going with that.

  2. I think the marriage night scene from Outlander (book or TV series) was fabulous. Jamie and Claire had a different relationship at the end of that night than they had at the beginning. And in the TV version, it was beautifully shot as well, so bonus!

  3. I can strongly second the recommendation of the Outlander books (particularly the first few) as a master’s class in how to write sex scenes that help develop your characters or move your plot along (or both).

    The “In Death” books show both the utility of sex scenes and the limits of them. Sex (always between Eve and Roarke, the main characters who were clearly the inspiration for “Castle”) is used to show (rather than tell) how relationships shift back and forth, how the needs of a person are different from day to day. Unfortunately, 43 books later the limits of her ability to vary the scenes appear to have been reached.

    May you some day also face the problem of how to keep your series fresh after 43 books. 🙂

    • Scott – I’ll have to give the In Death books a shot (though probably not all 43 of them). Is there one you would recommend above the rest or should I just start at the beginning?

  4. Scott – I’ll have to give the In Death books a shot (though probably not all 43 of them). Is there one you would recommend above the rest or should I just start at the beginning?

  5. You know, there’s kind of a scale. There are romantic scenes that shut the bedroom door, and those are the ones I like best. I get all the character development, and I’m allowed to imagine the sex exactly to the extent I want to imagine the sex. There are sex scenes which can be so tricky because there are a lot of different things that turn a person on — and if someone goes heavy and hard into something that’s just not rocking my boat . . . well, I get bored and skim. Or if it’s really, really rocking my boat, I tend to skim the characterization and plot stuff to get to the next “good part”. Then there’s porn, which is a lot of fun in and of itself, but characterization and plot just gets in the way of the jollies.

    One of my favorite sex scenes is the ending of Bet Me. I think in that book, Jennifer Crusie really does a good job of hooking up one addictive pleasure to another: the pleasure of food is used to enhance and bolster the pleasure of sex. I’ve had my share of strawberry kisses, which actually were quite delightful. But like any good thing, it could be taken into the realm of ridiculous. Food as foreplay, sure. I don’t quite know if food as part of the “main event” would work — mostly because by that point, natural instinct should be taking over.

    Anachronisms aside, I found the doobie-in-the-jungle scene in The Charm School to be very effective. It pushed a lot of my pleasure triggers — giving up responsibility for one’s actions, being driven out of one’s mind by passion, and the slight guilt of being naughty (outdoor sex, and also, neither partner was quite ready to commit to the relationship yet, so it was kind of one-night-stand-y). I’ll have to re-read it to see if it moved things forward. I think it did show a lot about our two characters, though, and made them ready to commit. (Although, I don’t find that “god, that one-night stand was unforgettable” trope to be quite as compelling.)

    (-: I’m still on vacation mode in my head. I’m not sure if any of that really made sense. Probably TMI.

    • Not to worry Michaeline, you made sense just fine. I will have to pay attention to that scene in Charm School when the book reaches the top of the TBR pile. That’s a good point about closing the bedroom door at some point so you can imagine the sex just the way you want to imagine it. Not for every story, of course. I second (or maybe third) the scene in Bet Me. It was really well done, moved the story along, and was a lot of fun. The donuts were a bonus. 🙂

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