Kay: Writing Sex Scenes

Cupid and Psyche (1817), by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)

Cupid and Psyche (1817), by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825)

I’ve been chugging along on my WIP for a very long time. For a while, Life intervened. But even after I got Life wrassled to the ground and stomped on, that WIP just didn’t cooperate. No matter how I tried to gas it up and drive it someplace, it went nowhere. And as I don’t have to tell most of you, nothing is more depressing than writing 500 new words and deleting 600 old ones every day. A person starts to wonder if she’ll end up with an empty tank and no place to go.

But over the last few months, things have turned around. The book’s going okay. It isn’t there yet, but these days I’m writing 500 words and deleting 50. That’s what I call progress.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I looked at my blank page with fear and loathing. I’ve come to that spot in the book where my characters need to have sex.

I hate writing sex scenes. I know they’re supposed to be like any other scene, where things happen and characters grow or change, or the plot moves (or maybe that’s the earth) and so on.

But no matter how much I try to stick some kind of Goal, Motivation, and Conflict into my characters’ physical demonstrations, my sex scenes pretty much suck. And let me hasten to add, I’m in good company—I think the sex scenes of about 95% of other writers suck, too. Those are inevitably the pages I skip, the sections I find boring.

I want to do better in this story. My characters deserve better. Heaven knows, I’ve lived with them long enough. They deserve gold-plated, caviar-coated, champagne-drenched, Lamborghini-driving, high-quality, meaningful sex just for sticking with me for this long.

But how to get that high-quality sex on the page, that is the question.

Laurie Hutzler has a mechanism that she calls Fear, Want, and Need, which corresponds roughly to Michael Hauge’s Story Mastery/Identity to Essence concept. They’re both screenwriters, so it’s not really a surprise that they endorse the same kind of story development. It goes basically like this:

The Want is immediate, concrete, and urgent. The protagonist pursues The Want (usually something specific) so she can deal with the Fear (usually something universal). However, the Want doesn’t necessarily address the Fear—the Want is usually just a temporary solution.

Need to the rescue! The Need is the character’s higher self (what Hauge calls “essence”)—what our protagonist must embrace to move past her Fear. The character often isn’t aware of the Need. It’s buried, smothered by Fear. But as our protagonist moves through the story, she becomes aware of the Need.

So—can I translate this to a sex scene? Argh.

Using the Want, Fear, Need mantra, I think this is how the overall character arc for my heroine looks: My character Wants to be independent and debt-free, doing a job that confers a certain amount of professional respect. Her Fear is that she’ll turn out to be like her mother—no certain income, no certain relationships, life of chaos. Her Need is for stability—a regular job, one guy she can love and who loves her back.

In the bedroom, though: how does this translate? The conflict part I have: she doesn’t want to move in with the hero because she’s not certain he’ll stick, and she thinks they haven’t known each other long enough for that kind of commitment. They do have sex, though, so…how to put the Want/Fear/Need arc into that setup is escaping me at the moment.

What do you guys do? What are the best sex scenes you’ve read? (And can I copy those?) Any ideas on how to fix my character’s love life?

22 thoughts on “Kay: Writing Sex Scenes

  1. Maybe this is why I don’t have any sex scenes in my book yet (or even planned). Mmm, maybe not. I can’t think that sex would move the plot forward, but I may be wrong. I guess I’ll have to see as the book plays out.

    I’m sorry they give you so much trouble. Wish I had some advice. You can’t just “fade to black?”

    • In this book, they’ll have sex twice (on the page, anyway. What they do on their own time is anybody’s guess 😀). The first time it’s basically fade to black. This time, though, they’ve just had a fight, so I think there has to be some reconciliation that we see on the page. I’m just not sure how that’s going to look. But yeah, I love fade to black. Solves a lot of problems!

      • As a reader, I hate fade to black. It makes me feel cheated. If there’s a sex scene at all, I want it to be important to the relationship arc, and I want to know what happens. It’s all about emotions–I don’t need details of Tab A and Slot B. I don’t even care whether the earth moves, as long as the story does 😉

  2. Maybe the sex is too good. Scary good. Once-in-a-lifteime good. Maybe it starts to feel like making love, not just a really fun time, and in the afterglow she starts to think maybe the hero is The One. And then she panics, because that’s what her mother does, every time, with every lover, and he never is. Or in the afterglow he starts saying things that sound like commitment, and then she panics, because she’s not sure she believes him and she wants it too much… Or something.

    Jenny C does a version of this in Crazy For You, except it’s the hero who’s commitment-phobic. It’s all good until he realises his thoughts are straying towards settling down, then he’s out of that bed soooo fast. It’s sexy and hilarious.

    • I remember the Crazy for You scenes! I’d have killed that guy. But yeah, if this were *serious* and fabulous sex, she could have a panic attack. That might work. In the other sex scene, it’s all light-hearted and ha-ha-ha, and when he asks her to move in, she blows him off without thinking about it. So having it get serious and meaningful would definitely be an advancement in the relationship. That could work!

  3. As I read this, I wondered whether your mental block is from fear of writing the intimate, getting the language right, etc., or not yet having a clear picture of the change, i.e., where is each character before the sex and where each is after the act. The second one, for me, is easier. Map out where your h/h each are (emotionally, in their arc, in their belief system) in the scene before the sex, then do the same for the scene after the sex. Then work back to figure out what would cause the change, like Jilly’s observations above.

    I tend to have more trouble with the first one, not out of a particular shyness (I got over worrying about my mother or mother-in-law reading these scenes years ago), but because using euphemisms for body parts can sound childish or squicky, and using correct terminology sounds more like a medical exam than a sex scene. To deal with that, I try to identify some language the POV character uses for other aspects of life or issues that would be in his or her head that would color how s/he views what’s happening. (The process I used for the current book I’m revising is kind of long, so maybe I’ll write a full post about someday rather than take up tons of space here.) And then I hope to make it less weird/squicky/clinical in revision.

    Also, if you’re including more than one sex scene, think about how the arcs of those scenes can reflect your characters’ arcs. Years ago, a wise writing friend of mine recommended the movie A History of Violence (with Viggo Mortensen looking yummy, btw ;-)) to observe this technique. There is a love scene with his wife early in the movie when we think one thing about him, and one between them later in the movie when we’ve seen more of the real character emerge. VERY different love scenes, and that has stuck with me. I try to keep that in mind when plotting my own stories that will have sex scenes in them.

    If all else fails, I’d try Neen’s suggestion. A fade to black or cracked (not open or closed) door scene. The seduction, the tease, the beginnings of the act, ending on a beat that makes it clear what will happen next without spelling it out. Good luck, and I look forward to seeing how you solve this puzzle!

    • That’s a good point about the difference between writing the actual actions or writing the emotions. I *want* to write the emotion because I think the action is usually pretty boring. But I’m lousy at writing emotion, and you still have to put enough action on the page so readers know what’s happening. I just finished rereading Maybe This Time, and I liked those love scenes a lot (well, they were all pretty much in her head, but she had a phenomenal memory). Jenny writes a balance I’d like to emulate. Plus the bad sex she writes in Faking It! Love that. Well, on with my own show…

  4. Funny, I was just reading a sex scene in the latest Loretta Chase book off of my TBR pile when I read this. The scene had none of the annoying Tab A / Slot B mechanics or “which words should I use for that part” stuff. What it did have was humor and a lot of emotion. Our hero was valiantly trying to resist what he’d been wanting to do for a long time and finally, recognizing his own desires, repercussions be damned. She was trying to rationalize herself out of the situation, thinking she knew what was going on and what she wanted, but finding herself completely out of her depth and swept away. The started the scene knowing who they were and what they wanted, and ended it in a new “what the hell just happened” reality.

    It was fun to read, squicky-free, and moved the characters (and the story) along. That is the kind of scene I prefer to read over a lot of sweaty body parts and positions that, even with an illustrated guide, I have a hard time figuring out.

  5. A lot of my reading lately has been sexy writing, and February is the perfect time to talk about lovers and love scenes! I may talk more about it on Saturday.

    I’m going to make a confession: I like porn. And I like the frisson-filled, sparkly non-sex scene that may or may not wind up behind a closed bedroom (or kitchen or whatever) door. What I don’t like is most erotica. I don’t like too much story in my porn because it distracts from the building orgasm. And I don’t like too much porn in my story, because it distracts from the building narrative.

    Those short stories I’ve been reading, though, have had really nice sex scenes for the most part. I think this will be part of my blog post on Saturday, but the main thing is that the sex comes from the characters. The symptoms of arousal are put in plain language — maybe slightly stereotyped, but not the kind of stereotype that is high-falutin’, like jade gates and silver swords.

    The timing is also good — sex comes out of frustration with each other, or from the relief of some sort of break-through that shows they are on the same page. Usually the latter, in the case of this book.

    (-: And the physical part is pretty short. I’m reading these things for the STORY. If I want to get off, I choose different kinds of short story. I want just enough to add a little spice and warmth, and then let’s get back to solving the murder or fixing the hex or whatever the main storyline is. Sex is just one spice in the romance cupboard — I also like lovers fighting, simple quiet intimacy, longing for a connection . . . all in moderation, of course, but they are awfully nice when they are used with care and thoughtfulness.

  6. Pingback: Michaeline: A Different Kind of Sex Scene – Eight Ladies Writing

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  10. I missed this when it was first posted because I was in the middle of the Breast Cancer Scare of 2017, but saw it in today’s “Also Boughts” and gave it a read. The post and the follow-on conversation are fascinating and now I need to go read all the related posts.

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