Nancy: How to Write a Sex Scene and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning

In the song I Want Your Sex, GM sings:

In the song I Want Your Sex, GM sings: “Sex is natural, sex is good. Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” What do your characters think about that suggestion?

Followers of the blog know we started the discussion of sex – specifically, writing sex scenes – last week, when Kay talked about her difficulty writing the next (and more meaningful) sex scene between the h/h in her WIP. On Saturday, Michaeline followed up with some observations about different kinds of sex scenes and some words encouraging writers to practice writing them. Today, as someone who has written many sex scenes over the years, had them critiqued by other writers, and even survived having both my mother and mother-in-law read a book with some really hot stuff happening, I thought I’d add my two cents, or in this case, five points to ponder, about writing sex into a romance story.

1. A scene is a scene is a scene. When is a scene in your story not a scene? Never! So, it stands to reason that a sex scene will, in many ways, be like the other scenes in your book. As Kay and Michaeline both pointed out in their posts, scenes exist in a story for one reason – to move the story forward. That’s why the best scenes tend to have conflict, beats, escalation, and a turning point.

Conflict in a sex scene? This one often trips up writers. But remember that conflict doesn’t have to mean fighting. It just means that a character wants something and s/he wants to get it as quickly and easily as possible, and the other person in the scene is blocking the goal or the smooth attainment of it. The h/h in your sex scene might even want the same thing, but have a different idea about how to attain it. And before you jump to the obvious – well they both want sex, obviously! – remember that scenes also have layers. What is happening on the surface is only the 10% of the iceberg that’s above water. Share with your reader at least some of the 90% of emotion and thought and processing going on inside your POV character.

That deep analysis will also help you identify and present a turning point in the scene. At some point, a thought, a feeling, a belief about sex or the character’s sex partner or the world will change, maybe a little bit, maybe a lot. But change it must, because change is how your scene moves the story. Which brings us to point 2.

2. What do love, sex, and scenes have in common? They change everything.  Okay, maybe only Love Changes Everything, but your sex scene should change something. The turning point in the sex scene should show when the change happens. The scenes before and after TBSCHEH (Michaeline’s acronym for the best sex the characters have ever had) should illustrate the change by showing the before and after state of one or both (or all) of the characters who were in the sex scene.

A few years ago, I wrote a post about an amazing documentary called Six by Sondheim, which I highly recommend, whether you are a musical theater fan or not (I am not, but I loved that documentary). One of the most important lessons Steven Sondheim learned from his mentor Oscar Hammerstein was that a song can’t just exist in a story, it has to move it along, it has to change it. Something must be different by the end of the song for the song to serve its purpose. So sex, like song, is not just the icing on the cake of the story; it’s an important ingredient in the batter. Use it, like every other part of your story, to drive the story.

3. Your characters will know when they need it. I’m talking about the sex scene. Ahem. This is the beauty of using a discovery method of writing like the one championed by Lisa Cron in Wired for Story and Story Genius. Lisa’s is a character-driven approach. Following her method, you learn who your character has been for the past several years of his/her life, and how that affects who they are on page one of your book. You mine the recesses of your characters’ souls to learn about the emotional lives they have led and the misbeliefs that have colored their world views. You give them goals that makes sense in the world and world view of the characters, and THEN you build the emotional inner journey (story) and outer journey (plot).

If you are torn between plot (stuff that happens) and story (emotion and internal change), always choose story. Always. And this is coming from a consummate planner/plot structure geek/spreadsheet weirdo. Story first. Plot second or third or fifth. Never shoehorn in a sex scene because it’s Act III or the genre expects it to happen by a certain point or your critique partner really, really likes sex scenes. But don’t AVOID the scenes, either. Will the sex scene move the story in the direction it needs to go, for better or worse for your characters? When the answer to that question is yes, it’s time for a sex scene.

4. You’ll know when you need it. Again, talking about the sex scene. The more stories you write, the more love affairs you describe, and of course the more sex scenes you create, the easier it will be for you to identify – maybe even in the planning/discovery stage of your story – when your characters will have sex. The great thing about knowing this, at least for planning-obsessed brains like mine, is you can layer in the build-up and foreshadowing that will make the consummation all that much more rewarding for the reader. You will be able to set up the ‘before’ state and the ‘after’ state, and write the scene with its turning point to move you from point A to point B. But don’t worry. If you’re not yet in that groove, you can (and should!) still layer in those wonderful things. It’s just more likely to happen in the revision stage.

5. Writer, to thine own self be true. I’ve written in multiple posts that writing is our superpower. I believe that. And I also believe that the stories we tell are the megaphones into which we shout our world views. If you’re a writer, you believe deep in your heart that you have something to say. You have an opinion. You have a world view. Don’t worry, you won’t have to work too hard to have it show up on every page. If you really let yourself sink into the writing, that tends to happen all on its own. It’s actually much harder to disguise your world view (and that way lies frustration and writer’s block. Zero stars, I do not recommend). Your world view might be that sex is reserved for the sanctity of marriage. It might be that a man must be pure, worthy, and above reproach before ‘our girl’ would even consider a sexual relationship with him. It might be that religion comes first, love second in a successful relationship (such as in inspirational romances). This view is going to affect when or even whether you actually include a sex scene or scenes.

Part of my world view is the absolute necessity of women having dominion over our own bodies. How can we ever be truly free to be ourselves, to live our truest lives, and to reach our fullest potential unless and until we are giving the right to make all the decisions regarding our own bodies? This means everything from freedom from being hit or coerced into sex, to the ability to enthusiastically consent to sex. Anyone peddling the madonna/whore complex need not apply here. Women do not have to submit to sex for the ‘privilege’ of procreation, any more than they have to abstain from it to earn worthiness in society. There are far too many people in charge of far too many things right now that believe in that madonna/whore dichotomy, and I will not be silent about my dissent until they get their grubby (and often tiny) hands and hateful laws off every inch of my, my daughter’s, and every woman’s body. Yeah, this one’s a biggie for me.

However, when I write romance, I tend to write historical, in time periods that were even less great for women and bodily autonomy. How to reconcile the two? That’s when one of the lessons from Jennifer Crusie and many other fiction writers comes in handy. There’s a school of thought, to which I subscribe, that says fiction must be better than real-life. That doesn’t mean historical romances with great sex have to be anachronistic. My heroines aren’t about to have Sex in the City type conversations or views about sex. But they are going to make choices for their own bodies and find men who support them in this endeavor. And sometimes there will be consequences! But in the end, the heroine will get her HEA and she’ll feel deserving of it, even though she has had and enjoyed enthusiastically consensual sex. In fact, it’s this very message that has helped me decide that I do want to include open-door, full-disclosure sex scenes in my books. As Jennifer Crusie also has said, romance is the most subversively feminist genre there is. I’m continuing that tradition.

The most important thing to remember when writing a sex scene is to do the right thing by your story. Identify your own values and world view, delve deep into the lives of your characters and their world, remember that you can structure and build and revise a sex scene just as you do every other scene in your story, and you’ll be fine.

So how’s the writing going? Who has a sex scene to write this week? Who’s going to write one just for fun?

14 thoughts on “Nancy: How to Write a Sex Scene and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning

    • You might find, when you re-read it, that it’s not as bad as you remember it. I revised a sex scene last week that I was sure would need to be pretty much a do-over, but looking at it now several months after having written it, realized it wasn’t half bad. Good luck!

  1. I have my pesky scene to write, too. I’ve been putting it off because I’m editing a manuscript (the last of my professional editing career, and the worst!), but I’m thinking I might get started on a draft today, just to give my mind something to work on besides thinking about the Big Misunderstanding that is my last job.

    • Oh no, the Big Misunderstanding! Well, congratulations on it being your last editing job. And think of all the sex scenes you’ll be able to write with more time for your own work ;-)!

  2. This seems to be such a hugely popular topic. (-: I think next Saturday, I’m writing about sex scenes I didn’t write. Your post puts a lot of them into perspective!

    I might write one for fun, but I don’t have any current stories that need a sex scene that’s explicit, so I’m a little afraid of just writing porn. (Nothing wrong with porn, in my opinion. But I’m not ready to show any of it under this name or any other!)

    In my reading this week, I did come across a case where the sex act is extremely important to the plot/character/everything and must be written explicitly. The main character has been assaulted various times, and this is the first time she’s having sex where it’s her choice. Gosh, I’m awfully glad I’m not in that writer’s shoes! All the baggage that must be shed; flashbacks that must be dealt with with every move.

    P.G. Wodehouse never had to write explicit sex scenes. He bled in other ways for his art . . . .

    • I’ve seen that ‘previously assaulted heroine’ trope often, Micki–very valid if it’s done well, but not if it’s lazy shorthand to show that the hero is The One because she trusts him enough to try again and discovers the joy of physical intimacy. Then it makes me gnash my teeth 😦 .

      In my own WIP, there is no sex scene in this book. There are, however, some significant intimate moments that (if I write them correctly) will signal to the reader–and me as the writer– that ONE DAY these characters will have sex, and when they do, it will be very, very good 😀

      • That’s interesting, Jilly. Will your h/h have that ONE DAY in one of the future books? Or do you think you are setting up reader expectation that this series won’t contain sex on the page?

        • Yes, indeed, that ONE DAY will be in one of the future books. I think it’s my job to give a strong signal to readers right now that there will be sex on the page eventually.There’s a critical scene between the h/h about two-thirds of the way through the current WIP that I *think* should do the job, if I write it well.

          This is an important question, and one I’ll definitely be asking my beta readers!

      • I think fiction can be a great medium for healing, so those damaged-heroine stories can be very empowering and teach coping methods. But they are sooooo not my cup of tea. Mostly because a lot of authors want to include the backstory (which is harrowing), and many of them don’t have an answer except “well, hope this one is Prince Charming”. Plus, there’s the factor that I have my own baggage to deal with; sometimes these stories suggest extra baggage that I’m not willing to take on.

    • Well, I don’t think anyone has to write explicit sex scenes. Again, it’s about finding your own voice and message, and whether explicit sex scenes fit with those. As long as it’s not about avoidance out of fear in a story that otherwise indicates (through tone, etc.) that it needs or is going to have ‘open-door’ sex. Story is king, and violating it cheats the reader. Outside of that, you are the master of your own story universe! (Actually, you can also cheat the reader in your own universe if that’s your thing, but I think most of us here don’t want that.)

      • That’s true. Publishing has limped along for hundreds of years without explicit sex. (And on the other hand, a thriving underground of explicit sex scenes has existed for hundreds of years, as well.) I completely agree that you either have to do what the story wants, or you have to risk damaging the story (sometimes to the point where you can’t go on).

        (-: It’s probably a very special joy to write a really good sex scene! Or at least to read it later and discover that it was quite good.

  3. Pingback: DRAFT Michaeline: Sex Scenes I Didn’t Have to Write – Eight Ladies Writing

  4. Pingback: Jilly: Writing Flawed Sex and No Sex – Eight Ladies Writing

  5. Pingback: Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints – The Hot Sweaty Sex Edition – Eight Ladies Writing

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