Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sex scenes have a variety of uses in story telling – they can be the emotional climax of a central story or subplot, they can be a compelling way to build characters or share exposition, and they can offer up some much-needed titillation.
Like any other type of scene, it can take practice and consideration to write good sex, but unlike a fight or chase, there’s a particular stigma to writing bad sex that can really make your reader cringe.
Perhaps it’s because there’s also a rare confidence in authors approaching a sex scene – for some reason, writers tend to plow ahead with either absolute confidence or else a complete panic that can look like confidence from the outside, churning out some truly awful writing in the process.
But difficult as it may be, writing sex well isn’t impossible. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at three great tips for writing a better sex scene. I’ll be keeping things as sedate as possible, but there’ll be some adult language and references from the first tip on.
Craft vs. taste
Obviously, sex – and its depiction in fiction – is all about personal preference. What one person finds erotic, another finds crude, silly, or confusing, and any writing about sex has to deal with the fact that it just won’t be for some people.Readers don’t recommend books with bad sex scenes to their friends.Click To Tweet
That’s all a matter of taste and, as the author, that’s your call to make. While good advice could be offered for appealing to certain types of reader, there’s no objective right or wrong to taste – it’s personal.
The same can’t be said of craft. Craft is how you put something together, the mechanics and skills that go into a task, and while it’s not all that matters about writing, it does have enough relation to objective judgement for us to be able to look at how you can improve the craft of your sex scene writing.
In short, whatever your tastes in terms of sex scenes, there are universal tips about craft that should still apply. As ever, they describe rules that great authors can bend and break at their leisure, but the first stop is always understanding where those rules came from and why they exist in the first place.
1. Depict mutual agency
In terms of depicting characters, ‘agency’ generally means a person’s ability to act independently and to make their own choices. Depicting agency means showing the reader that a character has thoughts, opinions, and goals, and that their actions are extensions of those qualities.
When writing about sex, the most common way in which authors forget to write mutual agency is to write women as objects – their desires, thoughts, and motives subsumed in those of the male characters. Specifically, scenes are written with the tacit idea that what the sex scene is ‘about’ is whether the man can successfully have sex with the woman – that is, will she ‘let’ him.
Treating a female character as the gatekeeper of sex ignores her own agency – her desires and thoughts. It’s not just bad writing on its own; it leaves you one character down in your writing. You’ll see far, far more success if, male or female, you’re able to peer into both characters’ heads. Not just revealing what they think and feel about the encounter and their partner, but some of who they are.
He leaned forward and kissed me again and I kissed him back with more fervor than I had before, and we stood there kissing and kissing between his tent and his car with the corn and the flowers and the stars and the moon all around us and it felt like the nicest thing in the world, my hands running slowly up into his curly hair and down over his thick shoulders and along his strong arms and around to his brawny back, holding his gorgeous male body against mine. There hasn’t ever been a time that I’ve done that that I haven’t remembered all over again how much I love men
– Cheryl Strayed, Wild
That said, men aren’t safe from being objectified in sex scenes. When one character is imagined as the gatekeeper of sex, the other becomes a plaintive figure. They’re imagined as without agency – without anything to offer, and with their desires and thoughts taken as read and left unexplored.
Often, the focus is on communicating how awe-struck a man is by a woman, but many, many authors go too far. Men are described as numb-mouthed, rubber-legged, boggle-eyed fools so overcome by cartoonish lust that they can barely string a sentence together. Even suave characters can end up as passive witnesses to the other character’s sexiness, there to do little more than give them a reason to perform. Unless it’s a considered decision that’s leading somewhere fruitful, beginning a sex scene with one character being categorically unsexy means you’re already in trouble.
Slowly, standing at the foot of the bed, the woman began taking off her clothes. First she undid her tight jacket, button by button, taking her time. Underneath she had on a skimpy black bra – the kind usually favored by Las Vegas showgirls. Her breasts swelled from the confines of the lacy garment.
‘Nice,’ the man said.
– Jackie Collins, Hollywood Divorces & Hollywood Wives: The Next Generation
Once you’re expressing the agency of everyone involved in the sex scene, you need to start thinking about the interplay of agencies. These characters shouldn’t be expressing themselves in a vacuum, but responding to each other’s needs and actions.
In Kristen Roupenian’s short story ‘Cat Person’, the protagonist imagines and re-imagines what her sexual partner is thinking, with her changing perceptions altering how she feels about the experience.
As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.
– Kristen Roupenian, ‘Cat Person’ from The New Yorker
This interplay is what gives a sex scene emotional life past its physical description. After all, it’s a scene about two characters trying to achieve a goal while having their own worries and needs. That goal isn’t necessarily orgasm – it may be a good deal more complex – but in terms of structuring a scene, it’s there. How are they trying to satisfy each other, both physically and mentally, and how do their attempts influence their individual and shared goals?A good sex scene is about interplay, not one character’s experience.Click To Tweet
Finally, consider the power dynamics of your sex scene. Sex is a shared activity, but it’s also a social interplay. Like a conversation or a dance, someone is probably leading. When writing about sex, especially if you’re going for a steamy scene, it’s a good idea to keep this quote in mind:
Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.
– Oscar Wilde
Watch how ‘power’ changes hands in your sex scene and ask, ‘If this was a conversation, who would be speaking right now?’ The answer should change as your scene unfolds, unless the point is that it doesn’t. Of course, sometimes your sex scene will be, or involve, conversation. Vox details two characters sharing their sexual fantasies over the phone, each detail an expression of vulnerability, personal desire, and attempted seduction.
2. Favor intent and effect over cause
Describing the physical realities of sex is rarely erotic, and it’s the difference many people draw between erotica and porn. That distinction doesn’t matter much in terms of craft – the fact remains, saying whose arm is where and what someone is doing with their earlobe is unlikely to get the reader’s pulse racing.
It may not be true that the reader wants to be in the scene, but for it to have impact, it needs to speak to emotional, rather than physical, realities.
But how do you write a sex scene without describing physical movement? Well, first of all, you can describe movement and action – it just shouldn’t be the focus. As Anais Nin says, it’s mechanical, and mechanics alone are boring.
Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore. You have taught us more than anyone I know how wrong it is not to mix it with emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships which change its color, flavor, rhythms, intensities.
– Anais Nin, The Diary Of Anais Nin – Volume 3
You may be thinking that colorful description is the answer, but that too can kill any erotic interest the reader may be harboring. Morrissey’s List of the Lost is the recipient of Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award partly because of the bizarre language it falls back on to try and justify physical description.
At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.
– Morrissey, List of the Lost
Barrel-rolls and implied tricep-smacking aside, Morrissey’s writing fails to excite because physical action doesn’t really tell the reader anything. Is the reader waiting for Ezra to reach the ‘central zone’? Will that qualify as pleasure and, if that pleasure is felt, will the characters be satisfied? Who knows.Physical description doesn’t make a great sex scene, but it can ruin one.Click To Tweet
The unfortunate truth (at least as far as List of the Lost is concerned) is that holding back on physical details can actually be far, far sexier. Dropping a few hints while focusing on desire and effect, while foregrounding the mutual agency I described earlier, leaves the reader room to imagine whatever works for them.
The solution to these problems is for the writer not to be too specific about what the characters are doing, but very specific about their reactions. The reader has to use their imagination, make their own connections, project their own private fantasies onto the characters. “Are they doing what I think they are?” Whatever it is, yup. I’ve been staggered by some of the deductions people have made about my sex scenes, but I’m quite happy to take the credit so long as they liked it.
– Sarah Duncan, ‘Never mind the bad sex award – where’s the good sex in fiction?’ from The Guardian
How someone feels, emotionally and physically, is what’s engaging about a sex scene. You need enough physical description to set the scene, but that’s it, otherwise you risk getting in the reader’s way. If you do share a specific physical act, it should be justified – there to explain a specific moment of feeling, good or bad. When ‘Cat Person’ gets specific, it’s because Roupenian is communicating dissatisfaction – being precise actually alienates the reader from the moment (though, in this case, that alienation is shared by the protagonist).
In the extract below, Aimee Bender shares just enough to set the tone, but then it’s about how it makes the character feel – how it excites and satisfies their desire. In this way, the reader can again understand what this moment and character are ‘about’, and they can inhabit them.
They kiss in between switching, and their hands move all over, into inner thigh, rounded curve of the ass, sweaty necks. I feel the tide fading from my feet. They look up — come with us, come join us, they say, but I’m over here, I say, for today — and they are at once disappointed and also we all know the rhythm has been set as is. Tight calves and legs lifting. Brown curls and blond knees. When they’re kissing again, I could stare for hours. Men love to watch two women kiss, but how I love to watch two men. So clear in their focus. The amazing space created for me when there is nothing demanded or seen.
– Aimee Bender, ‘On a Saturday Afternoon’
3. Use the vocabulary that works for you
Vocabulary is one of the big questions that authors have when it comes to sexuality – what words is it best to use when journeying beyond polite conversation? The short answer is that, broadly, it’s a matter of taste. Some people are happier with the accurate, no-frills terminology for genitalia, some prefer slang, and some prefer metaphorical terms, like ‘stick’.
Whatever your choice, the first thing to note is that spelling is paramount. Obviously, your whole book should be as mistake-free as possible, but sexual misspellings can catapult your reader out of your story for good.
Rachel: Okay, now this is just the first chapter, and I want your absolute honest opinion. Okay? Oh! And on page two, he’s not reaching for her ‘heaving beasts’.
Monica: What’s a ‘niffle’?
Joey: You can usually find them on the heaving beasts.
Rachel: Alright, alright, so I’m not a great typist.
Ross: Wait, did you get to the part about his ‘huge, throbbing pens’? I tell ya, you don’t want to be around when he starts writing with those!
– Alexa Junge, ‘The One with Mrs. Bing’ from Friends
Beyond that, you’re going to lose some of your readers no matter what you do. Some people find accurate terminology too cold, some find slang offensive, and some find metaphors silly. The best advice is to opt for whichever you prefer – writing sex well necessitates you feeling comfortable in the writing, and that’s much harder if you’re using someone else’s terminology.
That said, you should also consider the characters. What words would they use? What vocabulary are they likely to employ in that moment? Again, this stems from their agency, desires, and goals. Are they trying to be romantic, steamy, or are they not sure of themselves? Realism works, and a word that the reader wouldn’t use themselves can become palatable if it fits the moment.When deciding on the vocabulary for your sex scene, ask what the characters would say.Click To Tweet
It may be a non-issue – after all, if you’re not languishing in physical details, spending most of your time looking at intent and effect, then it won’t come up too often. There’s also a sizable portion of your potential readership who don’t mind either way. Some people want to be transported by a sex scene, and unexpected vocabulary and events do that for them. Fifty Shades of Grey may have a much-mocked writing style, but it certainly excelled at showing many readers something they hadn’t seen before.
Finally, if you’re writing straight-up erotica, if the sex scenes are why your reader is there, then digital publication allows you to release multiple versions, or even include them in one book, one version after the other. It’s not the answer for everyone, but most readers would be happy to find there’s a version of the story that caters to their preferred vocabulary. Just remember – different versions means your sales numbers aren’t counted as one, while bundling multiple versions together increases file size. It’s a case of picking your poison, but for shorter works, the latter shouldn’t really be an issue.
Writing good sex
Though it’s more taboo, and more embarrassing to get wrong, writing sex is like writing any other social interaction – it begins with character, and the mechanics are most interesting when they speak to the potential outcome.
Try not to write sex but specific characters having sex. Consider what those people want from the encounter and have them try to get it. It might, as in ‘Cat Person’, be that they want different things, and it goes badly, or it might, as in Vox, lead to a deeper connection. It might even be like Fifty Shades of Grey and work as more of a show for the reader, but even then, it’ll be a far more realistic, more satisfying show for your efforts.
Do you have a sex scene you’d recommend to writers who want to improve their own, or your own nomination for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award? Let me know in the comments. Or, for more advice on this topic, check out What Readers Want From Erotica (And How Writers Can Give It to Them), Writing Romance: Why Perfect Men Make Boring Heroes, and Why Authors Need To Take Care When Writing The Other Gender.