It’s very difficult to do well.
In one sense, writing a sex scene is like writing any action scene: you’ve got to choreograph it properly, make sure the emotional stakes are in place, and keep the level of description in line with your genre — and thus with the reader’s expectations.
But sex scenes pose a special challenge to the writer: they’re inherently going to evoke a stronger reaction from readers than your average action scene, except perhaps an especially violent one. It’s the oldest essence of our evolutionary past: run or reproduce. The most basic stuff is also the likeliest to fall flat if you do it wrong. With that in mind, here are some tips.
|This might not be what you're going for|
• Don’t go on and on. There’s only so long you can whitter on about this body part meeting that body part before you bore the reader — or worse, make her laugh. If you want to write a comical sex scene, that’s fine. But if you think you’re writing the most passionate scene since Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and your reader is sniggering like a fifth grader in sex-ed class, you’ve done something wrong. The longer your scene goes on, the more at risk it is of becoming unintentionally hilarious. Keep it short. (If you don’t believe me, read John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run.” Great novel generally, peppered with horrible many-page sex scenes.)
• There’s a difference between sex and romance. Sex is just body parts interacting. Romance is about relationship. Certainly there is a place in many novels for simple, straightforward sex: but if the characters are important, then their relationship is more vital than what their bodies are doing. Or, to put it another way, their bodies should be expressing what they feel, how they interact, what they mean to each other. It’s usually better to spend more time on sensation and reaction — the perception of events — than in describing the events themselves.
|A lot can be conveyed with setting and intimation: don't overdescribe|
• Match genre to level of description. I’ve noticed that Pulitzer-prize winners can’t write sex scenes. (See Updike comment, above.) If anyone can think of an exception, please list it, because I’m genuinely curious if my theory holds up. I suspect that writers who are poetry-minded, who are seeking to capture the sublime, fumble badly when it comes to the profane. They can do love scenes, sometimes, but need to dance around sex itself — or skip it entirely. Commercial fiction writers are often much more adept. The best writer I can think of, offhand, at choreographing and pulling off complicated (and engrossing!) love scenes is Diana Gabaldon, in her Outlander series. She blogged once that her fans often thank her for helping their marriages — more than most fiction writers could hope for!
• Avoid crude terminology. This isn’t about prudish modesty. Certain words light up a danger zone in the normal human brain, and so must be used carefully lest you elicit an unintended “ick” reaction from your reader. The exception to this is if your character would naturally use a particular word. If you really feel you must use certain terminology to remain true to character or situation, do it — but be aware of the pitfalls. Otherwise you can use the anatomically correct terms, the less-crude everyday terms, or write around the nouns and focus on reaction.
• Know why you’re including it before you write it. Don’t throw it in there for no reason — or worse, as a cheap way to titillate the reader. She won’t fall for it. A sex scene, like any scene, must highlight character, create tension, move the plot forward, elicit a mood, or perform some other vital storytelling function.