Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perilous Pleasure: The Difficulty of Writing Sex Scenes

I’m not a squeamish person, but when I get to the point in my stories where a sex scene seems like it belongs, I find a sudden urge to go brew yet another cup of tea. Or wash the dog. Or pay some bills. For a while I blamed my hesitation on some sort of latent prudishness, but I’ve since decided it has more to do with the inherent dangers of writing a workable, readable sex scene.
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.

What about you? Do you struggle with writing these potentially difficult scenes? Do you feel pressured to include them, or exclude them, from your writing? What authors do you feel handle this aspect of writing well?


  1. Boy, are you right in saying they're hard to write! Now that you mention Updike's book, I want to go and read it just to see how bad his sex scenes are! Ha!

    I, too, have struggled with the right balance of what to put into a romantic scene. I agree with the fact that some authors just don't know how to write them well. Avoiding crude terminology is a must unless you want your novel to sound like something you'd pick up in the erotic section of an adult bookstore (no offense to the erotica writers out there, I'm just saying...). Keeping a balance is key, and knowing when to write these scenes into your manuscript is important to keep in mind. In my first novel, I had a kiss early on between my protagonists, but when I thought about it months later, I realized I was progressing the relationship much further than it needed to go at that point in the novel. And it was just a kiss! I guess it's one of those things that boils down to timing. If the timing's right, then put it in.

  2. When I first started writing, I wasn't sure whether or not I should include sex scenes in my novel. See, I didn't know what was "expected" of the Women's Fiction genre. I remember being relieved when Sister Violante told me that it was only "required" in certain types of romance. So in that early version of my first novel, I sort-of included one. I copped out and just wrote the beginning of the scene and then cut it, implying they "did it". By the third draft of the novel I realized it wasn't necessary at all and the protagonists only kiss a couple of times (the romance was not the main plot, so I didn't feel the need to develop the relationship more.) Reading Sister Mary's response, I wonder if this is common in beginning writers (to include too much, too soon.) Now I'm not sure if sex scenes are ever necessary outside erotica. To me, they are parallel to other bodily functions that should be kept private, ha ha!

    To answer your question, Steph, I can't remember any sex scenes that impressed me as perfectly executed, but I do remember a novel with romantic (kissing) scenes that were hilarious--and meant to be. The novel was called "Ode to Billy Joe" by Herman Raucher (Summer of '42) I think I've mentioned this one before. It was written to explain the lyrics of the famous song. So this would go along with your theory that commercial writers execute these type of scenes better.

  3. Sex is such a part of our personal lives, that it is difficult to be objective and separate our egos from the characters in a scene. (at least for me)----but it is necessary. Particularly with a highly descriptive scene of something we wouldn't do, (or haven't had the opportunity to do;) subconsciously we worry that the reader is thinking of us. He/she's not! (Although Updike wrote in such a way that it almost seems like he's bragging "I did this, let me tell you about it".)
    Drawing a true picture of the inner life of a hormone laden teen age boy requires revelations of sexual thoughts as well as acts. What Tom Sawyer's or David Copperfield's extracurricular activities were, we can only guess. I try to keep this stuff to a reasonable minimum- as I have said before, my MC is not Portnoy. In the one scene where he has an intimate rendezvous with his girl, I tried to provide romantic and erotic build up until they enter the bedroom, then after a blank space, they are dressing and having a mellow, post (non) coitus scene. One of my readers said he was let down because I didn't describe what went on. I haven't changed it because we find out more later when complications set in. We all know about the mechanics, and I like to leave something to the reader's imagination.
    I recently read 'Family Pictures', by Sue Miller, which raised eyebrows when it came out in 1990. It is littered with fairly graphic sex throughout, but certainly is not erotic. I thought describing the masturbatory activities of an autistic boy were a bit much.
    Since I'm not sure who my target readers are, I've tried to give the MC some lovable aspects. Sex is only one of his problems.

  4. Thou spaketh great truths, Sister Stephanie! I was reading De Sade at fourteen, I am familiar with erotica (classic and contemporary) and I am a rehabilitated bodice-ripper addict, thus I know the difference between pornography and romantic graphic sex, but my final word is graphic sex has no place in serious lit (or in film or TV Series .). You can't mix things. No matter how much you love steak and strawberry ice-cream you don´t serve them in the same dish. That doesn’t mean you have to go Victorian, but you can have intense sensuous scenes without the descriptive excess that you resent in “Run, Rabbit, Run.” Moreover, erotic is such a personal concept that you don’t know what is going to excite your reader. The most arousing novel I have ever read (Benjamin Tammuz’s “Minotaur”) had no graphic sex at all.

  5. See...I am all for some "graphic terminology" if it means I don't have to read about her "wet feminine core," or his "throbbing shaft," etc. Some of the euphemisms romance authors come up with in order to avoid saying "cock" or "vagina" etc are cringeworthy.

    I think we all have our preferences, though. I hate the word "pussy." I think it sounds ridiculous. "Vagina" isn't sexy, and let's not go near the c-word (ahem). I end up mostly using "inside her/inside me" or somesuch.

    I wrote an article about sex scenes a while ago; we cover much of the same ground ;)

    There are some literary authors who write good sex, I think. Try Alan Hollinghurst or Emily Maguire. People like Updike aren't trying to be sexy, I don't think. They want to capture something else, something more absurd about the act. It always amuses me how such authors are given the Bad Sex Writing award every year when it's blatantly obvious that they weren't trying to write a "good" sex scene.

  6. I agree with Lucy M completely. I am amazed at the use of these words, especially the P word, jokingly on the British comedies on PBS. Does that whole country have adolescent mentalities? I am somewhat shocked by the use of fuck so casually by nearly everyone, usually for no reason except habit. It's getting to be as bad as 'you know' or 'like'. I guess I am just an old fuddy-duddy, expecting a decent level of propriety in everyday conversation.

  7. Lucy -- I'd say, yes, it's all about the wording. I don't wholly agree that sex shouldn't be in literary works. If it seems like it should be there, then the author needs to know how to write it so it flows with the genre.

    Regis -- I completely agree with you when it comes to the "f" bomb. I think it's a highly charged word in literary works and should be treated as such. Having every character say it just lessens the oompf it needs when that extra special character says it in order to show characterization. So many authors just drop it wherever, but it needs to be used cautiously for certain times. It's all about the timing!

  8. Ha ha...I was going to say something about "unsheathing his throbbing member"....

    I think everything is possible in context. If you are writing erotica, well, it's expected to be a bit dirty. I think the reason they are hard to write, as someone mentioned earlier, I believe, is that we all find different things sexy. One person's sexy may be another's "OH MY DEAR LORD WHAT A PERVERT!!" It's hard to appeal to everyone.

  9. Lucy, good point: Updike probably wasn't trying to be sexy. Still, I'm not sure he wanted his readers to cringe at his wording. He was young when he wrote the first Rabbit book, and you can tell. Perhaps I'm not being fair, but I'm not sure he was entirely in control of those particular scenes.

    Regis, the British do indeed have a more flexible relationship with naughty words. In fact, I have a dear English friend staying with me right now: her mum warned her not to swear in America because Americans just can't manage. :) I feel as long as everyone's OK with something, then it's really not improper, is it?

  10. "...not to swear in America because Americans just can't manage" (?????)

    Clearly she has never heard Chris Rock (or my husband when he's talking to other cops/military men)

  11. Ha! My husband, too. But we do have a lower tolerance for it, society-wise, than friends across the pond. The words just don't carry as big a shock-factor there.

    I was thinking about Lucy's comment regarding euphemisms, and how true that is. I'd rather here a solid Anglo-Saxon four-letter word, or even a textbooky Latin word, than some painfully elaborate workaround. To use an analogy, I'd rather hear, "He ate pizza" than "He gently masticated a savory pie between his dental projections." But going beyond that, I still think it's better to focus on sensation and emotional reaction than mechanics -- no matter what words you choose.

  12. Hilarious! I've never written a sex scene, it does sound difficult :) Love that cover...makes me laugh.

  13. I have enough trouble writing romance scenes let alone sex scenes. I just don't write them. These are great tips though.

  14. I haven't read it in ages, but I remember thinking that The Lover by Marguerite Duras had some pretty great sex scenes. I have yet to try to write one.

  15. I probably should have become an erotica writer, as I started writing sex scenes before I ever lost my virginity. It was all about the arousal. One thing I noticed recently was that as I've aged, and experienced the evolution of my own sexuality, that the sex scenes I write now tend to be way more reigned in. I am acutely aware of worrying about what my mother would think now, much more so than when I was a virgin teen. And I think my sex scenes were pretty damn descriptive back then.

    I've just recently discovered that perhaps I project too much thought into wondering what others might think about me, the real me as the author, when reading a sex scene I crafted, and that is where my own discomfort comes in. Perhaps that is where personality and gender bias may come in, too. People tend to assume that male authors can exploit their sexuality and so wouldn't give two thoughts to a male author who does so (unless it were particularly violent or tweaked out), but a woman with a calm, sweet demeanor who writes a particularly graphic sex scene might easily get run through the critical ringer. Or so I think...

  16. Yes, yes, and yes. I wish more people heeded this sort of advice. Nothing worse than a sex scene full of body parts, which goes on forever...

  17. I was talking to Stephanie about this a while ago, the subject of sex in literature. Of course, my input was that so far my story has a rape scene, which I was worried about... and Steph pointed out: "well, that's not really sex, that's more akin to violence" and yes, she was right then and is now... but certainly a lot of the criticism of what makes a good/bad sex scene can be applied to enhance/detract from the drama of a rape scene.

    I was nonetheless concerned that in being gratuitous it would detract. However, I got a catholic Venezuelan friend to give it a read; and he actually said that it was a very well written sex scene, never mind rape, and was horrific for how it was presented. Which I think, was exactly what I was going for. He specifically mentioned how one scifi author had written a rape scene, and spent so much time whilst the scene was being described, repeating how it was a terrible, terrible deed; that any horror of the act itself was lost on the reader.

    I think in respect to mentioning anatomy, well; if you can't get around it by implication "he entered her" which doesn't read badly, then specific names need used, and not bad innuendo. A penis is a penis, just like a hand is a hand, a breast a breast or whatever.

    But in terms of their necessity... well, in my story. I rationalised it as "by this stage the main character has killed enough children to light a bonfire, so I don't think a rape scene is going to be too much."

    Sex I think is akin to murder and character's thoughts and feelings, and are all very intimate things. So it'd seem strange to me for someone to shy away from mentioning sex when it represents a critical moment in character's relationship or plot. And certainly my characters expose the reader to their thoughts, feelings and most grim exploits.

    I would however conclude that sex, like any other sort of scene; has to be justified in terms of character progression or plot. But that's true of everything rather than just of sex.

    Oh, and as for the unrelated discussion regarding British vs. American swearing, yes there are both Americans and Brits who swear a lot, and those who recoil at such.
    Here's two great clips from a political-comedy, the movie "In the Loop" based on the series "The Thick of It".
    Always the Scots that are the most vulgar :D


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