Today we look at how to write a great sex scene, so steel yourself for lots of bad puns and double-entendres! The suggestions below are most relevant to writers of romance and erotica, where love and sex form the heart of the plot, but writers of all narrative genres are welcome here. So get ready; it’s time to penetrate the action and rip the covers off a whole heap of time-tested tips and tricks. (Hey, you were warned!)
Creating anticipation, before we reach the bedroom.
The fun is in the foreplay, as they say. The reader’s anticipation blossoms from the moment attraction is acknowledged by the lovers, up to the point it reaches its fulfillment, or in this instance, sex. Will they succumb to desire, won’t they? That romantic suspense will help sustain the pace of your novel and ensure that when we finally hit the bedroom, the plot climaxes right along with the characters. Expend this tension too early in the story (i.e. before the 25% – 50% mark), and you risk using up all that magic sizzle before it’s had a chance to reach to its full effect.
It’s all about sexual tension.
Once you’ve introduced your characters, develop anticipation by acknowledging their attraction within a greater context of opposition, i.e. they want to tear each other’s clothes off, but he’s a Russian spy and she works for the Americans. This delicious push-pull dynamic continues as we explore the characters’ increasing physical awareness, their fantasies, and deep, unspoken desires. What unbidden dreams come to them at night? What do they long for most: to taste, conquer, mark, possess? Perhaps they wish to comfort, or communicate feelings where words fail them. We only enjoy the release of sexual gratification if we’ve first established a need that requires gratifying. It’s also fun to play with the reader’s expectations. After weeks of tortured looks and touches, the lovers finally find themselves alone. Then, right when their lips are about to touch…her boss knocks on the office door. Raise the tension, then raise it again.
“Does it ever stop? The wanting you? Even when I’ve just left ye, I want you so much my chest feels tight and my fingers ache with wanting to touch ye again.”
Jamie Fraser in Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon
Sex in itself, is not a plot development.
If the main point of your sex scene is to show the lovers succumbing to their attraction, it’s simple enough to have them lock lips at the bedroom door and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination. We include graphic sex scenes because the act itself tells us something important. For example, our enemy spies finally fall into bed together. The sex is great, but midway through they lock eyes, and to their surprise, their quick fling turns into lovemaking. This new development shifts the course of the entire story: When it comes time to assassinate the Russian minister, will love win out, or duty? Just as every scene in your story should advance the plot, your love scene needs to offer a vital turning point in your character development. Ask yourself this: how are my lovers changed by sleeping together? If the answer is, well, they get their rocks off…, it’s a sure sign your scene isn’t working hard enough.
Variety is the spice of life.
We all know the basics of a classic sex scene: Kiss, Grope, Mouth-On-Nipple, Cunnilingus (the woman climaxes), finally followed by Penetration (they climax together). We’ve all written a scene just like this at least once and some writers will include slight variations of the above multiple times in a single book. Like all patterns it’s predictable, so mix it up. Your characters might make love before they kiss. The woman might have a pleasure point behind her knee, or the man might have a fetish he’s desperate to explore. Also consider original settings: have we had multiple scenes on their bed? What about sneaking into the corner of a library, the back of a car, or a beach? Are all of the scenes in the missionary position, and who is the dominant character in each act? How might we flip those roles?
In addition, consider how you’re varying your theme and tone. From deep, emotional love-making, to acts of dominance and submission, mindless lust, light-hearted fun, or barely repressed aggression, sexual acts cover a wide and varied spectrum. Each emotional note is a different tool in your belt waiting to unveil a new, intimate aspect of your character.
He had never in his life taken a woman in his arms without some feeling of love, but there was nothing of love in this encounter, nor could there be, for her own sake. There was some tenderness for her youth, and pity at her situation. Rage at her manipulation of him, and fear at the magnitude of the crime he was about to commit. But overall there was a terrible lust, a need that clawed at his vitals and made him ashamed of his own manhood, even as he acknowledged its power. Hating himself, he lowered his head and cupped her face between his hands.
Jamie Fraser in Voyager, by Diana Gabaldon
Turning points keep the scene authentic and surprising.
The romantic candlelit dinner. A walk under the stars. Some light, affectionate banter. Cue the passionate kissing and…yawn! Instead of writing a scene that will obviously end in sex, twist the reader’s expectations. I.e. the perfect date ends in disaster. The worst ever date turns sweet right at the final hour. Maybe the guy is too nervous and fumbles at the vital moment, or the woman has a change of heart. Stereotypes and clichés are also waiting to be broken: the playboy who’s suddenly in love for the first time and loses all his smooth moves right when he needs them. The prostitute who’s done just about everything, but never kissed a man. Ask yourself: what does the reader expect the characters to do in this moment? Avoid the obvious, and provide an alternative that’s true to who the lovers are, but less predictable.
Choreography is key.
If you’re looking for a hilarious way to spend a Sunday afternoon, ask your partner to act out the characters’ movements. You’ll be surprised how many written actions don’t make sense in real life, especially if your novel features a six-foot hero and petite heroine. And once you have the moves down, check the continuity. If his hands were on her breast a moment ago, how did they suddenly become entangled in her hair?
We’re in the business of writing novels, not stage directions.
When I first began writing sex scenes my technique was highly strategic: sit back, visualize a fantasy, then scribble it down. It was a great way to spend an hour, until my editor pointed out my sex scenes were just long lists of physical actions. He grabbed her ample bosom…Moaning, she ran her fingers through his hair…etc. (Feel free to laugh at some of my early writing here). Ultimately, I was writing for my own gratification, instead of getting deep inside the minds of my characters. All fiction writing involves action (he ran his fingers up the nape of her neck, burying them in her hair), but it’s important not to forget description (it felt like coarse silk), exposition (for years she’d kept it tightly pinned, high atop her head), dialogue (“So beautiful,” he whispered) and internal narrative (Her hair alone had undone him; what hope did he have as her fingers moved to the buttons of her chemise?) As fiction writers, we have all these wonderful external and internal tools at our disposal, so avoid falling into the trap of just being a fly on the wall. Side note: be sure to add variety to your description, too; taste, sound and smell all deepen the POV, beyond just sight and touch.
Don’t be afraid to explore big ideas.
Great sex is transformational. When we finally give our protagonist their moment of bliss, or the ‘promise of the premise’ in plot-speak, consider lifting it from basic physical pleasure, to something transcendental. The French describe an orgasm as ‘the tiny death’ – how might your lovers brush against the very core of existence as they meld physically, emotionally and spiritually? Perhaps they enjoy a brief, beautiful glimpse into the truth of human experience, the tragedy of a fleeting moment, or whatever the theme of your scene might be. They’ve been trudging along the earth as they overcome one obstacle after another. This scene could be your chance to let them touch the stars.
“We blazed up together, bright as stars in the summer night, and then sank back burnt and limbless, ashes dissolved in a primordial sea of warm salt, stirring with the nascent throbbings of life.
Claire Fraser in Drums of Autumn, by Diana Gabaldon
Forget the purple prose.
They might touch the stars, but three paragraphs about twinkling planets, blazing comets and glittering nebulas could be a touch too much. Of all the different types of scenes, those of great emotional significance (like sex or violence) are where we most need to keep the reader suspended in the moment. As soon as we create distractions like purple prose or poor word choice, we jar them out of the fantasy, and they become aware of the fictional construction. Writers use euphemisms like, “Desire pooled in her core” because they slip seamlessly through our minds, while “Her vaginal walls pulsed in excitement,” feels awkward, even if it’s a more realistic representation of what’s happening. The subject is already loaded with drama, so there’s less of a need to embellish with colorful style choices. Keep it simple, and focus your energy on where it’s most needed: what’s happening, why it’s important, and how it makes the characters feel.
Grab your embarrassment by the balls, and throw it to the winds.
You’re writing this scene for readers who have come to your novel wanting to be turned on, and emotionally engaged by the action. Yes, your conservative neighbor might grab a copy and end up deciding you’re a pervert, but that’s their problem. If it’s a big concern, adopt a pen name or leave out the erotic scenes altogether. Either way, embrace your choice fully, and have fun with it. Embarrassment only leads to self-conscious prose, and a great sex scene is loud, proud and unapologetically steamy.
More on how to write a great sex scene:
Diana Gabaldon, author of the popular Outlander series quoted above, wrote a wonderful guide to crafting sex scenes called I Give You My Body, which has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller in its own right. If you’ve had a chance to fall in love with Jamie and Claire, you’ll know that Gabaldon’s love scenes are truly masterful.
And if you’re looking a for some quick, additional guides, check out:
Jane Friedman: How to Write a Great (and not schmalzy) Sex Scene
Emma Darwin: Ten Top Tips for Writing Sex Scenes
Editing software to assist in crafting clean prose: ProWritingAid