So, I was at a writing conference a couple of months ago, in Ecuador. I was one of the presenters there. I did two presentations. One of them, at the request of the conference organizers, was about how to write a sex scene.
When they asked me if I could do a talk on that, I said, “Sure! I have strong opinions on that!” (Anyone who knows me knows I have strong opinions on a lot of things.)
But as the date got closer, I started to think about preparing my talk. And I realized, oh, my God. I am going to be standing in front of 30-40 people talking about sex! That’s, uh…
And potentially hilarious, if I’m gonna be honest.
Because sex is embarrassing to talk about. And one use of humor or laughter is for humans to diffuse situations that are embarrassing.
So, sexual humor is often a mask for our embarrassment in talking about it.
And, maybe, our obsession with it.
And it stands to reason, then, that it’s also embarrassing to write about.
Also, there are SOOOO many bad sex scenes out there! You know what I mean. A lot of romance readers tell me they often skip over sex scenes in books, because they’re just badly written. Which I totally get. Because, secret? I do, too.
Today’s post is a little more focused on the writing part of romance, for the authors and aspiring authors out there. It’s also a little longer than most of my blog posts. But I hope that the readers will be interested in it, too. Ready? Here we go!
As a romance author, I read a lot of romance novels. And even in some of them where the story is good, I sometimes find myself skipping over the sex scenes. Because they can actually be really boring, with NOT AS MUCH EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT AS IN THE REST OF THE BOOK!
BORING might be the worst possibility…
In those books, these scenes are sort of just placeholders to me. Like, in my brain, I just say, “And then they have sex,” and turn the page to get back to the actual relationship development.
OR maybe there IS worse than boring.
FUNNY is worse. As in, laughing at the language or the positions or… CRINGE-Y. Sheesh. There’s nothing more embarrassing than a scene that’s supposed to be sexy but just makes you go, “EEEEK, yeah, no!”
So. How DO you write a good sex scene?
Well, I may not be the world’s leading expert, but judging from what my readers say, I do a pretty good job. Here are some thoughts.
FIRST: THINK ABOUT WHY THE SEX SCENE IS THERE
It depends on the genre, of course. But assuming the sex is supposed to be pleasurable, it’s there to communicate something about the relationship between the characters, of course. A change in relationship? Or a deepening of a relationship? Or a sameness in the relationship? Is it first-time adolescent fumbling? Is it comfortable, long-time married sex? Is it a fling between two people who know they have no future together? All those things make a difference, and are going to be communicated through the way the characters experience the encounter.
Now, of course, I write romance. So, I write about sex between two people who are falling in love. I generally end up having about three sex scenes in my book. And it’s not really that I count them. It’s just the way the relationships tend to develop in my books. I’m a big fan of the “slow burn.” That’s when the two main characters try as hard as they can to resist each other, but in the end they just can’t take it anymore and fall into each other’s arms. So in my books, the characters never really have sex until about halfway through the book. So the first half has a lot of smoldering sexual tension.
That’s really important, the sexual tension. You have to build it up like a pressure cooker, until things get too hot and they explode. So, I like to say, the sex scene doesn’t start with the first kiss or touch. It starts with the first time the two characters meet. Make sure you’re not just tossing them in bed together when you decide they want to have sex. Prepare them. Make sure you’re developing their emotional relationship as well as their attraction for each other. Prepare the reader. Make us all want it – craveit – so by the time they do fall into bed together, the reader is SOOO happy! FINALLY, I’ve been WAITING for it and here it finally is!
NEXT: HEAT LEVELS
I’m not going to say too much about this, but if you’ve ever read any romance, you know there are lots of different sub genres to the main genre. Right? Cowboy romance, regency, sweet, Christian, small town, steamy contemporary… There are really way too many to list here. If you write romance, or you want to write romance, you had better know what your subgenre is. And the explicitness of your sex scenes will be dependent on the subgenre you choose. Make sure you know what is expected within that genre. You have to read your genre in order to know how to write your genre.
I am a huge fan of the slow burn in romance stories. I simply hate it when two characters fall into bed in chapter 2. Because romance is nothing without the sexual and relationship tension. After all, we know how it ends: Happily ever after! Or at least, happy for now. If it wasn’t for the anticipation part, we could just skip to the end, read the last chapter, and blow off the rest of the book, right?
So. The characters need to fight their feelings for each other. That’s true of the romance part, but also for the sex part, in my view.
EMOTION is REALLY important in a good sex scene! And if they don’t have an emotional relationship/feelings for each other, the sex is going to be hard to write in a way that’s convincing.
Remember: the sex scene doesn’t start with the first touch or kiss. It starts with the first time they meet. The looks they steal at each other. The hitch in their breath when their eyes meet. The way their heart speeds up, or their skin flushes. Those physical reactions to the other person’s presence. Don’t neglect those. Give the reader some foreplay. Then finally, when they FINALLY touch, we know how much they’ve been dying for it. And the reader has been dying for it, too! Remember, they say the brain is the biggest sex organ. Give them brains. And give the reader access to their thoughts!
Which brings me to:
POINT OF VIEW (POV)
What point of view is the book written in? Is it 3rd person? 1stperson alternating? Whatever point of view it is, the reader still needs to get into the heads of at least one of the characters. What are they thinking about the other person? What are the naughty thoughts that they would be SO embarrassed if the other person found out they were thinking? What are their fantasies of what the other person’s lips would feel like? What they want to do, or have done to them? Remember your choice of narration affects how much you can get into their heads, and in what ways.
USING ALL THE SENSES
Think about the little details you notice when you’re attracted to someone. The rasp of their voice. The curve of a neck. That really delicious V of a hot guy’s torso. Think about things that your character can notice or imagine about the other person in anticipation. Try to be creative. Little details are more than just the obvious. And try to make the things they notice actually reflect on the character/noticer’s personality. (If you don’t have particular characters and this is for the future: Think of a time when you were attracted to someone and wanted a relationship to develop. Make yourself into the character for your author to write about. What do you as the character notice?) Think of things you notice from each of the five senses: sight, hearing, taste (this might just be that you taste whiskey on his tongue, for example), smell, touch.
EEK! Here we are! We’re gonna have sex! Oh boy!
Okay. SO. This is the nuts and bolts (LOL – I said nuts!) of the sex scene.
This is a lot more than “insert Tab A into Slot B”, right?
So. Let’s break it down. Think everything through that we just talked about.
What is this scene ABOUT? Yes, it’s about sex, but it’s ALWAYS more than that. How to think through what this scene is doing to advance or reveal the characters internal conflicts and the delicious push-pull of falling in love or in lust.
Begin with the end in mind– no, this doesn’t mean skipping foreplay! Emotional content and always be thinking about what this scene will do to advance the relationship. It’s “not” sex.
The vocabulary appropriate to your heat level (again, read it to write it…)
The five senses (again) — remember to use them during the whole act!
RHYTHM! This isn’t something we’ve talked about yet, but it’s super-important. It’s about tension, and how to create it. Your sex scene may involve a change in style, as the primal mind takes over. You’re narrating what’s going on in the character’s head just as much — if not more– than the physical aspects/description. Talk about breathing, changes in body temp, etc. Sex is titillating, but it’s also part of the dance. Use it to reveal their internal fears and external conflicts as well.
You can use language more poetically here, to convey the characters’ feelings in the sentence structure and pacing. As their brain gets more excited, and they get more involved, you can use some poetic license: Run on sentences might be fine, because they imitate stream of consciousness, the breathlessness of the moment… don’t be afraid to do this, at least in the first draft. Let yourself get caught up in the moment. You can read it over later and decide whether to change things.
ONE LAST THING: Don’t get TOO caught up!
Don’t forget that you have to keep track of the reality that the characters are in a physical space. They need a place to lie down, or brace themselves against, etc. Is it hard? Soft? Slippery? rough? They also have clothes on at the beginning, probably. How are you going to get them off? It can be helpful to think through all this at the beginning, so you don’t spend too much time puzzling through how to get rid of a bra or a pair of pants while you’re trying to find the rhythm of the scene.
FINALLY: THE AFTERMATH!
Don’t forget that the characters will be thinking about this awesome sex afterwards. What will their reaction to it be? How will it change them and the relationship? How will it change the story? If the sex scene really needs to be in the book, it WILL change the story. If it doesn’t, then it’s not meaningful enough. It either doesn’t need to be there, or it needs to be changed so that it has more importance in the characters’ lives. After the scene, both characters need to be thinking some form of “this changes everything!” And if it’s in the middle of the book — helping to develop the plot — it ought to (at least temporarily) make things WORSE! Oh my God, I just slept with my boss! Oh my God, how am I going to handle having to see this person every day from now on?! AAAAAHHHH!
Well, that’s it! My strong opinions on sex scenes! I hope it was entertaining. I enjoyed it, for sure! But it also gave me a huge excuse to procrastinate on my daily writing quota for my next book… OOOPS! 😀 So, I should probably stop here, go grab a cup of coffee, and get right on that.
UNTIL NEXT TIME, LOVELIES! XOXOXO – Daphne