Recently, I wrote a blog here at WITS about how to put sexual tension in your romance novel. But it felt like only half the story. Sexual tension often leads to…you guessed it…sex. Not all romances have sex in them, but many do. I’ve been teaching a class on writing romance and in talking to my students I found many were intimidated by writing sex scenes. The funny thing is, sex scenes don’t have to be scary at all. Here are nine simple tips for painless sex scenes.
Sex scenes are an extension of sexual tension. While erotic romance may have frequent sex scenes that start right away (more about that later), and sweet romances may put the sex scene off until after the book concludes, most romances fall somewhere in the middle. Funny, because that’s often around where most sex scenes actually occur. While there’s no rule about this (I’m not much for rules about anything) what I often see in books that I enjoy, is that you want to stretch out the question about whether or when the hero and heroine will have sex as long as possible. By the time you get to sex (except in erotic romance, where you can really get there FAST) you want the reader to know the characters, understand that they’re right for each other, and really be rooting for them to have wonderful, mind-blasting sex.
Of course, if everything is perfect, and their relationship is “solved” by the sex in the middle of the book, you’ve just released all tension and the story is over. So sex in the middle of the book can’t be perfect. It can be good sex initiated for the wrong reason, bad sex, or good sex that brings up other problems in the relationship. The plot or other characters can also intervene to keep the couple apart. But there have to be big unresolved issues. Save the good sex that resolves the relationship, or that results from a resolved relationship, for later.
2. It isn’t only about body parts. If you happened to read my blog here at WITS on sexual tension, the title was “It’s all in your head.” The same can be said for sex scenes. There are only so many ways to have sex. What keeps it from getting boring is the emotional content of the scene, not just the physical sensations. When two people have sex, they are at their most vulnerable. Their most intimate parts are exposed. They’re concerned about their body, or their performance, or their skill level. They bring all their previous history with sex and all their sexual issues right into the encounter you’re describing. If they’ve had bad sex, or poor relationships, or they’re a virgin, or their father abused their mother, it’s all in the bedroom (or the kitchen or the barn) with them. Which makes sex scenes often the most revealing scenes you write about your characters. Preparation is key. Know what your character’s sexual history has been. Know how your character feels about sex and about their body. Then project the consequences of how both your participants feel about sex and about themselves into the sex scene. What would happen? What could be good for them in this scene? What could be bad?
3. Point of View. Which brings us to POV. If you are going to show the emotional consequence of sex, then sticking to a POV like glue is very important. Be that character. What would the character notice? What would he or she feel emotionally? Physically? (A little used sense in most writing is the sense of touch. Here’s your chance!)
That doesn’t mean you can’t use both participant’s points of view, even in a single scene. The scene is richer when the reader shares the experience of both parties, and it’s easier for the writer to show how the act of having sex is affecting them by using both points of view. Many books head-hop in sex scenes going from the heroine’s POV to the hero’s and back again frequently and with very little notice. I’m not a fan of head-hopping. I think the reader needs to feel anchored in the POV to stay firmly engaged in the scene. They need to be very clear who’s eyes they are seeing the scene through at any given moment. Personally, I prefer a drop down before changing to another POV. But just make sure the change is crystal clear. Writing a sex scene from the POV of your opposite sex can be quite liberating, by the way.
4. Body Parts and Point of View. While body parts aren’t the main attraction, you have to get the mechanics right. Arms and legs can’t go where only a member of Cirque du Soleil could put them. I recently read a book where a guy made love to a woman who was sitting on top of a kitchen counter. He was six feet tall. Nope. Not unless he was standing on a couple of phone books. You don’t want your reader worrying about whether the stunt you are describing is physically possible.
I think the thing that makes writers most nervous about sex scenes is what to call the body parts. No one wants to name a crucial body part something laughable. Remember all those descriptions, “his pillar of strength?” or “her nub of pleasure?” We’re afraid to sound silly. But we aren’t always comfortable using graphic colloquial language either.
However, in some ways, it isn’t about us as authors. What words would your characters use to describe body parts? If your POV character is an innocent, maybe the only words she knows are the clinical ones (like “penis” or “clitoris”.) But a sexually experienced guy is going to use colloquial language, rarely clinical. Not sure what guys would call their equipment, or their partner’s? Husbands and boyfriends are great resources.. Or ask girlfriends in a long-term relationship. They know. Stay away from purple prose euphemisms UNLESS, your heroine is an unrealistic romantic who reads a lot of purple prose. Then she’s going to think and talk like that. And it won’t be silly, because it will go with her character and tell the reader something about her.
Want to test your description for silliness? Read it aloud. Would anyone you know ever say that? If no, then it’s the author talking, not your character, so rethink the words you’re using.
Be aware of which words are negatively “loaded” for many readers, though. They are usually colloquial names for female genitalia. Know your audience to understand whether they are ready for those words.
5. How many ways can you describe an orgasm? Because an orgasm is such a unique feeling, it can be described in a lot of ways. But here’s where originality counts. It’s important to stay away from clichés. For instance, “seeing stars” and “breaking apart” have been done to death. You’ll be able to think of your own over-used descriptions. So it’s worth it to think about this description a little bit and stay away from the obvious. This is definitely an area where purple prose can creep in.
6. How much do you describe? Think of your audience. Erotic romance readers? Readers who like some heat? Just west of sweet? Then think of you. What do you like to read? That will probably tell you what level of heat you are comfortable with. If a book is “hot” there’s really not much you can’t or don’t describe. That doesn’t mean you devote twenty pages to a single sex scene. Like any other description, you’re going to describe only the important parts. If you’d rather, you can take readers right up to the act itself and close the bedroom door. The important part is not to write what you aren’t comfortable with. Readers can spot that a mile away.
7. What emotions are appropriate in a sex scene? All of them. Because when we are at our most vulnerable, sometimes our deepest or our most hidden emotions just pop out. Women often cry after sexual release. Laughing is frequent. Sex can be a power play for one or both partners. Anger? Oh, yeah.
The important thing is that you stay in the POV of the character, and describe what that person is feeling, and that you know what about that character makes them feel that way. I guarantee your sex scenes won’t seem silly at all.
8. A word about research. Okay, let’s get this out on the table. Do you have to have done everything you put in a sex scene? Nope. Imagination counts. You can get a lot from other books. There are only so many sexual situations, and so there’s no copyright on sex in a boat, or sexual position number 53 from the Kama Sutra, page 76, Diagram 2. Don’t worry, by the time you put it through your story and your character’s point of view, it will seem fresh and new. There are lots of great research materials online, including sex-positive sex education sites covering just about any act you can imagine. There’s a difference between sex-positive sites and pornography sites, by the way. Dipping too far into pornography may give you unrealistic ideas about what real people experience when they have sex. I think it helps to have had some sex sometime, just to so you understand the feelings involved. But writing sex scenes including things you’ve never done is a great way to experience vicariously things you can’t talk your partner into doing!
9. Does any of this apply to erotic romance? In erotic romance sex often occurs right out of the gate and frequently thereafter. But the most satisfying erotic romance has an emotional arc for the sex scenes as well. They are still about what that incident of sexual activity means to the characters engaged in it, so POV is still very important. And the relationship behind the sex isn’t resolved until the end. The description of sex may be more graphic and will use colloquial and even highly charged words. But all the elements of description, use of body parts, etc. still goes.
So don’t dread the sex scene. It offers wonderful opportunities to reveal your characters and have some fun too.
Want to share a story about writing a sex scene? If you have a question, now is the time to ask!
Susan Squires is New York Times bestselling author known for breaking the rules of romance writing. She has won multiple contests for published novels and reviewer’s choice awards. Publisher’s Weekly named Body Electric one of the most influential mass market books of 2003 and One with the Shadows, the fifth in her vampire Companion Series, a Best book of 2007.
A novella called Your Magic Touch (part of the Children of Merlin series which begins with Do You Believe in Magic?), released last month. All of her books are available at Amazon and other booksellers. Susan’s latest book, Night Magic, arrives in August.
Susan has a Masters in English literature from UCLA and once toiled as an executive for a Fortune 500 company. Now she lives at the beach in Southern California with her husband, Harry, a writer of supernatural thrillers, and three very active Belgian Sheepdogs, who like to help by putting their chins on the keyboarddddddddddddddddd.
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I haven't written any sex scenes but fade to black owes, but this is definitely great advice to follow if I ever do :
Really interesting. I'm in the camp of "less is more" in describing sex. This gives me a lot to work with for my WIP, which has more opportunities for physical engagement. Thanks.
As one from the camp of tell it all, maybe even push the normative envelope occasionally, but make it tasteful and emotionally gripping, thank you!!!
Susan Squires, you rock! Fan girl gush over. Thank you for an excellent article.
The first time I wrote a sex scene, I closed the door to my "computer room" because I didn't want my husband to know what I was doing. Of course, since I never closed that door, he came in.
Of all the books I copy edited for Dorchester, your BODY ELECTRIC was one of my favorites!
Perfect timing for your post. I also believe that building the sexual tension between the hero and heroine is half the battle and makes it easier when you finally have to get down to it and write that scene.
I'm working on a sex scene in my novel now. How do you make a scene more sensuous than sexual? I don't want to be too explicit with naming body parts. What do you think of using the term "cleft of Venus"? It's in keeping with this character's tone and personality but then, I wonder if it's too formal. Any suggestions on creating sensuality vs sexuality?
I think sex scenes are my least fav to write because I spend more time on them trying to make sure they don't sound like a mechanics manual . 🙂 The ones I like to read most show how the characters feel during the action.
I have a hard time keeping it fresh - after you've written a lot of them, it gets hard (shut.up. That was not a sexual innuendo). Until I remember exactly what you said, Susan. Everyone looks at/experiences this differently. I have to filter it through my character's unique perspective, and then it comes to life.
I have a high comfort level when it comes to reading. I have yet to find content that I'm not comfortable with. However, when writing, I have my mother hanging over my shoulder. A friend once told me not to write anything I wouldn't want my kids to read when they are older, but I find that the thought of my mother reading my sex scenes can be paralyzing. (Especially since she doesn't like to read sex scenes, but she wants to read everything I write simply because I wrote it.) To that end, I haven't been able to pin down my comfort level with writing sex. And even when I just let it happen, it's not easy to write sex because of the challenges with "keeping it fresh," as Laura said. Maybe I just worry about my audience too much?
Jamie, My kids were high school when I started writing. When I got published I autographed copies, esp. meant for them, not the "enjoy the read," thing. I told them their were sex scenes in the books and while I'd rather they not read them right now, I trusted that they understood it was what was expected for these kinds of books. They were thrilled for me but you know, to do this day I don't think they have cracked the covers of those books. Now some kids might say to heck with it, I'm reading it and it's okay if they are in junior high and above. They get sex education in school at about age 13 and sometimes in 6th grade now. And frankly, if they learn about sex from a non-erotica book, in a loving relationship, that's better than them listening to their silly friends make up stories.
It may not be ideal, but that's our world today. As for your mom? Well, mine asked me why I didn't write travel books because I was so good at describing my vacations. Ha! Some moms will never approve. Hand her the manuscript minus the love scenes. 🙂
I find all my characters approach this differently and at different times in the book. Tweeted and shared on FB.
This is a really interesting discussion. I got so I could write sex scenes in the middle seat of an airplane. I traveled a lot for work, and if I was on deadline and had 4 or 5 hours of time with me and my laptop--well it just had to happen, and I tried a big mental shrug and thought, have a good time, guys, if they could see what I was writing. My mother had passed by the time I was published, but my dad..... I warned him and he loved the book (he was really into historical detail and it was Dark Age Britain.) He never said a word about the sex scenes. But then, he wouldn't. But when the fourteen-year-old girls at my stable wanted to read my books, I told them they could read every one of my books on their birthday, the day they turned 35. I knew they went out and bought them anyway, but I had done my duty to their parents.
As for more sensual than sexual, Paula, that's a fine line. I would concentrate on feelings and emotions more than body parts, and that should do the trick. What does everybody else think? As for "cleft of Venus" that one falls into the purple prose euphemism category for me. I don't know anyone who actually says that. I defer to others' judgement though.
Great post! Liked the part about using descriptions that your *characters* would use. Très helpful!
I've never had to write a sex scene before but then I don't write romance (I love reading it though). If I ever do though, this advice is very helpful. As for 'cleft of Venus' I have never heard anyone use this phrase and, to be honest, it puts me in mind of an oversexed, slightly lecherous, old man.
I'm writing "up to and then close the door" scenes, and I still worry about my family reading the "up to" parts! LOL.
This was a fantastic post.
I'd never written a sex scene into any of my books, though I'm fine with reading them. But I now have a character who experienced sexual abuse, and while lots of books talk about recovering emotionally from abuse, I wanted to show the recovery that has to happen in the bedroom. The first time you have consensual sex after sexual abuse is extremely emotional. I wanted to do it right, but I felt daunted.
This post was extremely helpful in writing that scene. Thank you so much for your tips!!! I'm definitely saving the permalink for future.
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