Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 21, 2023

How to Write Sex Scenes

by Diana Gabaldon

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Where most beginning writers screw up (you should pardon the expression) is in thinking that sex scenes are about sex. A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids. That being so, it can encompass any emotion whatever, from rage or desolation to exultation, tenderness, or surprise. 

Lust is not an emotion; it’s a one-dimensional hormonal response. Ergo, while you can mention lust in a sex-scene, describing it at any great length is like going on about the pattern of the wall-paper in the bedroom. Worth a quick glance, maybe, but essentially boring.

So how do you show the exchange of emotions?  Dialogue, expression, or action—that’s about the limit of your choices, and of those, dialogue is by far the most flexible and powerful tool a writer has. What people say reveals the essence of their character.


“I know once is enough to make it legal, but…” He paused shyly.

“You want to do it again?”

“Would ye mind verra much?”

I didn’t laugh this time, either, but I felt my ribs creak under the strain.

“No,” I said gravely. “I wouldn’t mind.”

Now, you do, of course, want to make the scene vivid and three-dimensional. You have an important advantage when dealing with sex, insofar as you can reasonably expect that most of your audience knows how it’s done. Ergo, you can rely on this commonality of experience, and don’t need more than brief references to create a mental picture. 

You want to anchor the scene with physical details, but by and large, it’s better to use sensual details, rather than overtly sexual ones. (Just read any scene that involves a man licking a woman’s nipples and you’ll see what I mean. Either the writer goes into ghastly contortions to avoid using the word “nipples”—“tender pink crests” comes vividly to mind—or does it in blunt and hideous detail, so that you can all but hear the slurping. This is Distracting. Don’t Do That.)

So how do you make a scene vivid, but not revoltingly so? There’s a little trick called the Rule of Three: if you use any three of the five senses, it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional. (Many people use only sight and sound. Include smell, taste, touch, and you’re in business.)


The road was narrow, and they jostled against one another now and then, blinded between the dark wood and the brilliance of the rising moon. He could hear Jamie’s breath, or thought he could—it seemed part of the soft wind that touched his face.  He could smell Jamie, smell the musk of his body, the dried sweat and dust in his clothes, and felt suddenly wolf-like and feral, longing changed to outright hunger.

He wanted. 

In essence, a good sex scene is usually a dialogue scene with physical details.


"I'll gie it to ye," he murmured, and his hand moved lightly. A touch. Another. "But ye'll take it from me tenderly, a nighean donn."

"I don't want tenderness, damn you!"

"I ken that well enough," he said, with a hint of grimness.  "But it's what ye'll have, like it or not."

He laid me down on his kilt, and came back into me, strongly enough that I gave a small, high-pitched cry of relief.

"Ask me to your bed," he said. "I shall come to ye.  For that matter—I shall come, whether ye ask it or no. But I am your man; I serve ye as I will."

And finally, you can use metaphor and lyricism to address the emotional atmosphere of an encounter directly. This is kind of advanced stuff, though.


He'd meant to be gentle. Very gentle. Had planned it with care, worrying each step of the long way home. She was broken; he must go canny, take his time. Be careful in gluing back her shattered bits.

And then he came to her and discovered that she wished no part of gentleness, of courting. She wished directness. Brevity and violence. If she was broken, she would slash him with her jagged edges, reckless as a drunkard with a shattered bottle.

She raked his back; he felt the scrape of broken nails, and thought dimly that was good—she'd fought. That was the last of his thought; his own fury took him then, rage and a lust that came on him like black thunder on a mountain, a cloud that hid all from him and him from all, so that kind familiarity was lost and he was alone, strange in darkness. 

Like that.

What has your experience been writing sex scenes?

* * * * * *

About Diana

Diana Gabaldon

Diana Gabaldon is the author of the award-winning, #1 NYT-bestselling OUTLANDER novels, described by Salon magazine as “the smartest historical sci-fi adventure-romance story ever written by a science Ph.D. with a background in scripting ‘Scrooge McDuck’ comics.”

As of January 2022, Diana’s books are published in thirty-eight languages and sold in one hundred and fourteen countries.

Learn more about Diana on her website: DianaGabaldon.com.

This post is excerpted from Diana's book: "I Give you My Body..." also available as an audiobook read by Diana.

Top image by Yerson Retamal from Pixabay

8 comments on “How to Write Sex Scenes”

  1. I haven’t thought that deep into the emotion of writing sex as much as trying to understand how to write the action without it sounding wooden or rushed. These tips have really helped me out.

  2. I've only really written two. Well, one wasn't really a sex scene, rather the beginning, with kisses, then the waking up after.
    The other was also a bit glossed over, although I did use a bit more detail.
    I'm not confident with this, and I'm not sure it's needed in my writing, but none-the-less, it's useful to know how to do it properly, just in case it's needed. You never know what your characters decide is needed.

  3. I understood the importance of sensory details but was not aware of the rule of three. That information is golden. Thank you!!

    I may never need the rule of three for romance as that is not my strongsuit, but I think this rule will help in any genre.

  4. As a writer and a reader, I prefer the seduction. Mixing an amazing cocktail of vulnerability and power can be hard, but when it comes out right...it's right.

    Thanks for the 3D tip. I'm going to apply it to my WIP right now! Lately I've been trying to include more scent references and your advice reinforces that. Scent memories, especially, can be help us connect with readers...and even our own past.

    Scents can linger like shadows or be special personal signatures. And that can be used as a trigger device with characters.

    Positive scents like Old Spice can make us recall a beloved Grandpa Joe...or negatively remind us of a physically abusive Uncle Chuck.

    Today's goal for my WWII historical fiction/love story is to punch up scenes with scent. Thank you for push.

    PS: And, thank you for giving us Claire and Jaime. The world--real and fictional--is better because they're part of it.

  5. Hi Diana,
    Amazing details for writing these intimate scenes. The Rule of 3 is a practical tool and guide for making these steamy scenes better.

    I have a question about Outlander and its genre. I have seen it classified as time travel and fantasy, and sometimes not sci-fi at all. What makes it sci-fi in your opinion?

  6. I’ve only written three sexually oriented scenes, each different characters and circumstances. But as the stories didn’t demand it, I’ve only led up to the act, letting readers comfortably surmise what they will.

    The first was a younger couple, just realizing their attraction for one another and engaging first in playful double-entendres. The second was and older married couple, still deeply in love, and relishing their romantic physical bond, to the extent they feel a pride in their (still) coupling. The third, most difficult, was a youthful, teenaged attempted rape, thwarted at the last moment by the violent intervention of the victim’s sister and protective pooch. This last, I ran past my critique group to make sure I’d handled it tastefully.

    All three scenes were intentionally meant to help define the characters-particularly in the third example, where it goes heavily toward defining the sisters’ later actions and motives.

    I don’t feel intimidated about writing a more detailed sex scene (although the third example came close, even though there was nothing remotely romantic-she was roofied).

    However, I’m not sure I could reasonably portray it from the woman’s POV. And, honestly, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be sharing a sensitive male POV before the ladies in my critique groups.

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