Tuesday 7 December 2021

Writers’ Questions: How Should I Write a Sex Scene?

Welcome back to my Writers’ Questions series where I’m answering aspiring writers’ FAQs about craft, publishing, and the emotional journey of writing a book. Today, I’m tackling the type of chapter lots of writers are most anxious to write—the sex scene. 

Is this gross? Will my parents ever read this?! Do I even have sex right??? These are just some of the questions that might be running through your mind when you reach THAT scene in your manuscript. But never fear, I have some practical pointers to make the task less daunting.

Be clear about the intention of your scene

A good starting point is to ask yourself what impact you want this particular scene to have on your readers. If you’re writing erotica, you’re definitely aiming to titillate, and this can be true of sex scenes in other genres too. But this is far from the only emotional response sex scenes can elicit. Maybe you want the scene to be romantic. Maybe instead the encounter is intended to be humorous. A sex scene can also be unsettling, sad or scary. Start with the emotional landscape you’re looking to paint, and this can direct its content and language. 

Stay laser-focused on point of view

People experience sex differently, depending on their gender, their experience level, and the “role” they’re playing in any given sex act. Personality type, the relationship they have with their partner(s), and the character’s emotional state are also all going to have a huge impact on the scene, as it will be filtered through the lens of the point of view character. This should make writing a sex scene much less scary. Don’t worry—you don’t need to capture how every sexually active person feels during sex; you just need to convey what sex feels like to this one character, at this one moment. 

Choose your heat level

Think about how we know sex has happened in a movie. Sometimes, if rarely, we see it all, genitalia included. More often, audiences get to view some nudity, kissing, and billowing bedsheets, but nothing explicit. (Think about how many actresses seem to keep their bra on in bed.) We might hear some moans or maybe they’re drowned out by crescendo-ing music. In many films, sex is even less explicit than this, replaced by visual innuendos (e.g. exploding fireworks) or post-sex scenes, like breakfast the next morning. In fiction, we do something similar. You can “fade to black,” ending a scene before sex has happened but when it’s obvious that it’s about to. You can turn down the heat by keeping your language more suggestive than clinical. And, of course, you can put it all on the table and risk upsetting more conservative readers on Goodreads. Writer, the choice is ultimately yours.

Write sex like dialogue

People don’t always talk during sex, but they often do, and there’s an even greater chance there’s conversation between characters leading up to sex. Taking cues from how you write non-sexual dialogue then is a great way to go about structuring sex scenes. I think about dialogue as having three components—what people say, their body language and physical actions during the conversation, and what the point of view character is thinking but doesn’t say. In a sex scene, the balance between speaking, doing and thinking will probably lean more towards doing than in a typical section of dialogue, but if you have a character who’s very in their own head during the act and/or characters who are into dirty talk, any of these three components could come to the fore. Look to have a mix of all three, not just action, to avoid making your scene read like a sex position instruction manual.

Get feedback

Yes, really. Especially if you’re writing an encounter outside your realm of experience e.g. from the perspective of a character of a different gender and/or sexuality and/or body type. It’s much less embarrassing for one critique partner to point out your mistakes than to find yourself mocked online and nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Writers, what other strategies do you have for writing great sex (steamy or otherwise)? I’d love you to let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. And check out my novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which contains sex scenes between Branwell Bronte and the older woman with whom he is rumored to have had a disastrous affair…