This Business of Writing

How to Write Sex Scenes (Terminology Caution)

In The Craft of Writing on February 19, 2010 at 9:54 am

Download the podcast Version of this article here: How to Write a Sex Scene

How much would you like to bet this post garners the most reads of any of my articles? Sorry, guys, but this one is factual.

If you write for any length of time, you’ll stumble upon the opportunity, with intent or otherwise, to write a sizzling scene where your characters take off their clothes. For obvious reasons, many writers struggle with this type of prose, while others jump in without reservation. Either way, every fiction writer has the ability to write erotic scenes. After all, it’s just another form of conflict, is it not?

Let’s look first to the scene as an integral part of any novel. As with every scene in every novel, it must fulfill the same functions and have the same components as would any other. It must fit the storyline, utilize believable characters, employ effective dialogue, move the story forward, build tension, (Yeah, boy!), exhibit a character’s needs, (Too easy…), offer conflict, (You bet!), contain a valid point of view and all those other tedious things. It’s no different than any other scene in this regard.

Let’s look to storyline. As a writer you should give thought as to why you’re writing this specific scene in the first place. It must have the same authenticity as any other in your manuscript. If you write an erotic scene for the sake of titillating, (Oh, geez…), readers won’t understand how it fits the story, and though they may read it multiple times, it will drag down your novel and reduce its acceptance. So, think it through and insure this scene has legitimate purpose to the story.

Characters: The main thing to remember is they must stay in character. The meek office worker will never start talking like a stevedore in bed, nor will your hunk ever giggle. The rapist won’t turn into a cuddle-bunny when he’s done, nor with the Stockholm Syndrome come into play for his victim. Insure the way they act out of bed corresponds with the way they act in bed.

Dialogue: When you want to write an erotic scene, dialogue is not what you might think. In real life, people say things like, “I don’t bend that way,” or “that hurts” or the ever-deflating, “Is it in yet?” So, like any other dialogue in your novel, it won’t be true to life. Consider talking as foreplay for your characters. Lead into the scene with dialogue that builds in intensity, then allow it to fade as things get more heated. Words should give way to sighs, whimpers, groans, exclamations and whispers. Just be cautious your characters don’t sound like farm animals.

Conflict: Consider the conflict that caused the characters to engage in sex, and/or the conflict that results from the act. If there is none, the scene is probably not necessary.

To me, the secret to a steamy scene is found within psychology. Once you realize sex is more a mental exercise than physical, your writing will focus upon the emotional sides of love making. Be sure your reader “sees” the emotional tension rising, falling and rising again to its crescendo.

And don’t forget the lead-up and the follow-through. What drew your characters together and holds them to each other? How do they feel the following morning? What happens to their relationship with the passing of time? Sex scenes are a much larger part of your story than just momentary and wanton passion.

Let’s now look at some general tips to consider when writing sex scenes.

You’re not writing a brochure for the medical community, so dispense with all the technical terms like “penis” or “vagina.” Further, unless you’re writing for comedic effect, “tacos” or “thingys” have no place either. Consider using instead, pronouns, which are quite effective in these scenes. Your example?

“His thingy forced its way into her vagina.”

is replaced by,

“He forced himself upon her.”

Resist the temptation to use euphemisms. The Tunnel of Love is a ride at the carnival and meat slapping is all about being mean to hogs.

You don’t have to describe too much nor do you have to tell everyone what’s going where or who’s grabbing what. They already know. Besides, the reader’s imagination will fill in the blanks, and they’ll create a more interesting image with their minds than you will with your words.

Yes, your own writing, in this situation, should excite you too. If it doesn’t, you need to rewrite the scene or drop it all together.

In sex scenes, like any other, incorporate the five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Fluids can be fun. Yes, sex is sticky and fluid-filled, so don’t shy away from those components of the act either. Just be judicious in their use.

Nipples are not pencil erasers or anything related to a cherry. They are tough to describe, so become comfortable with the word, “nipples.

Shy away from clichés. They rarely work in writing anyway, and they’ll rarely work in writing sex. Have you ever been with someone who screamed out, “Do me now! Do me now!” Neither have  your readers.

Women rarely beg for sex. Men just might.

Your erotic scenes should never be tedious or disappointing. If they doesn’t turn you on, rewrite them.

No formulas. Paint-by-number sex is boring.

Unless you’re writing a rape scene, “no” really does mean “no.”

Build tension before your characters do the dirty deed.

Don’t forget to include foreplay. It’s a major part of the best sex, so be sure to include it in your writing.

Give your readers fantasy. That is one of the most interesting parts of sex anyway and there’s no reason to ignore it.

Sex is all about the mind and so much more than just the orgasm. So it is with your characters. Let them use their minds more than their other body parts.

Sex can be humorous. After all, “Get bent,” can have so many meanings.

Use the small aspects of sex to enhance the scene. A woman’s neckline can be much more enticing than most any part of her body. A man’s hand on the small of a woman’s back can lead her in any direction.

People usually look better in their clothes than out of them. Don’t get too involved with physical descriptions. Allow the reader to imagine as they will.

The illusion of nakedness is much more tempting that actual nakedness.

A falling silk dress is more alluring than a fallen silk dress.

In a first encounter, women take time. In later encounters, you may have to slow them down.

Odd thoughts can, and do, seep into people’s minds at the most inappropriate of times.

If it makes you cringe, it will make your readers put your book away forever.

Okay, for those of you who still feel hesitant, there’s only one way to overcome your fears. Pick up your pen and get your paper wet.

I hope by now you know, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

  1. I’ve written erotic romance but I don’t have the courage to let anyone else read them. In the books that I have actually had published, I’d have to admit that I feel uncomfortable writing sex scenes (although I know I can, i.e. the erotica). I also consider is the description too much or too little, blah blah. Thanks to this, I am now assured that yes, I’m actually doing it right 😀 (on paper)

    Let me just say, the best line is this “Women rarely beg for sex. Men just might.” Ha!

    • Dear Elise,

      It’s so nice to know my article has helped in some small way. I guess it’s good to learn you’re doing it right, too, isn’t it?

      I’ve received a lot of comments on this article, as expected, and I find it interesting what lines people find as their favorite. (One of mine was the “begging” line, too.) It’s also interesting there’s little overlap.)

      Thanks for reading and thanks for letting me know it helped.

      C. Patrick Schulze

  2. I make part of my living writing erotic romance and so sex scenes are a must. I completely agree with you. Sexs alone without building emotion, without a good reason, is a turn off. As a reader and conoisseur of romance, I want the emotion, the romance to be first and foremost.

    • Dear Ashley,

      Thanks for commenting on my article. It’s nice to hear it was on the mark from someone experienced in the art.

      I appreciate you taking your time to read it.

      C. Patrick Schulze

    • I’m also an erotic romance author and the article is spot on. The sex scene must be told in the character’s POV and they shouldn’t break character. biggest mistake I see in sex scenes is authors not knowing how to translate real life to paper.

      Or authors throwing in sex scenes for the sake of doing this just to make a romance novel “erotic.” This is a NO NO. Good article 🙂

  3. Good post, and not only because it was about sex (though admittedly, as you said, it’s what made me click the link).

    My favorite observation has to be that people look better in their clothes. So true. And while I think it would be interesting for your character, for example, to think this to himself/herself (maybe that’s one example of an ‘odd-ish” thought), I agree that the fantasy, the illusion, is what makes a sex scene hot. If you’re looking for truthful, or at least a more glamorized truthiness, perhaps as a point of tension, then definitely show the rawness, the nakedness, the “ooh, that hurts” and the “terrible wet squish in the center of the bed.” Really depends what kind of sex scene you’re going for: erotic or authentic. I think the authentic ones don’t necessarily have to scare the reader away, as long as it fits with the story, and it isn’t trying to be gratuitously unerotic.

    But absolutely, at the end of the day, if you can’t make yourself get hot and bothered, then who else will identify with what you wrote?

    • Dear Susanamai

      Thanks for commenting on my article. Very nice of you to take your time to do so.

      You’re right about showing the rawness of a scene. After reading your comment, I realize I should have played that up a bit more. (I always appreciate comments where I learn something.)
      Thinking back, I probably put too much emphasis on the type of scenes that fit my style of writing and not enough on how others might write. I’ll keep that thought in mind for future articles.

      You’re also right in that authentic scenes need not scare the readers.

      I can tell from your “terrible wet squish” phrase you’re a good writer.

      Well written and enlightening comment. Thanks.

      C. Patrick Schulze

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