Regardless of what genre you write, you may find yourself writing a sex scene. You might think you suck at it, or maybe you really do suck at it. But, as a former romance writer, I’m going to share what I’ve learned. See also:
Part III: Word Choice and Realism
A special note to literary/general fiction writers:
No one seems to have good sex in your books. I’m worried about you. Are you afraid that good sex will make people take you less seriously? Have you not had good sex? I found Cat Person particularly troubling—why was the protagonist incapable of either: 1) telling her would-be love interest what she wanted in bed or 2) just leaving when she realized she wasn’t that into him?
Anyway, whatever the reason is, let’s fix it.
1. Get out of your head.
Truth time: This is really hard (ha), but don’t feel awkward. Don’t think about Aunt Mildred or Pop-Pop. Honor your characters. Sex is a thing that happens. If you can write bloody fight scenes or about existential ennui, you can write a sex scene. You are allowed to be a sexual person. If someone made fun of you for writing a murder scene, what would you say? Maybe, screw you, it’s important to the story? Same deal here.
2. Identify the goal of the sex scene.
Before you start smashing body parts together, figure out why you need the sex scene. Like any other scene in your story, sex scenes should do three things:
- Move the plot forward.
- Develop your character(s).
- Affect reader emotions.
In romance, your goal is to show the reader what your characters mean to each other. Regardless of the consequences, you’re moving their relationship to the next level.
In other genres, maybe the sex scene is supposed to show how the protagonist has overcome their self-hatred. Maybe the protagonist uses sex as a diversion so the guard doesn’t notice an accomplice stealing a hard drive. I’m a big proponent of good sex, but maybe you want to show how the character uses shitty, hollow sex to get what they want.
Or, maybe you just want some hot sex. A writer whose name I don’t remember because I don’t like remembering people who speak in absolutes once said that hot sex has no place in good fiction because the story should make you think, not make you horny. Screw that. Desire can be as powerful an emotion as the weight of your own mortality.
Your options are endless, but make sure you figure out how sex affects your character(s), what the consequences of the sex are, and what you want the reader to feel.
3. Decide on a sexual tension strategy.
The success of your sex scene depends on the success of the rest of your story. If your reader is already enjoying your story, you’re 50% there. Your sex scene may not be perfect, but if the reader is already rooting for you, they’ll be more likely to ignore any imperfections.
How do you get the reader to root for you? Aside from standard stuff like compelling plot and characterization, you need tension. It makes the sweet, sweet payoff worth the journey.
If you purposefully want to write bad sex, good tension with an awful payoff is an evil, evil way to destroy your reader. If you write romance, the more tension, the better, because it will intensify the payoff. You can get away with less tension in other genres because the main plot is focused elsewhere.
Either way, think of sexual tension as the setup for a good joke, and the sex is the punchline. Knock-knock jokes are fine, but it’s hard to find a good one and they’re over way too quickly. Many good comedians will build a story with mini-jokes along the way before they smack you over the head with an amazing punchline.
This is why you’ll see a first kiss, then a casual grope, then something more intense, and eventually, all the sex. Yes, this progression and the number of sex scenes can vary wildly depending on the genre, and you absolutely don’t want to rely too heavily on a formula.
Having said that, there are all kinds of ways you can mix things up without, ahem, getting to the punchline too quickly. Here are a few examples. Please note that just because the progression ends with “all the sex” doesn’t mean that the story ends there.
The slow-burn: Attraction → Ignoring attraction and failing → Flirting and innuendo → So much flirting and innuendo → Can’t stand it anymore despite emotional and/or external conflict → Kissing, groping, all the sex, and all the consequences
The back and forth: Attraction → Flirting and innuendo → Kissing and groping → This is a bad idea because of emotional and/or external conflict → Can’t pretend I’m not thinking about you in the shower → More flirting → Screw the emotional and/or emotional conflict → All the sex and all the consequences
Insta-sex: Attraction → All the sex → Oh god we shouldn’t have done the sex → Tension because we still want the sex but there’s emotional and/or external conflict → Oh god the tension → All the sex and all the consequences
Welcome to a Tangent on Insta-Sex!
Pulling off insta-sex requires some finesse. Telling the reader your characters are physically hot doesn’t usually establish enough chemistry to make the sex scene worthwhile. You need more meat (sorry). Ideas for how you might do that:
- Established Attraction. These people have known each other a while and you’re jumping into the story right before all the sex happens. They have an established flirtatious relationship of some sort, so it’s easier to get from flirty to dirty more quickly.
- Former Partners (I won’t say lovers because that word is gross). This is similar to established attraction, but with 50% More Emotional VulnerabilityTM.
- Reasonable Recklessness. She’s being deployed tomorrow, so she wants one last hookup on the mainland before being stuck in a submarine for three months. He’s a late-blooming virgin and convinced he’ll never find Ms. Right, so he opts for Ms. Right Now.
- Emotional Attraction. The heroine is used to dealing with ass-faces in bars all the time. Maybe the love interest is nice and doesn’t expect anything from her. The love interest is tired of dealing with society snobs, but the heroine is a loner who likes talking about The Misfits.
- Intellectual Attraction. They both love Charles Dickens and Die Hard.
- Physical Attraction. Specifically, attractive physical traits that go beyond body type or what their face is like. For example, the sound of their voice, the way they play pool, the clothes they wear.
- You’ll Do. The protagonist is willing to settle, usually because they have ulterior motives or want a distraction. I don’t recommend this one for romance unless You’ll Do turns into Wow, You’re Not What I Expected!
End of Tangent
4. Literally write the sexual tension.
How? How do you write the actual words?
Banter. Sexual banter is dialogue between two people who want to flirt openly but can’t, so they talk about something else entirely and let their attraction color their words. Use your subtext. Here’s a ridiculous example:
A: That’s mine.
B: What’s yours?
A: That. My food.
B: Mmm, I don’t think so.
A: Who steals food at a Wendy’s?
B: I guess the better question is who doesn’t?
A: You’re fucking with me.
B: I don’t see why I’d do that.
A: Because you’re a tease.
B: Or maybe you’re just over-eager for a chicken sandwich. Like a puppy.
A: Nothing about me is like a puppy.
B: Prove it.
That was over the top, but hopefully you get the idea.
Focus on the senses. How does the other person’s presence make them feel physically?
Focus on emotions. How does being attracted to this person make them feel emotionally?
Be sure to layer this tension throughout the story, not just right before the sex scene. If your story is less romance-focused, you don’t need to include as much as you would in, say, an erotic romance.
That’s it for now, but next time we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of the actual sex scene. I promise.