5Writers.com welcomes guest blogger Leslie Salas to the site!
Leslie Salas holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is a graduate of a Publishing Institute. By day, she helps students in higher education master the art of effective communication and storytelling at an entertainment, media, and arts university. On nights and weekends, she writes in multiple genres, including poetry, prose, screenwriting, and comics. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, Burrow Press’ 15 Views, Volume II: Corridor, and more. She also serves as graphic nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection, and frequently contributes to The Gloria Sirens. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
So You Want to Write a Sex Scene?
Whether you’re writing a plot-driven or character-driven narrative (be it fiction or creative nonfiction), poetry, scripts, comics, video games, or any combination of the above, chances are there may be some sex involved. And even though sex is a fundamental aspect of life, it may not be easy to write about. If you use the information covered below as a checklist, you’ll be well on your way to writing the steamiest, most effective sex scenes you didn’t even realize you were capable of!
Why do you want to write this sex scene?
Don’t just have a sex scene just so it can be there. Sex can showcase the stakes of the story and can function as character development or even work as a power-play. As Emma Darwin points out, sex advances the plot through character-in-action and functions as dialogue. Your sex scene needs purpose in the story. If the action in the scene doesn’t drive the story forward, you don’t need it. When it’s not crucial to give a play-by-play, simply allude to your characters’ intimacy and move on to the part(s) your readers are more interested in.
How many people will be involved in this sex scene?
You probably have a good idea of whom you want to feature in your sex scene(s), but consider some alternatives as well. Sex isn’t just for couples! Consider all of the ways your characters might engage in sexual activity and how these actions can engage your readers and further the story. Maybe they’re sexing solo; masturbation can be empowering and self-satisfying for both men and women. If the sex is coupled, consider alternatives to the typical P in V: hands, mouths, toys, and more can add some sexy diversity to your scenes. If you’re writing a threesome or orgy (with 4+ people involved), the mechanics can get complicated; proceed at your own risk with characters you (and your readers) know well. And finally, don’t forget the voyeurs or other characters not directly involved, but are still participating in sex through watching and/or listening (especially if they happen to be the narrator).
Who’s involved in this sex scene?
So you have a good reason to write a sex scene and you know how many characters are going to be involved. Great! Now what? You need to know who your characters are before you can write them effectively in scene. Consider the following: What do they want? What are their needs? What would they actually do in the situation to get what they’re after? What sort of background do they have with sex? Have they experienced it themselves or just heard about it, seen it, or read about it second-hand? (For a longer list of questions regarding your characters and what you should know before you get started, check out this excellent list by Beth Hill.) The more you know your character, the more authentically you’ll be able to write about them being “caught in the moment.”
As you move through these pre-writing exercises, making sure you really know your characters on the inside, don’t forget to double-check how they exist on the outside. Don’t go for the clichéd unattainably beautiful woman or incredibly hunky man immortalized in much sci-fi/fantasy and romance novels. If you’re writing in a genre that can include non-human characters—have fun! But still remember to make your characters real and fallible—this will strengthen your readers’ ability to identify with your characters, thus making your scene that much more effective.
At this point you’ll also want to identify specific aspects of your characters’ physiological and emotional makeup. What are the biological sexes of the people involved? Are their genitals female, male, or are they intersex (with genitalia of both sexes)? What are the gender identities of the people involved? Do they identify with the sex they were assigned at birth (making them cisgendered) or do they identify as another gender (making them transgendered or genderfluid)? And how about the sexual attractions of the people involved? Are they straight or are they queer? (Note that queerness is a spectrum, and includes gay/lesbian people, as well as pansexuals, polysexuals, and asexuals.) This information impact the way your characters behave during sex, either because of how they are feeling or what their bodies are capable of doing. Showcasing diverse characters in your writing will improve your inclusivity and strengthen your work’s readability across multiple potential readerships.
Do your characters want to participate in this sex scene?
This is a big one. Are your characters participating in consensual or nonconsensual sex? Consensual sex happens between adults who are enthusiastically participating in the sex act. Nonconsensual sex happens when one or more participants does not consent to the sex act, either by distinctly saying “no” or by not saying “yes.” It is important to note that it is also not possible for consensual sex to occur when there is a power dynamic between the participants, such as in adult/child or boss/employee relationships.
You may choose to write either or both types of sex for your scenes(s), depending on how the sex moves your story along. One type is not “better” than the other for the purposes of storytelling; what will help you decide is why you’re writing your scene and what sort or response you’re looking to elicit out of your readers. (However, please make sure all of your sex in real life is consensual-only!)
What type of sex will your characters be having?
Maybe your characters are into the more vanilla insert-tab-into-slot sex positions. Maybe they’re a bit kinky and like to break out the fuzzy handcuffs or torture table. Whatever they’re into, it’s your responsibility to write it well. Do your research, either first-hand or by communicating honestly with members of that community so that you learn to write it like it’s really like. Know your target audience and what they already know about they type of sex you’re writing about, otherwise you’ll turn them off with inaccuracies. Avoid the fallout E.L. James faced from the BDSM community because her books demonstrated dangerous behavior inconsistent with the realities of how that kink actually works in real life.
Are your characters chasing the Big O? Or are there other objectives at stake? Not all sex is had with the objective for one or all participants to orgasm, and sometimes it’s not possible for a character to get off in a certain set of circumstances or constraints. Keep some realistic standards for your characters and their sexytimes. No one has porn-quality sex every single time. Not everyone is flexible enough for advanced Kama Sutra positions. The act can be messy, awkward, or painful. Maybe someone gets a cramp or an orifice makes a funny noise. Maybe there’s a furniture malfunction. Incorporate some humor into the scene. Especially for the ladies, include some foreplay. Some of the most sexually intimate moments aren’t even sex, but the promise of something more. Play with this. Tease your characters and your readers for a bigger, more satisfying payoff at the end.
Don’t forget to include important details about the sex your characters are having, especially regarding whether or not they have taken precautions to make their sex safe, such as using male or female condoms, dental dams, diaphragms, or other barrier methods and/or forms of contraceptives (such as the pill or IUDs). Safe sex is sexy sex, so please include these details in your sex scenes!
What happens after the actual sex part of the scene?
Your characters might engage in some post-coitus cuddling after riding long and hard. Sex releases oxytocin, the feel-good bonding hormone, which can help your characters bond. The actions and dialogue that occur between your characters during this after-sex bonding might be some of the most important character development in your sex scene. However, if you’ve written about a nonconsensual sexual encounter, there might be some emotional trauma involved, including short-term and long-term PTSD symptoms that your characters may face, which can be a source of conflict and tension for your story.
As I’m sure you are aware, more long-term results of sex might include a character being infects with a sexually transmitted disease or infection (especially if they do not engage in safe sex practices), and even pregnancy (in the case of sexual contact between persons with male and female genitals). Your sex scenes shouldn’t just be fan-service or used to explain a villain or antihero’s troubled past. Your sex scenes shouldn’t just be a tool for control or the ultimate worst-thing-that-could-happen-to-a-young-girl. Avoid clichés and be careful not to use these consequences as overt plot devices in your story.
(For additional information about gender identity, consent, safe sex, and more, I strongly recommend watching Laci Green’s videos—they are extremely informative and down to earth, and can help you write contemporary sex scenes that are safe and sexy!)
The Writing Part:
Similarly to writing about violence or trauma, when writing about sex both emotion and movement are key and should be given equal weight. You’ve picked the point of view of your story for a reason, now use it wisely. A lot of the way you’ll balance what’s going on in your character’s head and what’s going on with their body depends on your target audience’s expectations and your goal for the scene.
What are your characters thinking?
Your characters’ attitudes toward the sex you’re writing will influence the way the scene comes across to the reader. What is at stake here? What does each character have to gain?
Convey this information by focusing on the details. What your character notices is just as important as what they don’t notice. Do they see the crack in the drywall? What about the hole where his fist went through the door week before? Is the crib empty? Can they smell the diapers in the bin? Does she taste more sour than usual? Are they not 100% after getting chewed out at work? Do they pretend their partner has the same colored hair as that sweet little thing they flirt with at school? Are they so hot they can’t focus on anything but those dimples or the callousness of their fingertips? Appeal to all the senses (not just the usual five) to ground your readers in the emotional stakes of the setting and scene.
What are your characters doing?
There are several different ways you might choose to describe the actual sex acts in your scene. As G. Doucette points out, the point of many sex scenes in books is to turn on the reader, which means there’s a lot more at stake, especially for establishing and maintaining the reader-writer relationship.
The clinical approach usually doesn’t work, usually because it’s a bit too sanitized and mechanical for the reader, making it a bit unsexy. An exception to this might be if the narrator describing the sex is clinically-minded. In that case, you should still keep it interesting and well-written, and should be about how this person emotionally engages with the sex act as voyeur or participant.
You might try describing certain bodily features or functions in a coy or cute manner, using clever turns of phrase to say what you’re saying without actually saying it. This can be great for younger or more sensitive audiences that don’t want the nitty gritty details and are more interested in the romance. If you’re not careful, these euphemisms can go a bit too far and distract your readers. But leaving something up to the imagination of your reader can be delicious. Just like when writing about trauma, whatever the reader imagines is better than whatever you write down. As Emma Darwin points out, less is more.
The opposite of being coy or cute is to describe the scene with crass. This other side of the spectrum may be appropriate for your hardcore kink audiences, who expect things to be said simply and with a tint of roughness. Too much of this can alienate some audiences who aren’t comfortable with that type of language or explicitness.
The key here to describing how is doing what how is to be creative–but not too creative, otherwise your readers will have no idea what you’re trying to describe. Strike a balance between the above-mentioned tactics. Be straightforward. Leave a little to the imagination. Utilize synecdoche and metonymy, as Charlie Jane Anders notes. But be careful not to use the same tiemless phrases people have used before, such as waves, oceans, or the ground moving. (For a longer list of clichés with writing sex scenes, check out this great list by Kim Devereux).
What else happens on the page?
Pacing is your friend. Longer sentences draw things out, while shorter sentences force your readers’ eyes down the page faster. Use white space and syntax to your advantage for when you want to linger on a moment or sprint, breathless, through the experience.
Write within the conventions of your genre, as noted by Karen Wiesner. As mentioned above, include basic establishing points for setting, mood, and atmosphere, into your scenes. These details make what you’re writing feel more real, and they’re so important I had to mention them twice.
Fallout after Publication:
A lot of writers are terrified about what happens after you’ve written some dirty little thing and released it the world for everyone to read—especially if you’re delving into creative nonfiction. Some writers may even hesitate to send any work out with sex in it for fear that—gasp—mom or dad will read it. Or an in-law. Or your boss. Or some other equally embarrassing person will get their hands on it and learn what unspeakable things go on in your head. What ever will you do?
Luckily, you’ve got some options.
No one needs to see the writing if you aren’t comfortable sharing it. Write as if no one is reading. Don’t submit it until you’re comfortable (or ready). You might choose to wait until a specific family member has passed away (if you’re really that worried about it) or until a particular benchmark in your life (like getting married, so there’s no pretending about your v-card anymore).
Go ahead and submit the work—under a pseudonym (like Lily Harlem). You’ll have a bit more freedom to explore and write what you really want without risking your reputation.
Send the work out to places where you know friends/family won’t ever find it (like print journals or publications outside of their normal scope of reading). This way your work is out there in the world and you can take credit for the publication in your resume or CV, but the chances of people (who actually know you) reading it are very slim.
Own it. Send it out. Get it published. Share it with everyone. Sex is a natural fact of life; there’s no reason to be ashamed of how you write about it. Haters will hate, but your readers will love you for it, and that matters more.
Just like with real sex, you probably won’t get it right the first time or every time. But the more practice writing sex scenes, the better you’ll get. Keep trying. Reading great sex scenes can also help you learn—here’s a great list of sex scenes from contemporary novels to get you started. If you’d like some solidarity for when you sit down to write your first sex scene, S. Dawson has some excellent (and hilarious) steps to help walk you through it, and Chuck Wendid has another humoroous and helpful list to help you out as well.
Now armed with these strategies and considerations, may you embark on the glorious task of submitting your characters to well-written sex scenes! Happy writing!
Photo Credit: Madilyn Peiper