How to Write a Sex Scene

That got your attention, didn’t it?

(A/N: For the purposes of this post, I am defining a sex scene as one in which sexual activity is explicitly described, rather than those of the fade-to-black, implied sex variety.)

I was too scared to type the words “sex scene” into a Google Image search, afraid it’d result in a reaction similar to this.

Sex scenes are among the most difficult scenes to write.  Part of this is because doing so in one way or the other reveals to the world what you find sexually appealing, either through what happens in a sexy sex scene or what doesn’t happen in an intentionally unsexy one.

In North American culture, sharing your sexual turn-ons with people you haven’t even met (in this case, readers) isn’t something people tend to do, at least not using their real name or one by which they can otherwise be traced.

Furthermore, sex scenes have a far greater potential than other types of scenes to read as unintentionally humourous, repulsive, or cringe-worthy embarrassing.  Not to mention they require some pretty exact choreography.

Sex marks the plot

I first started thinking about sex scenes in stories back when I wrote my post series on fan fiction, and discussed the difference, in my opinion, between sex that is romantic or erotic in a story and that which is pornographic.

The fact is, not every story requires a sex scene, even if the story is a one that centers upon a couple and the events of their romantic relationship.

A writer doesn’t have to follow the characters into the bedroom (or wherever the deed takes place).  Your characters might actually be too shy.  This may seem a bit facetious, but truly, it puts forth a question worth asking: Are your characters the type that would allow their lovemaking to be observed?  Do you really need to go there?

What I’m alluding to, of course, is the question of whether or not a sex scene furthers the plot.  Stories are about characters, and characters behaving in ways that are consistent with their character traits generates action, which is the driver of a story’s plot.

An affirmative answer to the second question posed above therefore equates to an affirmative to the first as well.  That is to say, if something plot-related results from the sex scene – if it’s purpose is to do more than just titillate; if it results in, for example…

  • An unplanned pregnancy,
  • Or the characters growing closer together, which has further implications down the line
  • Or the upstairs neighbour overhearing and realizing that now would be a great time to steal their car,
  • Or the aliens choosing that particular couple to abduct so they can learn more about human mating customs,
  • Or one character oversleeping the next morning and missing an important meeting at work, which sets off an entire chain of events that carries through to the end of the story…

– then your characters are, indeed literary exhibitionists.  But if they are not – if they’re not the type for whom the fallout of their sex lives rears its head in other keys aspects of their lives – then it’s probably best to keep their lovins’ behind closed doors.

Been there, done that

I have written only two sex scenes in all my time as a writer; this despite the fact that since 1996, I’ve written approximately 600,000 words – more than halfway to the mythical 1,000,000 words that will magically transform me into a writing master, overnight.

The first sex scene, written back in 2003 as part of my first (incomplete, shelved) fantasy novel, occurred following the joyful reunion of a couple who’d been unexpectedly separated for nearly a year.  This scene furthered the plot through the counterpoint it provided to the couple’s bitter breakup in the following chapter.

The second sex scene was written back in June as part of my novel-in-progress.  It involved the consummation of the protagonist’s arranged marriage, and unlike in my first novel, is an example of an intentionally unpleasantly unsexy sex scene.  Given that my novel is historical fiction and takes place in the Middle Ages, this scene is important in answering the question of how people did it medieval style, which isn’t at all as gratuitous a motivation as it might seem.

The ultimate goal of historical fiction is to contrast life that was with the way we live today.  Politically-arranged marriages were as hugely important in medieval society as this particular one is important to the plot of my story.

And consummation was an equally important step in the act of getting married, to the point that legitimacy of the marriage could be called into question if consummation did not take place within a reasonable amount of time (not as unlikely as one might believe when children as young as 12 were often wedded to secure titles and alliances).

Plus, you should see how much research is out there about medieval sexuality to take advantage of!

How to do it good

To help me in the writing of the two aforementioned scenes, as well as any others I may write in the future, I utilized the book The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict.

In my fan fiction post, I previous quote three of Benedict’s ten general principles for writing a good sex scene (numbers 5, 9, and 10).  I now quote all ten of them (pp. 41-50) for anyone else who wants their characters to be, as it were, good in bed:

1. A sex scene is not a sex manual

  • We know about the physiology.  What a writer needs to tell us in a sex scene is the things we don’t know.

2. A good sex scene does not have to be about good sex

  • In fiction, a sexual connection that goes awry or has cataclysmic consequences is often more interesting than one that leaves the characters sated and deliriously happy.

3. It’s okay – really! – to be aroused by your own writing

4. Your fear is your best friend

  • What you are most afraid of is where the energy will flow the strongest, and for a writer, if you write in that direction, toward where the fear is, it’s like a homing signal for what you need to do.

5. Sex is nice, but character is destiny

  • We need to care about your characters enough to care about their sex lives.

6. Only your characters know for sure (what to call it)

7. Take your cues from your characters

  • Let your characters show you the way.  When you decide it’s time for your characters to hop into bed together, you may be pushing them to do something they are not ready to do or don’t want as much as you want them to want it.

8. Your characters must want and want intensely

  • A character who wants something that his/her partner does not want to give him/her is what dramatic conflict is all about….  In the realm of writing about sex, dramatic conflict can begin with no more than two characters who have different expectations for an afternoon rendezvous.

9. A good sex scene is always about sex and something else

  • It needs to reveal something about [the characters], act as a metaphor, a symbol, or an illustration of an aspect of your theme, your plot, and/or your characters’ desires and dilemmas.  Sex in real life doesn’t have to be about anything but sex, but in fiction, it has to reveal something about who the characters are, what they want, what they might not get, what they think they can get away with, or what this collision of bodies has to do with everything that comes before and after in your story.

10. Who your characters are to each other is key

  • There is no more important element in crafting a sex scene than the relationship between sex partners.

One final tip from Benedict quoted from page 115:

A sex scene can and should dramatize an essential truth about who the characters are.  Lovers who are awkward and uncommunicative in bed are probably the same way in the kitchen.

This is just a sample of the advice Benedict offers.  The entire book is highly recommended.

(Image source)

12 thoughts on “How to Write a Sex Scene

  1. You just gave me a brilliant idea that, at some point early on, involves me saying to my wife, “But Hon… It’s research for my novel about a sex-addicted couple. Now get over here…”

    If she doesn’t buy that, I’ll say, “They told me I have to write what I know!”

    Seriously, this is as good a post as I’ve read on this subject, which people are not always comfortable discussing. I included a sex scene in an unpublished manuscript I wrote a few years ago. While I think it was done gracefully and fit your relevance criteria, I felt a bit weird thinking about people I know reading it. Unless it’s 100% critical to to the story, I don’t think I’ll do it again.

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    • Hi Eric, thanks for the comment. I’m certainly glad to be of service in helping legitimize your “research”. 🙂

      But you’re right: this is a hard topic to talk about and even harder when it comes to writing the actual scene. Like you, I don’t think I’d bother with explicit details if I didn’t have to, instead trying to convey passion and sensuality in a more subtle and/or unique way, which has the potential to be even more sexy than actual sex if handled properly.

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  2. Well done, Janna. It’s hard enough writing a sex scene, but writing a blog about how to write a sex scene must be even harder. There’s some great info here. Thank you for giving me some tips! 😉

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  3. I think that you have covered all the points possible for this. But I’d keep it genre-appropriate wherever possible. You can get away with more description the more modern/sci-fi the piece is, but the further back you go (like for historical fiction) the more you have to factor in taste. My rule as a writer myself is that what I write has to recapture the taboos of the context because I want my stories to be convincing enough to be enjoyed. Mr. Darcy would balk at some parts of 70s-80s inner city life.

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    • Hi Llenrad, thanks for the comment. I totally agree with you: the sexual mores and hangups of the day lend much credibility to a historical setting. They could also serve as another way to introduce conflict between the characters, e.g. the ecclesiastically-sanctioned sexual position isn’t the optimum one for female pleasure, thereby making the experience a dissatisfactory one for her.

      Are you writing a Regency-era historical (q.v. your reference to Mr. Darcy)?

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  4. My notion when I was more of a fiction writer was to censor in step with the times as a technique, which isn’t exactly the same as what I described earlier but is closely related. If general print media from a certain era did not describe sex in detail, then neither did I.

    But, no, I’m not writing fiction much these days, needless to say Regency pieces. It’s more of a relic of the college days.

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