Writing Sex Scenes – How do you get
those words on the page?
Do you use the word ‘clitoris’ or ‘cock’ when you write? Or do you still
blush at the thought? When I first starting writing romance novels, I
thought writing sex scenes would be easy. I’d read romance novels for
almost a decade…how hard could they be? When it came time to write
my first sex scene, I stared at the computer screen for half a day without
typing a single word and finally wrote “They had sex” before moving on,
completely mortified I couldn’t even start one. Then, I hit the bookstores.
That’s when I found The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict. This
book opened my eyes and made me realize that writing sex scenes didn’t
have to be difficult.
In order to gain a readers attention, writer’s use goal, motivation, and
conflict (GMC), point of view (POV), world building, character building…I
could go on and on. Sex scenes are just another tool a writer uses to show,
not tell, more about our character. Sex can be used to show a characters
weakness, to show a characters internal conflict, and to show a
relationship develop between a hero and heroine – and just like every
other writer’s tool, I had to learn how to use it.
First, you need to know what type of book you are writing, so you know
what heat level you want to write. There are several different levels,
there are even sub-levels within each heat level and everyone has a
different definition. Below is a loose guideline of the current heat levels
in the romance industry, which changes constantly. Review your target
market before you make any decisions. Hot for one publishing line may
not be the same for another, even if it is in the same publishing house.
• Porn – The intent is to arouse the
reader, not to focus on the relationship.
This usually isn’t included in the romance
• Erotic – Contains graphic sexual
detail and usually a third party (which
may be another person or an inanimate
object such as toys or emotions such as pain).
You’ll find self-pleasure, BDSM, etc. This
level also includes trigger words such as cock,
cunt, cum, etc.
• Hot – Sex scenes maybe graphic, but are less graphic than erotic.
You may find some self-pleasure here, but the focus is on the
relationship, and though trigger words may still be used, they are not
used to the same degree as in erotic scenes. Some publishers do not
publish erotic, though they will take what others would consider erotic
submissions and publish it under this level.
• Spicy – Even less graphic and focused on the more sensual side of
sex. This includes a deeper exploration the relationship and feelings
between a hero and heroine.
• Sweet – Usually shorter sex scenes focused on the relationship.
The author focuses more about getting to the bedroom than being in it,
though authors still can include the actual sex act.
• Closed Door – Sex is insinuated, not shown. The focus is on
getting to bed without including the sexual act. Foreplay may or may not
Now that you know the different heat levels, where do you think you
write? Where do you want to write? When I first started, I thought I was
writing Hot though I was actually writing Spicy. My natural inhibitions
held me back and I had to find a way to overcome this. I would sit in
front of the computer, my face beat red as I tried to push myself.
Here’s the key though -
practice, just as you practice
every other tool of writing.
Push yourself. Expand your
boundaries. No one has to
know what you read. No one
has to know how bad your
first few drafts were. Until
you are comfortable with your
writing, shoot above where you
want to be. And if your writing turns you on, don’t freak out. While the
purpose was not to turn you on, at least you know someone finds it
exciting. Use it to your advantage - share it with your partner if you
have one – he/she might appreciate it.
Still, how do you ‘practice’? This is where Elizabeth Benedict’s book
comes in. There is no way to cover all the aspects she discusses; however,
here are four organization principals she lists and how they helped me:
1. “A good sex scene is not always about good
sex but it is always an example of good
writing.” – My translation: No matter how good the
sex is, if the writing is poor, your reader won’t get
into the scene. You still need the basic principals
of writing to pull your reader in. Why are we here?
What is the purpose? I’ve seen people use sex to show
how horrible their villain is, just as I’ve seen people
use it show the relationship develop between the hero
and heroine. The memorable scenes show us aspects
of the hero or heroine we wouldn’t get a chance to see
otherwise. Think about yourself during sex. It’s a vulnerable and
exciting experience. There are tons of things going through your mind.
The key to writing these scenes is to balance the internal emotion with
the external action without slowing the scene or alienating the reader.
2. “A good sex scene should always connect to the larger
concerns of the work.” – My translation: Is there a point to your sex
scene? The sex should be about furthering the relationship between the
hero and heroine – about furthering the plot, not just sex for the sake of
sex, unless your heat level requires it.
3. “The needs, impulses, and histories of your character should
drive the sex scene.” – My translation: Use the sex scene as a tool to
reveal more about your character. Show the reader what is going on
inside your characters heads. Are they nervous? If so why? Do they
want the lights off? If so, why?
4. “The relationship your characters have to each other –
whether they are adulterers or strangers on a train – is critical to
what happens in a sex scene.” - My translation: The relationship
will set the stage for more than just the sex. It will set the stage for
internal conflict, mood, and emotions. Look at what is going on around
them. Set the scene and use it.
Ok, so we know what we want, but how to we overcome our own
hesitation? The truth is everyone writes sex scenes differently. Find a
way that works for you. Even today, the first drafts of my sex scenes are
very analytical. I have to go back and add emotion, thoughts, etc. I have
to edit, edit, edit! If you need to, get a glass of wine, play some music,
whatever it takes to put you in the mood.
Here are some ways to add other tools to make you feel more comfortable.
Some authors will tell you that you have to have a GMC for every scene.
Some will say you don’t. When it comes to sex scenes, unless you’re
writing porn, you need a reason for the scene besides the sex. Without it,
why does the reader care that they’ve gone to the bedroom? The goal
and/or motivation could be physical satisfaction or an emotional
connection. Either will work, as long as the reader understands why
they are there. Even at the erotic level, readers want a happy ending –
not necessarily marriage, but a happy ending. Show the conflict
(internal doubts), show the development (shift from sex to making love)
…use sex as a tool to move the hero/heroine toward their happy ending.
You’ve got to build your characters so your reader wants to care about
what happens to them. Sex can be used as very personal form of
communication, revealing doubts, conflicts, and emotions sometimes
better than words. Once you’ve built your characters, stay in character (i.
e. stay in their point of view) and explore their minds.
Where your characters are plays a part in your characters personalities.
Why wouldn’t this be part of the bedroom as well? I wouldn’t talk about
what they see around them during sex. I mean, come on…do you think of
the shade of the bedspread when you have sex? But if they are having
sex someplace else, say an airplane bathroom, the location of the sex tells
you a lot about the characters. Use that. It usually doesn’t take more
than a couple lines scattered here or there. Also, some of the best sex
scenes aren’t about good sex. In Janet Chapman’s Seductive Impostor, a
third party hears a scream and walks in just as the hero orgasms. She
knocks him out to save the heroine from an attacker. I still smile to this
day when I see that book and reread it all the time. Why? Because the
entire book was like that. The world they lived in was so colorful and
Point of View
You’ve spent all this time building your character – don’t cheat the
reader or your character now by being shy. Be honest with them. Are
your characters fucking or making love? Men and women categorize sex
differently at different times in a relationship. Use this to show the
progression of the relationship, to show the reader how the feelings
developed. Just because someone starts out ‘fucking’ at the beginning of
the book doesn’t mean he/she won’t change switch to thinking of it as
‘making love’ by the end. Build the sexual tension between your
characters, make the reader like them, and make the reader want to see
their relationship progress to the bedroom. Often, sexual tension is more
desired than the sexual act.
If your characters aren’t ready to hop into bed, it will show. If you’re a
plot driven writer – don’t panic. This doesn’t mean you have to redesign
your entire outline. Look at where the relationship is – have you
developed the romance enough to do what you want to do? If you’re a
character driven writer – again don’t panic. You probably haven’t built
enough sexual tension, haven’t developed the relationship, or are pushing
things to fast.
Last but not least…As a single woman who is dating, I can usually tell
within the first three chapters if the writer has been married for a while.
I hate to say this, but several first meetings or relationship beginnings in
romance books aren’t realistic. I’m not talking about how they meet, but
how they act. Often the characters focus on things single people wouldn’t
focus on during a first meeting. They are missing that initial self-doubt
or self-awareness. Do some research. Go out with your single friends to a
nightclub and listen to them. Listen to what they talk about as a guy
goes by, or what they say to each other when he leaves to go to the
bathroom or get a drink. You’d be surprised what they focus on. Clothes,
scent, mannerisms, behavior, and speech – all of these can instantly
spark interest or kill it.
These elements also can be missing the first time two people have sex with
each other. Two people having sex for the first time will have a different
sexual experience than two people who have known each other for years,
or even two people who have had sex together for years. Remember your
first time with your partner – was it comfortable? What were you
thinking about? Were you thinking about your to do list or wondering
he thought your thighs were fat? When your bodies rubbed against each
other and caused a noise, did you wonder if he/she thought you farted?
You don’t need to add the question about farting into your book, but
show what they are thinking. Have your character wonder if the other
person likes what they are doing? Or what that moan means? They don’t
know each other well enough to understand the tones and this is one of
the most exciting parts of a relationship. Use sex to show the closeness
The number one thing to remember when writing a sex scene is that it is
a lot like teaching your teenage son how to drive. You don’t tell him to
put the key in the ignition and turn it on. He knows that, just as your
reader knows the mechanics of sex. Your job as a romance author is to
use your writing tools to show the reader how the actions make the
characters feel, what they are thinking, and why.
This article was written with permission of Elizabeth Benedict. If you'd like to
know more about her, please visit her website at www.elizabethbenedict.com.
|Looking for love and stepping into everything else