Writing Sex Scenes (the Right Way)

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“His pointer finger circled my puckered love cave. ‘Are you ready for this?’ he mewled, smirking at me like a mother hamster about to eat her three-legged young.”

This is an actual quote from Fifty Shades of Gray. This is not how to write a sex scene. This is comical, not sexy. Rule number one of writing the sexy bits of your story—don’t compare to your love interest to a mother hamster. 🐹

There are, of course, other guidelines to generally abide by in order to avoid erotica in the vein of E.L. James. Writing a good sex scene isn’t easy. Fun, but difficult to get right. If done well, these scenes can provide depth to relationships, and draw readers in. But I’ve read many more bad sex scenes from amateur authors than good ones. Here are a few tips on how to write meaningful, *erotic* love scenes without going too far in the direction of smut off Fanfiction.net.

Note: I do not write erotica, and this is a general guide to writing sex scenes in “regular” novels, particularly literary fiction. I’m sure erotica as a genre has its own do’s and dont’s.

If it reads like porn, it will probably seem ridiculous.

It’s okay to get graphic if that fits your story, but be very careful with how you do it, specifically what kind of *dirty talk* is involved. Not because it might offend readers, but because it may sound a lot dumber than you think. If you find your love interest calling your heroine a “dirty slut” and asking her if she wants him to — (insert gratuitous description of sex act), it may strike readers as silly or lessen the emotional impact of the scene. Try to keep the descriptions of the action pretty simple, and dialogue natural if racy. Real sex and porn are two very, very different things. You always want to aire on the side of realism.

Focus on the emotionality behind the scene, and the larger meaning of it.

A sex scene, like any other scene in a story, should advance or enrich the story in some way. A sex scene could be used to develop a character or relationship, or to move the plot forward (what are the consequences of the sex?) Being an inherently emotional act, if not universally so, sex in fiction is also a great opportunity to get really raw and focus on the connection between two characters and their attitudes towards intimacy based on their individual personality, experiences, and beliefs. Focus on how it feels not only physically, but the emotional implications during and after, as well as the possible tension leading up to the scene.

On that note, there should be meaning in the scene. Don’t include a sex scene for no reason.

Pointless sex scenes are awkward and feel random, even boring. If there are too many in a novel, while there’s obviously no hard and fast rule to the maximum number a story can take, it can and probably will feel repetitive, in the same sense that you wouldn’t want to have a character attend ten very similar parties and describe each one in detail. If there are going to be a lot of sex scenes in the story, and you’re not writing erotica, for the most past make them short and sweet, and / or have them be very different from each other—different characters, different emotional impact, etc. First and foremost, be able to answer the question of why this scene is being included.

Be aware of how characters’ sexual behaviors will change reader perceptions of them.

Many facets of sexuality—the frequency with which characters have sex, who they choose to sleep with, any unique fetishes or inclinations, etcetera—can be indicative of what somebody is like as a person and how they are perceived. Some things can really make readers perceive a character more negatively. I’m not just talking about rape or anything intensely immoral. While the most stringently PC have taken issue with “kink shaming”, let’s be honest—if someone wants to be peed on or dress up as a baby or something along those lines, many if not most of us are going to judge them. Even on a less unusual level—fairly common in real life and in fiction, interest in BDSM may cause some readers to view the character in a certain light (and of course it varies what their perceptions may be). Those who neglect their partner’s pleasure might come off as self-centered. It’s not rocket science—who you are in the most private of settings says a lot. I knew a devoutly Christian girl whose boyfriend, now husband, and her would (lol) pray for forgiveness immediately after every premarital boom sesh. That kind of thing says a lot about a character too.

Don’t go too sappy. It’s annoying and romance novel-y.

Fine to have a character look at their partner with love in their eyes and tell them they look beautiful, but go easy. Good sex scenes, somewhat ironically, are fueled by restraint in various areas. This is another thing that’s difficult to pin down, but if there’s a lot of giggling and extensively described gazing, or things like references to one partner “worshipping” the other’s body, it’s probably annoying and gross. Also be wary of exclamation points, even outside of sex scenes.

Be careful with how you refer to genitalia—if you get too *creative*, chances are it’ll be cringe and likely sound flat out idiotic.

Maybe it’s because my parents always avoided words like “wee-wee” when I was little and just used anatomical terms, but I think it sounds least ridiculous to just use penis and vagina. Dick is fine, I think. Cock or pussy sound porny, and will give a sex scene an altogether more superficial feeling. I don’t use them because I think they sound stupid, and hearing a guy refer to his cock actively turns me off. But these things are partially a matter of opinion. More euphemistic terms almost always sound stupid—refer to a man’s penis as his “Johnson” and people will roll their eyes. The more creative, the worse it is. One of my favorite terrible fanfics includes the phrase “man-carrot”, which needless to say is hilarious. You may not even need to refer specifically to the characters’ genitals at all to write a good sex scene. It may sound strange, but you can write about the act without specifically naming the parts involved, at least in some instances. We all know how it works.

Don’t neglect the setting and descriptions outside the sex itself.

Honestly, what’s happening around the characters can be as crucial to the scene as what they’re doing. While writing what’s happening and how the characters feel about it is very important, where they are can make or break a sex scene. And it can change the feel of it a lot. Sex in a fancy bridal suite, even if the same things are happening, will read very differently than sex behind a dumpster. This is also a good place for really lush, beautiful language, which can make a sex scene even more sensual.

Don’t rush, in the scene itself or as far as the pacing of the story.

This is huge. It will feel awkward, random, and unsatisfying if the pacing is off. Especially if it’s too fast—no foreplay, no edging, no internal monologue, just a few thrusts and your heroine is screaming in ecstasy. Recipe for a bad sex scene. It’s boring. If this is what your sex scene is going to consist of, just write it as a paragraph stating the characters had sex and impart a few details of it then move on. You don’t have to graphically describe what acts are being performed—there are so many ways to write a sex scene. Setting and the emotional experience of it on the part of the narrator are huge. Just don’t write like you’re trying to get it over with. And as for the placement of the scene in the story, you’ll likely want to have a little build up. I’ve said this in so many posts, but it’s just so true—tension is the backbone of the story. Also, sexual tension is fun.

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