filed under How To Write A Book.

I was having a conversation on Twitter a couple of weeks ago about writing sex scenes in fiction and was virtually dared to write a blog about it. I love a challenge, so here goes.

DISCLAIMER: I am writing a blog post about writing sex scenes in novels. Therefore, I will be using the word “sex” frequently. If you’re likely to be offended by this, please stop reading now. Please don’t read all the way to the end and then leave me a comment about how degenerate I am. Sex happens in books. It’s good to know how to write about it well. I’m just trying to help writers do that.

My First Fictional Sex Scene

I wrote the first draft of my first book, What is Left Over, After by skipping through the sex scenes as quickly as I could. My fictional couple kissed and embraced, they had sex, but I just didn’t write about it. I was embarrassed, of what, I don’t know.

Then I realised I wasn’t being true to my character. She was, for various reasons, in a promiscuous phase of her life. How on earth was a reader supposed to know this when the promiscuity was virtually invisible?

So I sat down one night and I wrote a sex scene. I decided to forget about anyone ever reading it and just write a scene that felt true to my characters. And guess what? That scene made it virtually unchanged into the book.

It was a breakthrough moment for me. I had to get over the mental block I had about writing sex scenes and once I did, I never looked back. But how do you get over the mental block and, when you do, how do you make sure you’re not writing one of those cringe-worthy sex scenes that everybody loves to laugh about? Here are my 3 top tips.

1. Know Your Genre

Each genre has different conventions when it comes to sex. Genre will determine how much sex you need and what words you can use to write about it.

For example, historical fiction generally has sex scenes. Think Biter Greens, think Outlander, think anything by Philippa Gregory and Sarah Waters and you’ll know what I mean. But your vocabulary may well be different when writing about sex in a historical novel than it will be when writing about sex in a contemporary novel.

It’s unlikely that a heroine in a novel set at the beginning of the twentieth century would know many anatomical terms for her genitalia or for that of a man. So, the vocabulary you use when writing the sex scene needs to bear that in mind. It’s the same for writing a work of contemporary women’s fiction; if a heroine refers to her genitalia as “down there” in a novel set in contemporary times, the reader is likely to think she’s been brought up in a nunnery. Don’t be too shy about these things; it won’t ring true to the reader.

To summarise:

  • Consider your genre.
  • Look at how often sex scenes are used.
  • Look at the level of explicitness.
  • Make sure the frequency and detail of the sex scenes you’re writing suits the genre you’re writing in.

3 Tips to Help You Write Sex Scenes in Fiction | www.natashalester.com.au

2. Know Your Character

This leads me on to the nuances of your character. For instance, Camille, the main character in my second book, If I Should Lose You, is a nurse. She isn’t going to refer to any part of her body as “down there”!

She would use anatomically correct terms because that is what she is used to professionally, and she is also a clinical and precise person. In a sex scene described from her point of view, the words I use as a writer to describe the action need to reflect both her personality and her profession.

Camille is also very honest with the reader about her thoughts and feelings in relation to what is happening with her marriage and her daughter. Therefore, if she suddenly clammed up when it came to talking about sex, it would be out of character, as if she was hiding something, and that would be a red herring plot-wise. So, her descriptions of sex, including her fantasies, are honest and, while not explicit, tend more towards the graphic than the understated.

To summarise:

  • Consider your main character.
  • Consider their personality.
  • Consider their vocabulary. If you have a character who uses profanity throughout the book but suddenly reverts to Victorian prudishness when it comes to talking about sex, the reader will be jolted out of your fictional world.

3. Get Over It

If you’re writing in a genre that requires sex scenes and you’ve been too scared to write any then you have to get over it. Yes, your mother and aunt and grandfather and friend will all read your book. If you’ve done a good job of writing it, they won’t remember that you wrote it while they’re reading it. They’ll be lost in the world of the book.

A week, or probably even a day, after they’ve finished it, they’ll have entirely forgotten about the sex scene you wrote. Everyone’s lives are too busy to be constantly thinking, “so-and-so (insert your name here) must be sexually frustrated/a pervert/getting too much of a good thing (insert abuse of your choice here) because he/she wrote those sex scenes in that book”.

I guarantee that it won’t be the sex scenes that leave a lasting impression on your readers. It will be the story you’ve crafted and the characters you’ve created because those things are the heart of a good book. The sex is just window dressing.

So, go dress your windows! If you’ve been too shy/scared/worried/concerned/uncomfortable to write a sex scene, I challenge you to block out half an hour and sit down and write one. The first time is always the hardest, as the saying goes.

It’s the emotions characters feel during sex that are most important, not which body part goes where

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Don’t Forget the Emotions!

I was reminded of this the other night when watching the SBS series Masters of Sex, which is about Bill Masters, an American gynaecologist who created a pioneering study into human sexual response in the 1950s. In the series, he wonders why words to do with the functions of the human body in relation to sex can’t be as commonplace as those to do with sneezing.

I guess writing about sex is a little the same; as a writer, you have no qualms in describing your characters walking, eating, or sneezing. Remember that sex is just another ordinary human biological function—it’s the emotions your characters experience during the sexual act that are of most importance, not necessarily a detailed description of what body part goes where.

Who’s up for the challenge? If you decide to try writing a sex scene, let me know how you go. Do you find writing sex scenes difficult or easy?

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42 Responses to “Three Tips About Writing Sex Scenes in Fiction”

    • Natasha Lester

      Ha! You know it’s because of THAT Twitter conversation that I wrote this?! Good luck with it – let me know how you go. I’m interested to hear if you write something you might use.

      Reply
  1. Lily Malone

    Good article, Natasha. (And I want to read Louise’s scene too).
    I find it strange that the more books I finish (I just wrote ‘The End’ on my 4th yesterday arvo), the less sex is in them. My first book had about 3 scenes and quite a few gropes & snuggles… as I’ve kept writing, I’ve found I’m actually closing the door more. That said, when they do get at it, I like to think they do it kinda steamy, otherwise, what’s the point?

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Thanks Lily. Perhaps Louise will have to blog about her experience of writing a sex scene for next week so we can see how she went!

      And you’re absolutely right – sometimes less is more. Holding back can sometimes be just as effective as showing it all. I think as long as the emotions come through, the physical details are often less interesting.

      Reply
  2. Lisa O'Neill

    This is so great, Natasha, thank you for an honest post about a confronting subject! I can never stop thinking about my Grandma reading my writing and really struggle with sex scenes despite writing chick lit. I also often want to include swear words and feel guilty for the same reason, despite knowing my characters would absolutely use them!

    Reply
  3. lalouziane

    Ha. The first sex scene I wrote went something like… they had sex,they both liked it, they got up and did something else. It was pretty bad.

    I concentrate more on the emotions than anything else. I think by this time, we all pretty much know what goes where. It’s the emotions of the characters that are important to me. I want to get those across to the reader.

    Very nice article and much needed.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      My first sex scene was very similar to yours! And yes, you’re right. Focussing on emotions rather than physical descriptions can be a great way for a writer to get into a sex scene. Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for commenting.

      Reply
      • lalouziane

        Natasha, I’ve been told my sex scenes are very steamy, and one romance author told me that my sex scenes were rather bland. I was really glad to see you mention that the important thing is the emotions. I think readers identify with emotions, not body parts. I was really happy to read your post. 🙂

        Reply
  4. Karen

    Well, the characters in my children’s novel are only twelve so I sincerely hope there is no sex happening! But at least I have a starting point now if I’m still writing about them as older teenagers!

    Reply
  5. Jacquie Garton-Smith

    From someone who has no problem talking with patients about sex in a professional setting, I am surprisingly reluctant to write about it in my fiction! Thanks Natasha – very timely as have had some feedback that I need to “go there” in my latest manuscript and have been procrastinating about doing so. (Read enrol-in-writing-MOOC-instead-of-write-sex-scene level of avoidance! To echo Louise … Here goes … (Maybe tomorrow… Or the next day!)

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Now! Do it now! Honestly, I can’t say enough that it was really only by making myself sit down with the job being to write a sex scene that I somehow was able to get over the block that I had. Let me know how you go with it Jacquie – I actually found it quite a liberating experience!

      Reply
  6. Nicole

    Thank you Natasha!
    I’m currently writing my first book, and I struggled (then gave up) on a sex scene; I was nervous and unsure on how to go about it. But this has helped me figure out how I want it to happen! You are a blessing to writers!

    Reply
  7. Megan Kiffmeyer

    It’s funny you mentioned the fear of family reading the sex scenes. I was scared of my mom reading them in my first book, but she was more upset about them drinking too much wine in the story. The perception did not meet the reality for me. Great post!

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Another friend said something similar to me, that she had been worried about how her grandmother would react to the sex scenes in her book. But apparently her grandmother was more concerned about the elderly character’s clothing choices than the sex scenes! Just goes to show that everyone picks up on something different in our books and most people aren’t bothered by the things we think they will be.

      Reply
  8. Monica Mason

    I read some good sex scenes from a favourite author of mine just to get in the mood and then just went for it. They were two pent up characters that had longed to get at “it” with each other. I used my vivid imagination to draw from and made sure that all things were actually possible. I actually find it not so hard to write them as the characters seem to write it for me (They have fantastic chemistry).

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      Great that your characters have such good chemistry that you as the writer can feel it and let it flow through onto the page. I’m sure the scene will be a winner with your readers!

      Reply
  9. audrey moya

    I write as a long time hobby, its been something I’ve done on my own since I was a kid. I have no worries when it comes to family reading my stories cause I know they just wont. The thing I’ve struggled with now with my writing is sex scenes. I like the idea of less is more in the romantic sense. When I read someone else’s work I cant help but blush, like I really walked in on somebody. Guess it’s all in the wording, and I’m really glad to know I’m not the only person who struggles with this. Thank you for this I need all the help I can get.

    Reply
  10. Brianne Toma

    The book my mother recommended to me was Outlander…and I was appalled–traumatized, even–that she told me to read it. I have never forgotten the sex scenes. And the TV show only added more vividness.Writers must know they should not have to compromise their morals to make a good book. Entertainment that is creative enough to show a couple had sex without having a sex scene is great. They kiss, the scene cuts to morning, and their clothes are missing. I get it. They had sex. Much easier than feeling like I violated a couple’s personal space; it’s none of my business, even if it’s vital to the plot.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      I wasn’t a big fan of Outlander either – to me it bordered on violence rather than love. I do tend to write sex scenes, so I don’t mind them in books but they have to fit the story and the characters. I also understand that different people prefer different amounts and types of sex in their books and that what works for one won’t work for another. It’s another one of those things that we writers have to juggle!

      Reply
  11. Michelle Gillian

    Haha, I write great sex scenes! It’s trying to build a great story around them that’s giving me trouble!

    Reply
  12. Lalo

    I love this article. My first sex scene read like this. “They had sex. They both liked it. They got up and went and did something else.”

    Yeah… I had a long way to go. I’m not so much about what goes where, as I think we all should know that by now. I’m more about the emotions during the expression of love.

    But that’s just me. Great article though. Very nice.

    Reply
  13. Varina Suellen Plonski

    I admit that sex scenes have their place, and I enjoy them as much as anyone. Nor am I averse to writing them! I just don’t think every book *has* to have one. Lately it seems to me that some authors feel compelled to add sex scenes even when they don’t really add to the plot, as though they will be castigated by their readers if they don’t toss them a bone–ow, sorry! Pun not intended! But there is also a virtue in implying rather than describing in whatever level of detail.
    In my current WIP my two protagonists have just spent an intense few minutes sorting out some issues. The scene ends with:
    Then he kissed her–long, deep, slow, and thoroughly.
    And then he made her scream.

    The next scene is from outside the woman’s office, where her security guards are gathered after one of them heard the scream. They’re not sure what to do, and so they’ve called their Chief of Security to pass the buck. After a few quick questions he knows exactly what’s happened, and as one of her closest friends he’s overjoyed. But he turns to the guards and asks in disbelief and pity, “Have none of you–ever–had really good sex?”
    I really don’t feel I needed to say anything else. Sometimes less is more.
    And yes, later on, there’s more. 😉

    Reply
  14. Heather

    Another great help: Alcohol hahaha.
    Whenever I know I’m coming to a sex scene, I put my headphones in, crank music, pour myself some wine, and try to get lost in the moment. I wouldn’t consider my scenes erotic, but my betas and CP’s have called them steamy. Sometimes it feels like you’re writing an instruction manual, though. So-and-so kisses here, they stick tab A into Slot B, and stars erupt haha.

    Reply
  15. Raven Wilhelm

    I mostly write romance novels, but it’s the sex scenes.
    That always get Me; I am normally a really shy person. So I get nervous about the Sex scenes.
    So I’m hoping these tips, will help me.

    Reply
  16. Annie Rose

    I realise it’s been a while since this has been published but I just stumbled upon this while I was looking for some advice.
    I’m an amateur writer from Germany who writes short stories in English and uploads them on wattpad (don’t know if you have ever heard of it, it’s a fun platform for readers and hobby writers).
    I’m currently working on a story that is going to be more steamy than what I usually write and I’m honesty struggling to find the right words!

    I found your article very informative and I agree with the points you touched, especially about finding the right expressions that would fit the character’s personality. I’ll definitely try to consider that point.
    Thank you for sharing your experience with the world.

    Reply
    • Natasha Lester

      These are definitely difficult scenes to write, especially the first few times you try. Like anything, the more you practise this kind of writing, the easier it becomes. Good luck with it!

      Reply
  17. Janice D

    This popped up in my Pinterest feed at the most perfect moment and I am SOOOO glad I clicked on it! A great article I will be consulting often as I tackle this very thing in my novel in the next few days…. Thanks! 🙂

    Reply
  18. Amanda Gatton

    I was exactly like you with my first novel. The story warranted sex scenes but I was just… Embarrassed. Had zero experience with writing that. But the sub par love scene actually detracted from the quality of the novel so I decided to go for the gusto with first rewrite. By the time it got to my editor, and he sent back his notes, I bashfully whispered “what’d you think of the sex scene.” To which he responded: oh holy heck that was the best part of the book, more sex please ? It’s fun when you get past hang ups and implement the other techniques you’ve suggested here!

    Reply
  19. Stacia Levy

    Thanks for sharing this, Natasha!
    I have a hard time with sex scenes not out of embarrassment but lack of technical skill. And fear of sounding trite. You note that sex is actually a commonplace act, so, as with love, it’s hard to find something original to say.
    I have to say I laughed at your disclaimer. Do people really read an article called “Tips for Sex Scenes ” and then get offended that you’re writing about sex?
    Thanks again for sharing.

    Reply
  20. Jo Carter

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog post after reading your recent copy editing one. For all of the five sex scenes I’ve written, four of them are way too focused on the body parts and the movements, rather than the emotions. Thank you for the reminder! 🙂

    Reply
  21. Debbie C.

    I am a BRAND NEW WRITER who Always wanted to write a book! I have been told that I should write Our story including the crazy funny Sex things my husband of 42 yrs and I dud throughout the years! But….nit afraid if Parents reading…..my kids! Although we have always been quite outspoken and joked with the kids around, I am still afraid of REALLY PUTTING IT OUT THERE! I LOVE reading erotic paranormal as well as just good stories with good sex. I WISH I could really write like that! I Loved your advice as well as inspiration to “just get over it”. I WILL try a memory of Cleaning a Dr ‘s office at night with my husband! Maybe it will get me on the track I wish for! Thank you so much!

    Reply

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