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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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?