It’s February and romance is in the air! For writers, though, the prospect of romance all too often leads to that most tricksy of tasks: penning the dreaded sex scene. Sure, there are writers who have made smutty stories into a craft all their own. They have my respect and my undying envy. Because for the rest of us, we’re all too often left squirming in our chairs, tasked with adding a titillating bit of spice to our tales of action, scifi, or fantasy. I was lucky enough to cut my teeth in the supportive bosom of fandom, where there’s a place for everything, from superhero smut to elven erotica. Yet, even in my own original work, sex scenes are some of the hardes-- ahem, most difficult to pull off. (Ahem, again. Dammit.)
In the name of spreading the love, here are a few tricks that I find myself coming back to, time and time again.
If writing a sex scene makes you feel awkward and warm in the cheeks, perspective is your best tool. Sure, part of the scene is going to be what bits go where, but there’s so much more at play - emotions, story context, the thoughts of the participants. Is this a letting-down-of-one’s-guard, an expression of trust? How do the moment-to-moment shifts in dominance and submission reflect the characters’ established personalities? Framing it in the past tense as a reflective retrospective is another way to add context through distance, but even something as simple as exploring how one character looks through another’s eyes can be revelatory.
While the act might be physical, grounding it in the layered inner lives of the participants gives you room to explore. What thoughts are flitting through their minds before/during/after? Does one character know things the other doesn’t? Could finding common ground in the physical lead to other connections? With sufficient emotional build-up and payoff, the act will have more impact on the characters and on your readers. The mind is our most versatile sex organ, after all.
Ground the Scene in Story
Many editors will tell you that a scene that fails to move the action forward or mark some change in the characters has no place in your story. Sex scenes should serve a purpose, even if it’s only a deep breath before plunging on toward the story’s - ahem - climax. These interludes can mark a moment of character decision, or a strengthening of resolve. Conversation or the character’s thoughts can be used to recap the story to this point and lay out the decisions or actions that lay ahead. I’m a big fan of putting sex scenes late in the second act - the night before the final battle, stolen moments of comfort while plotting the big heist, grabbing hold of life one last time before the protagonist faces certain death. At least one of the participants should feel changed by the act, whether that be renewed commitment to their cause, the certainty that this was all a bad idea, or any subtle shift in between.
This is the trickiest part for many people, myself included. From clinical terms that send your mind spinning back to Sex Ed class, to slang from the darkest corners of the Internet, we have a wealth of words to choose from. Yet the balance often remains elusive. There are few things that take you out of a well-written and emotional love scene like a “big angry cock” or a “moist vulva.” One of my favorite tricks is making body parts an unnamed aspect of the characters being - she felt “the press of him against her,” he “lost himself to the warmth of her.” From there, you can almost think of it like any other word - we have options and it’s a matter of picking the most fitting, most pleasing option. Why “straddle” when you can “climb astride?” Why “motorboat” when you can “bury a sigh in her heaving bosom”? Do what works best in your scene, for you and your characters. And, if you’ve taken care with your setup and story elements, the occasional naked “penis” won’t yank anyone out of the moment.
Finding the Fade out
Another important balancing act is knowing when to leave readers wanting more. When I started writing, I tended to “fade to black” too early. All that work to get characters to let their guard down and find a quiet moment alone, just to leave them with one lingering kiss. The good stuff deserves more than just being implied! Of course, if you’re writing a romance, the naked bits are your bread and butter, but it's still important to leave something to the reader’s imagination. You’ll never be able to give everyone exactly what they want, so dropping the curtain after sufficient build-up allows the reader to fill in what comes next, what their own idea of the “height of passion” might be. The contributions of their own imagination will always resonate most deeply and, with such personal subject matter, you have a unique opportunity to make your reader feel like a part of the action.
Writing and reading allow us to experience scenarios that might elude us in the real world. Don’t be afraid to explore. I’ve written spy games, polyamorous foursomes, women loving women, men loving men. You learn something new every time! I’m not going to say that there’s anything wrong with reading about two heterosexuals doing typical heterosexual things (I have two of those scenes in progress myself), but don’t forget the rest of your potential audience. Another current project features an asexual protagonist and I’m having a lot of fun exploring moments of intimacy that have nothing to do with the bedroom. Branch out!
Right, then. Now that we’re all flushed and vaguely uncomfortable, go get your write on!