"Giving a reader a sex scene that is only half right is like giving her half of a kitten. It is not half as cute as a whole kitten; it is a bloody, godawful mess."
"You should never have more sex than plot. This is why you should have as much plot as possible."There is a reason why, every year, Literary Review hosts a "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award; there is a lot of crappy writing when it comes to sex. What you may be surprised to see is that the list of nominees and winners frequently includes authors who are considered literary heavyweights, and this is because writing sex well is incredibly complex and difficult, even for award-winning writers, who are nowhere near as likely as lemon fanfic writers to be virgins. Sex is both something deeply intimate and personal and at the same time something that society and culture has built up a lot of significance, meaning and morality around, meaning that there is a lot to balance. Assuming you are already familiar with this basic advice that holds across all genres, hopefully you might find some of these pointers helpful.
Necessary TropesTo start, unless you're writing a masturbation scene, you need at least two characters. The genders (and numbers of participants) of your characters are totally up to you, although your choices may cause issues; see 'Pitfalls' below for more details. You will need to devote some time into deciding how the participants came to be participating. Why do they want to have sex with each other? It's true that almost everyone has a sex drive that makes them want to bump uglies; the libido is built into all living creatures. This explains why the characters want to have sex. It does not explain why they want to have sex with each other. Most people are selective about their sex partners, applying various criteria relating to physical appearance and/or personality and only engaging sexually with those who have passed a minimum number of satisfactory qualities. Presumably, your characters did the same, and emerged with "chemistry"—in which it is shown that Alex is attracted to [trait], that Bryce has it, and that Alex responds positively upon discovering this; and then vice versa in reciprocate. The characters should desire each other, in other words, emotionally and/or physically. And now that Alex and Bryce desire each other, how did they come to act on this desire? It's a known fact that All Love Is Unrequited; for every Bryce that Alex gets to sleep with, there was also Charlie, Dana and Evan (and maybe more)—people Alex wanted to but ultimately didn't. Why was this consummation denied? Because there's a negotiation that goes on, as both parties figure out chemistry and sort out their feelings and decide whether the other person is someone they want to sleep with. Sometimes this can be a long, drawn-out Romance Arc (for which we already have an article, So You Want To: Write A Love Story?), ending in wedding bells and a traditional consummation; on the other extreme, it may be a one-night stand or a casual hook-up. But whatever negotiation happened, it affects the tone of the resulting sex: Their First Time, Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex, Must Not Die a Virgin, one night stands... Or maybe it's two people who have been together for a while and it's an anniversary, or it's someone's birthday, or someone got a promotion. Or they're just watching TV and one of them gets horny. But in some way, our two characters, Alex and Bryce, need to be brought to the point where they not only want to do it, but they feel comfortable acting on their wants. Finally, as Tropes Are Not Bad, you'll want to familiarise yourself with the Sex Tropes on this site, but be warned: as we'll discuss, several of them are particularly difficult to do well.
Choices, ChoicesFirst off, do you feel comfortable writing an actual sex scene? If not, then don't force yourself to. Sexy Discretion Shot, Did You Just Have Sex?, Bedmate Reveal, and Does This Remind You of Anything? exist for a reason; readers don't need enormous flashing neon signs saying "ALEX AND BRYCE BONED" to get the picture. Additionally, if you're not comfortable writing the scene, the reader will pick up on it. This can be exploited if you want the reader to be squicked out, but you probably don't, and that means you're in trouble. So don't be afraid to just elide the whole thing if that works for your story and makes you feel more comfortable. Consider also what genre you're writing in, and how the sex fits in — if, indeed, it does. If you're pornography or erotica, then naturally your reader will understand and expect that anything goes, and anything that contains erotica or romance will have an audience that will generally expect the Official Couple to get things on at some point, or at least won't be surprised if they do. Other genres may find sex a bit more difficult to naturally include, however; if your characters are constantly on the run from the Zombie Apocalypse, for instance, then, whether they fall in love or not, they might not easily find the time or opportunity to get busy with each other. And if you shoehorn it in, readers will notice. They may not care — plenty of erotic stories have been set in zombie apocalypses, and readers' Willing Suspension of Disbelief helps to cover the weird circumstances on grounds of fanservice satiation — but they will notice. Assuming you are comfortable writing a sex scene, then your next choice is the characters who are actually going to be having sex. This is quite important, as people have different sex depending on what they want from it. Are Alex and Bryce a pair of young lovers losing their virginity together? Are they a married couple having make-up sex after an argument? Is one of them a sex addict and the other a prostitute, hired for an hour of no-strings-attached relief? Are they of opposite genders?, because at that point you even have to start modifying the physical procedures they share. Variable Player Goals exist in sex too, so know what goal(s) your characters are going for. Finally, you may want decide how glamorous you decide to make things. There have been many discussions about the unrealistic nature of Idealized Sex, Common Hollywood Sex Traits and Anatomically Impossible Sex, but they still sell well despite being unrealistic—or rather, because they are unrealistic. It may be hard to believe, dear tropers, but a fairly large percentage of human beings are in long-term sexual relationships, meaning they can get laid without too much effort. Yet such people still go to porn—in droves!—despite it being wildly unrealistic and having nothing to do with what they get in bed at home. Why do they still consume porn? Because it's not what they get in bed at home; because it offers them something they want but can't get. (And not just kinky stuff either, though that does make up a fair bit of it.) The appeal of porn is its idealized, unrealistic nature. And it's one of the most financially successful markets in the world, so they must be doing something right. In other words, you can romanticize it, if that's your inclination. It is possible to go over the top, but there's a happy medium to be found... and, frankly, it's where the money lies.
PitfallsOnce again, we cannot stress enough — only start writing a sex scene if you feel comfortable doing so. Writing offers the reader an insight into the author's psyche whether it's intended or not, and when it comes to sex you may find that it touches on some issues and aspects of your life that are deeply personal. If you're not bothered by the possibility of your friends and family reading your work and gaining an insight into what you think about sex, go for it. If that sort of thing fills you with dread, it's going to come across. If you don't feel comfortable doing so, there's no shame in cutting to black before the lovers get intimate, and there's less risk of embarrassing yourself in the long run. Sexuality can be especially to write without having experienced it. This is not to say that you absolutely can't write a good sex scene if you're still a virgin, but it can be a lot more difficult. If you haven't had sex, then you should at least do your research, but be warned — not everything about sex can be found within the pages of a book. Doing the research can be tricky without access to 1) non-virgins 2) who are willing to answer your questions frankly and honestly, and 3) whom you feel comfortable asking those awkward questions to. It can be kind of all-or-nothing: the people who dislike talking about their sex lives won't let any details out, but the ones who are fine with it will share (and overshare) like no one's business. Fortunately, the Internet is there to help: most people are okay with talking about sex but not with being seen to talk about it, and anonymity can help. So ask your questions, and go from there. For the rest, Idealized Sex is here to help! Read enough of it, particularly on NSFW sites, and you can get a very good idea of what people want to happen in "the perfect sex scene." You can then parrot it out at will. It won't necessarily be the hottest, most sizzling stuff ever produced, but it'll be serviceable. (Of course, this goes back to the whole, Be comfortable writing it thing, but that's another matter.) And finally, please remember that, statistically speaking, the larger majority of people who consume your erotic scene are no longer virgins. They know what they're talking about. More importantly, they know what you're talking about. This makes it harder to sneak research failures past them.
Legal MattersSex scenes have to deal with law in a way that most other fiction doesn't. Specifically, there are laws governing the depiction of sexual congress. The quick rule of thumb is that the folks in the fiction need to be above the "age of consent" for Real Life, non-fiction folks—IE, they are legally permitted to consent to sexual activity and are no longer subject to the Jail Bait Wait. And that's where it starts getting complicated, because basically every government on the planet has set its own limit on the wait. All 50 states in America have set them individually; most have set it at 16, but a few have also chosen 17 and 18. The place that set it the highest, Bahrain, put it at 21; Nigeria set it at 18. And here's the thing: if your story is to be legally consumable in any given place, it needs to comply with that place's laws. So, while your story might take place in, say, Washington State, where the age of consent is 16, it can't be legally consumed in California, where it's 18, unless it would be legal if it were taking place in California. (This is actually one of the justifications for SoCalization when it comes to explicit content.) The question you'll get sued over is not, "Is it legal for your characters to do it;" the question is, "Is it legal for your consumers to imitate it." If you're just writing fanfic or publishing for the Internet, this still matters. For Internet publication, the website is considered to physically "reside" at the location of its servers, and the laws for that city, region and country hold sway over your story. If you don't want to comply with them, you'll need to find a different website to distribute through. If you intend to get published in treeware format, you basically need to comply with everything in the language you're writing in, so you better know what those laws are. (You'll probably have an editor to help you, at least.) The very obvious answer is to simply not write about characters who are of nebulous legal status. Despite what the Competence Zone would have you believe, people who are 20, or 35, or 60, or even 75 can (and do) have good sex that would be fun to read about. The counter-argument is that the Coming-of-Age Story is often linked to sexual maturity... and we all know that teenagers can get pretty horny. Plus, who else needs role models more? So if you decide to plunge into this quagmire, be careful. By the time an American is 18 years old and has passed even the most stringent forms of the Jail Bait Wait, there is a 60% chance (according to a recent study) that s/he is already a non-virgin. Crazy though it sounds, you can get in legal trouble for depicting fictional Americans doing something that more than half of non-fictional, Real Life Americans do. Reality Is Unrealistic when it comes to fictional depictions of sex... and, as always where that trope rears its ugly head, having facts on your side will not protect you.
WordsmithingAvoid, avoid, avoid both Purple Prose and Beige Prose. "Throbbing manhoods plunging into velvet folds" and the like are an instant way of taking the reader out of your work and making you look ridiculous. At the same time, "he inserted his penis into her vagina" is a bit... clinical. Both Mills and Boon Prose and IKEA Erotica are strongly discouraged; you're presumably not writing a 'just-the-facts' sex manual, but at the same time even Mills & Boon and Harlequin are starting to move away from the overwrought, florid and metaphor-abusing purple prose that previously characterized their works. Purple prose will make people laugh. Beige prose will make them yawn. There is some sort of middle ground to be found—"puce prose", maybe?—and you should aim for it. Be aware of the setting of your story, the place-and-time it's set in. Throughout the ages, there have been a vast vocabulary of slang terminology concerning sex; throughout the ages, people have used various terms to describe man-parts, lady-parts and the act of sticking 'em together. Make sure you're using the right terms. Having a knight and his lady suddenly pepper Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe with modern (or modern-sounding) vernacular will break Willing Suspension of Disbelief—not to mention, provide you a one-way ticket to the Bad Sex In Fiction awards.note Reality Is Unrealistic here too; even terms that were in use at the time can cause a double-take. Just ask any A Song of Ice and Fire reader how they reacted the first time a Knight in Shining Armor said dropped a Precision F-Strike. Of course, hunting down the right terms can be difficult, because the slang wasn't necessarily documented. At that point, it's kind of up to you. In the Earth's Children series, Jean Auel just talks around it—there's one euphemism, "manhood," but that's it, and that's impressive considering the series is basically Stone Age erotica. George R.R. Martin, writing A Song of Ice and Fire, traced the etymologies of several terms, discovered they descended from Middle English, and said, "Screw it: it might be an Anachronism Stew, but at least they're from the same era." Metonymy, the business of using part of a thing to stand for the whole of the thing, can be useful; even today, some men refer to women as the C-word, and most of us would in turn refer to those men as pricks. The closer to today you get, the more freedom you have... at least in English-speaking languages. Let's not even talk about what things were called in Sanskrit, or Farsi, or Latin. You get caught between a rock and a hard place: if you use the wrong terms, audiences will yell, and if you use nothing at all, audiences will yell. Good luck!
PhysiologyYou should have a working knowledge of anatomy. Anatomically Impossible Sex is another good way of making yourself look ridiculous or like you don't know what you're talking about. There are some good tips on that page, as well as on "Common Hollywood Sex Traits," but it's only a start. Even worse, the research you need to do probably cannot be done on TVTropes. Fortunately, there's a whole Internet out there, most of which is for porn. And there's always actual advice columnists, like Dan Savage, Nina Hartley and Laci Green, to help out. One bit of research you can do is stepping back and taking a realism pass. If you have a partner, this can be one of the best parts. Something that is surprisingly hard to do while in the throes of typing one-handed is remembering which way your tossing-and-turning lovers are facing, and how many arms they have. Try to visualize it a little. If you cut off for the night, make sure you give the scene a quick read-through to remind yourself. Physically-impossible or physically-improbable moves are a quick way to break Willing Suspension of Disbelief ("How is he kissing her face and her down-there simultaneously?" "How did she pin him against the wall if they're lying on the bed?" "You can't touch that!!"), so eliminate them whenever possible. Or Throw It In!. ("Jon! Be one person again!")
ToneYou should try to avoid making your sex scene too gratuitous. Sex Sells, but it's quite easy to tell if a creator has just thrown a sex scene into the story out of nowhere just for the purposes of titillation, or to cynically get people interested in their work. The sex scene should arise (ha-ha) from the events of the story as a whole—it should make sense that these people are choosing to have sex at this particular moment without it feeling like the author is forcing them to purely for sales. Try also to avoid including too much Author Appeal. Sex, of course, is heavily tied up with fetishes and kinks, and authors are no different than anyone else in that they have certain tastes and fancies as well; it can be easy and helpful to throw in a little bit of what appeals to you personally. After all, if something turns you on, then you're going to be able to write it convincingly; just don't assume everyone else is going to be as enthusiastic about it as you are. However, be careful. If there's a sense that you're providing Too Much Information about what personally turns you on (hi SMeyer!), or were writing the sex scene with one hand while the other was ... occupied, shall we say, then this can make things a bit creepy and uncomfortable for your reader. If the sex scene is too prurient, it can be off-putting to the reader. If you must include Author Appeal, however, then try to avoid justifying it with I Just Write the Thing — yet again, no one's going to be convinced. If you're going to include your kinks, stand by them. Similarly, be wary of the Audience-Alienating Premise. If you have kinks that tend to occupy something of a niche, then spending a lot of time focusing on them is a good way of making your reader uncomfortable. It's a simple fact of life: some fetishes, for better or worse, are socially frowned on. Unfair? Possibly, but there it is. You might think doing that sort of thing with chickens is just a harmless bit of fun, but there's a good chance that, except for a relative few, most of your readers are going to strongly disagree, and you’re not going to force them to change their minds by including your kinks in graphic detail in your story. On the flipside, however, morality changes. Certain 'lifestyle choices' that were frowned on even a couple of decades ago are now increasingly accepted. With this in mind, however, be wary of how you're depicting sex and sexuality, especially alternative and 'non-mainstream' sexualities and even more especially if you are not a member of these groups yourself (hi, E. L. James!). Suggesting or depicting that Sex Is Evil is in and of itself riddled with Unfortunate Implications and potential Double Standards, particularly if you are depicting certain groups or sexualities as evil in the process. Just as the kinky authors above aren't going to magically convert people into accepting their kinks just through including them in their work, if you think ‘that sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed’ you’re not going to turn the clock back by force just by writing it in your story. An Author Tract is an Author Tract, and the fact that this one is about sex won't gain you any points. On the whole, sexuality can be a minefield, especially with regards to creative writing. While attitudes towards alternative sexualities are gradually shifting and liberalising, we’ve still got a long way to go and, deeply unfair though it may seem, for the most part mainstream publishers, producers and audiences still tend to favour the (for want of a better word) 'typical' pairing of a heterosexual man and a heterosexual woman. This does not mean to suggest that depicting (or, of course, possessing) sexuality outside of the so-called "norm" is inherently wrong or bad in and of itself; it is, however, generally a bit harder to break into the mainstream by depicting it, and if you’re going to attempt to do so this is something you should keep in mind. Finally, a word on Idealized Sex itself, specifically the kind seen in "art erotica" pornography. Because sexuality is still a taboo subject in many places, pornography can end up being many people's first exposure to sexuality as it is actually expressed by real live people. This is not necessarily a bad thing; there's something not only audacious but reassuring about seeing people who are not ashamed to have sex, and indeed who celebrate it. The problem lies in the fact that pornography is a business. It exists to make money... and the way it does that is by selling Idealized Sex. Additionally, it's Idealized Sex for men—the vast majority of pornography is made to be consumed by people with testicles. As such, it tends to be written, acted, and shot in ways that make men feel desired, powerful and skilled at bedroom arts. This is true even of pornography that (claims it) is intended to titillate women. Be sure to do research around the subject, because there are a lot of things, particularly concerning the female half of the couple and her pleasure, that pornography will typically elide or even ignore.
CharacterizationIn The Bible, the term "to know" is used as a euphemism for getting it on. It seems archaic today, but it's worth pondering. After all, when you have sex with someone, you certainly do learn things about them: any blemishes they might be hiding under their clothes, whether they have secret piercings or tattoos, what their actual hair color is when it isn't dyed; how they react when erotically stimulated, how they like to be erotically stimulated, what they like to do after the act is completed; so on and so forth. This can be used as a sort of subverted Sexy Discretion Shot—it allows you to skirt around specific technical details in favor of things that, while very revealing, at least involve body parts that are safe for work. Additionally, sex can be used for Character Development, and should be. Not everybody likes the same things, and what a person likes tends to derive from their personality. Someone with a rosy disposition will probably want soft, intimate encounters—"making love," to use the somewhat hackneyed phrase—while a thrill-seeker probably prefers something more aggressive, possibly more animalistic. However, here you also have ripe space for subversion. One of the reasons sex is daunting is because you are not only physically naked, but emotionally naked as well, and things you might not care to admit about yourself have a chance of being revealed. It has a bit more bearing on discussions of homosexuality (and is covered in some detail on that article), but one of things modern society still gets confused are "sexual preference" and "gender roles." It is assumed that a man is typically dominant and in control, while a woman is submissive and compliant. In short, men give and women receive. And, because modern society hasn't learned to differentiate yet, the two are believed to be inextricably linked: if you own a penis, you want to be in charge and you must want to be in charge, always; and vice versa if you happen to have a vagina. (And God help you if you have both or neither.) Guess what: this ain't true. But admitting it can be tricky. In general, when a person doesn't conform to what society expects them to be, they harbor insecurities about this non-conformity; a tiny little part of them suspects they might be defective. And revealing it to another person can be harrowing, because that other person might judge you for it. The obvious example is a gay man, who (at least, according to societal stereotype, which is never wrong) is gay because he wants to take the role of a woman during sex, but what about straight men who don't mind being on bottom, or straight women who like to take charge? What about men who like to cuddle, and women who like aggressive, animalistic sex? And here's where things really get fun: your characters, the ones who are getting it on. (...You do have genuine Rounded Characters here, right?) What are the stereotypes that you have led your readers to assume about them? And how can you subvert, zig-zag or even avert them? A woman CEO is presumably dominant in bed, so the obvious subversion is for her to be submissive and tender; what kind of third option can you take? A man who is brash and arrogant would presumably be concerned solely with his own pleasure, so the logical counter-tack is for him to be tender and selfless; what's the subversion? And let's also drag culture into it, since it is germane to the topic: in Latin American countries, men are expected to show bravado and aggressiveness, but also to be passionate, sensitive lovers; this is different north of the equator. Context matters when it comes to behavior, so always be aware of what the people around your character expects of him or her, and question whether you're pegging those expectations correctly. Even in America today, sexual mores are changing, and what was true yesterday might be false, or at least deprecated, today.
Less Is More / Bigger Is Not BetterYou may be better served by avoiding too much technical detail on what is going on, paradoxical as that may seem. David Gerrold once wrote that sex in fiction is often more about the characters having the sex than the actual sex they're having; you should try and use the sex scene to deliver some kind of Character Development on their thoughts and emotions, rather than the instruction-manual litany of what's being done where. Someone who probably listened to Gerrold is Stephen King. In his Dark Tower novel The Drawing of the Three, there's a Their First Time that is all of one sentence long:
- "Later, with strange galaxies turning in slow gavotte overhead, neither thought the act of love had ever been so sweet, so full."