So You Want To: Write A Sex Scene
"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."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. 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 see below concerning 'Pitfalls'. You will need to devote some time into deciding how the participating characters came to be participating. Why do they want to have sex with each other? It's true that everyone (well, almost everyone) has a sex drive that makes them want to bump uglies; the libido is built into all living creatures. But most people are also selective about their sex partners, applying various criteria relating to physical appearance and/or personality and only accepting as sexual partners those people who pass all the tests. Presumably, your characters did the same, and emerged with "chemistry"—in which it is shown that Alexis is attracted to [trait], that Blake has it, and that Alexis 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 Alexis and Blake desire each other, how did they come to act on this desire? It's a known fact that All Love Is Unrequited; for every Blake, that Alexis gets to sleep with, there was also Casey, Dana and Evan (and maybe more)—people Alexis wanted to have sex with but didn't get the chance to. 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, Alexis and Blake, 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. The reader will be able to pick up on and will consequently share your discomfort; possibly okay if you intend for the reader to be discomforted, but disastrous if you don't. Don't be afraid to cut from the lovers getting intimate to a post-coital hug or the morning after if that both 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, then, whether they fall in love or not, they might not easily find the time or opportunity to get busy with each other. 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 different people have sex in different ways — a pair of young lovers losing their virginity together will have sex differently from a couple married for twenty years having make-up sex after an argument, who will in turn have sex differently from a sex addict hiring a prostitute for an hour of no-strings-attached relief, and so forth. The physical procedures might be identical, but the motivations are totally different—as are the experiences each person hopes to get from the act. Variable Player Goals exist in sex too. Finally, you may want to put some thought into your tone—not in the sense of "loving" vs "angry" vs "voracious," as above, but in terms of 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. So do feel free to romanticize it, if that is your inclination. Just don't go too far. Even someone actively seeking out Idealized Sex or Anatomically Impossible Sex may be turned off if you take it so far as to make it completely unrealistic or unbelievable.
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. Sex is something intensely personal in many ways. This, consequently, means that it can be especially difficult 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.)
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 style that previously characterized their works. Oh, and if you do try either of these style? Don't later try and tell people I Meant to Do That, even if you did; no one will believe you. Especially if it happened to get you nominated for the Bad Sex Award mentioned above. Overall, both of those styles are a minefield you're better of staying clear of. Be aware of the setting of your story, the place-and-time it's set in. Throughout the ages, there is a vast vocabulary of slang terminology that has grown up around 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 Heck, perception trumps reality: even terms that were in use at the time will cause a double-take if they're still used today. Just ask any George R. R. Martin reader how they reacted the first time a Knight in Shining Armor said "fuck." Of course, hunting down the right terms can be difficult, because this isn't necessarily the kind of thing that was documented. At that point, it's kind of up to you. In the Earths 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 erotica. George R. R. Martin, for 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." 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. A few quick tips to get you started: bigger is not always better; even the Gag Penis can naturally only be so large before the man's ability to have sex (or even live) is significantly affected; the vagina is not a magically flexible opening that can accept anything of any size without tremendous pain or discomfort for its owner; and the hymen is not inside the canal, it's across the opening. Do some basic research before you start; again, no one's going to buy the "I Meant to Do That" defence on this one. The research you need to do probably cannot be done on TV Tropes, but there's a whole Internet out there. The "Common Hollywood Sex Traits" page has a section on the improper practices sometimes found in media, which may be a good starting point. And there's always actual advice columnists, like Dan Savage and Laci Green, to help out. One bit of research you can do is stepping back and taking a realism pass. 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 organically (so to speak) from the events of the novel 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. 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, however, 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 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 express a heteronormative and anthropocentric perspective on sexual congress—or, in small words, it focuses exclusively on making the man's penis happy. (What else would sell sex best to men?) The end result is that porn may not be especially realistic in terms of what actually works in the bedroom, particularly when it comes to the matter of ensuring that the female half of the couple also has a good time. Take it for what it is, and do additional research accordingly.
Less Is More / Bigger Is Still 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 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."