"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. Genders (and numbers of participants) are optional, although see below concerning 'Pitfalls'. You may also need to devote some time into deciding how the participating characters came to be participating. In typical life, strangers do not meet on the street and then immediately decide to have intercourse; even in one-night stands or casual hook-ups, there's a negotiation that goes on. And that negotiation, whatever it was, 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, the two characters need to be brought to the point where they want to do each other. We already have an article concerning one of the main ways to do this, So You Want To: Write A Love Story?, so let's simply say that there needs to be context, and go from there. 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 to 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 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 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.
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.
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:
CharacterizationIn The Bible, the term "to know" is used as a euphemism for "doing the nasty." 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 are about to come out in the open. It has a bit more bearing on discussions of homosexuality, 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 on top and you must want to be on top, always; and vice versa if you happen to have a vagina. (And God help you if you somehow 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.
Potential SubversionsThe obvious subversion that comes to mind is two characters who are about to get it on, only to be interrupted by something (or someone) that kills the mood. Another is after two people have already been getting it on for some time. You personally, dear troper, probably have a list of things you either like to do with partners or think you would like to do with partners—things you know, either from self-knowledge or past experience, satisfy you in bed. Well, most people are the same. Put two people's lists of sexual preferences together together and you have... a Venn diagram. Well, and a sex life, but that sex life will probably consist, most of the time, of the activities in the "in common" area of the Venn diagram, and those two people are fairly likely to do the same thing(s) over and over again, because they both like it. So once this pattern is established... Well, OOC Is Serious Business, right? One or both partners can try to shake things up and you can go from there. Why is that partner shaking it up? How will the other respond? Conveniently Common Kink gets played far too often here, so what if you went for drama instead and had one partner want [whatever] and the other not want it? And, of course, it continues to play into the stuff about characterization we just discussed.
Suggested Themes and AesopsThis depends on the overall mood of the work and the scene, but since sex is — in a lot of cultures — tied in with intimacy, romance and love, then it's hard to avoid tapping into these qualities. This doesn't mean it has to be happy, of course; two people who have fallen in love and are having sex for the first time may be, but someone who is having an affair may give rise to completely different themes and moods.
Potential MotifsIn keeping with the above, typical signifiers of love — flowers, etc — are common, but since these can easily lead to the Purple Prose problem mentioned above it's best not to get too carried away. Sex is often tied in with mood and feeling; two people who are intensely attracted to each other should generate a lot of heat, while two people who aren't may be quite cold, etc.
Set Designer / Location ScoutPeople can and do have sex everywhere. And we do mean everywhere. In general, though, given cultural mores around sex (not to mention public decency laws), unless they're particularly overcome with lust or have an adventurous or exhibitionist kick, people tend to prefer having sex in the privacy of their own homes, or at least somewhere relatively secluded and closed-off from prying eyes; the bedroom is the obvious place, although more adventurous couples might take it to the bath, the shower or further. In a similar vein, two people on the move (or two illicit lovers) might choose a hotel or motel room; two workmates might have have sex in an office or similar workplace location (after hours if they're trying to keep it secret; during work hours if they like the risk), and so on. Wherever you go for, however, the location should fit the mood and the characters. Again, the mood you're trying to set will probably affect the choice of location; for example, if you're trying to set a romantic, intimate and gentle mood, then your characters having a quickie in a nightclub bathroom is unlikely to be a good fit. However, the same location could fit if your characters are in a right-here-right-now kind of mood. Of course, depending on how clever and talented you are, you could turn a nightclub bathroom encounter into a somewhere unexpectedly romantic and intimate, so it's really up to you.
Props DepartmentIn Real Life, there's lots of props available for the adventurous lovers who like to spice things up; keeping in mind the above about the sex being more about your character than the sex itself, however, this will depend on who your characters are, the type of story you're writing and the sex they're having. (There is also some stigma to the use of toys, due to sometimes-shortsighted attitudes towards sex; it's believed that a man shouldn't need them because he always has partners at hand, and a woman shouldn't need them because she doesn't like sex. So if you involve them, expect some knee-jerk denouncements of your characters as vile degenerates.)
Costume DesignerOften, full nudity, although this does depend on the characters and the situation. There are entire companies that do nothing but sell skimpy scraps of cloth that a woman will wear for five minutes before being divested of it by her partner, who is now presumably inflamed with desire. And in a right-here-right-now kind of mood in the bathroom of the nightclub, ditching all your clothing is not very smart: you may have to re-garb rapidly if discovered.
Casting DirectorAnyone who has an interest in sex. We're a bit superficial as a species, however, so in general your characters should meet certain standards of beauty and attractiveness, unless you're really determined to challenge dominant cultural mores about sexuality and beauty (or, alternatively, you really want to gross people out). One thing beginning lemon authors often get wrong is going for too much detail. They want a character's sexual attractiveness to be beyond question, and so they go into long-winded, sometimes tedious description: the exact shade of her golden hair, the precise shape of her clear blue eyes, the levels of her tan as measured in paint swatches from Sherwin-Williams, her specific measurements to the centimeter—70.4-double-D, obviously, because Buxom Is Better. Sounds good... except to those readers who prefer Raven Hair, Ivory Skin and Petite Pride. (And, considering how much people seem to love the Asian Hooker Stereotype, there may be quite a lot of them.) "But then what do I do?" the Beginning Lemon Author laments. "I can't have someone with both blonde and dark hair!, or with one big breast and one small one! How do I play this game if I can't win?" The answer is, "Don't play." Don't try to create a character who is physically attractive to all human beings ever; that's impossible. (We've covered a bit of it above, and we can also start getting into Values Dissonance: today, Hollywood glamorizes the ultra-slim woman because she has enough leisure time to stay fit, but in days of yore the plump woman was venerated because she had enough leisure time to not be out in the fields working her ass off.) Your better strategy is to create a character who is emotionally attractive, a likeable protagonist that the reader can root for. This kind of Character Development is a fair bit easier than creating the World's Most Beautiful Woman; and even if not, Character Development is a skill it never hurts to put a few levels into. Once you have this character that your readers like and are rooting for, then they will be happy if she succeeds at getting her heart's desire (and/or loins' desire), regardless of what she looks like. So don't make your characters attractive. Make them lovable. (Proof of concept: Ugly Betty, though of course one can make arguments about Hollywood Homely.) As to the character's physical description, Noodle Incident is once more your best friend. Provide just a few details: hair like burnished bronze, piercing eyes, the trim figure of a dancer. Your reader's imagination will fill in the blanks for you, providing details like facial structure, amount of arm hair, eyebrow style, exhibited musculature, nose shape—gender—that you, as a writer, could never hope to match. The character that results will be more The Reader's creation than yours, but that's okay: between you and The Reader, which of the two of you is better at creating a physical appearance that The Reader finds attractive? Besides, you're controlling the personality, which is the real heart of the character.
Stunt DepartmentAgain, sex can get ... adventurous. But. as previously mentioned, a lot of people don't get adventurous; they find a routine and stick with it. There's a small core of sexual interactions that are branded "vanilla sex," a derogatory reference to the boringness of vanilla ice cream. But it should be pointed out that vanilla is, and almost always has been, the most popular ice cream flavor in the world—it totaled 30% of annual sales in 1999. And it was two-and-a-half times more popular than the next flavor, chocolate (a mere 12%). Variety is the spice of life, but consistency is its meat and potatoes. But, assuming you are going to spice it up (and spice is never a bad thing), keep in mind common sense and basic anatomy; people are only so flexible. Configurations that seem easy and obvious might not actually be as practical as it sounds; someone has to know where to put things, and it often has to be done blind (since most human beings do not have eyes on their genitals). Actions that seem easy in practice might actually be difficult in theory; the Wall Bang Her position always looks simple on the screen, but what happens if there's a significant height difference between partners (and/or their junk)?—which there often is? (This is why people sometimes don't experiment: if it doesn't work, the mood is down the drain, often in dramatic fashion; and even if it does work it still might not turn out to be enjoyable.) Plus, people are only so willing to risk their lives while getting it on. For example, a bit of mild bondage in the form of being tied to the bedpost by your lover with a silk scarf is something that, even if it's not necessarily something the reader has fantasized about or experienced previously, they can imagine being something that people do in bed. Your characters having sex while being suspended by a wire over an active volcano from a helicopter, on the other hand, is likely to be met with skepticism unless you can really sell it. (Oh, and, Auto Erotica is best engaged in when the car isn't moving. This seems like common sense, but if it were, the term "road head" wouldn't exist.)
Extra CreditYou may find Kylie Scott's list of what to do (or not to do) helpful. And, as always, do your own research. Sex is very personal and we can scarcely tell you what you will or will not like. (Some will try, but you can safely ignore them.)
The GreatsTHIS SECTION DELIBERATELY LEFT BLANK OUT OF RESPECT FOR 5P.
The Epic FailsAside from the Bad Sex In Fiction awards, which are typically a master class in Funny Moments, there are also fan-driven blogs and communities that focus on the same thing. A good place to start is "weepingcock," a LiveJournal community dedicated to celebrating the best howlers from fan fiction. There's also "Smart Bitches, Trashy Books," a site compiling snarky reviews of romance novels. Occasionally they branch out into more generalized fare, such as this article: "Ten Things I Hate About Sex Scenes."