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.
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 hard 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 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, Laci Green and Dr. Lindsay Doe's Sexplanations, 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 youre 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 shouldnt be allowed youre 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, weve 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 youre 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.
- "Later, with strange galaxies turning in slow gavotte overhead, neither thought the act of love had ever been so sweet, so full."
This one-sentence chapter focuses not on what they're doing, but rather how they're feeling about they're doing. It's the culmination of two people falling head-over-heels for each other, and—via Good People Have Good Sex—essentially confirms that there is something very genuine between Eddie and Odetta. We know what it means to them. Even better, it goes the opposite of IKEA Erotica by turning the whole session into a Noodle Incident. Whatever "good sex" is for you, there's room for you to apply it. King doesn't even try to convince you that Eddie and Odetta had the hottest sex ever, he lets you convince yourself, simply by letting you fill in the details. Show, Don't Tell is a good rule, but King, like many writers, knows when to turn it around for the occasions when Telling is even better than Showing.
(Quoth one pithy fan, "Dear god of strange galaxies, thank you for sparing us a long, painful love scene written in overwrought language. Amen.")
Additionally, focusing on emotional details gives you a leg up because all you really need for them is your imagination. What would a person feel, emotionally, when having sex? Well, it's basically the same things you'd feel. (That was easy!) You'd probably excited; you'd probably be sexually aroused; and you might feel nervous or even scared. Consider the myth of the Vagina Dentata, the womanly-parts equipped with teeth that will snip off any offending penis, clean as you please. It's a sort of exaggeration, but it encapsulates a fundamental fear: men are always a little bit scared that, when they share this private and sensitive part of themselves, they won't get it back the way it was loaned out, that it'll come back damaged. There isn't really a gender-flipped version of the trope, but women do share that fear; if anything, it's probably worse, since the parts they share are internal and more delicate. This particular emotional impulse—and more—is something anyone can empathize with, whether or not they have any real-world sexual experience. And since emotions are the more interesting part of the sex act anyway, at least on page, it never hurts to focus on them.
There are, however, exceptions. The big one is when you're actually writing porn. Under those circumstances, you do want lots of nitty-gritty details—all five senses, and some varied sentence structure to keep from getting repetitive. Sex is a celebration of physicality, so there should be emphasis on the things that are physically happening. 5P being what it is, that's all we'll say on the matter; the rest will require you to do your own research. But doing it should be easy, because The Internet Is for Porn. (Seriously, if you can't find some examples of porn for yourself, you have much larger problems than your current lack of sex-writing skills. Even better, almost any NSFW-story site worth its salt will have its own "So You Want To" section where you can get very detailed and specific advice.)
Less Is Still More / Bigger Is Still Not BetterHere's another wacky thing that not everybody realizes. Remember that whole "Victory Is Boring" trope we have? Not to mention "True Love Is Boring"? Well, here's another secret: sex is boring.
No, seriously. It's enjoyable, and provides important functions on psychological, emotional, physiological and reproductive levels; but by and large, it's boring, because it involves doing the same thing over and over again for a while. Let's be honest: a lot of human beings masturbate, and if you are reading this article, you're probably one of them. Ask yourself, right now (silently), what physical motions are best at bringing you to orgasm. Guess what: it's probably just a few things that you do repeatedly. Well, it's the same for most people. And when you are with a partner, that doesn't magically change. You still need those few things, repeatedly, to achieve climax, and so do they.
Repetitive Strain Injury is bad enough when you experience it; now imagine being forced to read about it. The fact that it's being done to somebody's naughty bits doesn't automatically make it interesting.
Additionally, something needs to be mentioned about the purpose of sex within a committed love relationship (which, to most cultures, is the ideal context for it). You personally, dear troper, probably have a list of things you either think or know you'd 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 and you have... a Venn diagram. Well, that, 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. When those two people have sex, they are fairly likely to do the same thing(s) over and over again, because they both like it. This is not a bug; it's a feature. Sex frequently acts as a touchstone or a baseline, a way for the people in the relationship to re-connect and re-establish bonds of intimacy that have become eroded by stress, familial responsibilities, jobs, etc. It probably won't be explosive or experimental; it will, in fact, probably be mundane (in the sense of "sticking to the things in the middle of the Venn diagram"). It'll probably be... boring. And that isn't very fun to read.
There are writers (particularly pornographic ones) who are able to make each sexual encounter unique, distinct and not-boring. Most of us aren't that talented. So, in the event that you are writing sex scenes, one of the best things you can do is minimize the number of them, and vary the tone, approach, activities and location your characters get up to. How and why are they having sex? If the answer is different every time, things are less likely to get stale. But also consider how unlikely that is in any real relationship.
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. Remember the Venn diagram and how most couples stick to the things that are in the middle area of it? Once this pattern is established... Well, O.O.C. 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, because it's part and parcel of Idealized Sex, 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 have 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, you'll probably find yourself tapping into those impulses. 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.
Suggested PlotsAny. All. Sex is something most humans do, and in a lot of circumstances. The Romance Arc can be stitched into almost any other plot or genre, and sex is one of the (relatively) natural outcomes of the romance arc, and therefore can be wedged in as well. This can even be true in situations of true calamity and destruction, like After the End or Zombie Apocalypse or whatever; Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex and all that.note Again, we've already talked about the tricky elements of making it seem logical or sensible that your characters would stop what they're doing and get it on, but they'll probably want to.
If you've decided to simply write erotic fiction and you need a plot structure that lends itself to Explicit Content, the absolute best place to start is the Coming-of-Age Story. "Adulthood" and "sexual maturity" are intertwined almost by definition. (As mentioned previously, there are some legal pitfalls with taking this approach, but you can always just have your character be a late bloomer.) Another good candidate is the Peggy Sue plot. It needs to be used differently — your character gets flung back in time at the beginning of the story instead of the end — but it's easy to get the girl if you already know how the story ends. (These stories tend to lean heavily towards escapism, but there's absolutely room for that in the erotic-fiction genre; in fact, it's arguably the purpose of the genre.) Other good setups include "Character is new in town," "Character is doing a travelogue", and, of course, the good old Romance Novel.
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. Plus, 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. Besides, some people find it arousing when someone is so into you that they don't even bother taking off all their clothes.
Casting DirectorAnyone who has an interest in sex — in other words, most human beings, though there are exceptions. 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 boob and one small one! How do I play this game if I can't win?"
The answer is, "Don't play." You aren't going to appeal to everyone, and nobody gives a hoot nor understands what a 32B bra on a 28-25-30 and 5'7" and 77kg woman means or even looks like. Don't try to create a character who is physically attractive to all human beings ever; that's impossible, even if you try to cover your bases by having a petite pale redhead waif, a big black 6-footer with large tits and short hair, and so on. We've covered a bit of it above, and we can also start getting into Values Dissonance; standards of beauty are relative to place and time. 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 perfectly attractive 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.) Or, to put it another way, the Helen of Troy you're looking for is not the World's Most Beautiful Woman but rather the Launcher of a Thousand Ships.
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" (link to The Other Wiki), a derogatory reference to how boring vanilla ice cream is (perceived to be). But it should be pointed out that vanilla is, and almost always has been, the most popular ice cream flavor in the world, outselling the second-place flavor (chocolate) by five to two. Conversely, while we don't have exact data on sales of Smoked Paprika & Chili-Beef flavored ice cream, we feel confident asserting that for most people it is, at best, an acquired taste. Variety may be the spice of life, but consistency is its meat and potatoes.
But, assuming you are going to spice it up (and a bit of spice now and again 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 cannot get both their eyeballs and their partner's genitals near their own genitals at the same time). Actions that seem easy in theory might actually be difficult in practice; 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.
And for those who are about to ask the obvious question, all of this is the answer: this is how you meld realism with Idealized Sex. To re-iterate, when you put two people's sexual preferences together, you get a Venn diagram. And what's a common element of Venn diagrams? There are things that are in one circle but not the other; there are tastes or predilections that don't get satisfied as frequently—or, in worst case, at all. Sometimes it's all about feasibility. A Huge Guy, Tiny Girl combo might find it smart to have the girl on top most of the time so that she doesn't get, you know, squished; but as a result, the guy might long for the chance to take control and really go to town. Likewise, there's a sex move where the guy picks up the girl, she puts her legs around his waist, and blablablah. Tiny Guy, Huge Girl—think that's an option for them? But it might also be about preference: "I can do [whatever], I just don't want to." There are men who refuse to perform cunnilingus on women because they think it's disgusting. (Hell, there are women who won't let it be done on them because they think it's disgusting!) Oral sex is typically perceived to be part of the "vanilla sex" umbrella, but it still isn't a part of everybody's sex life. And hence, for the people who don't get oral/handjobs/certain positions/certain kinks/whatever as often as they want, sex that contains it is Idealized Sex.
(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.)