Let’s write about sex, baby 44


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5 tips for writing sex scenes that don’t make people cringe

 

By Tim Bartel from Cologne, Germany via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Bartel from Cologne, Germany via Wikimedia Commons

Once upon a time, not that long ago, there were three topics considered completely taboo at any civilized dinner table: politics, religion, and sex.

 

Now, thanks in some small way to authors like EL James, JR Ward and Sylvia Day, and TV shows like Sex and the City, and The L Word, sex is everywhere. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – sex is no longer confined to the bedroom. The doors have been thrown wide open and people are either reading about it, watching it, talking about it, or in the case of many authors, having to bite the bullet and write sex into their novels.

 

What’s even worse (or better, depending on your personal preference), it seems the dirtier and smuttier the sex, the more popular it becomes. Nothing is off-limits anymore, and people are freely writing about the kinds of sex that was once only found in the secret section of an adult book store. In some ways, it’s a post-sexual-revolution revolution.

 

But while there doesn’t seem to be any rules about the kinds of sex we can write about, there are still a couple of rules that shouldn’t be thrown out with that lube soaked bath water.

It’s ironic I should do an instruction guide about writing sex scenes. When we first had kids and they reached the age of asking questions, my husband and I decided I’d be the one to handle all the sex talks. We both knew I was the only one who’d give the kids a straight answer, while my husband was more likely to make crap up and try to make it funny/cool/unawkward for him… The kids have always known they could ask me any question, no matter how embarrassing. Someone had to do it and I’d rather do it myself than have them learning about the birds and the bees from their equally ignorant friends.

It’s that pragmatism that’s allowed me to flip the switch when writing sex scenes and get the job done.

 

Fair warning, this could get a little x-rated.

 

 

image by Peter Fendi via WikiMedia Commons

image by Peter Fendi via WikiMedia Commons

Ditch the purple prose

According to Wikipedia, purple prose is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context.

There are a couple of reasons writers use purple prose. For some, it’s simply a coping mechanism going back to the Puritan practice of never openly referring to your ‘downstairs region’ as anything other than secret lady bits or man parts.

On the other hand, some writers use purple prose to show how creative and clever they can be, coming up with a bunch of descriptive terms to describe the humble penis and vagina, or the simple act of sex. Think writhing, untamed weapons of mass destruction; unsheathed swords; turgid, swollen members; hot sleeves of love; mounds of Venus; or silken love caves.

So how do you avoid purple prose?

There are a couple of ways. First, give it the real world test. Would you ever use that terminology in real life – to a lover or a group of friends? Would you ask a man to put his unsheathed sword in your silken love cave (and keep a straight face while you say it)? How would you describe a passionate, one-night stand to your best friend? I’m not saying those are the words or phrases you necessarily want to write in your book, but it will at least keep the purple prose people eater from your doorstep.

Next, read the scene out loud to another human being – maybe that’s a partner or a group of friends over a couple of wines. Believe me, if you’re brandishing a Marie Schrader amount of purple in your scenes, your friends/lover won’t be able to keep a straight face.

If you want some more instruction on how to purge purple from your prose, check out http://writeworld.tumblr.com/post/39271116749/dont-be-a-dickens-avoiding-purple-prose

 

 

Don’t be too clinical

This is the yin to purple prose’s yang. By all means, purge purple but don’t make the mistake of replacing it with a sterile, medical shade of clinical white.

Nothing ruins the mood quicker than clinical terminology. It is to romance what a rectal exam is to… well, you get the picture. Words like penis, vagina, labia, testicles, anus and cervix have no place outside of a pamphlet highlighting the dangers of venereal disease or teen pregnancy.

In fact, why bother naming the genitals at all?

Consider the following paragraph:

Dessert was served, and not a moment too soon. John had listened to Frank drone on for hours about his political aspirations. It was, however, the lesser of two evils when compared to Father Henson working himself into yet another fever pitch on the evils of the Islamic invasion.

John was just about to make his excuses and call it a night when a hand cupped him beneath the damask table cloth, catching him completely off guard.

A split second later, his breath followed suit, catching in his throat as the mystery hand unzipped his pants.

John fought the urge to look down, to see whose hand had decided sex was no longer a taboo dinner topic. Besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. You see, on his left sat a statuesque blonde with a body John was ashamed to admit he’d often fantasized about – ashamed because the body belonged to Frank’s flirtatious seventeen year old daughter, Christine. And to his right, her equally flirtatious mother, Alice. 

Both hands were taboo… forbidden. Both brought a load of consequences, but as John felt the delicious softness of skin caressing skin, he no longer cared about consequences or taboos. He didn’t even care about Frank. Ignorance was bliss, and right now, he was feeling the bliss. Staring straight ahead, he surrendered himself to the moment.  

 

The message is clear and doesn’t need to be muddied by trying to decide whether she cupped his penis, or cock, or throbbing member.

 

By Giovanni Dall'Orto via Wikimedia Commons

By Giovanni Dall’Orto via Wikimedia Commons

 

Get dirty

This almost flies in the face of the previous advice but there is definitely a time and a place for dirty talk – or Sexual Tourettes as my hubby likes to call it. Sometimes sex needs to get a little dirty. Don’t be afraid to whip out a cock, or pound a pussy, or for characters to fuck rather than make love. There are even times when that other C word adds some much needed heat.

Swearing during sex can spice things up in literature as much as it can in real life. This is especially so when the character doesn’t swear much in real life, In those scenarios, it’s as if the very nature of sex entices him/her to get dirty. The trick is not to go overboard. You’re not trying to recreate the language you’d hear in The Departed, or to make your characters sound like porn stars.

 

 

Keep one foot in reality

While, for the most part, we’re writing fiction, and in fiction anything is possible, it’s still a good idea to keep at least one foot in the real world. What do I mean by this? Well, for starters, as I mentioned above, you don’t want to make your characters sound like porn stars. Why? Because real people don’t speak in porn cliches. Real women rarely beg to swallow your cum or love juice, or say “oh baby, oh Christ, oh yeah, I’m cumming,” the instant she’s penetrated. They also don’t go at it like rabbits for hours on end without a break without getting at least a modicum of chaffing.

The aspect of keeping it real is thinking of something as simple as gravity or biology. Is the sexual act you’ve just written physically possible to do or would you need to be a Yogi Master to bend your body into position? As the writer, it’s completely up to you if you want to have the hero and heroine giving each other oral while riding at breakneck speed on a runaway horse. It might even be considered ultra creative. But, unless your hero and heroine are circus acrobats, it’s not going to be particularly believable. Neither is it believable for a couple to be engaged in vigorous missionary style sex and for the male to simultaneously wipe a tear from her eye while stroking her nether regions with his other hand – not unless he’s got abs of steel and perfect rhythm… and a part time career as a circus acrobat…

 

By G.dallorto via Wikimedia Commons

By G.dallorto via Wikimedia Commons

Less is sometimes more

My biggest complaint with the vast majority of sex scenes – both in books and on screen – is the current voyeuristic trend of thinking everything needs to be described and explained in graphic detail right down to the last vaginal convulsion. It’s not enough to know the couple has sex, we now need to experience that sex right alongside them. We need to see the sweaty thrust of their bodies slapping together, hear the moan that erupts from her mouth when he pushes his abnormally long penis inside her, feel the tightening burn of her womb opening to meet him (or the other entrance if the hero prefers to sneak around back).

Nine times out of ten when I see books like that, I start skimming. It’s not that I’m a prude. I just find it boring, and way, way too clinical. When I watch romance or rom coms on television, I want to see the hero and heroine overcome all the obstacles and hurdles that have been placed in their way and ride off into the sunset together. Ninety percent of the satisfaction comes from the seduction, not the physical act of watching someone have sex. If I want to watch the sex scene in graphic detail, I go rent a porno. And if I want it explained in clinical, sterile terms, I watch a medical show like Embarrassing Bodies.

So when it comes to writing sex scenes, remember that less is sometimes more. Remember ninety percent of the satisfaction your readers get is in the seduction phase. The only exception to this is when you’re writing erotica – and even then, the danger of going in to too much depth (pun intended) is the need to then top it the next time. You end up trying to one up yourself with each successive sex scene trying everything from missionary and doggie style to anal, fisting and group orgies.

 

Here’s a few questions for you. Feel free to join the discussion:

How do you tackle writing sex scenes? Is there a set routine you have?

What is the one piece of advice you’d give authors tackling sex scenes for the first time?

What is the biggest mistake you’ve seen authors make when writing about sex?

What are some examples of purple/clinical prose you’ve seen in literature?

What is the most embarrassing sex scene you’ve ever read/written?

 

 

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Rebecca Byfield

About Rebecca Byfield

Rebecca Byfield is Editor-in-Chief of The Writers' Shack and its associated blogs. She has more than 15 years' experience in journalism and communications. She writes fiction under her alter ego, Riley Banks. Rebecca is available for freelance assignments. For more information, go to http://www.rileybanks.net/newsite/freelance-writer/ Also, check out our Pens for Hire page for a list of freelance writers, editors, translators and more - http://www.rileybanks.net/newsite/pens-for-hire/


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44 thoughts on “Let’s write about sex, baby

  • Lora Avgeris

    The characters determine the direction the sex goes in — the character with heightened expectations winds up disappointed, the romantic usually has a great time in flash back with healthy doses of revisionist history, the kink is just angry, so the encounter is ugly. I cast my characters with actors living or dead, and then I envision it to get the choreography right. My writers group vets — if they’re laughing, I’ve done it right; if they’re horrified, I’ve done it right; if they’re saddened, I’ve done it right. Plus I have a muse — a real dirty minded goat who gives me an honest report of what the man is really thinking when A,B,C. occurs. My muse is invaluable. The biggest mistake I see in sex scenes are those that try so hard to shock. We live in the digital age, nothing shocks anymore, unfortunately.

  • Michael A Stone
    Michael A Stone

    I write it like I’ve done it. In my newest work of fiction I use the sex to add heat to the story, which it does. I like to say it like it is, whether men or women read it, doesn’t matter to me.

  • Shelby Jacobs
    Shelby Jacobs

    Two pieces of advice. First, do not use slang for body parts. A penis is a penis not a rod or a stick of lumber or a steel rod or a weapon. It may be the male’s manhood and that’s it. Second, consider the POW you are using in the scene, his, hers, etc. The descriptions will vary depending on the point of view of the person telling the story.

    • Kathryn Jordan

      Shelby, I totally agree about body parts. As for POV. At first I thought I’d stay in Julia’s POV, but as soon as William arrived, I knew I had to write his POV too. So it goes back and forth, the reader knowing all their thoughts, but the heroine and hero of course can’t read each other’s mind. Makes for some interesting, sometimes humorous, situations.

  • Kathryn Jordan

    My novel, HOT WATER, published by Berkley – Penguin, is about a lonely Minnesota housewife who escapes her life for a weekend at a lush spa in the California desert. She rents a red Lamborghini and hires a male escort who turns out beyond her wildest dreams. My advice is to make sex scenes erotic but not overly graphic. Leave some to the imagination. Set them in odd places, i.e. Al Capone’s tunnel, a grotto pool. Add humor now and then, surprises, and focus on the characters, not just the sex. A story can be charming and still a huge turn on. (Husbands thanked me when their wives read it). Another good tip I learned in HOT WATER: Give the story a time limit. The lovers have 48 hours. The clock is ticking the moment they meet, and the pages turn faster and faster. That works in any novel.

  • Robin Peacock
    Robin Peacock

    I write it from both POVs, alternating each paragraph. Often the same action means two different things, depending on whether they are the doer or the doee. (is that a word?) I tell the reader how the person feels rather than what is being done to them or they are doing. It seems to work. I have had rave reviews for my sex scenes; for the books, not so much!

    • Jasper Barry
      Jasper Barry

      LOL Michael.

      I do think with sex scenes less is generally more. If your characters are having great sex, you don’t have to describe it either physically or emotionally (I was about to write ‘blow-by blow’) – in fact, it’s a fatal mistake to do so, because it will be much greater sex if you leave it to the reader’s imagination.

      The exception is – when things go wrong. Then I think, because this will have a profound effect on both participants, the reader needs to know what and why, as this may have all sorts of unexpected results as the action of the novel continues.

      All the same, you can do wonders with before and after. Location and dialogue can set the mood and recap the action and its success or failure. Again, you’re letting the reader imagine. This is far more erotic than describing how the bits slot together.

  • Brian J Walters
    Brian J Walters

    I have written a scene or two and always struggle with description. I try to keep it as “Romantic” as possible and there are very few terms that can keep it on that level. Penis, Vagina is medical; other’s seem to harsh. POV and emotions are great, but, as with any part of a story, you do have to provide some narrative. It’s a struggle for sure..

  • Laura Susan Johnson

    Ugh one thing I’ve always hated is when authors of hetero romance/erotica use terms like “manhood” or “member” Horrific!

    I write m/m erotica/romance and for me, if there’s no emotional connection between the 2 characters, the sex is not sexy. I can use words like cock and dick, no problem, but those 2 words in my first paragraph are gross and a huge turnoff. I avoid any kind of detail when writing about menage or orgies. Many m/m readers hate cheating and menage content I’ve learned, and I don’t like it much either.

    I tried to read 50 shades, and the deviant character of Christian Grey creeped me out and the power dynamic was a major turnoff. The fact that it was written in such a juvenile manner didn’t bother me as much as how UNlikeable C. Grey is and what a moron Ana Steele is. I feel threatened by men who feel the need to abuse and dominate women. I’ll never overcome that feeling and dislike, and I’ve experienced the same reaction to the works of Judith McNaught (read her horrific hetero stuff during my formative years) and Johanna Lindsey.

  • Margie Vieira
    Margie Vieira

    I am curious as to one thing. Many say that 50 Shades was poorly written, then what drew the reader to it? How did the story make millions?
    I found the aspect of Christian Grey being what he was fascinating. I wanted to know what made this man tick, and how was Anastasia going to change or help him?
    Granted, there was redundancy and the timeline was off on the third book, but why did the majority of the audience take to it like a “Yummy banana split Sunday?”

    • Kimberly Shursen
      Kimberly Shursen

      In my opinion “Fifty Shades” had a master mind of a marketer. Before it came out, we were panting. I stop reading fifty pages into the book. Another older man with money – well, yawn.
      any sex scenes I use in my novels are built on touch, smell, emotion and the feeling of not being able to resist the powerful urge to become one. My sex scenes, however, are love scenes. I’m sure it’s a lot different when sex is the only thing on their minds.

    • Marianne Petit

      I didn’t like 50 shades at all . I thought the writing was poor, I disliked C Grey and didn’t like the heroine for having no spine and letting him control her. I have no idea how this book got as far as it did. I certainly didn’t get far into the story.
      Glenn I agree with you, know your characters, they are not all going to have the same experience or feeling. In my second book, one of my character’s actions and attitude during sex made me think more than once on weather or not to keep that scene in the book. In the end, though I was uncomfortable , she won and it stayed true to her character.

    • Debra

      I am not sure how many people are aware of this fact, but 50 Shades was first written as a fan fiction story under the Twilight book section. Christian was Edward Cullen, non-vampire, and Anastasia was Bella Swan. Some of the reader base came from those who had read the Twilight version of the story.

  • Joseph Morris

    In my book Empire’s Passing I have two different types of love scenes. The one between the evil villainess and her victims are deliberately crass and graphic. The ones with my heroes and heroines are deliberately sensual and involve much more communication. I’ve received compliments on the scene between my lead character and his wife. I’ve also been told by some that maybe I went too far in the graphic scenes. My most important critic, my wife and editor, didn’t think so.

  • Jim Crocker
    Jim Crocker

    A how-to manual certainly isn’t a style anyone is going for. I hope? Then there’s the descriptions that sound like Betty White commenting on the Rose Bowl Parade. Nope. That’s not it. Where’s Howard Cosell when we need him? Not that’s an image for you. Then there’s those instant replay reports. Naw.

    Probably with the sex scenes the important aspect — dare I say viewpoint? — is the characters involved. The scene should tell something about who they “really” are. I mean, if who you “really” are doesn’t come out then…

    Now I do have a female MC who is a rough and ready kind of girl. She got a huge attitude. She has been a combat chopper pilot for twenty years. Has been shot down and fought her way out. So what is life like for a woman who has been “there”? Just what would be her attitude and approach to sex as a single woman? Would she be different from someone who has led a more passive life? Yunno, this character is not shy. She used weapons in rough situations. However — to avoid any stereotypes — she has not turned into some hulking brute who smokes cigars. Although she has a few tats.

    Jeez. Maybe I should turn this into a thread???

  • Diana Taylor
    Diana Taylor

    Since I write Christian Fiction, sex scenes and bad language are a no no with my editors. I set the scene, but leave the details up to the wonderful imaginations of my readers. So far no complaints! : )

  • Glenn Parris

    I think the biggest mistake that writers make is writing gratuitous sex scenes. If you’re going to write a sex scene you have to have some sense of the characters background and motivation. It’s not always sensitive or soft or loving, but you have to have some sense of where the characters are coming from and why they are engaging into this action. I think this goes to suspension of disbelief and connection of the reader to one or both of the participants.

    • Laura Susan Johnson

      I agree with Glenn…in my first novel my 2 main characters engage in certain acts that would have had the readers scratching their heads or throwing the book against the wall if the MCs had not been thoroughly fleshed out. Their histories had been laid down, so their motivation for what takes place between them sexually is easily understood.

  • Wayne Borean
    Wayne Borean

    The biggest problem with sex scenes is that most end up looking like descriptions of a runaway steam engine. Let’s face it, the physical stuff is fun, but it makes for boring descriptions.

    As Janet says at the top, the most important part is the emotions. Get them right. Work on them.

    The rest, well, it’s just plumbing :)

  • Robert H Randolph
    Robert H Randolph

    I am just finishing up my second erotic romance. My first novel was a little raw. It told it like it was. I thought I was being adult. In my new novel, called “The Geriatric Gigolo” I’ve taken a gentler approach, using words like “member”, “womanhood” and euphormisms like “gateway to heaven.” Ever so often I let the characters express their feelings and needs using their own vanacular — fuck, etc., because that is the way people actually talk — realism. So you can see I’m mixing it up to give it some balance. When GG hits the streets, we’ll see if this works. The first book, “A Sensuous Businessman” has been singularly unsuccessful, so I am still looking for that magical reader turn on. With GG, I have relyed heavily on a woman lover as my muse, which has been a big help. I have let her read each chapter as it was finished and she reported arousal during her read. As a erotic writer that is my goal — reading it should cause a woman to have an orgasm. Could there be anything more profound.

  • Joan MacReynolds

    I love the way Deborah Harkness wrote her sex scenes in her first two books…A Discovery of Witches is the first one…She smoothly heated up the scene with very little or no body parts mentioned unless she used words like the “moon of my thighs”…too much jade stalk talk makes the scene lose its ability to allow many readers to relate. …although I like jade stalk better than penis.

  • Kimberly Shursen
    Kimberly Shursen

    Whatever happened to “he slid inside of her, feeling her warmth surround him. Their fingers intertwined tightly…the slight arch of her back telling him she wanted him…needed him…” etc, etc. I don’t name anything – everyone already knows the correct name for biological parts. : )

    • Margie Vieira
      Margie Vieira

      @Ms. Kimberly what you wrote above needs no body parts mentioned. Woo Wee! The arching of the back said it all for me.
      Hmmm I guess I”M too much into the paranormal. Although, I do have a honeymoon scene in my first novel and a college scene in a dorm room in the second. I attempt to leave it to the imagination of the reader. Somewhat like the 50’s. “They walked hand in hand to the doorway. He smiled as her pupils dilated. They stepped through and the door closed.” Boom! Guess what they are doing next? Yup that’s right.
      Smiles everyone and a very Happy, Happy Mothers’ Day!.

  • Michael Calabrese
    Michael Calabrese

    Sex should go in a book when it is necessary. It’s a normal part of life, but I don’t go in for gratuitous sex. I do have to admit that in one instance, I decided to rewrite a sex scene. I was single then. It was 3 am and it had been a while. The next day I realized that no one I knew would talk to me in public again. Computers have their advantages…

  • Karla Locke

    I have romance books for over 25 years and when I finally decided to write my first one I thought the sex scenes would be difficult, turns out they were probably the easiest parts to write and had no edits. I found it difficult, at first, to share with my writing group though.

  • Sheryl Dunn

    Best advice I’ve ever received is to emphasize the before and the after.

    Why?

    Because you can’t reveal a lot of character during the sex (if it’s good sex, that is!), but you can reveal a lot about the characters during the before and the after.

    Just as in real life, sex is better if there’s foreplay and some cuddling (or chocolates and champagne) after!

  • Kitty Dyer
    Kitty Dyer

    Sex for the sake of sex is in very poor taste. If it fits naturally into the story, then so be it. The before and after are definitely more significant than stressing or describing the private moments between a man and a woman. I have often described it to a point, and every time it is different.

  • James Craig

    If you have to ask about how to do it, perhaps it’s best to avoid having to do it. As a prosecutor and as a defense attorney I had to try sexual assault cases and I learned quickly it was perhaps the most uncomfortable thing I had to do. As a writer it just doesn’t add anything the stories I try to tell, so there’s no point in putting them in. It’s also not likely to be very appealing to my target audience. If it takes sex to sell the book, perhaps reevaluating is in order.

    • Sheryl Dunn

      @James…

      I think it depends on the story, James. In my novel, I have two sex scenes: one from the POV of a woman who was sexually abused as a child (and it’s very sad), and the other from the POV of a woman who wasn’t (and it’s very funny.) I think the contrast between the two scenes is important thematically, i.e., for what I want to say to the world.

      Sure, I could TELL about it, but I think SHOWING is more effective and much stronger.

      I can’t foresee having a sex scene in the next novel in the series, however…at least, how it’s going so far.

      • James Craig

        I think, Sheryl, that’s the point–the scene isn’t there just for the sex, but is an important, even integral, part of the story. If you’re going to write about sexual abuse, you have to deal with it and I agree, showing is more important telling. Either way, it’s moving the story forward.

  • Patricia Goss

    Sex scenes. Hmmm… this is a subject that has been discussed in several formats. As a writer, I didn’t have difficulty in writing the scenes, but worried more about the judgement that sex isn’t necessary in a good story. When writing romance, sex for the sake of sex gets annoying even if the characters have one or several partners. I got to the point where I would skim instead of read sections to get on with the story. My scenes are brief and included to show/develop character. How a character views sex, performs sex, or how it affects the characters psyche are an important part of personal development. What drives a scene is also important; love, hate, revenge, remorse, curiosity, experimentation. My first novel is a love triangle in a Medieval setting. How the story developments has a lot to do with religion and current culture so the sex is necessary. Two of the scenes are pretty violent, but in the time frame violence is not unusual at all. The first scene is driven by desperation and the second by anger and pain. The scenes are such a small part of the story, but have a huge impact to the book.

  • Paul Parkin
    Paul Parkin

    To Me its one of those things most people know what you mean when you say, the two had sex, so no need to go into it, like toilet, unless its really really needed, you wouldn’t describe it, most people already know. – Unless you want emotion or effect, just do the bit needed.

  • Jasper Barry
    Jasper Barry

    I do think frustrated desire is probably more effective than descriptions of the eventual sex act. If you can whip one of your characters into a state where he/she is beside themselves with wanting the other, you don’t need any ‘sliding’ or ‘warmth’ to achieve something erotic.

    However, when consummation finally occurs you do need to know what your characters are actually doing, even if you have no intention of describing it. And if you do describe it in any way, you need to know even more. For instance, Kimberly, I’m not clear why, in your example, if the protagonists have already achieved penetration, their fingers are intertwined tightly or her back is arching slightly. I would have thought their hands and her back would be up to other things by then. Now, that’s just me, and I may be wrong. But you don’t want your reader asking these sorts of questions.

  • Margie Vieira
    Margie Vieira

    @Jasper let’s say Kimberly’s characters had just “gotta it on” The hand connection most likely then went to other parts of the body. You know it was an example. Potato Po ta toe
    Smiling

  • Kimberly Shursen
    Kimberly Shursen

    Jasper Barry; Yes, I feel you are wrong. The touch, smell, the way a back arches leads readers to take a few erotic movements forward into their own imagination. I feel a more sophisticated reader does not want to read the ins and outs, the ups and downs, and the sweat that comes with sex. A few tidbits and the mind is off and running – I mean, hello? Who does not have a vivid imagination when it comes to sex? Unless, of course, you’ve had a lobotomy. Authors need to decide what they want and the right readers will follow. For me, it appears those who read my novels are content with my love scenes.