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