By Jeanne C. Stein
Sex in writing is always a touchy subject—pun intended. Where does love making end and erotica begin? How much sex is too much? Do you have to have sex in your story?
Let’s start with the last question first. To be frank, most readers of genres such as UF or (of course) romance, expect sex to be a part of the storyline. PART of the storyline. They also expect it to be pertinent to the story, not tacked on as an afterthought. It’s different in erotica--sex IS the story. In UF or paranormal or straight romance, sex should be a natural element of the bigger story though it does not necessarily involve long-term consequences—or romance in the classic sense. Remember the difference between paranormal romance and UF? We may have a committed couple, but there’s no guaranteed happily ever after. In romance, happily ever after or happily for now is implicit. Regardless of genre, however, writing sex can be fun.
But writing a sex scene is not as easy as one might think. How far do you want to take it? Do you want to stop at the bedroom door or fling it wide open and invite the reader along? For our purposes, we’re going to assume you’re inviting the reader in.
There are two main elements to writing a good sex scene—the emotional and the physical. Sexual tension between the characters should have been building long before they land in bed. Danger can be a catalyst for sexual tension, conflict can be a catalyst. The characters may be long time friends or lovers, they may have just met and extenuating circumstances thrust them together. After a dangerous or life-threatening situation, slaying a dragon, for instance, or banishing the resident evil, sex is often used as an affirmation of life.
So we’ve set up the scene. Our characters are headed for the bedroom. How do we describe what happens next?
Depends on what type of scene we’re presenting. Is this a tryst between two lovers who know each other well? Will they take their time? Will they light candles and slip into a bubble bath? Will they kiss long and passionately? Will there be extended foreplay?
Or is this the frantic coupling of two people who have survived an unspeakable horror and want nothing more than to block it from their minds? Are they in an elevator or a taxi or in the back seat of a car? Do they fumble and tear at their clothes? Do they explore each other with fingers and tongues? Is the consummation an act of desperation or thanksgiving?
Set the mood.
Now on to the hard part: describing the action. Use all five senses. Set aside your inhibitions. If you’re writing the first type of love scene, the language and action will be romantic and sweet. If you’re writing the second, it will be abrupt and crude.
Your characters should talk to each other. Your characters should describe what they’re feeling. Your characters should have physical reactions to what is happening to them.
Now, here’s the secret. If your sex scene doesn’t turn you on—chances are it won’t turn your readers on, either.
Does that mean it has to be graphic?
Not at all. Here’s an example from author Jeaniene Frost:
He laughed—and then whirled me up in his arms so fast, my feet were still flexing for another step His mouth crushed down on mine, taking my breath away, and the same mindless compulsion that had led me to act so bizarrely upstairs manifested itself in another form. My arms went around his neck, my legs wrapped around his waist, and I kissed him as if by willpower alone I could erase the memory of every woman before me.
I heard a rip. Felt the wall at my back, and then the next moment, he was inside me.
I clung to him, nails digging into his back with mounting need, mouth locked onto his throat to stifle my cries. He moaned into my skin, free hand tangled in my hair as he moved faster, deeper. There was no gentleness to him, but I wanted none, exulting in the unbridled passion between us.
Everything inside me suddenly clenched, and then relinquished in a rush of ecstasy that streamed down to my toes. Bones cried out as well, and a few shattering minutes later, relaxed against me… (From Halfway to the Grave)
If you’re not comfortable writing or reading open door sex scenes, don’t do them. They will lack sensuality and emotional content and the reader will recognize it. So will an editor or agent. Better to stay in your own comfort zone. Show us something that has an emotional and sensual set up but ends at the bedroom door.
Another point, it helps if what happens in the bedroom furthers the storyline. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. There may be repercussions as a result of the coupling that are not manifest right away, but are made evident later. That’s okay, too.
Is there a difference between sex and intimacy? You betcha. Though they’re often used interchangeably, intimacy implies a close personal relationship that goes beyond the physical. An important aspect of any romance. That isn’t to say that our protag should be shown as lacking moral fiber—we want her to be sympathetic. But in some genres, UF or paranormal romance, we are writing characters that exist beyond the bounds of a normal world. A world that may not recognize them or worse, brands them as outcasts. Finding solace in sex is a way of retaining that human connection.
Our last two lessons will be more about the business of writing than the elements of writing.
Next month we’ll look at the many ways writers sabotage themselves —both in their writing and with their careers.