Here at the ERWA blog, we discuss a wide range of issues related to the business and craft of writing. In the past few months, we’ve had great articles on research, writer’s block, creating covers that sell, revision strategies, online marketing, and pruning to reduce word count. Today, I want to cut to the chase, take the bull by the horns, and talk about what distinguishes our genre from writing mysteries, or scifi, or political thrillers. Yes, I want to talk about writing sex scenes. More specifically, I want to offer a few suggestions on how to make your sex scenes more effective: more engaging, more interesting and more arousing.
Who am I to give you advice? Not the best seller I’d like to be, certainly. Still I’ve been writing and publishing erotic for more than two decades, and most of my fans think my stuff is pretty steamy. Plus, I’ve read an enormous number of sexy stories, for editing, reviews and of course my own pleasure. I think I know what works – or at least, what works for me. As always, your mileage may vary. Feel free to take what you find useful from this post and toss the rest in the trash.
There’s a misconception that writing sex is easy. After all, almost everyone has had some personal experience. In addition, when it comes to sex we have a vast cultural repository of tropes, kinks, and classic scenarios to call upon for inspiration. Getting your characters together to do the nasty seems like it should be straightforward. In my experience, though, it’s anything but.
When I can make the time to write, I’m pretty fast at turning out decent prose. Sex scenes, though, take me much longer than any other part of my books. I can write a page of dialogue in ten or fifteen minutes. Sexual encounters may require hours before I’m happy with them. (I’m not including time off to go relieve the tension, either!) I’m not sure why this is true. Maybe I’m nervous, too aware how critical the sex scenes are to the book’s success. More likely, I’m working really hard to capture aspects of experience – smells, tastes, textures, weight, pressure, levels of force, and so on – that are fundamentally beyond words. Despite all the books that have been written, despite all the poems and songs, conveying the true excitement of sex using language is close to impossible.
Still, we intrepid erotica authors have set ourselves this impossible task (cue music from Man of La Mancha), and we can’t seem to stop tilting at our carnal windmills.
My suggestions here won’t necessarily make things any easier. However, they might improve the ultimate outcome.
Less is More
How long should your sex scenes be? One page? Five pages? An entire chapter? The answer depends to some extent on your sub-genre and audience. However, as a reader I find it hard to maintain interest in a really long sex scene, unless it’s exquisitely written. Indeed, I admit I’ve skimmed through plenty of sex scenes, especially when the activities were commonplace and the outcomes were predictable.
A long time ago I read a wonderful article in which a gay erotica author (maybe Lawrence Schimel) compared erotic scenes to a radio drama. People used to sit around their radios for hours, listening to conversations and sound effects and weaving together the stories in their minds. The bandwidth of an audio-only presentation was pretty low. Hence, each listener brought a great deal of her own self to the story. The work itself sketched out the skeleton of the narration; it was the listener who put the flesh on those bones, using imagination and desire to fill in the gaps deliberately left by the author.
Erotica, I believe, is the same, at least partly because sexual experience is so difficult to describe. Oh, you can offer up a million details about bodies, cocks, clits, assholes, breasts, thighs, tongues and so on. But that’s not enough to bring a sex scene to life. Erotica arouses us when it evokes an answer from within us, when it kindles a memory, triggers a fantasy, or tickles a deeply buried fear.
When I’m writing sex, I’m very conscious that less is more. Sometimes I can bring my readers more fully into the scene by leaving out some of the nitty-gritty details, even by cutting off the action before the supposedly inevitable climax. A page or two may be enough to accomplish my task, leaving the reader breathless and wanting.
Variety is the Spice
A few months ago, a Storytime member, in posting an intense BDSM-flavored tale, apologized because her characters had anal sex as their first sexual interaction, instead of what she thought of as the “standard” progression of oral → vaginal → anal. I cringed a bit – and applauded her willingness to break what she saw as the rules. The way I see it, the more variety there is in a story’s sex, the more it shatters the stereotypes and pushes the reader into new territory, the better. Let your sex scenes surprise and delight the reader.
Maybe the sex isn’t reciprocal. There’s a belief that all participants must always have climaxes, but that’s not realistic, and it gets boring. Doing can be as erotic as being done to.
Maybe the sex acts are limited, by the environment or by design, so that there’s no penetration, for instance. That just ramps up the tension for your next scene. On the other hand, perhaps things get really wild and crazy, with mermaid-bound women on crutches, yogurt-filled strap-ons, nuns tumbling down on parachutes, a whole horny rugby team descending on a pre-wedding party…
And of course, there’s always room for toys, kinks, taboos, gender-bending, practices your characters might have dreamed about but never dared to try.
One of my pet peeves in erotic novels involves a series of sex scenes that are more or less the same. They all include foreplay, penetrative sex and mutually satisfying orgasms. Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of this – but if you’ve done it once or twice, why not try something else?
Don’t Hesitate to Escalate
Especially in longer works, you might want to think about your sex scenes not as isolated invitations to wank, but as a progression of increasingly intense experiences for your reader. I discussed the concept of escalation in a post last year. I don’t want to repeat myself here, but I recommend that you consider the role each sex scene plays in the story you’re building. Don’t shoot your whole wad right away. (So to speak!) You might want to hold back earlier in your tale, teasing the reader with less complete, intimate or transgressive scenes, then gradually work up to full-out fuck-fests that will curl your readers’ hair.
It’s All Sex
Freud was right. In compelling, arousing erotica, the sex doesn’t start when one character kisses or touches another. The build-up to your sex scene counts just as much as the physical contact. Mutual glances, shy or heated – flirting or innuendo – an unexpected exposure to strangers engaged in sexual activity – reading a sexy story or watching a movie – you might think of these aspects of your story as separate from your sex scene, but I believe this is a mistaken perspective. The non-explicit parts of your tale increase the reader’s excitement, sexual tension, and anticipation. They’re essential for raising the temperature, so that by the time your characters interact physically, they’re ready to burst into flames – as is your reader.
As I mentioned earlier, my work is generally considered pretty hot. Yet if you looked closely, you might be surprised by the relatively modest amount of time I spend on the “actual sex”. I probably spend twice as long, on average, building up to the official sex acts in the scene.
Some people consider sex to be an essentially physical instinct, a simple itch to be scratched, a hormone-governed compulsion to rut that highlights our fundamental animal nature. I’m not going to deny the biological imperative of sex. However, society, culture, personal experience and individual personality layer multiple levels of meaning on the act of intercourse. This supposedly simple physical act has become embedded in a complex web of belief, morality, fantasy and emotion. Our sexuality is inextricably entwined with our identity. We are likely the only animals who spend less time engaging in sex than thinking about it. The infamous Rule 34 (if it exists, someone’s kinky for it) highlights the uniquely human predilection to imbue inherently non-sexual actions or objects with an erotic charge.
When you’re writing a sex scene, you can (and in my opinion, should) take advantage of the emotions that accompany (or perhaps even drive) the sex. Show your readers what a particular sexual act means to your character. How does it affect his or her feelings? What desires does it trigger? Does the character feel a psychological connection to her partner(s)? Is she frightened of her own lust? Embarrassed? Jubilant? Powerful? Does the situation remind her of past lovers or long-cherished but forbidden fantasies?
A sex scene that pulls your reader into the head of the protagonist has a lot better chance of arousing her than one which lingers on the surface, dwelling solely on wet cunts and hard cocks. After all, your readers have to imagine the physical part (unless they’re masturbating while they read, and even then, there’s limited verisimilitude). Getting them to identify with your character emotionally is the key to getting them off.
I had planned to include one of my own sex scenes as an illustration of my points, but this post is already far too long. If you’re interested, you can read some of the scenes I’ve posted on my blog and judge for yourself whether these suggestions are effective.
Thanks for reading!