The Thing About Writing Sex Scenes

Apologies to my dyslexically-inclined readers — or simply those who see what they want to see — who think this post is actually Writing Sex Scenes About the Thing.  Didn’t mean to get your hopes up.  Stay tuned, though, because this post dwells on something much more forbidden than sex itself.  At least in the realm of commercial fiction.

And that’s the point, really. 

Sex scenes in your novel or screenplay aren’t really about what you think they are, dyxlexic or not.   Which is to say, the good ones are less about the swapping of bodily fluids than they are about the expectations — also known as foreplay — and the setting, context and meaning of a sexual encounter, all of which imbue the ensuing epidermal friction with enough steam to fog a whorehouse window.

Sometimes the best sex scenes have no sex at all.  The page turns, the door closes, and the entire thing plays out only in the mind of the reader.  And who knows where that may lead.

I know about this subject.  In fact, in some circles I’m known for this subject.  My first book, which had fewer actual sex scenes than an episode of Six Feet Under, was classified as “erotica” by the major bookclubs, and to this day remains in that dark little corner of some used bookstores.  The reason has as much to do with the cover — a hot woman with her wrists delicately bound with a scarf — as it did the fact that my story, while skimping on the coital details, had a truckload of the aforementioned settings, context and accoutrements of love making , including that scarf.

The referrees of sexual fiction.

Truth is, publishers and movie makers are far more lenient toward vanilla-scented sex than they are toward what the masses construe as sexual deviation.  They are much more comfortable with violence, torture and death than even the most tame scene involving handcuffs and an enema bag.  Or in the case of my book, a character’s fascination with the fetish world — a dramatic device, rather than the point — that happened to get him framed for murder.

There is a significant difference between erotica and a perfectly logical sex scene in a commercial story, just as there is between pornography and the occasional penis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Pornography is sex without context, sex presented for the sole purpose engorging the glands of readers.  Erotica is different in that it does present context and setting, but titillation (is that a root word or a happy coincidence? hmmm…) is nonetheless the primary purpose — dare I say thrust — of the work.  It is designed to inflame the mind first, the nether regions second. 

Effective sex in commercial fiction, regardless of how explicit, always propels the story forward through the introduction of new narrative information and the shifting of context. 

If someone happens to get off in the process, so be it, that’s the writer’s call.  Just like it was Michelangelo’s call back in the day.  Such sexual moments are in service to the story, rather than the point of it.

It’s all in your mind.  Then theirs.

The best sex scenes are always, first and foremost, about desire.  They are about the forbidden coming to fruition, fantasy coming to reality.  They are about minds rather than motion, a triumph of emotional style over biological substance.  If you want to spin your reader into a frenzy, make sure the sex in your story is a culmination of needs buried deep within the emotions and dark recesses of the psyche, rather than the inner regions of their loins.

Regarding my my 2004 novel Bait and Switch, I’ve received emails from women telling me that chapter 29 was the most erotic thing they’ve ever read.  Not a stitch of clothing was removed, it was just a conversation in the back of a limo between the student and his supposed instructress in the art of seduction.  The tables turned, the student became the master, and the woman… well, let’s just say she was speechless.

Sex as a flesh-driven act can be exciting, but it’s almost always common and therefore easily boring.  Sex as a mind-driven frenzy is a hard drug, one that requires not a single frame of nudity to light up a reader’s imagination like a Times Square Christmas tree.  Set it up and then close the bedroom door.  Leave your reader in a voyeuristic state of denial, forcing them to play the scene out for themselves.

There’s a reason the romance genre remains lucrative and eternal.  Because the sexual tension that resides at its core is just that.  Just make sure what ends up on the cover doesn’t violate the sensibilities of your grandmother, who, history has proven, continues to have a thing for Fabio over blindfolds anyday.


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4 Responses to The Thing About Writing Sex Scenes

  1. What a great article! Thanks for sharing. Lots of writers have a hard time with finding that line between the genres, and this puts it in a simple context. Thanks again!

  2. I cannot begin to tell you how RIGHT you are! I truly hate it when I pick up a book in which I know the author to be wonderful and find mindless mechanical bed bunnies all through it. I have to assume that in cases such as this it’s the publishing house that has pressed for more sex, thinking that’s what the public wants, when they seem to have missed the point entirely. I know my writing is no where near the erotic mark, my grandmother still reads my work =), but what’s the point of a love scene if it doesn’t move the story forward?
    Thank you so much for your clear and concise explanation! Maybe some day their eyes will be opened.

  3. “Set it up and then close the bedroom door. Leave your reader in a voyeuristic state of denial, forcing them to play the scene out for themselves.” Finally – someone who’s figured out it’s more powerful! Oh, if only screenplays would go back to doing this too!

    I inherited a whole load of Nora Roberts books and enjoyed a few but then got bored. I decided to read the rest as research after I realised there were blatant patterns in them. She writes well to a certain extent, but oh how those endless sex scenes bore me. Whenever my husband sees me rolling my eyes and turning two or three pages at a time he asks “Nibbling started?” “Yup,” I reply. “I’ve just skipped to the coffee.”

    Love the blog, Larry. So much good sense!

  4. I have started to write some romantic comedies. My usual fare is traffic and life rants, so the romance is a departure. Since I had a woman go over my 1st draft, she adored it. I used her insight for a better sex scene, she actually just made suggestion on the primary couple, and not the fling mistake. My first effort is under consideration of a new publisher that carries romance and erotica, I certainly wouldn’t consider it porn, but its not psyche either, its flesh.
    So far I tend to write novella length (screenplay size) but I think I’m getting better at it. A month ago if you asked me if I’d write this I’d probably have said:”Why?”
    All in all a great article, I will try to explore a psyche driven scene in my next crack at this.