Before I go any further, I'll say it upfront; I am far from an expert in what's widely termed 'Erotica.' I have had a few bashes at it (make up your own jokes here if you like) but it's not my preferred genre. I mostly only get to write sex scenes is when they happen to be part of the plot of whatever non-Erotica genre I'm writing in. However, most of what I've learned from that apply to the Fifty Shades-type stuff as well, so I thought I'd share. Particularly the embarrassing stuff I've learned - I'll feel the shame so you don't have to, as they say.
Oh, and if the title wasn't a bit of a giveaway - a lot of this stuff is likely to be NOT SAFE FOR WORK. Seriously, don't be fooled by my Fisher-Price-toy avatar-face - I will be using Naughty Words. And just to be safe, I'll add in a TRIGGER WARNING too. Are we okay with that? Still ready to proceed? Good! Off we go then...
1 - At some point, you WILL be embarrassed about it.Now I don't know you personally, and you don't know me that way either. You may be the most sexually liberated and experimental Love Cat in existence for all I know. (Or I might be, for all you know.) If you are, that's great. Well done you! But don't assume that being totally okay with doing the sex in every crazy combination in your everyday life means you'll be able to write about that stuff with squirm-free ease.
The first time I wrote a sex scene I was fine about it. 'Wow,' I thought, 'this isn't so bad at all. I thought I'd be all embarrassed, but check out my word count, baby - I'm flying here!' It was such a relief to discover I could write this kind of stuff without shame or hesitation...
Because it was a first draft.
A first draft, as we all know, is the free-wheeling joyride draft. You spill it all out onto the page, fresh from your head and with no self-censoring or editing. You can be as crazy, impassioned and out-there as you want, because hey, it's a first draft and... no-one will ever read your first draft. Even after a second draft I still felt good about this sex scene I'd written - no awkwardness, no fear. But then it got to the 'Beta Draft' stage. As in, the draft that I'd finally be allowing others to read and offer critiques on...
And that's when my bravado deflated. Suddenly I started mentally picturing the looks on the faces of potential beta readers when they read this particular scene. Many of them were people I'd got to know (albeit virtually) through the writing community we were part of, so there was a social connection there as well as a writerly one. And now they were potentially going to read this. I don't honestly think I project an image of being a prude, but at the same time I don't think I come across as a right little minx either. I might give some of these people the shock of their lives - maybe even be responsible for heart attacks or fainting. Or... they might think I'm writing this stuff from - direct life experience - and that would be categorically TMI from an internet acquaintance and possibly even a form of literary sexual harrassment.
But, after much agonising and tough self-talking, I bit the bullet and posted it anyway. And... it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. In fact, I knew it'd be okay when one of my beta-readers, who I'd always pictured as a quiet and shy soul, gave me the feedback "I think you could afford to spend more time detailing the foreplay before getting to the screwing part - I'd like to read more about the nipple-kissing and knicker-ripping."
For you that awkward moment might also come at the beta-reading stage, or it might not kick in until later, when you're on the verge of getting your work published. But at some stage, it will happen. So yeah, the first time - like actual sex - is always awkward and tense, because you're not sure if you're doing it right and the fallout from potentially doing it wrong feels like the worst thing in the world that could happen.
But - like actual sex - it gets better and easier the more you practice.
2 - ...And this is why you need to be honest with yourself.But what if that inner horror doesn't go away - or it feels like too big a hurdle to leap over? It's entirely possible that, no matter how much you might enjoy writing sex scenes, you're just not cut out to actually publish them. At least, not as yourself.
How do you know? Well, here's the acid test. Next time you're elbow-deep in the writing of a sex scene, imagine it being read by the following people (and all of those people knowing you are the author):
- Your parents.
- Your in-laws / partner's family.
- Your boss and co-workers.
- Your neighbours.
- Your old head teacher from when you were at school.
- Your children's teachers.
- The parents of your children's schoolfriends.
That leaves Plan C, which is... to not write sex scenes in your books at all. Or at least, not the ones you intend to publish. (Nothing wrong with indulging in a little 'recreational' writing, after all - call it 'creative me-time' if you like.) It can be done - lots of Hollywood movies did it and still do it, with their fade-to-black and/or symbolic shots of ocean waves and fireworks. There's a huge market for novels that don't include the rudey bedtime details - plenty of readers out there actually don't want them in the stories they choose to read. And that's okay. Forget about what 'other' novels are doing - it's perfectly possible for a story that has sex taking place in it to not actually have a front-row bedroom seat to that sex. If the thought of writing sex scenes that other people will read makes your insides crawl, don't write them. Your discomfort will show - in your writing as well as your face when you imagine people reading them.
3 - Either come right out and say it or don't say it at all.Metaphors and similes are wonderful things. Throughout the ages, writers have been creative with them, imagining rich worlds of colour, senses and emotions with well-crafted turns of phrase. They can elevate an otherwise mundane story into a work of genius.
But metaphors and similes in sex scenes? Hooboy. That can be a minefield.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it can't be done, and done well. But when it is done well, it's usually because the author's aim was to say more than a plain-worded, nuts-and-bolts commentary could offer - not less. Using alternative terms and euphemisms for body parts and sexual acts out of fear or embarrassment of saying the actual words is a roadmap to Cringetown, resulting in the use of words like 'member,' 'man-meat' and 'massive weapon' when what you really mean is 'cock.' ('Dick' is also a preferred staple, as is 'prick.' In fact, for most 'sex words,' the simple, guttural-sounding words of Anglo-Saxon origin are good go-tos. They came up with 'fuck,' after all - and that alone makes them experts.)
Most of the cringeworthy euphemisms - like the three first examples offered above - were invented by the porn industry. This is the same industry that tries to convince its audience that pot-bellied, balding, middle-aged men are potent sex-magnets to every nubile young twenty-something who crosses their path, and women love being forced into sexual acts that reduce them to little more than semen receptacles. Is that what you're actually trying to communicate? Of course it might be if you're genuinely writing a sleazy rather than a romantic encounter, but if your aim is to get pulses racing, not stomachs churning...
At the other end of the scale, using medical and anatomical terms is equally awful - 'he inserted his penis into her vagina' makes you sound like you're twelve years old, with only your school sex ed classes to guide you on What Sex Is Like.
So, if you really can't bring yourself to just tell readers what's going on... well, maybe you're hoping that dressing your dirty prose up in flowery rainbow language will disguise it from the prim and judgemental. If so, I refer you back to Point 2.
4 - Choreography can make or break it.Remember Katy Perry's Left Shark at the Superbowl? Even if you're not a dancer yourself, you can tell something's not quite right there. Real-life sex is like a dance, in that it's an aerobic exercise that requires a degree of co-ordination and co-operation between participants (and sadly, some participants are more Left Shark than Right Shark.) But, like dancing, in real-life sex you can't defy the laws of physics, grow extra limbs or have parts of your body teleport or even disappear altogether. It can happen all too often in fictional sex scenes though...
When you're writing a sex scene, it's easy to get so caught up in making everything so crazy-horny and wild that you start losing track of where your love-bunnies various body parts actually are at any given time. That's how you end up having people being fondled in twice as many places as their partner has appendages to fondle with, guys kissing the nipples of the women they're simultaneously doing from behind and clothes mysteriously re-appearing on bodies so that they have to be ripped off twice. Since us humans are visual creatures, when we read a sex scene we're watching it play out in the movie-screen in our heads, and if the pieces suddenly don't fit together properly we're thrown out of the sexiness of it all and left trying to play Human Tetris instead.
So as you write your sex scenes, keep in mind a) what the human body is capable of doing (without breaking or dislocating something) and b) the limb transitions necessary for moving from one raunchy thing to the next. This is more for the editing stage than the first draft, and is probably worth making a separate pass devoted to it - the Choreography Pass, if you like. You'll need to approach it with a technical rather than emotional eye - forget about how it makes you feel, and focus on how it would make your love bunnies feel if they tried to actually do that thing you're making them do.
If you're not sure if something you want to write is feasible... well, if you've got a willing partner you could 'research' it yourselves (writers have used stranger seduction patter than that in the past.) If that's not an option you could, as a last resort, break out Barbie and Ken - but you might first want to make sure everyone else in the house is out for that one.
Writers put sex in their stories for many different reasons, not least because there are many different types of sex.
5 - Be very sure of what you want the scene to say, and why you need to say it that way.
There are the wild, no-strings hook-ups between lust-crazed individuals who just want the high of an orgasm with a semi-stranger or 'forbidden' lover. Then there's the deep and spiritual, connecting sex between people who love each other deeply. There's the sex that's offered in exchange for something, like a bartering system, and the temporary band-aid of Revenge Sex. There's BDSM and 'fetish' sex, and a whole load of other passions and motivations that drive people to have sex. And of course - unfortunately - there's sex that isn't consensual.
Whatever your reason for including a sex scene in your story, there has to be one - and that reason has to be character-driven, not market-driven. Do not force your characters into bonking each other purely because 'my readers want and expect at least one sex scene in this book' - if there's no logical or emotional reason for them to do it, that scene will give off a stink that readers can detect a mile away. Even those shocking, seemingly out-of-character moments of passion between two people in a desperate and highly pressurised situation should have a degree of inevitability about them - the reader should still think "yeah, I can see why they'd go for each other in those circumstances" rather than "WTF? He'd never do that with her!"
Once you've established the 'why' of the sex, the next job is to make sure that what they choose to get up to reflects that. A casual, lust-crazed hook-up between two horny singles isn't going to play out like a Mills & Boon bridal suite scene, for example - just like the 'first time' between two teenage sweethearts wouldn't involve a catalogue of wild sex moves resulting in mutual, body-shaking orgasms. Most important of all, decide whose point of view matters in the scene and make sure everything you describe comes from that point of view only. Please please, don't head-hop during sex scenes. Would you want someone tapping you on the shoulder and breaking your train of thought, every time you got close to your Happy Ending? That's what head-hopping in sex scenes feels like to the reader.
Once you've got your POV sorted out, you need to determine how they're feeling about this sex they're having. This applies even if you're using an omniscient POV, because the feelings of the person chosen should dictate the mood of the scene. Your POV character may not have the same feelings as their partner about what's happening, which means they're going to see what they're doing (and what's being done to them) in a different way.
This is particularly important if the POV character is not as into the sex as their partner - and doubly important on top of that if they're being forced or coerced into it against their will. In those circumstances, be very careful about the language and especially the mental camera angles you use to depict what's happening. At no point should it seem like the victim is 'seeing' what's being done to them (i.e. as if they're experiencing everything through the eyes of the person violating them,) and nor should you describe those things in ways that make it sound the same as consensual sex. It's an act of violence, not passion, and the words, images and senses you choose should make that crystal clear.
Jeez, I hear you say. That doesn't sound like the kind of thing people would enjoy reading at all. Well, if you're going to write a rape scene that's the way the cookie crumbles, I'm afraid. Rape is a horrible, gut-wrenching thing that happens to real people in real life, and if you've included it in your story just because you like the idea of chucking a hand-grenade into your plot you gotta be prepared for the massive, messy explosion it leaves behind. In other words, if you want that kind of Real in your plot, it has to be horrible and gut-wrenching to read - and often to write as well. Write it in a way that makes it sound even the slightest bit titillating, and you deserve all the hate you will certainly get.
But regardless of whether the characters' experiences are positive or negative, the one thing every type of sex scene should do in fiction is change the game. It could be a good change or a very, very bad one - but either way, once characters have bumped bits there must be a palpable sense - for at least one of the characters involved - that bridges have been burned and things can never go back to being the way they were before. This is also true of any other kind of scene in a novel - if it doesn't impact on the plot it doesn't need to be there - but a sex scene shouldn't be cut more slack just because it is a sex scene. Readers look for stories above everything else when they pick up a novel, with sex scenes as an occasional bonus. If they're only looking for something to get their rocks off to - well, they got the internet for that...
So, that's my top 5. What else do you think is important when it comes to writing sex scenes? What have you learned? Feel free to drop in a comment.