How to Write a Good Sex Scene

Writing a decent sex scene isn't easy. I learned this the hard way, several times over, when writing my first erotic novel after years of penning sci-fi/fantasy genre books that averaged between zero and one such scene per book.
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Writing a decent sex scene isn't easy. I learned this the hard way, several times over, when writing my first erotic novel after years of penning sci-fi/fantasy genre books that averaged between zero and one such scene per book.

One novel hardly makes me an expert, but I learned a few things when transitioning from the fade to black variety of sex scene to the that was so graphic I think I may have committed a crime sort. Perhaps I can offer a road map to other writers seeking to make the same transition.

1. Practice makes perfect. There are some genres that do not lend themselves to frequent sex scenes. The ones that do are romance and erotica (and their sub-variants). To the people who argue that a good sex scene depends in part on the gender of the author, this is where I usually point them, because romance/erotica is dominated by female authors. Since writing a good sex scene--just like anything else--gets easier with practice, the authors writing the most scenes because of genre demands are the ones getting better at it. And if you're writing only one sex scene per book, you're not going to improve, because...

2. Sex scenes are not like anything else. The relationship between the reader and the writer is slightly different in a sex scene. The writer is trying to convey a mood and a feeling that... well, there's no easy way to say this: The writer is trying to turn the reader on. This means figuring out how to use words to establish a mood and a rhythm and a feeling that I can't really describe accurately in polite company. It's a skill that is just not really applicable to any other kind of fiction writing. A novel also has to have the kind of authorial voice that allows for the sort of tone necessary to establish that rhythm and mood. And this means...

3. Ironic detachment is a poor narrative choice. The first sex scene I ever wrote was for Immortal, which was narrated in first-person by a sarcastic 60,000 year old man named Adam. There was no way Adam would ever be putting down a description that met the above criteria, which is why he and I didn't even try. Instead, there's a paragraph-long discussion in the middle of the scene in which Adam attempts to explain why breasts are fantastic. It's funny, but definitely not sexy.

My point is that sometimes the voice a writer chooses to tell the story doesn't lend itself to a decent erotic description, and it's a mistake to try. Another mistake is...

4. Getting bogged down in description. When describing just about any other physical act--a fistfight, or running down the street, or whatever--it's customary to focus on exactly how bodies are moving and interacting in respect with one another. But that kind of insert-tab-A-into-slot-B, while effective in painting a mental picture of what's going on, is much too cold and dispassionate for a sex scene. I made this mistake plenty of times in early drafts of Sapphire Blue, where I concentrated much more on whose leg was going where than on what it felt like to have his hands on her hips and her breath on his neck and so forth.

Mind you, in most of the more (*cough*) male author-dominated genres, describing a woman as attractive and having her do sexy things like take her clothes off a lot would be a perfectly adequate "sex scene." And that reminds me...

5. Try not to be a misogynist. There is an attractive woman trope that pops up in an awful lot of male-written fiction. I don't know where it began--pulp detective novels would be my guess--but the characteristics of this woman include:

a. Being almost unattainably attractive

b. An apparent willingness to have sex with the (male) protagonist, usually as a means of manipulating him

c. Being duplicitous, and either secretly evil or forced to act that way for some reason

There are only two outcomes for this woman. She is either saved/reformed by the protagonist or she dies a grisly death. Sometimes both.

The attractive woman trope is startlingly resilient, popping up all over the place. Every time I see her I think what the author is saying is, "Women frighten and confuse me and I don't know how to write realistically about one."

If I were a woman I wouldn't find anything to connect with in that character, and I certainly wouldn't enjoy a sex scene involving her. As a male writer I want to tell the authors using this trope to talk to more actual women. Maybe they could even talk about how...

6. This can be embarrassing. I have heard it said that readers assume the author has actually performed the sex acts being described, and that this might make it more difficult for the author to write the scene. I suppose this could be true, but if so I don't understand it.

I've written from the perspective of an immortal man, from the perspective of a man who can see five seconds into the future, and from the perspective of a young blonde woman. Yet I am neither immortal nor a blonde woman, and I can't see the future. Similarly, I've never killed someone, but I've described murder on multiple occasions, and no one has called the cops about this. I think readers are smart enough to understand.

Still, it really can be embarrassing to admit to a "dirty" idea that became a "dirty" book, which is why so many authors in romantic/erotic genres use pen names. But there's a difference between not wanting to admit to the public that you had these ideas, and not wanting to admit them to yourself. The former might mean you make up a name for yourself, but the latter probably means you're not going to write a good sex scene any time soon.

G. Doucette is the author of the just-released Sapphire Blue.

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