3 Secrets for Writing a Good Sex Scene

by Bill Henderson

When I was a teenager, there were two movie theaters within a block of my high school, so without much else to do, my friends saw a lot of movies after school. I remember there always came time for the obligatory love scene. This we treated as nothing more than a commercial break – an opportunity to hit the candy counter.

Why was this? Was it just that boys aren’t interested in “love?” We were certainly old enough to feel the physical pulse of sex, yet the love scenes in these movies held no power to involve us.

Later, learning the trade of fiction writing (and screenwriting), I realized the typical Hollywood love scene of that era, the late 50′s – early 60′s, was perfunctory, thrown in mostly for change of pace – and because, with two hot stars, some making out was mandatory: there had to be sparks. But it rarely advanced plot or deepened character knowledge, which is why we’d miss nothing if we went for popcorn.

Lots can be said about how to write about love, specifically how to write a good sex scene–and Elizabeth Benedict has written an excellent guide, The Joy of Writing Sex – but my general advice boils down to 3 points:

• Make sure the scene reveals something about the characters we didn’t know before. An awkward truth is revealed in the heat of the moment.

• Make sure the scene, or something in it, has consequences down the line, complications that one or both of them must face. The characters’ relationship is altered. Emotions are enhanced or altered, causing unforeseen consequences.

• Make sure the description of what the lovers do isn’t a collection of generic, off-the-shelf “moves,” rendered in cliche phrases we’ve all read a million times.

Sex is actually a great way to reveal character, if you approach it that way: a man reveals his inherent cruelty, or his lack of confidence, or his sexual confusion. A woman reveals her hidden hunger, or fear, or an unexpressed need to dominate, or be dominated.

From a sheer writing standpoint, sex is a collection of specific behaviors–even more specific once you’ve invested them with story and character values. If you have difficulty on the show/tell axis, writing sex will inevitably place you comfortably toward the “show” end of the axis.

Why “inevitably?” Have you ever read a sex scene like this:

Bob and Jane withdrew to the bedroom and after a period of exchanging simple confidences and gestures of affection, they were fully disrobed. As the afternoon progressed, they became intimate, a distinctly new development for them, causing both persons to attempt, and accomplish, an act of sexual fulfillment. Bob knowledgeably led Jane through a full menu of pleasurable actions, while Jane pleased him no end with her interesting variety of responses–sometimes malleable and yielding, other times demonstrating a surprising degree of leadership. By nightfall, they had accomplished all their goals and were unable to perform further, so they dressed and went out for dinner.

Did you read the whole paragraph? If you did, I’m surprised. Did you find yourself riveted? Did it draw you deep into the story or increase your fascination with either character? Did it make you need to read on? No on all counts, I would guess. And why? Because I intentionally wrote it without specifics, and the effect is ludicrous.

Personally, I would skip this scene in a blink––the literary equivalent of hitting the candy counter with my buddies––and probably toss the book aside.

I guarantee you won’t suffer such a fate, however, if you make sure your love scenes have specific, dynamic story values. If, that is, they reveal, through action, something essential or surprising about either character or situation or, at best, both.

The most spectacular example I can think of occurs in the movie, The Crying Game (if you’ve seen it you’ll know what I mean). But good literary sex doesn’t have to be shocking or extreme – all sorts of less sensational but well-crafted erotic moments occur in the best stories.

What are your favorite love scenes? See if you can figure out why.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Greta James September 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Thanks for the tips! I plan to keep this blog.

I’ve only written one sex scene…with humor! However, it does meet your criterion of revealing something new about one of the characters.

2 CC December 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm

I recently wrote a sex scene and was told that it was vulgar yet I didn’t use a single euphemism/clinical name or fall into the trap of words like “moist” or “heave.” How do you write the truth about sex in a sex scene without being a little vulgar. Shouldn’t make you blush? DH Lawrence was definitely more than vulgar, made you blush, and is considered a great. I know bad when I see it, but what the hack is good?

3 Bill Henderson December 2, 2009 at 8:13 am

CC, I’d ask who told you it was vulgar. Terms like “vulgar” are value judgments that say more about the user than about the writing. I think it’s helpful to ask, without moral judgement, if the sex scene, as written, reveals a level of character we haven’t seen, adds or deepens a plot element. Are its terms or images explicit for a reason–and can you say what that is? If you can’t find answers to these questions, THEN you might have a problem. Otherwise, I’d look for more helpful critics.

4 Chiyosen March 22, 2012 at 11:49 pm

I’m trying to be a writer and so I knew that in order to enhance my writing skills I’d at some point along the line have to write a sex scene. Thank you for these amazing tips! At first I thought I should just wait to have sex but then realized (it will never happen? ;A; ) that I shouldn’t put a limit on what I write and when.
I have to say that what you said here “Make sure the description of what the lovers do isn’t a collection of generic, off-the-shelf “moves,” rendered in cliche phrases we’ve all read a million times. ” was the best advice I’ve ever received on writing love scenes! It was true! “Do what the character would do!” Not “what the reader expects you to do!” Thank you for the advice!

5 Bill Henderson March 23, 2012 at 12:25 am

And thanks for the comment! Glad to be of help.

6 Henry Harris April 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Oh come on. Let’s do a reality check. Authors put sex in a novel because people like to be turned on and it sells novels. The trick is to do it with class. It’s no different than describing a rose on a summer’s eve. You want your reader to remember the smell of a rose because it reminds him or her what it feels like to be human. Sex is no different. The only difference is the Puritans didn’t tell us that smelling roses is sinful.

7 Bill Henderson April 18, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Let’s see, I thought my post was about how (and how not) to write a sex scene the classy way, so that readers will long remember how authentically turned on they were by it. Where do we disagree?

8 Ken Hughes May 27, 2012 at 9:07 am

Absolutely agree, Character Revelation, Consequences, and not-too-familiar Showing Details are key– just as they are with bringing any other scene to life. Sex scenes are different more in that some writers think they don’t need those basics (and that some readers love or hate them whether the craft is right or not).

9 Jamie Cagle January 2, 2013 at 11:38 am

I have just written my first sex scene and wished I had researched how to before actually writing it. I am a very shy/modest person so I found the scene difficult to write. I needed it to be visual and fairly detailed because it plays into why my main character is who she is. I find myself trying to find random internet people to read it over because I am afraid to send it to friends. Do you ever get over the awkwardness of people you know reading your work?

10 Bill Henderson January 4, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Jamie, I would guess your friends, certainly your parents, aren’t likely to be experienced enough fiction readers to give you helpful feedback in general. Further, where sex scenes are concerned, their own moral preconceptions will color their reactions. You should probably stick to professional readers or perhaps join a writing group where your readers will be, like you, trying to make their fiction as strong as possible. As for the writing, certainly you need to be explicit enough to bring the scene to life for a reader. But if you concentrate on the three areas I sketched out in my post, these actual details will take their place in the larger context, that of telling your story well. The good news is that the more confident a writer you become the less you will care what ANYBODY but your reader is going to think.

11 Teano January 15, 2013 at 7:05 am

Hi,

First off, thanks for running this blog as it already answered some of my questions. This was pretty helpful for the (fanfic) novel I’m writing on DeviantArt. I read it *after* I uploaded my latest chapter, which contained a sex scene, but it was still helpful.

I don’t have any problems with writing about sex, I mean, since I write Fantasy, there’s the odd decapitation, dismemberment, and other forms of violence going on… so I don’t see how sex should be ‘worse’ or excluded when all of that simply gets glanced over.

I *have* read books where the sex bothered me though. I don’t like it when the sex is gratuitous, cheap, or downright vulgar, but here, I simply thought it could help the story.

I thought about including it for a while first, thought maybe I could have two versions of the chapter (one censored one) but in the end I thought why bother. My only real problem was that, due to the nature of the story, the sex scene might have just fallen out of the sky for many readers (well, it would have if they weren’t spoiled by the mature content filter). Of course, I like to surprise my readers.

Due to activating that mature content filter, however, I’ve received only 2 views since yesterday… which means people didn’t even bother to see what there was to read before they decided they were not going to read because of the filter. Not that I mind the view count so much (I write mostly for my own enjoyment) but I like getting feedback and think it’s a little bit sad that so many people would shy off when they see anything along the lines of ‘warning: sex!’

I tried to have the sex(ual acts) and mostly the manner in which they’re done (who is in control would be one thing) be a metaphor for the character’s relationship (it seems to make sense to me). The metaphor is not very obvious, but I’ve noticed things don’t have to be completely obvious to seep into the back of the reader’s mind and give him the message he needs to see even if he doesn’t completely realize it himself.

So, I ‘checked’ my scene for your three points, and this is what came up:

* Revealing things about characters: We learn that Irewyth (the girl) is scared and feels alone (she’s the only woman in pretty much an entire fleet), both things she hasn’t given an indication of before. The problem is, however, that Llorrin (the main character) is very unsure about whether or not she’s being sincere, or simply trying to manipulate him. Even though he’s physically attracted to her, he feels bad for ‘giving in’ to her (she refused him before and he’s angry at her for it. Even though he already gave her what she wanted, which is the authority to deal with a brewing mutiny before it rears its head, he suspects her engaging in sex with him is still a way of making sure she has control over him later. Of course, it’s better for his ego to think this isn’t the case. It’s a running theme in the story that he never really knows what she’s thinking, what her intentions and reasons for doing things are.

* Consequences: Irewyth writes the sex off as simply ‘something they both needed’ and doesn’t see it as the start of a relationship, while Llorrin becomes aware he was unable to resist her. Moreover, if word of them having sex gets out, their ‘cover’ may be blown (their cover being that everyone thinks they’re angry at each other and couldn’t possibly share the same goal, which is quelling the (supposed) mutiny. If Irewyth takes care of it it’d put Llorrin out of the wind and would not make him seem like a tyrannical leader, since Irewyth, in the crew’s eyes, has no cause to help him unless she thought it was for a very good reason. One problem they’re facing is that they have no proof of the mutiny, it’s just that a friend of Irewyth heard whispers).

A hint of her cruel nature is also shown during the sex, though, of course, it can also be interpreted as her being passionate. However, this cruelty will be confirmed in the way she deals with the mutiny… Note that, when Llorrin promises not to stop or punish her, he still asks her to be discrete and only use force if it’s absolutely necessary… he’s hoping she’ll take care of it subtly.

• Cliché phrases: Not sure about this one. It could be bad, or maybe not, but I think I may have put enough sentences in about what the characters are thinking and feeling rather than just their ‘actions’ to avoid this. In a series of novels I read, these thoughts usually went back to earlier sex scenes, becoming things like ‘she knew he had always been able to make her come like this.’ I avoided stuff like that, too.

In short, I think the scene didn’t do my novel much good (so far), especially since readers weren’t expecting it at all, but I think they’ll get over it in the end, once they get past the initial surprise and once the later chapters reveal its meaning better, let’s say. Well I hope so. I just don’t think I should write my story differently from how I want it to be simply because I think more people would more easily cope with it…

12 Bill Henderson January 16, 2013 at 11:01 am

Teano, without seeing it I couldn’t comment on your scene. But you seem to be thinking along the right lines, and I certainly agree with your last sentence. As for the Mature Content Filter question, I’m not sure that should apply, since an appropriate sex scene isn’t pornography. Maybe you should not be writing your novel on DeviantArt, but look at some of the other fanfic forums instead. Surely if “the odd decapitation, dismemberment, and other forms of violence” were okay before you turned on the filter, a little literary sex shouldn’t make the gatepost come down.

13 James January 17, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I have written several “scenes” some more sexual in nature than others, but in my experience, it is best to leave as much as possible to the imagination of the reader as possible. I also almost always write from first person, so there is only the thoughts of the protagonist and their observations of the others, so within that limit, as it were, it usually fits the criteria as it at least reveals something about the vpc, and hopefully moves the story forward.

In my work that which doesn’t move the story forward, is dead weight, so although it might have made the first draft, it wouldn’t make the second. Often I over write the first draft, and by the second it is a much different story than what it started as, so lots of scenes can be deleted.

I don’t know about others, but to me, there are three things important to the story, the character (as I said I almost always write first person), the story (plot you might say), and maybe most important, the scene, for a good plot with a good character can shine in any scene to a degree, but a great scene can support an ordinary plot, and bring out the best of a mediocre character.

Well that’s just my opinion anyway.

14 Bill Henderson January 18, 2013 at 11:14 am

Partial agreement, James. Good scenes are necessary, yes, but it’s hard to make good plots from mediocre characters > ordinary plots. The bottom line for a good scene is that makes readers care enough to read on. It’s hard to give a damn about what happens to characters you don’t care about. I would only agree if the scene’s PURPOSE is to deepen or otherwise enrich character knowledge.

15 Katja Kaine (creator of the Novel Factory and aspiring novelist!) January 22, 2013 at 6:14 am

I read the whole paragraph! But it was much more amusing in that deadpan format than it would have been written ‘normally’.

For me, this article was one where after I’d read it, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known that before. It was so obvious, I never figured it out.

That makes perfect sense, that sex scenes have to have a point and forward the plot, but so often, they are just crowbarred in for random reasons unrelated to the story.

There are some sex scenes in Woken Furies (Richard Morgan), and now I realise why they stood out as being the best I’ve read. It wasn’t that they were sexy (though they were), it was that they showed intriguing elements of characters and raised further questions about what makes us who we are.

Thanks for the insights!

16 Bill Henderson January 22, 2013 at 11:26 am

And for some reason, it’s usually the language doing the crowbarring. Writers who are good about evoking the specifics of place and moment, too often lose it with sex, reverting to the same old cliched words and phrases that we laugh at in parodies.

17 belle May 12, 2013 at 7:24 am

I feel like my previous sex scenes were over the top. I didn’t use vulgar words or cliches, but something about previous scenes have made me cringe whenever I’ve looked back at them. There may be one I like, or a moment where it was almost perfect but I am a perfectionist. I’m working on a story at the moment with a friend where we’re been holding off the sex part for a looong time. It look the two knuckleheads forever and a day to pluck up the courage to admit their feelings for each other anyway, so, they’re only now just waking up to it – their sexual repressed desires for each other. It’s a fine line, because you’ve spent so much time building it up, when it eventually happens… you don’t want it to be over the top. I mean you want it so be emotionally stirring and hopefully beautiful. I think I prefer the balance between revealing and implied. I think writing sex comes down to an art form to be honest. It’s gotta be just right.

18 Bruce Brodowski May 28, 2013 at 10:59 am

I am a self published christian author of three books of which “A Journey to Heaven” is now the Indie Excellence Book Award Winner for 2013. I am also in ministry to help people heal from childhood emotional wounds. I write christian creative nonfiction and am working on my next book “How to Heal Your Childhood Emotional Wounds with God’s Love” from my own personal experiences. Our childhood emotional wounds mold us into the adult we become. I need to write about failed experiences of coming of age in nonexplicit language. Sexual experiences that destroy a teenagers confidence because he always orgasms in his underwear before he can get his zipper down. This leads into development of an adult man that feels inadequate and can never satisfy a woman. It totally affects his ability to engage with woman and have successful relationships. He is now a total failure in his mind, unloved, unlovable, a misfit, with low self esteem. This in turn affects every other aspect of his life. His job, his relationships with other people, etc. I just don’t know how to write it. Suggestions?

19 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 6:49 am

Whenever I sit down and try to write something, after a few chapters I always come across this block. I have the desire to put some sort of sex scene into it, but it always comes out as either choppy, cliche, too vulgar fot my Christian heart, or all of the above. Whenever I ignore the desire to put the sex scene in, the story itself becomes choppy and I quickly loose interest in it, and it ends up in file 13. I don’t get how to make my own sex scenes. Piers Anthony is good at it, but even his way is too Vulgar for me. It seems I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Any ideas?

20 Robyn Barnett December 12, 2013 at 6:54 am

I’m trying to write a book at the moment, and i’ve got up to a chapter where the woman has just kissed her psychologist. However, i really do not know where to progress from thi one sentence. This is my first book that i have ever written, and i have found everything pretty easy to write about. This love scene is the tricky part though. I have seen articles where writers say to ‘bring in your own experiences’ but i have no experience of any kind of ‘love scenes’. Here is what i have written at the moment:

“It’s you,” I said daringly, “can’t you tell?” I paused, took a deep breath, and carried on. “You’re seriously attractive, and your touch sends shivers down my spine. It’s like electric, only brighter and fiercer.” I looked down abruptly, ashamed of my forwardness. All of a sudden, I heard a soft rumble, a feral growl almost, and I lifted my head up, curious and puzzled, only to gasp in shock. His face was inches apart from mine, eyes focussed on my parted lips. My gaze dropped to his peach lips, enticingly and temptingly close. His hands rose slowly and rested gently on my flushed cheeks. Desire exploded in my stomach, and I took the lead, brushing my lips against his. No response. I drew back. ‘Oh Christ, why did I do it? He didn’t even want it, he didn’t…’ Suddenly, he groaned and pulled my lips to his in a burning kiss. ‘God’, he tasted like the sweetest wine and the spiciest meal mixed together in some poisonous concoction, and I leaned forward eager for more.

This is the part i got stuck with. I don’t know how to move on forward with the next sentence. Can you please help me?

21 Bill Henderson January 1, 2014 at 11:37 am

Robyn, it’s not a writing problem: you need to decide what happens next. Freewrite about the characters: what is the inner logic in both of them that has brought them to this point. Freewrite possible ways the scene might play. When you’re satisfied you’ve developed the knowledge you need, THEN write it.

22 Surya January 15, 2014 at 11:20 pm

So here’s the deal. I’ve never really written. Much. Mainly urged on by my own latent urge to break out from the hectic conundrum of everyday life and by a friend I’ve attempted a few.
What I’m stuck with is not a sex scene in a story rather as to how to write a short story on love. On escapism. Of two people’s mutual attraction that bind them in every possible aspect. Even physically.
I’ve have received advices telling me that in case of a sex scene minimalistic stuff is good. Going into the explicit details would somehow ruin the dynamic of the part.
However this is exactly the opposite of what I’m aiming at.
I want to paint a picture . Detailed. Defined. Sharp.
yet in no way come of cheesy or cheap.
I’d like if you could direct me to some quality writing.
Help me out please.

23 Bill Henderson January 27, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Examples of how others have done it often show you the way. The links on this Google search page may offer some ways to start sampling the best (and perhaps worst) of erotic writing, recent and not so recent–plus some of the critical thought behind the choices.

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