I tried to think of a, um, sexier title for this post than “Writing Sex Scenes,” but they all sounded, um, icky, and the last thing I want when I’m writing about sex is an ick factor. Writing about icky sex? Terrific. Writing icky about sex? Terrible.
When my first novel released in 2010, Pia Lindstrom, an interviewer from Sirius Radio, shocked me out of my I-can-handle-any-question mood when she asked something to the effect of:
“So, I was surprised by how much sex is in your book. You did it so well. People say it’s hard to write about sex. How did you do it?”
Writing sex scenes is about emotion
Now there was a question I hadn’t been asked before. Sex is included in my work, but before you run to the bookstore in hopes of getting a fun sex novel, buy something by Jackie Collins.
The sex I want to convey is the gritty emotional side of the bedroom; the stuff we hate to admit is true.
I had to answer Pia (and fast.) How did I write about sex?
By praying no one would ask me about it.
By telling myself that my husband knows I am not writing about him (except for the good parts, of course).
By realizing that writing about sex isn’t about insert Tab A into Slot B—it’s about the emotion behind the writhing.
By remembering what Elizabeth Benedict wrote in her wonderful book, The Joy of Writing Sex:
Benedict: A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but it is always an example of good writing.
Be impolite, but stay in the story
It’s easier to write about sex when it’s ‘bad,’ when the character is damaging herself through the act, or using sex as panacea or cover-up, than it is to write about good sex. Perhaps it’s a variation on Tolstoy’s famous aphorism about happy families vs. unhappy families. All fantastic sex is remarkably similar in how it lights up the brain, while “I gotta get through this somehow” sex is a textured way to reveal the problems in a relationship, which leads to Benedict’s next point:
Benedict: A good sex scene should always connect to the larger concerns of the work.
When writing about my main characters in The Murderer’s Daughters, sisters Lulu and Merry, I wanted to show them reacting in wildly divergent ways to the same trauma (the murder of their mother by their father). Naturally, their experiences of sexuality were defined by that horrendous act. If I wanted to reveal the ways they were affected by witnessing their mother’s death, I needed to go into their bedrooms, and not in a polite manner.
Benedict: The needs, impulses and histories of your characters should drive a sex scene.
It’s not your relationship—it’s your characters’
Most readers can tell when in a sex scene, the writer has stepped away from the character and inserted a boilerplate moment. It’s easy to understand why a writer might avoid writing deeply about sex. Nobody’s comfortable with the idea that readers who know them might think they are reading a page from the writer’s life.
Which means, if you want to be true to your reader in writing sex scenes, you have two choices. 1) Take the readers off your shoulder and be willing to go all the way (sorry about that—couldn’t resist) in revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, or, 2) Skip the sex and use the f a d e – o u t.
Benedict: The relationship your characters have to one another—whether they are adulters or strangers on a train—should exert more influence on how you write about their sexual encounters than should any anatomical detail.
Let’s not get clinical
Can I just say how much I hate clinical words in novels? I want writers to capture the inner monologue so well that there is only a very small space between character and reader. Thus, for me, the clinical terms leap out from a page as though the writer is shouting. It becomes a ‘look at me’ moment, rather than a ‘be in the character’ moment. Unless, of course, the character is a sex-ed teacher.
What goes on in a character’s mind as Tab A meets Slot B? Are they describing their partner’s body? That rarely happens in real life. In The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey, the following passage of a couple embarking on their first sexual encounter reveals the emotional and physical relationship of this particular couple without a single clinical detail:
From then on it was all haste and confusion. He undid a few buttons on her blouse and left her to manage the rest while he wrestled with his own clothes. She undressed quickly, eager to be hidden between the sheets. Edward, clumsy with his underwear, took a few seconds longer. Then he was beside her, the whole shocking length of him, and they were clinging to each other. It seemed to Dara that they were struggling to surmount some huge barrier—the barrier between not being and being lovers—and they must do whatever necessary to get over it.
From this passage, the reader immediately knows that Dara is not chasing an orgasm and that she is bringing to this encounter a truckload of emotional baggage.
Find the truth of the moment, even if it’s awful
One of the most difficult sex scenes I wrote in The Murderer’s Daughters was one where Merry, one of my two main characters, finally realized that her married lover is one more punishing mistake in her life, a scene which ended with these words:
“Quinn wrenched from me a sad orgasm born of friction and time, and then he came.”
Writing sex scenes with great sex is sort of like having great sex, I suppose—losing yourself in the truth of the moment, sometimes awful moments. Except when you’re writing, you get to go back and edit it until the moments are just exactly what you want. Writing The Comfort of Lies, I was challenged with writing desperate sex, good sex in a troubled marriage and then, in another marriage, bad sex as a harbinger of relationship troubles—all of it without getting weirdly clinical. In all cases, a very close third person helps, as in this scene from the supposed good marriage, as the problems the wife is trying to deny, break through:
The Xanax kicked in as Peter worked his way from Caroline’s lips to her neck. Making love could now move ahead with her body participating while her mind drifted.
Caroline made soft sounds of pleasure, trying to convey excitement that would hurry him over the edge. “Now,” she murmured. She wondered in whispering dirty words would hasten the act. Thinking about it, her throat closed as though she’d been inhaling dust.
She’d never been the dirty words sort.
Peter tightened his grip.
She’d once found him electrifying.
His breath warmed her neck.
Back then, she’d barely been able to survive two days without making love.
She squeezed her eyes against tears.
What I want from sex scenes—ones I write, ones that I read—are secret glimpses into the soul, which are possible only at our most vulnerable moments: when we break apart and when we come together. Sex is the time when those moments collapse into one. Use them, write them, wisely.