Sexing Things UP

As a romance novelist, you’d think I’d be comfortable with the idea of sex scenes. I actually dread writing them.

It’s not that I don’t like sex. I do. But, writing about various sexual acts is a vastly different animal than participating in them. When I wrote SF, I tended to write a very strong romantic element, but I’d do a discrete “pan to the left” when it came down to the actual business of gettin’ it on. Now that my genre is romance, it’s rather expected that I describe the action. After all, for some people, that’s a large part of why they picked up the book in the first place.

I have a number of issues with sex scenes, and at least one of them *is* personal. The personal issue I have is that for some reason I’m one of those people who blushes easily. Luckily, my partner finds this charming, but it makes the writing out of the nitty-gritty more difficult. I’m grateful that I know how to touch type, because I actually have to look away from the screen while I’m typing certain events. I look pretty strange at coffee shops — blushing furiously and staring at the wall while my fingers dance on the keyboard.

The other reasons I have trouble with sex scenes are slightly more writerly.  Since I’m always fighting the impulse to meander, I work very hard to keep my novels moving forward — that is to say, I resist any scene that doesn’t serve the plot in some key way. And, sometimes I wonder what the point of sex scenes are.  I honestly think that the best sex scenes are anything but gratuitous. I read a great on-line resource about writing sex scenes that talked about this (20 Steps to Writing Great Love Scenes) and I was very impressed that the author of the article had the same concerns I did about gratuitousness. She suggested that, at the very least, a good sex scene should reveal something new about your characters.

The other issue I have is labeling. Ack, what do you call everything? We’ve all read those horrible novels where there’s a lot of “throbbing manhood” and the like. Nothing kicks me out of the moment more than nomenclature that’s either too harsh or too purplish in its prose. So, you have to find the words that fit, and, frankly, we all know the proper terms sound awfully clinical in a moment of passion. I’ve found terms that work for me, but they’re not perfect.

Plus, there’ the tricky business of preferences. I’m not talking about one’s orientaion (although for me that’s certainly a consideration,) but, like, what turns you on. I’m often worried that the stuff that turns me on, well, either isn’t printable, or would bore the heck out of the majority of my readers.

Also, I’ve discovered having run a few sex scenes through my critique group, there’s the issue of what consititues a sexual act for some readers. I’ve written long involved scenes that included nakedness, kissing, and things I consider “the deed” only to have my readers say, “Uh, but there was no SEX.” (Turns out I forgot a major male organ… see above issue with orientation.)

So, what do you do about sexing things up? Do you write sex scenes? What’s your opinion of them? Any advice?

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  1. 1. C. A. Bridges

    Personal favorites when it comes to sex scenes? Spider Robinson and Jennifer Crusie. Two different genres (science fiction and romance) but both authors center on what the people are doing to each other and not what their bits are doing. They use the scenes as you said, to reveal more about the characters and their relationships. And there are few more intense times for revelations or arguments or reapprochements than during sex.

    Crusie gets more into the details – her genre demands it – but she still avoids the specific terms in favor of overall sensations and discoveries.

  2. 2. elsie

    Heh, I have so much trouble with this that I added “learn to write a good sex scene” to my list of things to do at 43things. :) Still struggling with it …

  3. 3. dhc

    You are not alone. Neil Gaiman also writes in his blog that he has trouble with writing the more explicit bits. He states that he often opts to let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves. Other writers let someone else write the sex scenes since they are not comfortable doing it themselves.

    Granted, writing in the romance category requires some scenes involving sex, but I think it is important to not write erotica when you want romance.

    When Nora Roberts writes as J. D. Robb, she tends to place the characters together in an intimate situation (often the big, bouncy bed in Roake’s mansion), has one partner admire some aspect of the other (mouth, muscles, breasts, etc.) and then uses the dialog between the partners to carry the scene. No need to mention ‘throbbing anythings’ (although I am getting more than a bit tired of Roake’s one word of Gaelic and the ‘I want all of you/take me’ lines.)

    Do you really need to be explicit? I find the level of detail in, say, Laurel K. Hamilton’s works to be too much. Not that I am prudish about them but that they do not add anything to the story or the dimension of the characters. I find I become bored and flip to the end of the chapter so that I can get back to the real action (i.e. the story).

    I view sex scenes in the same light as nude scenes in a film. If the sex scene is required because some aspect of the story depends upon it, then you will need to be explicit enough to make your point, otherwise, the detail may just look like prurient fluff added to pad the word count.

  4. 4. Elf M. Sternberg

    If you listen to my fans, you’ll find that most of them believe I write nothing but sex scenes. (The common opinion is that my smut is too much for the mainstream, my plots too dense for smut, my writing to literary for popular SF, and too skiffy for the literary crowd.)

    Funny you should bring this up; the other day I was talking to some acquaintances about the difference between Annie Proulx and Laurell Hamilton. Proulx wrote “Brokeback Mountain,” and the sex scene in there is incredibly well-written, straightforward and (surprising for a story targeted at the New Yorker) blatant in its use of non-euphemisms. The scene has one metaphor: when Ennis grabs Jack’s hand and leads it to his crotch, it’s like Jack “touched fire,” and the scene proceeds from there with no euphemism or romanticism. On the other hand, Hamilton’s stuff has gotten more outrageous over the years in its metaphors and similes, it’s overwritten euphemisms, and so forth.

    So here’s my advice: if you find yourself waxing lyrical in a sex scene, it’s because you’ve lost interest in what the characters are doing. Euphemism, metaphor, and simile have their place, but if you find yourself struggling for a way to describe something so fundamental and human, it’s because you don’t have anything to say about how the characters feel, what they think, or what this scene means to the rest of the story, and instead you’re trying to distract your readers by wowing them with style.

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    I’ve always thought “throbbing manhood” sounded terribly painful. Not that I would know….

  6. 6. cyn

    i tend not to read any romance or erotica, but i do have a sexy scene in my first novel. i felt it challenged me as a writer and the scene most certainly wasn’t gratuitous. i’m with you on what to call things. i’m pretty straight forward (like that manhood! just kidding! haha!) and not too flowery.

  7. 7. Esther

    Most of the time I just don’t write sex scenes. I do have one story in which it was necessary to further the plot and for character development. Yeah, that felt weird to write. I blush easily as well. Luckily, that one story that requires sex scenes does not require them to be gratuitous. They’re kind of quick and mostly I just move the camera away and then fade back in afterwards, so to speak. Not much description, but I am not a very descriptive writer so it would not fit with my style if I suddenly went into extreme detail.

    I agree, sex scenes should reveal something about the character. Otherwise I find them boring and tend to skip them (as if they were long descriptions which I also tend to skip). Once they no longer help with character development I think they should no longer be in the story.

    Then again, I neither read nor write romance. So I can’t really speak for people who do.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Throbbing manhood? Bah. The simple anglo saxon words work best, if you ask me.

  9. 9. romblogreader

    For the blushing/uncomfortable issue, I’d recommend getting some of the raunchiest, most blush inducing prose you can find and setting aside some time (maybe ten or twenty minutes a few times a week) and forcing yourself to transcribe the words. Eventually, you’re going to get desensitized to it, and be more able to look at your prose with the cool, clinical eye you need.

    As for a question of orientation/what turns you on vs what turns readers on, I’d recommend trying to get out of the headspace of what turns *you* on, by focusing on what turns the POV character on in any given scene. Because, in the end, if the reader’s going to be turned on by a scene, it’s going to be because they’re identifying with the POV character, not you. And the more you can step out of your own ego/turn-ons/squicks and assume the role of the hero/heroine, get in touch with *their* arousal, you’re going to make the choices that resonate better with that, and in turn resonate better w/ the reader. A sex scene that turns you on isn’t necessarily going to turn the reader on. A sex scene that clearly turns your character on has got a better chance of doing that.

    As for the naming of the parts, I agree with one of the above commenters, good old fashion c0ck and/or d!ck work fine, IMHO, but whatever your POV character would call it is usually the best bet. However, you can get away without naming the thing a lot more than you think. You can write “She squeezed his erection through the front of his jeans, pulled it out, then started to stroke his cock.” Equally sexy/clear (IMHO), though, is “She squeezed the front of his jeans, and God, he was hard. She got his jeans open, underwear down and wrapped her fingers around all that smooth, hot skin and began to stroke.” Focusing on the sensations and making your choreography clear and you really don’t have to say c0ck or pu$$y that often.

    As for choreography, sometimes – to get things straight in my head logistically – I’ll let myself do a just-for-me, bare bones, blow by (heh) choreography run. “He kisses her for a while, then picks her up, puts her on the table, spreads her legs. Goes down on her until she’s yanking on his hair, then he climbs on top of her, d!ck goes in, faster than is comfortable, some thrusting, he comes first, then goes down on her again. She’s squicked by the mess, he doesn’t care, at the end she refuses to kiss him and they argue about that”

    the actual scene might run three pages, be from either POV, scary or sexy or whatever, but once you’ve got the … bare bones porno choreography for the thing clear in your head (with the basic points laid out, when does he get hard, when does she know this, what clothing comes off when, what goes in where when, who comes when) what you do with that particular act could go any number of ways, but at least you’ve got the action of the scene blocked out then.

    And a sex scene, really, is just another sort of action scene (IMHO.)

    Also, IMHO, what makes a sex scene is the orgasms (or at least the concerted effort to reach them), not whether his throbbing member is inserted into his love canal.

    Just my two cents. ;)

  10. 10. SteveG

    There’s a very funny scene in Joe Abercrombie’s second book, Before they Are Hanged (um, unless it was the first By The Blade Itself?) where the act is described only through dialogue. What makes it hilarious is that it’s really bad sex, the last two lines, after the two participants have been struggling to deal with buckles and rocks and what not, read something like:

    “What! You have to be kidding. We haven’t even started.”

Author Information

Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.



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