Question 48: Sex scenes

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peetas_bread asks: How do you write sexual scenes? I'm fine with writing them, but how do I lead into them? And how do I not make it too weird and awkward and unrealistic?


Those of you who are squeamish about sexual content may want to skip this chapter. I won't be writing anything inappropriate here, but this whole chapter will be about writing sex scenes. There will be some examples. Please be comfortable with this topic before reading on. If you aren't allowed to read Mature content, please skip this chapter.


Build Up Tension

What makes a good sex scene satisfying is building up the sexual tension before it. The wanting-but-not-having. The need to hold yourself back from doing what you really want. I've read books that built up this tension for numerous chapters! Here are some examples of tension-building:

- Looking at someone longer than is appropriate. Not in a creepy way. Like, you realize you're staring and then look away quickly.

- Imagining the naughty things you could be doing, then remembering why you shouldn't.

- Lingering touches while doing innocent things.

- Feeling your body reacting to another person, but unable to act upon it.

- Saying something innocent, then realizing the double entendre.

- Missing things that are being said because you're too busy thinking about someone's body parts.

Lead Up To It

Our thoughts often get in our way. Animals have no such problems because they are ruled by instinct. If they wanna hump something, they get right on it! Humans, on the other hand, put up a lot of barriers. We think about appropriate behavior, or what the sex might mean, or are fearful about consequences.

Writers need to remember that the whole song and dance leading up to the actual sex act is overcoming these barriers. We have to nudge our way through them, to the point where lust can finally take over and we just do it. How long this takes or how much effort it requires depends on the character. Conservative or timid characters may need a lot of coaxing, while carefree spirits may not have any reservations at all.

The important thing is the character has to be comfortable with what's going on. Let's say we have a guy who drops his pants and crooks his finger at his girlfriend in a come-hither manner. How does she react? A timid girl might giggle uncomfortably and not move. A conservative girl might hide her eyes at the sight and demand what he's doing. A curious girl might just stand there staring at his boy parts. A bold girl might say, "Hell yeah" and drop her pants too.

Get Comfortable With It

For consensual sex to take place, both sides need to be on board with it. A big part of working toward a sex scene is getting the characters comfortable with intimacy. Maybe they start by watching a movie on a couch. As the movie progresses, maybe they start scooting closer together. Their thighs touch. They start thinking about other body parts touching. One hand strays across to stroke the other's leg.

Things need to progress at a natural pace, according to each character's comfort level. If the hand strays too far up one's thigh and the person suddenly tenses up, the comfort is gone, and the other person has to start over with winning back the comfort.

Getting It On

Let's say your characters have worked through their barriers, and are finally letting lust take over. Some of what happens next is instinctual. We know to take the clothes off. We want to touch skin and press our bodies up against each other. Lots of groping. The urgency of these actions depends wildly on the circumstance and the personalities involved.

Timid characters will take longer to get over the embarrassment of being naked. Bolder characters will rip their clothes off without hesitation. Touches may be hesitant and exploratory, or they may be possessive and demanding. Think about what matches with each character's personality to make it feel more realistic.

Naughty Details

The amount of detail that goes into describing the sex depends on what the author and their readers prefer. Some books are vague and brief, while others go into pages of explicit detail. When deciding what you want to do, think about what the purpose of the scene is. Is it to note the next step of a relationship, like in a YA story? Or is it to enhance sexy imagination, like in romance novels? Or is it all about inciting desire, like in erotica? What is the statement this scene is making? Thinking about this statement will help you focus on what sexual details the scene needs. Examples:

- After being a virgin for so long, I am finally going to lose it! (Focus on the novelty, the new sensations, the awkwardness, and pain if any.)

- We're taking this relationship to the next level. (Focus on the increased closeness, the adoring touching, and even the admiration of body parts.)

- We've been aching to jump each other's bones for weeks. (Go all out with the legs wrapping around and kisses trailing everywhere.)

Explicit Words

When I read my first x-rated romance novel (books don't actually have X ratings, but you know what I mean) what made it stand out from less steamy books was the language. Consider these two phrases:

He pushed and groaned.

He pressed the tip of his erection against her core, teasing before thrusting in with a groan.

The first line is fine, and gets the point across with generalized language. The second one goes into explicit detail, directly referencing body parts and actions. The more specific you are about body parts and what they do with them, the more "taboo" and "naughty" it is. It's basically word porn. Some people like it this steamy. Others are uncomfortable with it and prefer less explicit language. Think about what is appropriate for your story (and your audience) and be consistent.

Have a Purpose

Only erotica has sex scenes for the sake of having sex scenes. They are the whole purpose of erotica. Most other stories use sex scenes for a purpose. To titillate sometimes, yes, but also to advance the story. If a sex scene doesn't advance the story in some way, then reconsider why it's even there.

Read Romance Novels

You'll learn a lot about what kind of sex scenes are appropriate by reading examples that have already been published. Some are sweet, others are steamy, and still others are a charming combination of the two. Get a sense of what works by reading as much as you can. Then you'll have a better idea of how to write your own.

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