Fiction tips: How to write a sex scene

SEX scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. Even celebrated authors struggle to describe this basic, essential human behavior in ways that are actually sexy. Too often their best attempts still fall into the realm of the too cheesy, too flowery, too technical, too cold, or too . . . well, icky. Poorly written sex scenes in novels are so common that the Literary Review (U.K.) has an annual competition to award the worst sex scenes in literature. Here’s one winner:

“I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl. ‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

Arrrgh! This guy needs to get off the farm more often.

William F. Buckley called lovemaking episodes the “O.S.S.”—the Obligatory Sex Scene. Of course scenes that include sexual acts aren’t obligatory at all, but many writers include them nevertheless. You must decide whether such intimate activity should be shown to the reader (and how much you should show) or skipped altogether. Having two of your story people make love is a natural occurrence, and it could be a wonderful part of your reader’s experience. One can argue that a reader wants to escape the drabness of the world in a novel, where lovemaking is always perfect. But nowadays even romance novels shy away from anything perfect, including sex. Readers today are too sophisticated to believe in perfect sex, even as a fantasy. It’s better to create a sex life for your characters that seems real.

Sex scenes can help develop characters

On the plus side, sex scenes can give the writer an opportunity to deepen the characterization of someone or create a change in one or both participants or in their relationship. Such character-driven couplings serve a better purpose than trying to stimulate the libido. If the sex scene doesn’t reveal more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development and for the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does. If the rest of your story is written well, you won’t lose information by leaving out the scene. Remember that you can always refer obliquely to the lovemaking or have one of your characters think about it afterward.

My view on this subject is that less is more and that a writer can be explicit without being clinical—without sacrificing passion for physical details. I think a sex scene can be rendered effectively if the writer keeps the five senses in mind and strives for the sensual, the tactile, and the passionate, all of which target the heart. That’s what a writer should always do, because emotions are much more significant to a reader than ideas—or the graphic description of sexual gymnastics. If a writer can do no more than offer a standard-issue play-by-play of physical actions that are familiar to readers, then I’d rather see the writer stop short and go to a scene break, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination. One more thing: Don’t include multiple scenes of gratuitous sex with the hope of attracting readers unless you have embraced the dubious goal of writing another Fifty Shades of Grey.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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