I promised some friends (and students) that I would talk about how one goes about writing a successful sex scene. There are a lot of theories about this–one school, for example, believes that a successful sex scene should titillate. (Do they believe a successful dinner scene should make you hungry? I write my dinner scenes for all sorts of reasons, and making people hungry is only occasionally one of them.)
Me, I believe that a successful sex scene should perform the functions of any other successful scene. It should advance the plot (by which I mean, introduce or resolve tension/conflict); it should illuminate theme; it should develop character; and it should establish setting and evoke mood (this is often shorthanded as “worldbuilding,” but as that’s a term specific to science fiction and fantasy, I try to avoid it–all worlds need to be built for the reader, after all, including our modern one, because Manhattan is not Krakatoa, and vice versa). That, and you have to get the arms and legs in the right places.
I know, it seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?
It is, really. A whole lot of work. But that’s pretty much writing in a nutshell. “If it were easy,” my writing partner Sarah Monette often says, “it wouldn’t be fun.”
You know, it might be fun. It might be a whole heck of a lot of fun. But probably nobody would pay us to do it.
So how do you write a good sex scene? Well, first, stop being intimidated by it. It’s just an action scene like any other action scene, and all this cultural freight and baggage we bring to it makes us crazy. So we overcomplicate. Ooops.
Okay, so it’s an action scene. It’s also a conversation, in that two (or more) characters are acting upon and reacting to one another.
So that gives us two starting points. It’s an action scene, and it’s a conversation. That’s two ways of managing the flow of information to the reader, which is really–in many ways–what storytelling is all about.
Well, it happens that there is another sort of scene which is both an action scene and a conversation.
The fight scene.
Curiously–or perhaps conveniently–fight scenes evoke many of the same complex emotions in readers and writers that sex scenes do. Writers fear them or love them; readers read for them–or skip them entirely, on the theory that nothing important happens during them.
I got news. If nothing important happens during your fight or sex scenes, they’re not doing any work, and they need to come out of the book–or they need to be put to work. They do not justify their own existence any more than any other kind of scene does. It’s not enough to just show up naked, despite what the old joke says–you have to do the job while you’re standing there with your pink bits hanging about.
Maybe that’s why sex scenes are so damned awkward….
Ahem. While I’m not suggesting that the proper way to write a sex scene is just to write a fight scene and then change the verbs–
–okay, actually, I am. Or more precisely, I’m suggesting that the same strategies apply to both.
Here are a few tactics that can help.
1) Figure out what the scene is doing and do it.
What is this scene doing in the book? What character development, thematic freight, or important revelation is buried in that sex scene? Why are we here watching this? Where’s the tension? Where’s the conflict?
Find that conflict, get in there, and exploit it.
2) For every action there is a reaction.
In a fight, or a conversation, or a sex scene, or an action scene, characters both act and react. They act out of their personal impulses and experiences; and they react based upon those personal impulses, the actions of the other people involved, and their deep-seated psychological trauma and trigger issues.
3) Keep it real
I don’t mean that every sex scene needs to be detailed at the level of tabs and slots, but it does mean that unless you are specifically writing erotica, it’s more convincing (and interesting) if a sex scene reflects the little triumphs and awkwardnesses of any human interaction. That in itself, if you stay true to character, will help with the issues of introducing tension and conflict–because people are always in conflict between what they want and what they need.
And nowhere is that more in evidence than when they want and/or need something very badly. Which is often the case in love as it is in war.