Sunday, June 30, 2013

Thinking Sex

Romances need sex: either up to where the H/H slip into the bedroom and close the door, or coitus complete-us. Writing emotionally-satisfying sex scenes is a personal goal, so I searched for some good advice.

HOW TO WRITE SEX SCENES    Copyright 2012 Diana Gabaldon

A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids. That being so, it can encompass any emotion whatever, from rage or desolation to exultation, tenderness, or surprise.
Lust is not an emotion; it’s a one-dimensional hormonal response. Ergo, while you can mention lust in a sex-scene, describing it at any great length is like going on about the pattern of the wall-paper in the bedroom. Worth a quick glance, maybe, but essentially boring.

So how do you show the exchange of emotions? Dialogue, expression, or action—that’s about the limit of your choices, and of those, dialogue is by far the most flexible and powerful tool a writer has. What people say reveals the essence of their character.

_“I know once is enough to make it legal, but…” He paused shyly.
“You want to do it again?”
“Would ye mind verra much?”
I didn’t laugh this time, either, but I felt my ribs creak under the strain.
“No,” I said gravely. “I wouldn’t mind.”_

Now, you do, of course, want to make the scene vivid and three-dimensional. You have an important advantage when dealing with sex, insofar as you can reasonably expect that most of your audience knows how it’s done. Ergo, you can rely on this commonality of experience, and don’t need more than brief references to create a mental picture.

You want to anchor the scene with physical details, but by and large, it’s better to use sensual details, rather than overtly sexual ones. (Just read any scene that involves a man licking a woman’s nipples and you’ll see what I mean. Either the writer goes into ghastly contortions to avoid using the word “nipples”—“tender pink crests” comes vividly to mind—or does it in blunt and hideous detail, so that you can all but hear the slurping. This is Distracting. Don’t Do That.)

So how _do_ you make a scene vivid, but not revoltingly so? There’s a little trick called the Rule of Three: if you use any three of the five senses, it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional. (Many people use only sight and sound. Include smell, taste, touch, and you’re in business.)

_The road was narrow, and they jostled against one another now and then, blinded between the dark wood and the brilliance of the rising moon. He could hear Jamie’s breath, or thought he could—it seemed part of the soft wind that touched his face. He could smell Jamie, smell the musk of his body, the dried sweat and dust in his clothes, and felt suddenly wolf-like and feral, longing changed to outright hunger.
He wanted._

In essence, a good sex scene is usually a dialogue scene with physical details.

_”I’ll give it to ye,” he murmured, and his hand moved lightly. A touch. Another. “But ye’ll take it from me tenderly, a nighean donn.”
“I don’t want tenderness, damn you!”
“I ken that well enough,” he said, with a hint of grimness. “But it’s what ye’ll have, like it or not.”
He laid me down on his kilt, and came back into me, strongly enough that I gave a small, high-pitched cry of relief.
“Ask me to your bed,” he said. “I shall come to ye. For that matter–I shall come, whether ye ask it or no. But I am your man; I serve ye as I will.”_

And finally, you can use metaphor and lyricism to address the emotional atmosphere of an encounter directly. This is kind of advanced stuff, though.

_He’d meant to be gentle. Very gentle. Had planned it with care, worrying each step of the long way home. She was broken; he must go canny, take his time. Be careful in gluing back her shattered bits.
And then he came to her and discovered that she wished no part of gentleness, of courting. She wished directness. Brevity and violence. If she was broken, she would slash him with her jagged edges, reckless as a drunkard with a shattered bottle.
She raked his back; he felt the scrape of broken nails, and thought dimly that was good–she’d fought. That was the last of his thought; his own fury took him then, rage and a lust that came on him like black thunder on a mountain, a cloud that hid all from him and him from all, so that kind familiarity was lost and he was alone, strange in darkness._
Like that.

3 Secrets for Writing a Good Sex Scene


Lots can be said about how to write about love, specifically how to write a good sex scene–and Elizabeth Benedict has written an excellent guide, The Joy of Writing Sex – but my general advice boils down to 3 points:
• Make sure the scene reveals something about the characters we didn’t know before. An awkward truth is revealed in the heat of the moment.
• Make sure the scene, or something in it, has consequences down the line, complications that one or both of them must face. The characters’ relationship is altered. Emotions are enhanced or altered, causing unforeseen consequences.
• Make sure the description of what the lovers do isn’t a collection of generic, off-the-shelf “moves,” rendered in cliche phrases we’ve all read a million times.
Sex is actually a great way to reveal character, if you approach it that way: a man reveals his inherent cruelty, or his lack of confidence, or his sexual confusion. A woman reveals her hidden hunger, or fear, or an unexpressed need to dominate, or be dominated.
These got me to thinking: A soldier would think of sex, approach sex, have sex in different terms than a housewife or a gardener or a surgeon or a librarian. Making and having a list of character-specific soldier terms (or housewife terms, etc.,) could be helpful for love scenes. 

An awkward, angry, or emotionally wounded soldier: rammed into her like a firing M-16 in battle, quick, hard, uncaring, part of him waiting for the cry that let him know he'd hit target, that he'd touched the part of her she'd been hiding, protecting all these years. 

A gardener could describe foreplay on the page in terms of preparing to hand-pollinate female cucumber blossoms with a soft-bristled brush. 

Passion could prompt a neat-freak housewife to abandon her normal care that the bedcovers and sheets will get mussed up. 

A forty-something, single librarian studies images in erotic books in the restricted section before the midnight closing time, when old Fred Bevill snoozes, as usual, over the latest Field and Stream magazine  and this year's crop of high school juniors with past-due school papers frantically punches buttons on the copy machine.

The hand surgeon--would she be precise in her thoughts or movements? Would she think in terms that name specific tendons or ligaments? Feel the blood pounding? Be clinical until she allows herself to let go and let her body do the 'thinking' for her?

My ah-ha: the character thinks in specific terms for her/his life. S/he would "live" lovemaking in those terms. 


  1. Must admit I'm giggling slightly as I wonder how my veterinary surgeon would approach sex!
    The best advice I heard about writing sex scenes is to write what you're comfortable with - and don't think about anybody (least of all your mother or daughter) reading it!

  2. Awesome post Ana.

    It's usually pretty easy to write the mechanics part of a sex scene, but it takes a bit more work to turn it into an emotional love scene.

    Your three key points are keepers! Thanks!

    Paula, I definitely try NOT to think about what my mom would say about a scene such as this when I'm writing it! :)

  3. Me, too, Debra. I was fearful for two years over what my mom would say if she knew I'd written a love scene. Then she started reading romances. No blushing anymore.

  4. My mother only read my early 'sweet' (i.e. very chaste) novels. Not sure what my daughters make of my current ones! Neither have made any comments about the bedroom scenes. I did wonder what some of my friends would think - but it seems they like them. I'll have to tell them they'll have to wait until Chap 19 in the new one instead of Chap 11 or 12 (as in previous novels) - LOL!

  5. The funny thing is, I've been reading romance since high school. I just hooked my mom about ten years ago.

  6. I have a very hard time trying to forget that people I know are going to be reading this. But the funny thing is, the more I write, the more graphic my sex scenes get. But they go with the characters and the story. I think the scene has to be organic to the story. It can't just be put in for no reason and there has to be emotion connected to it. I'm not sure if the profession of the person matters, but the type of person certainly does. So for example, a person who works with his hands will "feel" a lot more than a person who is musical--they will "hear" things. The metaphors can change as well.

  7. I think you are right, Jen. Some people are defined by their profession. Other people by their sensory type.