Sex scenes can be challenging for any writer. Aspiring novelists, especially, struggle with how much to tell and how to tell it.
Even a “sweet” or mildly sensual scene isn’t easy, and unabashed writers with no qualms about “open door” encounters find blazing-hot situations just as challenging.
Writing intimacy scenes takes skill, practice, and knowing what makes the good ones work. And setting a goal for the type of scene you want to portray is half the battle won.
Intimate Love Scenes Are Expected in the Romance Genre
By definition, romance novels center on relationship development. And that means some degree of physical attraction, no matter how chaste or intimate. It’s a normal part of the human experience, and a romance won’t be credible if the lovers never even hold hands.
Other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, young adult, and speculative fiction—any genre or hybrid, really—often weave a romantic relationship into the main plot, but it’s not required.
Sex Scenes Range in Degrees of Intimacy and Detail
I think of sex or romantic love scenes as sweet, sensual-spicy, or hot with varying degrees on the scales. Most authors and publishers categorize novels and specific scenes in similar terms.
Sweet love scenes
In the strictest sense, “sweet” means profanity isn’t used, and physical intimacy is limited to hand-holding and perhaps a stolen kiss or two. At the other end, a few mild swear words, a long kiss, warm hugs, or a subtle suggestion of deeper involvement may be included. The relationship’s development in a sweet novel, however, depends on emotional rather than sexual bonding.
Other terms for sweet include “clean” and “wholesome.” I don’t prefer them, however, because they suggest that sexuality is dirty, unclean, or unwholesome, and that’s just not true. Nevertheless, every writer should write what they’re comfortable with, just as readers read within their comfort zone or according to their beliefs.
Sensual-spicy sex scenes
Sensual-spicy means romance may be passionate, but it relies more on metaphors or hints, after-the-fact evidence, and emotional reactions rather than graphic details.
On the tame end, if the lovers head for the bedroom after a glass of wine and a long kiss, it’s a fade out, and the doors are closed. On the spicy side, the relationship’s consummation might be lengthy and somewhat explicit, but it’s not a main focus.
The Twilight Saga is a good example of a sensual-spicy love story, especially in several scenes that take place in the final book of the series.
Less is more.
On Bella and Edward’s island honeymoon, for example, the drawn-out anticipation sets the stage. Finally, undressed and holding hands under a full moon, they’re waist deep in the waves and exchange a few words before Edward leads her to “deeper water.” And the lights go out.
In the next scene, the following morning, we learn that Edward has destroyed the furniture and pillows, while Bella is “totally and completely blissed out” albeit bruised by Edward’s superhuman strength. She’s pleased by how they “fit together like corresponding pieces, made to match up.” Not a word is mentioned about sex—a young reader won’t realize what’s going on, exactly—but when I read it, I thought, “Wow. Pretty freaky for a first time!”
Later, Bella begs Edward for sex, though not in so many words. He’s refused to touch her after the first time for fear of hurting her. But he gives in, it’s a fade-out, and the next morning Bella’s shredded black lingerie and more destruction are evidence once again of exactly what took place.
Another scene takes place near the end of the four lengthy novels. This scene is technically explicit, but the tame, subtle language makes it easy to miss without a close reading. In fact, I don’t recall any reviewer mentioning sex at all—and I read a lot of reviews—but it’s there from the beginning. And it’s a great example of how to write a sex scene without going overboard on the language or worrying what your mother or friends might think.
Hot sex scenes
These can be explicit but tasteful, detailed but restrained. The doors may be wide open, and specific acts and body parts might be mentioned. The scene may be erotic, but unless similar scenes are a main focus with less focus on other aspects of the plot, the novel itself is simply a hot romance.
Erotica and porn
Briefly, erotica exists within the same framework as any romance novel. The sexual aspects of the relationship, however, play a dominant role in character and plot development. Fifty Shades of Grey fits into this category as does Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy.
Porn, on the other hand, places the emphasis wholly on the sex with a plot that simply provides a framework and timeline.
Writing Effective Romantic Love and Sex Scenes
Less is more, even if you’re writing a super-hot, wildly sexy story. According to Jessi Rita Hoffman, a writer, editor, and writing coach, one of the most common problems is “the flaw of excess.” That’s a typical issue for many writers, but it can mean disaster in a love scene.
Skip the adjectives and adverbs as much as possible.
His big, deep-blue eyes bore right down to the very deepest sanctuary of her soul as his warm, full red lips pressed against her own and caused a shiver to spread over her skin.
This might be what you see in your imagination as you write, but let your readers imagine, too.
His dark eyes penetrated her soul as he pressed his warm lips against hers. She shivered.
Think reaction over action.
Focus on the emotions, the sensations, and the characters’ thoughts for more impact instead of describing the action in detail. One short, sweet kiss can become a lengthy passage that builds suspense and keeps the tension going with a focus on the emotional response.
Here, from Eclipse, the third book in The Twilight Saga, is a good example.
His golden eyes were smoldering, just inches away, and his breath was cool against my open lips. I could taste his scent on my tongue.
I couldn’t remember the witty response I’d been about to make. I couldn’t remember my name.
He didn’t give me a chance to recover.
Your characters are human with all the flaws and imperfections that everyone has. Sex scenes aren’t perfect in real life, and they don’t need to be in fiction, either. Awkwardness, embarrassment, hesitancy, humor, worry, and silliness are all a part of life.
When it suits the characters or situation, don’t hesitate to let someone get a leg cramp during a first kiss, burp accidentally, fall off a sofa, or spill wine on someone’s lap. Misunderstandings happen, too, and how the characters work them out (or not) reflects their personalities and relationship growth.
Think simple language and choose terms carefully.
I enjoy reading well-written, interesting novels with almost any intimacy level. As a teenager and young adult, I read countless steamy historical romances, but at one point I thought, “If I see “male member” one more time, I’m done!”
Whatever you do, don’t choose vocabulary that you’re comfortable with or the style you would use personally. Choose what your characters would use. For practice, try writing a scene in which a character describes the intimate experience to his or her best friend. Would they use specific terminology or only hint at what took place? Do they go into detail in other conversations? Follow their example.
In my own novel Colors, Autumn speaks seductively in French at one point of the only major sex scene. That’s not something I myself would do, though I do speak French, but it suits her character.
Think detail and what the story needs.
How far do you want to go? What kinds of details? If you’re writing a sweet romance, the rules keep you in check. But sensual-spicy and hot love scenes offer plenty of leeway, so write what the story needs.
In Colors, the relationship and physical attraction between Autumn and her chef, Jory, is only slightly less important than the main plot. And although Autumn has filed for divorce, they’re avoiding physical intimacy until her divorce is final.
Despite a few slips, they maintain their celibacy commitment, but as their relationship deepens, tension builds. And when they finally come together, it’s a big deal. It has to be. With all the suspense and frank discussion that leads up to that moment, a fade-out would be disproportionate and a disappointment to readers.
A Final Note: You Don’t Want to Win the Bad Sex in Fiction Award
The best way to learn how to write well is to read what skilled writers have written. That includes sex and romantic love scenes whether they’re sweet or blazing hot.
Take a close look at love scenes in popular novels and best sellers that match your preferred intimacy level. Take notes on length, details, language, realism, emotions, and reactions. What makes it effective—or not? What doesn’t appeal to you?
And take notes on poorly written sex scenes. What’s the main problem? Try re-writing a few and see what you come up with. Here’s an example:
Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone. — from Morrisey in List of the Lost
Finally, take a look at some of the winners (including Morrisey, above, in 2015) of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Most are explicit, but they demonstrate what to avoid in your own love scenes. And some are just plain funny!
Make sure your sex or romantic love scenes are a different kind of winner.
What do you think makes a sex scene bad? Comments are open!
This article first appeared at DKDeters.com.