12 April 2012

How to Write a Sex Scene

There are two things I should confess before diving in to this subject. I’m certainly no expert on writing sex scenes, so this is less of a structured how-to guide and more of my personal journey into being able to write them at all. Second, what started me on this quest was not even a sex scene. It was a hand job scene.

At a certain point I came to the realization that my book needed a little third base action. Dealing with the gradual progression of a physical relationship, it just seemed natural. Accepting this fact, however, was not nearly as hard as actually writing the scene. (I should have said difficult, I know.) Getting through every sentence was like pulling teeth. I spent days, weeks even, writing sentence by sentence and still not getting anywhere. The whole scene was just a choppy mess. So I tried to figure out why I was having so much trouble.

I have more or less been writing sex scenes since before I even had my first kiss. I say “more or less” because they all followed the same formula. Start with kissing, then some vague description of foreplay, immediately followed by the scene cut. You know, that blank space between paragraphs that serves as a white curtain shielding all the naughty bits. (Ever read Breaking Dawn? There’s a lot of this.) It’s not like the reader doesn’t know what’s going on in that space, either. We know the characters are fucking their brains out. Sometimes there’s a perfectly good reason for this—Breaking Dawn, for example, is a young adult book, not erotica. An explicit sex scene just wouldn’t be appropriate. But if you don’t have a valid reason for making that scene cut, why do it?

When I first wrote my current book as a short story, the sex scene was actually one of the first parts that I wrote, and I decided that I didn’t want it to be longer than a paragraph. I thought I was being clever, making the sex scene purposely vague. It would be obvious—by the time it finally happens in the story, it doesn’t really matter anymore to the narrator, so making it vague was some sort of plot device.

But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the vagueness as a copout. What was really stopping me was my own ignorance. What the hell did I really know about a relationship between two gay men? I felt like a stupid, naïve little straight girl who just likes to think about boys kissing.

I kept thinking, realizing that even that wasn’t the real issue. No, it went much deeper (yes, I realize what I just said, and no, I won’t apologize). Because every sex scene I had ever written had been just as vague. It wasn’t the characters. It was me.

I came to a realization. I had a problem with vulgarity. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t have a problem with swearing, not in real life or in a narrative. But when it actually came to describing sex—I was terrified! What made it even worse was that I was writing from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old boy. If it was a girl, I could get away with my usual flowery prose. I couldn’t even fathom using the sorts of words that I knew were needed to make these scenes sound even remotely realistic. If I couldn’t get past my discomfort, then this novel wasn’t going to work out.

I don’t know how the idea came to me. I realized that I had to go beyond my expectations, not just a hand job or a vaguely written sex scene. Even if those were my ultimate goals, I had to break myself completely in order to obtain them. I had to write something more explicit, more intense, so that I would never feel uncomfortable writing these scenes again. Suddenly the solution was very clear.

I had to write a full blown sex scene. And not just any sex scene. A gay sex scene.  

I know what you’re thinking. Does it have to be two guys? Why not just create some random man and woman whose lovemaking I could be some voyeur to? Two reasons. One, I couldn’t take any chance whatsoever that I would fall back onto my characteristic girly vagueness. So no girls allowed. Two, I had to make this scene the extreme of extremes of anything I was ever going to write. If it turned out tamer than what my hand job scene needed to be, then I would fail.

In order to embark on this quest, I had to first abandon my current work and head into an alternate universe. I still wanted to use the same characters but in some nonexistent future where by some miracle they get back together (I like happy endings and I fantasize, ok?). So, characters, check. Setting? Well, the bedroom, obviously. Check. The next step was just to write.

Now, this is me we’re talking about, so I knew I wasn’t going to be disgustingly graphic. But I was determined to be straightforward, get those words out that I was afraid to use. I kid you not, it took me five minutes to write “cock” for the first time. I did it letter by letter, with my eyes closed. It was just so awkward! I had never used these filthy words! But after that first one was over and done with, it became easier to write things more explicitly.

It took about three nights to get the whole scene out. Each sentence had to be slowly crafted in my mind before I could convince my fingers that it was ok to type it. Once it was done, it was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The next night, I tackled my hand job scene and found it much easier to write, and I actually made it through to the end.

Getting comfortable with vulgarity isn’t just important for the sex scenes, either. For me, it’s helped to craft the entire voice of my narrator. Because sometimes he’s gonna jerk off, or fantasize, or get a little too excited while making out. (Despite the fact that I’ve asked my boyfriend several times to describe an erection for me, I still can’t get a straight answer.) I can’t be the innocent, vague-sex-scene-writing person that I used to be.

Recently one of my managers at work happened to say that I probably had never said the word “dick” in my whole life, to which I was able to truthfully reply, “That’s not true. In fact, I write it all the time.”


  1. That was a very interesting read. I think sex does have a strange effect on most people. Much more difficult to deal with than say violence. I'd say another reason people don't feel comfortable writing them is because a lot of people don't feel comfortable reading them. I have to say most of the time i don't think they're done very well, either too much like porn, or too romanticised.

    Moody Writing
    The Funnily Enough

  2. I let the story decide whether it needs to be graphic or vague. The first sex scene I ever wrote was from the POV of the male - I was 18 and realised my mistake immediately - but the story needed to be told that way. It was quite graphic, because that was the point of the whole story.

    Thanks for the follow!

  3. I'm trying to finish a sex scene at the moment, end of chapter 1 - so no mistakes! I think the trouble is they're minefields of cliches and gratuitous titillation! How do you further character development with a sequence of body movements? Now that I - think - I've stamped out all the flowery language, I still feel the rhythm of that one paragraph takes on a sort of soft-focus effect. It's still not right...