writing sex scenes

Where Things Go Wrong(er)

This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

In a comment to yesterday’s post, RW wrote:

Elizabeth Benedict’s very interesting book “The Joy of Writing Sex” suggests that the default terms for genitals should probably be whatever your viewpoint character would think (unless there’s a very good reason why not).

And it occurred to me that this may be part of why phrases like “throbbing manhood” etc. can hurl the reader out of the story so violently.

This seems to me like an excellent basic guideline on how to choose among available lexical variants when writing about sex. I’m not familiar with Benedict’s book, but I’ll have to read it. Thanks for the suggestion.

It’s clear that sex scenes can crash for a wide variety of reasons. Yesterday I looked at one way you end up in a ditch by the side of the road, and here’s another.

Paulo Coelho is a respected Brazilian novelist. I’ll say first that Eleven Minutes is the only novel of his I have read, and second: this is not a review of that novel as a whole, but an examination of a particular scene. This scene doesn’t work for me for a number of reasons: I find the tone inauthentic (more on this below), the scene does nothing to move the characterization or narrative along, and there’s an awkwardness to the prose. This last point may have something to do with the translation, so I will put it aside.

On the matter of tone, voice and authenticity: I’ve said before and I’ll say again, to be very clear: I’m not arguing here, would never argue, that a male writer shouldn’t attempt a female POV. There are hundreds of examples where male writers have done this very well indeed. It is harder for a man to write a woman’s POV, and for a woman to write a man’s, sure. That degree of separation is an additonal challenge. If we’re talking about a sex scene, things are tougher still, but not impossible. I’m using this scene from Eleven Minutes to illustrate an author failing, in my estimation, to make the leap. This is written from the perspective of Maria, a Brazilian woman.
Maria is telling us about an intense sexual encounter. In the midst of multiple orgasms, Maria talks about seeing God, about an overwhelming sense of peace, about heaven and hell. In a purely detached way it has got to be clear that there’s nothing peaceful about multiple orgasms. Coherant thought is pretty much out the window in such a situation, much less a contemplation of the eternal divine, theology, cosmotology. So we have to doubt Maria’s veracity, her memory, and whether or not she falls within the continuum of the realistically human. Thus, we doubt the author.

What went wrong here, I think, is that Coelho was reaching beyond the physical (maybe because of the challenge presented — even women have trouble describing orgasm) to emotional thoughts and reactions, and didn’t quite succeed.

Of course, a woman writing about sex from a woman’s POV is just as likely to crash and burn, but for different reasons.

Tomorrow I’ve got a sex scene from the male’s POV written by a male which works, oddly, because it doesn’t.

Where Things Go Wrong

This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

I’ll start with a theory: no matter how messed up we are as a culture when it comes to sex, no matter how obliged people may feel to disavow an interest in reading about sex, almost everybody is drawn to it. Because that’s true, some authors feel obliged, and write sex scenes for the wrong reasons. Usually this ends badly. The basic truth is this: any and every scene needs to earn its place in the narrative flow, and sex is no different. No matter how much I love a character and a story, I’m not interested in following them everwhere. The author can safely leave out bathroom visits, cutting of toenails, the phone call about the electric bill, the spilled coffee, the songs on the radio while the character drives to work. Unless something significant happens (Anna discovers a breast lump while she’s in the shower; Mary spills her coffee on her wedding dress accidentally on purpose) this stuff doesn’t belong in the story. In the same way, you end up with generic, boring, unnecessary sex scenes stocked with color by number orgasms unless there’s a compelling reason to include the scene in the first place.

Carefully constructed, thoughtful sex scenes are one good way to show what’s right or wrong in a relationship; it’s in high tension situations that characters let go, and really, what else is sex about? Where else is character revealed in such a direct way? It’s not the only way to do this, but it can be a very effective one.

So sex scenes go wrong because (1) the author writes such a scene for reasons that have nothing to do with characterization and story; (2) the author is personally uncomfortable with such scenes. In either case, a writer often resorts to shortcuts, and what is a shortcut in fiction? Stereotype and cliche. It’s hard to come up with an interesting, non-generic sex scene that’s motivated by the characters and the narrative, so some authors fall back on the tried and (supposedly) true. Then you’ve got a generic sex scene which is boring and (at best) poorly written or (at worst) unintentionally funny.

Which brings me to these examples. These sentences are from published novels, each of them from a different author, but you’ll notice that there are some striking similarities.

He knelt between her silken thighs, his throbbing manhood poised at her entrance.

Her slender, silken thighs opened to the sweetest, tightest piece of woman he’d ever had.

Finally he was able to lodge himself within the tightest passage that had ever enclasped his throbbing manhood.

He felt a moist warmth enclose the end of his throbbing manhood, and then more than the end.

She saw the small sensual flare of his nostrils.

And with each pulse came a sensual rain that eased his way even more.

He continued his sensual movements, caressing her most private nub of flesh with his thumb.

The tip of his finger found her tiny love button, and he rubbed it.

He drew back to caress the nubbin of flesh now tight and throbbing with need.

… he could part her legs and put his tongue on the burning pearl of flesh that made her scream out.

If you’re writing about driving a car, the same terms are going to come up over and over again: steering wheel, ignition, stick shift, turn signal, key. The same is true when you write about sex: certain terms come up again and again. These happen to be terms which are loaded down with all kinds of secondary meanings and associations, and so an author chooses from variants available based on (1) the tone of the story and scene (2) the character’s leanings (3) the author’s own comfort level. It’s a simple fact of social conditioning that some of us just can’t write certain things down. Let’s take, for example, the range of euphemisms for the word penis. In the examples above we get the infamous throbbing manhood, but in each of those cases other variants could be substituted that would be far less coy. The same is true of cliches and euphemisms you see here for clitoris. The result? The reader’s attention is dragged away from the story.

For example, let’s consider burning pearl of flesh. The thoughts that went through my head: Can a pearl burn, and if that pearl burns, she’s in pain and not having a real good time just now, right? Isn’t a pearl too hard a substance to serve as a metaphor here? And the color’s all wrong, too. And if the pearl of flesh is really burning, he’s about to get a big surprise — and a blister on his tongue. Maybe some sensual rain would be a good idea at this juncture, eh?

The bottom line: a writer who can only be comfortable writing about sex by resorting to these kinds of suspect terms and images shouldn’t be writing about sex at all.

Genitalia, erogenous zones and specific acts aren’t the only place where the unmotivated, uncomfortable or lazy writer will resort to cliches. There is a list of words that have been so overused that they should be retired, maybe permanently. Silken thighs, raven tresses, sensual anything — these phrases have been stripped of any meaning they might have once had. Now they are nothing more than placeholders, and funny placeholders, at that. When the author resorts to these terms, you really have come to the place where it would be possible — and preferable — to substitute “and then they had sex” for the whole extended scene.

Am I being mean? Maybe. Mostly I’m trying to be clear and take an honest look at what goes wrong. Tomorrow, a change in direction.


This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This discussion is going to get very explicit, just to warn you. If sex scenes aren’t your thing, you probably want to turn back now. You should also turn back if you are under eighteen. Really, go away.

Now that we’re alone.

A few notes before I get started. First, if you are new to fan fiction, you probably should have a look at an earlier post (Fan Fiction, and why I like it), which will make some of the preliminaries clear. Second, this is Farscape fan fiction. If you don’t know about Farscape, you must be pretty new to this blog, as I talk about it on a regular basis. Here’s the absolute minimum you need to know:

John Crichton is scientist who was running an aerospace experiment when he got stuck in a distant part of the galaxy; Aeryn Sun is Sebacean, a species very closely related to human. (One of my favorite tag lines: He’s human. She’s not. And you thought Romeo and Juliet had problems.) They spend two years becoming friends, saving each other’s asses and minds in terrible situations, beating each other up (sometimes literally), and falling in love.

The relationship doesn’t become sexual until the third season. Because this is television we’re talking about, it never becomes overtly sexual. Which is where Robyn’s fan fiction comes in.

Fan fiction exists mostly on the internet, so I could just send you over to read Robyn’s “The Well-Known Act” in its entirety. In fact, you should do that, because it’s an example of an extremely well done, very adult extended sex scene. But in the spirit of the exercise I began, I’m going to quote bits of it, anyway. For those of you too shy to take the plunge, so to speak.

The consummation of this very complex, very intense relationship is a topic Robyn handled in a series of short stories which deal with the emotional development of the characters as individuals and a couple, as well as with the physical. This is from Aeryn’s point of view. I’m excerpting two bits here, from the beginning of the interlude (the first line of dialog is John) and then a bit from the middle of it when things are in full flow.

“The Well-Known Act”. Copyright Robyn Bender.

“The well-known act of sexual congress. I’ve had some thoughts.”

“You think too much.”

“But I do good work.”

“Granted. All right.”

“We ARE different creatures. We don’t know how we fit, not like that, not for sure. I need to know that you’re way more than ready. I’m thinking, we start with the usual stuff. Rev you up a few times. Probably more than a few. But just keep away from my cock, okay? I’ll get far enough, fast enough, touching you, seeing you. Give me a chance.” The towel was gone. He was kissing her, settling in.

Might as well lie back. Put herself in his hands. She knew the man couldn’t be rushed.

She was right, of course. Things happened. Time passed. He could drive her all night.


bodies entwined. How much skin could they press? Embrace and roll. His lips on her throat. Her hand caught the nape of his neck, run through that short, soft hair. Come here, you. Cup his skull. Capture his mouth for a wet, deep kiss


on her back, shaking. Helpless with laughter. His mouth buried down in her sex. Those gleeful blue eyes peering up, eyebrows waggling. She stretched her arms toward him. He caught at her hands. Interlaced fingers, palms pressed together. She rolled her head back and stretched their arms high. Laughed and laughed as she came.

When I re-read this, the first thing that comes to mind is how very playful it is without being coy. So often sex scenes are generic, forced, contorted, self-conscious, but there’s a vitality here, a directness that works on multiple levels. If you know these characters, the way they talk to each other feels absolutely right. John is quick witted, self-confident; he likes word play; Aeryn has come to that kind of playfulness late in life and is often a half step behind, but appreciative. She’s given herself over after long months of agonizing, and she’s applying herself, now that she’s taken the leap.

Note that the word choice is explicit but matter-of-fact; nothing flowery, no over extended metaphors. The most direct descriptions of sexual acts (his mouth buried down in her sex) are offset by simple images of affection (interlaced fingers, palms pressed together).

Things intensify:

“That okay?” he asked softly, voice in her ear.

“You bastard!” she laughed. Could barely say it. Breathed hard through her mouth. “It’ll do.”

He gripped her waist. “Baby, I want you.”

“You have me, I think.”

“Yes, I do.” He moved deliberately, microns, fractions. Slow, so slow. He is going to do me, indeed, indeed. He intended to use everything he knew, his midnight thoughts, his very best skills. She was frelled. She laughed again. Too small a word. Who had known what it meant?

Her laugh faded out. She was straining up toward him. He held the same spot. Not so fast, my dear. Can’t have it all. He slid his hand down, wet with the silk. Cool, slippery stuff on her lips, her clit. “Oh, you are BAD,” she gasped, as his fingers skittered around, around. Just that little bit extra. Just one thing more. He watched the flush rise on her chest before he leaned down. His lips found her nipple. She jumped, and that jump hit his cock and she rippled around it, set off again. His mouth clamped down wetly and sucked. Can I come with my breast? Apparently so. God, only one mouth. But his palm took over, rubbed that wetness, his mouth to the other one, swirling his tongue. Yes. That!

She needed more brain. Too much coming in. Her hips rocked, her pelvis, she could feel each wet curl at his root. All circuits locked open, no filter. Squeeze her eyes shut. Try to swallow the waves in her throat. Was she making that cry, that call? His mouth clamped hers. Her throat still sang.

It’s Aeryn’s emotional transition as well as her physical one that makes lifts this scene out of the realm of the merely voyeuristic. Note the lovely balance between explicit acts; internal monologue; and dialog. Take any one of those three elements away and the scene won’t work nearly as well. We follow the natural progression from playfulness to absolute concentration not just because we are given the physical facts, but because we hear them in Aeryn’s rather amazed, completely engaged voice. Her rational mind tries to take over, but her body and her emotions are in control.

To follow the analysis I used in the other passages, the obvious contrast is in this author’s willingness to use words considered by many to be taboo: cock, clit, nipple — without resorting to technical terms or coy euphemism. It’s very possible, even likely, that if you are writing fiction in which sex scenes have a natural place in the character and plot development you will not want to take things this far. I don’t, not because I’m afraid my readers wouldn’t like it or my editor would object, but because I don’t think I could manage the delicate balance necessary to make it work. Which for me means that you can’t substitute “and then they had sex” without losing things important to the characterization and narrative flow.

And now that I’ve peaked your interest, here’s a link to a list of all Robyn’s Farscape fanfiction in chronological order.

I’ve been talking now for three days about scenes that don’t work because they are generic, forced, and coy in tone. Tomorrow I’m going to look at some of those. Then I’ll look at a scene that isn’t badly written, but doesn’t work, for me, for other reasons. I’ve got a list of maybe four or five sex scenes to cover in the next week.

Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This excerpt from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart is anything but a typical or generic sex scene.

The two main characters in this historical romance are Stuart Aysgarth, a viscount, and a woman called Emma Hotchiss. Emma has a very shady past but at this point in her life she is an utterly respectable and unremarkable woman who owns a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Stuart gives her cause to seek him out when he causes harm to her livestock, but after getting no satisfaction she takes matters into her own hands. Thus, he catches her in the act of robbing him (I’m simplifying this, please note). So he ties her to a chair to keep her from running off, but more importantly because this is an opportunity he had been hoping for. With her questionable connections and background, she can help him with a problem — or if she prefers, he can call the sheriff.

There is a long, interesting, complex discussion between these two while she’s tied to the chair, business negotiations and personal observations, all fraught with a great deal of sexual tension arising from strong mutual attraction. Emma is experienced and not easily frightened, but she is at a bit of a loss on how to handle Stuart, who tells her she must give up two minutes of her time to experience the personal trespass he has suffered over a longer period.

This initial confrontation, discussion and negotiation takes many pages, and eventually they get to kissing (another couple pages). Remember that Emma is still tied to the chair where this excerpt begins.

Untie My Heart. Copyright Judith Ivory.

Somewhere along the way his hand returned to her knee, light, dry, warm possessive. Just his hand on her knee. For balance. Still, for a second, she knew a tiny panic. He stroked it away. His thumb rubbed the inside of her knee, two soft, short strokes along the bend, the first reassuring, the second bringing such a shocking physical rush of blood to the core of Emma, she nearly lost her breath. Her legs … dear heaven, her legs. She felt all at once exposed … aware how close he was to… well, he could have put his hands, that thumb, those fingers anywhere.

Almost gentlemanly, sweetly, as if he read her mind, he broke away long enough to lean over sideways. With one hand, he yanked at the ties at her legs, ripping them in part, setting her right knee free first –oh, lovely!–coming back to kiss her again briefly–then stopping long enough to lean in the other direction. She lifted her free foot out, straightening her knee to stretch, as he undid her other one. Not that he was letting her free or up exactly, because as soon as her legs were freed, he came back to that astonishing kiss, having her rather trapped against the chair.

Then, the next thing she knew, his hands hooked under her knees, and he lifted her legs up as he moved forward and straddled the chair himself, sitting, while in the same movement lifting, running his hands under her legs down her calves to her ankles. He sat, taking her legs up over his. He still had to bend forward slightly, he was so much taller, but he was less awkward, more comfortable, she thought, sitting on the chair-until he moved forward and brought their bodies close, up against each other. She would have slapped him perhaps. Maybe. Difficult to say, since her hands were still held behind her. In any event, it was a shock at first to feel him — his male body up against her spraddled female one.

He bent forward, kissing her harder. One moment, his hands were at the sides of her, gripping the chair posts over her head. He curved his hips hard against her, and she knew the heady thickness of him. All so oddly familiar, yet not. The next moment, one of his hands was between them, at her waist, then the back of his hand glided down her belly, almost protective. Then he took his hand away–and nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever was between them. Unless one counted something else she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection.

He either knew or was inventing on the spot how to have sexual congress on a chair … they were about to…she was letting him … no, she jerked on her hands, they weren’t free in back….she was his prisoner…wasn’t she? Was she letting him? She wet her lips to say stop. The word didn’t come out. Did she want him to? Now was certainly the moment to say so. Decisions seemed to hang, demanding her attention, yet her brain couldn’t seem to keep up with her body.

She felt herself swollen, lit, as the head of his penis dropped against her. It slid down the length of her in an instant acknowledgement of how ready she was. The warm movement of his hand was there, adjusting himself into position – here was certainly the moment to protest. Did she want to?

Then it was too late to protest anything. With a swift, sure movement of hips, he thrust himself deeply, thickly inside her. Her body all but pulled him into her, swallowing him up. His arms were at either side of her again, enfolding her against the chair, against him, his chest, the spicy-warm smell of him…his strong, muscular shoulders hunched toward her, one hovering at her face till the starchiness of his shirt rose into her nostrils like steam, till she tasted it in her mouth. . . his hips under her, his presence inside her, hot and substantial, driving … intrusive, amazing . . . he lifted into her with a kind of rhythmic spasm that was so satisfying she bit down on his shirt, clenching her teeth. Seconds. It lasted seconds — perhaps three deep, solid stokes of Stuart’s body into hers. While her own contracted around his the moment of entry and simply kept contracting… tighter and tighter and tighter. . . until an explosion… or implosion, things collapsing and shoving and moving inside as she couldn’t remember in years, maybe ever, . . with both herself and Stuart making such noises, mutters, animal sounds, groans.

She came to her senses again like this, her heart pounding with him right there in her face, his body up against her, still inside her.

Two minutes. Had it taken two minutes? Feasible. It was entirely feasible.

When I read this over again I am entirely taken in by Emma’s voice, her very distinctive voice as we follow her thoughts through this scene. She’s such a down-to-earth, practical woman, unprepared but not particularly upset by Stuart’s direct approach. More upsetting to her is her own inability to produce the reactions she knows she supposed to have. She’s supposed to not want this; she should be protesting. But her body has the upper hand, and her body wants Stuart, and she goes along for the ride, amazed, dumbfounded, but absolutely able to acknowledge the pleasure it brings her. This has nothing to do with love; she never even thinks about that.

The approach here is very explicit: we see what Emma sees, and feel what she feels. Every one of Stuart’s actions is recounted, but in rather sober, vaguely surprised language. She registers things: the shock of his body against hers, the familiarity of a male body still after a long dry spell, and a very calm assessment of his body in a state of sexual arousal. What kind of woman, in this situation, thinks a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection. Notice the juxtaposition of the sensible observation (capable) with the appreciative one (perfectly beautiful).

She debates with herself what she wants, and her role in this whole business. I’ve read this many times to see if I could talk myself into believing that she is being abused or raped, but I can’t see it. She knows perfectly well how to stop him, considers doing that, and doesn’t. She never makes a direct and conscious decision to go ahead and have sex with the man; it’s more of a decision she makes by letting opportunities slip by. Once the act has actually begun, she’s caught up in the physical sensations, and they are provided for us in detail: the things she smells, tastes, feels, sees.

Her final thoughts — Two minutes? Entirely feasible are completely in character, and perfectly caught.

I’ve wondered too what to make of the lack of dialog between them in these two minutes — they certainly chatter away in the first twelve or so pages of the scene, and now complete verbal silence. This experience is for Emma a fairly solitary one; if she looks into Stuart’s eyes we don’t know about it; it’s all about what’s going on inside her own head and her own body.
Has Emma changed in the course of this encounter, has the narrative shifted? That’s something you’d have to decide for yourself by reading the whole novel, but I think that this is in fact a turning point for her, and for Stuart.

I think I like this and find it to be successful because it is unique and unusual and evocative. I’m curious what y’all think.