Article Archive


Writing Sex and Love Scenes

by Lori L. Lake

Recently, a friend loaned me a mainstream novel to read and didn’t mention that the book contained copious scenes of crass copulation. And raunchy scenes, at that. There was all manner of bodily fluids and geysers of sperm and strange positions even Gumby couldn’t attain, and…well, you get the idea. Not only was I rather grossed out, but because the scenes lacked passion, believability, and a grounding in the plot, I was distracted from the story and any themes it might have had. I didn’t much like it and did something I very rarely do: I went ahead to the last ten pages, scanned them, decided it ended badly, and didn’t bother to read the last 75 pages.

Perhaps the writer of that novel titillated others who wanted to read about sex acts (don’t you love that word, "titillated"? It is so appropo, it seems, when discussing sex), but he lost me completely. I wanted a story. I wanted characters I found interesting and compelling—not just portions of their anatomy. I wanted to get inside their brains to understand their motivations and feelings. Hot, monkey sex was not enough.

Since I like to read and write in a world of protagonist-driven plots, it is important to me that the love and sex scenes are integral to the development of the characters—and not just gratuitous scenes to sexually arouse my readers. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for—and an entire genre of—erotica and for scenes that really are "sex scenes," but that's not what you will find in my books or in most mysteries, dramas, sci-fi/fantasy, thrillers, and most standard commercial fiction.

In discussing this topic a few months back with writers at Dragon’s Quill & Ink, some of them told me that when they read lesbian romance, they often skip or skim over-the-top sex scenes. I theorized that the scenes they skipped over: 1) told of clinical sex that was boring and rote, or 2) were scenes that did not advance the plot, or 3) did not enhance or illuminate the characters, theme, or story. I believe that in a properly described scene with sex in it, the reader simply cannot skip over it because that scene is integral to the plot, theme, and/or to the understanding of one or more of the characters. An example in The Color Purple (both the movie and Alice Walker’s novel) is when Miss Celie describes how Mister has sex with her; how she thinks of other things; how she bears it bravely and does not enjoy it in the least. The scene may not be pleasant—and it certainly isn’t any sort of turn-on—but it shows very clearly how disillusioned and lonely Miss Celie is, even when Mister is less than one inch away from her.

On the other hand, a sex scene might just be gratuitous and specifically designed to heighten what the Supreme Court once called "the prurient interest." The characters are making all the moves and sighing all the 'ahs' (or swear words), but there really isn't too much reason for the sex scene—except to titillate the audience and provide a turn-on. In gay men's fiction, this sort of thing is called a "one-handed read."

Part of the purpose of the themes and events in a book containing love scenes has to do with the acquisition, retention, or loss of love, and that is a major part of the plot. If you skip the love scene, then you skip the communication between the characters, and some of it might be vital.

I must admit that when faced with the prospect of writing a sex scene between Dez and Jaylynn in my novel Gun Shy, I was totally gun shy myself. I had written fairly tame love scenes in my first book, Ricochet In Time, but that had been about five years earlier. So much time had passed that I felt out of practice. And in fact, even early on in Gun Shy, when the character, Jay, makes some moves on Dez that aren't reciprocated, I had a hard time with it, and gee, nothing really happened! But it was integral to the storyline, so I forged on. Though the book has a sub-plot—a very large part of the book, too—of police procedural, the overall story is a Romance and an Overcoming Obstacles type of plot. Intimacy between the two characters was vital, so I had to shed my inhibitions and figure out how I wanted to portray their gradually evolving physical relationship.

So my first advice to newer writers attempting to add love and/or sex scenes to their stories is to decide if you are writing sex or love—or a combination of both—and why. Do you just want to show a little fun and games that reveals the racy side of your character(s)? Do you want your readers in a constant state of being so hot and bothered that they may not care about the character(s)? Are you trying for a "Swollen Bud" or "Amazon Ice" type of award? Does the love or sex scene advance your plot or themes? Do you want it to, or is this merely a "Plot, What Plot" sort of romp?

As you continue to puzzle about the kinds of scenes you want to share with your reader, there are a number of angles to consider. If you are writing somewhat serious fiction, you "get up for" writing a love or a sex scene by making sure it fits appropriately in your narrative and enhances your story, and then you start writing, keeping an eye on:

  • The purpose for the scene;
  • What sort of union and/or conflict you want the characters to feel;
  • How raunchy and down-and-dirty you want to get; and
  • Where that scene will take the characters in the ensuing chapters of the book.

In asking myself these questions, I finally determined that I am not writing stories about sex . . . but about love. When I realized that I was most often writing love scenes containing sexual expression—not an overly graphic or prurient sex scene—the whole tenor of my writing changed. It certainly became easier to envision and write these scenes, especially because they grew right out of the storyline and the growth of the characters.

It's my opinion that a failed bout of lovemaking can tell as much as a successful one. Those of us who write romance aspects into our fiction often tend to glorify sex as always being good. In real life, making love is filled with pitfalls and problems and missed overtures and vulnerability, most of which is more telling than a "successful" bout of lovemaking where everything is dreamy, simultaneous, and full of rockets, bells, and poetry. You can use blunders or failures in highlighting or magnifying your characters' relationships.

It’s critical that you are sure that sex or love scenes actually belong in your book. There is nothing that turns me off more than reading a particular genre of story—let's say a thriller for example—and right in the middle of all the action, the characters drop everything and have mad, passionate, juicy, tacky, time-consuming sex. Where in the world did that come from? And why would the author drop her story right out of the exciting, thrilling ride to do that? Certainly, a rising interest between the two characters along with acknowledgment of attraction fits in fine and can, in fact, be a very potent sub-plot or a driving theme enhancer, but when there's an investigation or a kidnapping or they are being chased by hired killers or whatever, who has time for a long, languid sex scene? In the movie world, when your pants are down, that is JUST when you're usually lost—or killed in bed! (Giving new meaning to the term "totally screwed.")

I think the author should omit intimate scenes or "close the door" the minute such scenes no longer contribute something to the plot or delineation of character or theme. To decide when or if to "close the door," I must say once again that the writer has to determine what her story is all about. Is the story about sex and all its varied permutations, and therefore, thematically, the sex scenes are called for? Or is the story about other things? If the latter is true, then a decision between perhaps a graphic sex scene and a tamer love scene is vital, and the extent and complexity of its description have to be made based upon how it furthers the author’s goals.

Here's where I want to mention that it seems that there are three areas of craft that matter a great deal to both love and sex scenes: Point of View (POV), Tone, and Dialogue.

First off, the POV you choose to write from is key. If it's too distant, then it can sound cold, clinical and unfeeling. I also think that when the entire scene is narrated from the outside, and we are simply told what is felt, it ends up as though we were hovering above the writhing couple. That seems voyeuristic—like we're watching it on TV or via live video feed. I always feel scenes like that are extra prurient and intended merely to literally arouse the reader. To avoid that, I almost never tell any aspect of a love scene without being "with" one of my characters. In other words, I don't go omniscient in a love scene and watch from above or beside the bed. I stick with what a character (or each character, alternately) is feeling and experiencing. Going too far outside the characters means that I feel almost voyeuristic, and that lends itself to something that is too impersonal for me. That’s what works for me—I know that others do it differently. (No pun intended.)

There is also the POV problem of bouncing back and forth between characters’ heads (which is a topic I hope to address in an upcoming article on POV). Much of the time when the POV is not steady, that’s when things tend to get more clinical and less believable—or else badly written, because, for instance, it's impossible for the reader to be in both character's heads at once.

What I suggest to anyone writing a love scene that includes sex is that you pick a consciousness to be in (or close to) and tell the feelings and emotions from that person's point of view. If you want the second person’s viewpoint (or the third or fourth or however many are in the scene), it’s best to try for a smooth transition from one consciousness to another which is, believe me, no easy feat.

And especially if you plan to write more graphic and erotic sex scenes, a second problem to pay attention to is Tone. This includes the pacing of the scene and the words you choose to describe it. If you want the sex acts to be funny, that’s rather easy to accomplish, but if you want them to be serious, romantic or sexy, it’s a bit more difficult. I had to laugh when I was discussing this at Dragon’s Quill & Ink, and Heathen gave me this example: "Her passion nectar pooled out of her into her waiting lover’s hand. Waves of ecstasy crashed over her as the giant strap-on pumped in and out of her simmering love chamber." The combination of words and images tend to provoke amusement rather than romance or erotic reality. We’ve all laughed at cliché descriptions such as "his throbbing, pulsing member" and "her unbridled flower of passion." Pay attention to the terms you use for body parts and actions. Ask plenty of people to read and comment in order to ensure that you get the Tone you seek.

The third element can enhance the previous two because if the writer uses effective Dialogue, both Tone and POV are improved. Not "real" communication taken word for word from what people might actually say in real life ("Umm um ungh, god that's yeah yeah...") so much as Dialogue where the two characters are actually talking, albeit in shorthand or in their own private way. I get rolling-my-eyes irked when all the characters seem to do is mutter "I love you," then whisper "I love you," then howl "I love you," then come down gasping "I love you" – especially if it happens in more than one scene. That gets boring and tiresome. Instead, figure out ways to have your characters say other special, unique, or unusual things to one another. Most people—when writing sex scenes—fail to insert (no pun intended) elements of reality, and I don't know why. How many people are totally silent and don't say a word throughout? And yet, by only narrating a sex scene, that's what is implied. Get the characters talking to one another.

Like so many other aspects of life, people having sex isn't all that interesting to the outsider—once you've seen a few variations on it, you've seen it all, and it gets old and jaded. But making love is a different story! The reason why I say that is that making love involves more levels of communication, and that can be much more interesting. Think about the different ways two people would feel and communicate while making love under the following circumstances:

  • Anne has had the greatest day of her life, while Bob is just getting over having been ill for a week.
  • Cindi is sick at heart because she suspects that Dawn could possibly be cheating on her.
  • There's been a death in the family, and Ernie and Felice feel tremendously sad, yet they want to connect with one another after days and days of strife
  • Gretchen has just found out she has breast cancer, but she dares not tell Helen yet. She's not sure how to tell her because Helen has already lost a lover to breast cancer.
  • Josh is keeping an ear out for a baby's cry, while Kevin is incredibly sleepy.

I could sit here and think up a zillion scenarios for this sort of thing, but the point I am trying to make is that if your fiction is going to bear the stamp of fictional "reality," there has to be more going on in the bed than Part A fitting into Part B and producing Bodily Fluid C followed by complete and utter Ecstasy.

So the next time you are told to or you intuit it would be right or you feel compelled to insert sex in your story, ask yourself WHY? And then ask WHY NOW? And then ask, WHAT ELSE WILL BE HAPPENING IN THIS SCENE BESIDES SEX? I truly believe that the scene will be all that much richer if you understand the answers to those questions—and it might be pretty racy and exciting at the same time.

Writing sex and love scenes is a challenge, and even if you get good at it in your first few outings, if you write enough of these scenes, eventually you will be faced with the problem of making characters’ encounters new, different, and interesting. One very helpful thing to do is to analyze the work of authors who do a good job writing the type of scene you are trying for. In addition, three books I have found useful are:

How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica - Susie Bright
The Joy of Writing Sex: A Fiction Guide for Writers – Elizabeth Benedict
Writing Erotica – Edo Van Belkom

I would like to thank the various members of Dragons Quill & Ink, particularly Patty S., Heathen, and Zuke, who asked a lot of good questions and got me thinking very seriously about this topic.

© Lori L. Lake, 2004
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori welcomes questions and comments.

Back to Article Archive.