How to Deal with Sex Scenes in Your Writing: Part I

Sex is a part of many’s peoples lives, and good fiction should reflect that reality. But not every story needs sex, just as not every person wants sex, and there are certainly genres that suffer for its inclusion (don’t ask me why a cozy mystery I read years ago had a steamy, raunchy sex scene in it, so out of place, I can’t explain that, please don’t do it.)

But sex abounds in many genres; if you’re writing romance, it’s often a reader expectation, and if you’re writing erotica, well, then it’s the entire point. If you’re not prepared for the idea of writing a sex scene when you start your story, stumbling later across the need to include one can prove a serious block.

In my years of digging through writing advice on the internet, “how do I write a sex scene?” and “how do I not be embarrassed writing a sex scene?” are, anecdotally at least, two of the most common questions I see being asked. I’ve handed out dribs and drabs of that kind of advice before, but I’ve never bothered to put together my thoughts formally, so here we go!

Question #1: Does your story actually need sex?

I touched on this above with genre, but even that isn’t always a clear guide. Plenty of romances end with a first kiss and are still romance, because while sex scenes are common, they’re not universal. And if you’re writing something else, it’s really going to depend. There’s always heat in the YA universe about how much sex there should be in titles aimed at teenagers and how to depict it responsibly when it’s included. Any Hero’s Journey sort of tale, regardless of the parent genre, could include a romantic (and thus, possibly sexual) element when the Hero gets the Girl in the end as his reward–but that’s a pretty toxic view on female agency, so really dig in and decide why it needs to be there. (Or subvert the heck out of it, but that’s another topic entirely.) James-Bond-style action has sex baked into its DNA, but in thrillers, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s absent. It’s going to depend, and some of your decision may be driven by how genre-saavy you are.

But across all fiction, the ultimate common-denominator answer for including sex should be the same standard for questioning other actions or plot points: does this tell the reader something about the characters that they can’t get any other way? If the honest answer to that is no, then the sex scene you were wondering about is probably unnecessary.

Question #2: What are the different styles of sex scene and how do I use them?

First choice: the “fade to black” scene. It’s not sex, it’s implied sex. The characters involved get a little cozy with each other, maybe engage in some PG-rated foreplay, and (hopefully) there’s clear intent and consent established. Then the metaphorical lights drop and the scene fades out before any more blatant sexual acts happen.

When to use it? Well, anytime, if that’s all your comfortable doing as an author. But more specifically, it’s best deployed when it’s crucial to the story to establish the characters have a sexual relationship, for whatever reason, but the sex itself wouldn’t drive the narrative forward.

When not to use it? Erotica is right out, obviously. But while I’ve seen a handful of lighter romances use it successfully, I’ve seen plenty that handle it poorly, even to the point where there’s no scene transition, just a paragraph break between the “characters get handsy” and “basking in the afterglow” stages. Be aware that cutting the “actual” sex out of a scene too abruptly can leave readers annoyed, disappointed, or even confused about what did or didn’t happen–it’s most effective to use a clear scene break and establish that time has passed.

Second choice: show the sex happening, but a) keep it short, and b) don’t go into much detail. When I’ve read these types of scenes, that can range from a single paragraph overview that focuses more on the emotions being felt, to a full page or two of dialogue and/or internal monologue mixed with the most basic mechanics of the situation.

When to use it? This is partially reader expectation–as I’ve mentioned, many romance readers do expect sex in their stories–but also this is the better choice when the sex “matters” more than a fade-to-black scene transition would allow for. If the sex sparks some kind of emotional turmoil or epiphany in the POV character, you’ve got to have a place for that to happen, narratively speaking; off-screen won’t do. But again, if the nitty-gritty of the characters going at it in detail won’t enrich your plot, then keep it zippy and move on.

When not to use it? If you’ve established a sex scene needs to happen at all, there really aren’t serious downsides to this option, excepting reader expectations. But that’s a tricky beast to handle and you’re never going to satisfy everyone, because any given group of readers can have opinions ranging from “this took to long to get to the sex/the sex wasn’t sexy enough” to “OMG I can’t believe these two jumped in the sack like that so fast/how they did/where they did.” (And since I often skim other reviews of the romances I read, yes, this has really happened, one reader will complain about a lack of enough sex scenes in the same book another will insist had too much or the wrong type of sex. You can’t please everyone, and sex especially is so personal. Do your best to your own comfort level, and at least some people will enjoy it.)

Third choice: As graphic as you want to be, baby, no holds barred for as long as it takes.

When to use it? This is obviously the go-to choice for erotica, but it has its place in romance, too, if the sex scenes themselves don’t overwhelm the story through sheer quantity. While erotica may focus more on titillating and arousing the reader, in romance these prolonged, detailed scenes are often about demonstrating sex as an opportunity for bonding and emotional growth. If you want to give your characters plenty of narrative time to fight, or banter, or laugh together, or realize deeper feelings, then a longer and more substantial sex scene allows you that time.

When not to use it? Lots of times. Were you on the fence about including a sex scene to begin with? Then you probably want a simpler one. Is it rare to find sex scenes in your chosen genre? Then you probably want a simpler one. Are you uncomfortable with who might read this (friends/family) or what you might inadvertently reveal about your own sex life? Definitely go with one of the first two options.

Sadly, I can’t tell you how not to be embarrassed by writing sex scenes and letting other people read them. It was a concern of mine at first, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But at some point, you either have to decide to embrace it, or not. There are certainly baby steps you could take, like posting anonymous smut somewhere and seeing what the reaction to your style is, before you show anyone your “real” work. But that is extra work, and it’s not going to be right for everyone.

I had thought originally to dive right in from here on how to write sex scenes, or at least, how I write them, but it turns out I had a lot of thoughts first on whether they’re necessary and how to approach them. So Part II of this probably-two-part series will be covering that instead!

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