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

In Part I, I did my best to present a balanced approach to when and how to include sex scenes in your work.

Here in Part II, there’s no balance to be found. I don’t have multiple angles of attack to offer when writing the nitty-gritty of the scene itself; I can only tell you the process I’ve developed for myself, which might surprise you.

And what is my sage advice? Overwrite everything.

No detail is too small to include. No word is off-limits like you may see in other sex-writing advice, that would have you shy away from verbs like “thrusting.” No desire is too base to depict, no emotion too dramatic, no body part too unmentionable.

Be graphic. Be indulgent. But most of all, be thorough.

“But, Elena!” I hear you gasp. (Let’s assume at least some of you are gasping and clutching your pearls.) “You’re telling me to write porn!”

Yes. Yes, I am. Get it all on the page and leave no question exactly who is doing what to whom and how they all feel about it.

When you’re done, set it aside for a bit. Work on a different scene, or another project, or take a break for an hour or a day or a week, whatever you need to reset your brain.

Before you look at that wonderful and naughty porn draft again, evaluate what your story needs this scene to be, according to your comfort level and the guidelines I laid out in Part I. That’s going to help you figure out how far back you’re going to scale when you edit, because yes, you’re editing this right now, not in a future draft.

Then, reread the scene and cherry-pick your best bits. What strikes you as good, what makes you feel alongside these characters, what gets to the heart of the action. Mark those lines somehow–I recommend highlighting–and make sure they survive the cuts.

Next, cut anything that repeats something from your best lines without adding to it. Cut anything that is pure mechanics or stage direction unless it’s absolutely necessary to understand the flow of the action. Cut, or at least trim down, any description that distracts from the point of the scene.(Remember, I told you to overwrite, so you should find at least some stuff that ends up being unnecessary.)

Some hypothetical examples for illustration of what to keep and what to toss:

  • Setting detail could be useful if it displays something about the dynamic between the characters–if a working-class man finds himself in a rich woman’s lavish bedroom for a tryst, I’d want to know what catches his eye about her furniture and decorations, and how that makes him feel. But if two college kids are going at it on a blanket in the forest because neither of their roommates ever leaves their dorm rooms, then I probably don’t care about extensive descriptions of the trees–just mention some bird song or dappled sunlight and it will get the point across.
  • Physical detail is great to heighten awareness of other senses, but unless you’re opening the story with sex, you’ve probably described the characters before. Don’t reiterate stuff we already know about them, but use the extra intimacy of the scene to reveal new information–hidden tattoos or scars or piercings for the visuals; how they smell is always a good choice because smell is the most neglected sense in most writing; how they sound (different than usual) when they’re turned on, and so forth. Don’t just repeat their hair or eye color!
  • How much dialogue to use is a tricky thing to generalize about because it’s going to depend a lot on how the characters already speak. Readers usually want the personal stuff as pillow talk: back story if it’s relevant, emotional honesty, vulnerability. Do include explicit consent. Do include dirty talk as long as it reveals something about the character using it, but don’t use too much or make it too generic (unless that’s the point; in an as-yet unpublished work, I have a dude who sucks at dirty talk but I include it anyway to show how much his partner has to try to be excited about sleeping with him. Not a healthy relationship, they don’t stay together for many reasons, and yes, I wanted to use their sex life to help demonstrate that.)

Okay, you’ve marked the best bits and cut the worst bits. You probably still have a lot that is in between. Look for ways to strengthen those parts by rewriting them until they better fit the mood you’re aiming for. If that doesn’t seem to work, is it something that can be summarized and rolled into something else? Can you minimize it instead of cutting it entirely?

And finally, once the scene is mostly flowing in the direction you want it to, go back over your word choice and consider your audience and their expectations. Are there any terms in what you have left of your original porno version that strike you as too crass? Too clinical? Do you have a character using a term you’re not sure they’d actually say, or maybe not even know? Substitute other words until you have something you’re comfortable with, something that seems authentic to your characters and doesn’t sound too jarring. If you need help, look up word lists and euphemisms–I promise they’re out there!

(Side note: I’m personally begging all non-UK authors not to use the c-word to refer to a person’s vagina. I can’t stop the Brits, I’m aware it’s not considered nearly as foul a word there, though I can’t help cringing when it comes up in their works. I grew up believing it’s one of the strongest gendered insults there is and it doesn’t belong anywhere outside of that context.)

Okay. Still with me? You’re almost done. Set it aside again if you need to, or dive right back in at the beginning, and read it out loud. (Or have a text-to-speech program read it to you.) You might blush, you might squirm, you might wish you were doing anything else. But you’re going to hear any problems you didn’t catch last time around, and bonus: exposure is making you more comfortable with the idea of writing and reading about sex. (Could I have written these blog posts so candidly five years ago before I published my first novel, with my first sex scenes? Oh, hell no. It took a lot of beta readers telling me I did good before I felt ready to put that out into the world.)

And there you have it!

Honestly, at this point it probably needs more work, just like your whole first draft needs more work, even though this one scene has already had some rewriting applied. You’re still going to want to line-edit and proofread it just like anything else, but the hard part is behind you. Pour yourself a drink (if that’s a thing you do) or treat yourself to some chocolate or a piece of cheesecake or whatever. You did it. You wrote a sex scene.

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