Alright, so last week, we talked about the place that sex has in literature.
Today we’re going to talk about how to write sex scenes.
Ack! Children, avert your eyes!
Basically speaking, there are several kinds of sex scenes you might run into and interestingly enough, I find that they have direct links to counterparts in films.
In order of severity, these are as follows: The Lion King, the Rothfuss, the Dresden, and the Hamilton (Yes, I know that list makes little to no sense but bear with me).
The Lion King is a method of inserting a sex scene more as an implication rather than anything else. There’s a moment in The Lion King where Simba and Nala are romping around after having discovered each other again. They end up lying down in a bed of soft grasses, looking at each other with big gooey eyes while “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” is playing in the background…then the scene cuts away.
While there’s never anything said and the act is never referred to, watching the movie again through mature eye kind of drops the implication into your lap with a nudge and a wink.
This type of “did that…did that really happen?” sort of scene is best used for material of a child-friendly nature. You don’t want your primary audience to realize what’s happened but, at the same time, you want to kind of give your more discerning and mature audience a nudge.
The Rothfuss is the kind of scene one might find in The Wise Man’s Fear. The act of sex is referred to explicitly…but there’re a lot of euphemisms shrouding it. You’re told in no uncertain terms that sex has just happened between two parties but you’re left purposefully in the dark about the act. In a movie, this would be accomplished by having someone lead their partner into the bedroom before cutting away to a shot of the outside of the house with maybe a bit of moaning or squeaking bed springs to announce that something is going on.
This method should primarily be used in a situation where it’s important for the audience to know for sure that people have had sex, but it’s not important to know exactly how it all went down. In the case of The Wise Man’s Fear, it’s a delicate situation because it’s important for the reader to see Kvothe in a more grown up light. Seeing that the character has matured is a way to make it easier to stomach some of the questionable actions he takes in the latter half of the book. At the same time, because the sex doesn’t really serve any other purpose, it’s left intentionally vague so as not to be overly gratuitous.
One step up the ladder we have The Dresden. This is where things start to get a little bit…steamy. An example of this kind of sex scene can be seen in a movie like Underworld: Evolution. There is a clip to the aforementioned scene on Youtube but be warned, though nothing explicit is shown, it probably comes down squarely in the NSFW camp.
These types of scenes are best used in work of a more visceral nature. It tends to be used in situations where like the Rothfuss, the audience needs to know explicitly that sex occurred. At the same time, the characters or the style of writing itself needs to focus a little more on sensation and feelings throughout the piece for it to be believable. With the Dresden files, Jim Butcher goes to some pretty great lengths to let you know exactly how much it hurts when Harry takes a hit. Dresden spends a lot of time feeling the aches and pains of his body throughout the novels and when a sex scene occurs, it sort of makes sense to not suddenly put the brake on the emotional details.
Most of the visceral sensations are conveyed through imagery. While there’s a lot of words and images devoted to describing how it feels to slide a hand over bare skin or to meet a hungry kiss, there’s little in the way of details and specifics. There’s a lot of wordcount describing how the act feels without mentioning exactly which body part did what.
Referencing the link to the clip from Underworld again, we see a lot of similarities in the techniques. From what we’re shown, it’s VERY clear what’s going on and that both parties are very into it…but at the same time, nothing is shown that can’t be seen on a beach (not including nudist beaches). It’s a very fine line to walk and the authors that make a habit of it tend to do it fairly well.
There are those and leap and bound over the line though and for that situation we have The Hamilton. Named after the author of the Anita Blake urban fantasy/erotica series, this technique leaves nothing to the imagination. To draw a comparison to a film, one would have to reference the ones that feature gynecological closeups and sex at the drop of a hat.
To be clear, I am in no way saying there is anything wrong with literature that describes the act in lurid detail. There’s a reason why a novel like 50 Shades of Grey made it onto the New York Times bestseller list and it isn’t because of it’s thrilling plot and deep characters.
If you feel the need to write this type of sex scene in your novel, there isn’t really much advice I can share with you other than to go for broke and describe everything. Describe every movement, every body part in detail and how all of that makes the participants feel and you’ll likely be on the mark.
The only cautionary thing I would say with regard to this type of scene is to be very sure of what you’re writing before you include it. These types of detailed scenes thrown at an audience that’s not expecting it does NOT come across as titillating or exciting. By and large, they come off as gratuitous and skimmable material instead and that is very much not something you want.
By setting up a story, world and characters built around some explicitly sexy moments, it’s possible to pull off something wonderful that doesn’t come across as just smut (see Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey). But without that preparation to support it, it can be hard to sneak a scene like this in a story and make it feel like it belongs.
Don’t be afraid to write sex into your stories! Just take some time to think about what kind of scene is appropriate for the world, the characters and the novel itself and things will turn out alright.