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How To Write a Sex Scene

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I first published this series of essays on my LiveJournal in fall 2005. These suggestions were published in a slash community (what is slash? click here), so they reference, and in some cases quote, fanfiction involving romantic relationships between same-sex characters. The tips aren't genre-specific, though; I'd like to think that anyone who wants to write an erotic scene can learn something here.

Caveats:

1. Obviously, Rule 1 is to get great betas, train them to be very very picky, and train yourself to listen to them and not take it personally.

2. I'm not, strictly speaking, telling how to write a sex scene; I'm telling how to write a scene whose purpose is to be arousing. There are sex scenes that exist for other reasons -- to be comforting, for instance, or to demonstrate a lack of connection between two characters, or any number of other things. In pro-fic it's fairly common to read a sex scene that generates the same reader response as would a description of a stabbing -- it's not there to turn you on; it's there to give you a thrill of revulsion and fear.

But I'm talking about smut here. If you're writing another kind of scene, you may still find useful points here, but you'll have to take me with a very large grain of salt.

1. Make me yearn.

The lack of something to long for is absolutely the single most common problem I see in otherwise well-written sex scenes. And if I don't have anything to long for, then the scene is trivial, skimmable. It needn't even be there.

Beginning writers often preface a sex scene with a long conversation, in which the characters share all their hopes and fears, and reassure one another, and make declarations, and then go to bed.

This is a problem! Because if you do that, then that conversation is the climax of the story. Which means the sex is just an unimportant part of the resolution.

Much better to take them into sex with a few things still uncertain. Don't put their fears to rest before the sex; don't put their fears on hold until after the sex; put their fears to rest by means of the sex. That way it means something.

This can be tricky in long stories with multiple scenes, because there has to be something to yearn for in all of them, and it has to be different every time. It's pretty common to read a story where the first-time scene is fine, but all the subsequent sex scenes are either pointless or boring. Or else they fade to black after a few sentences -- this is an author who has an intuition that there's a problem.

Even in an established-relationship scene, though, or the fifth sex scene of a story, it is possible to have something left to yearn for. You just need some barrier to intimacy that remains to be crossed.

I don't mean "X has never bottomed." I mean "X is still trying to protect himself from getting his heart broken." Declarations and particular sex acts are only going to have meaning and significance if they're signals of emotional progress.

(Or lack thereof, of course; if I read your sex scene and yearn for a particular level of connection, and despair along with the characters when they fail to make it, that's a successful sex scene, though a depressing one. You just have to make me want something. There's no rule requiring you to give it to me.)

If you're going to write a long story with lots of sex, go back to your first time and make sure you leave emotional issues still to be resolved. Does he love him? Does he know it? Does he accept it? Is he confident that he's loved in return? Is he prepared to sacrifice something for that love, take some risks for it, do things he finds emotionally uncomfortable for it? Can he accept sex as an expression of love rather than an exploitation or a meaniingless exchange of pleasure?

Leave some "No" answers to be addressed in later scenes.

2. Pick one zing and stick to it.

When I read a first-time scene, there's a certain set of pleasures that I want from it. Disbelief, anticipation, the joy and fear of a relationship finally taking this big scary step into greater intimacy. I call that set of particular pleasures the first-time zing.

A bondage scene, too, has its own zing -- power/powerlessness, trust or fear, the increased sensitivity that comes with enforced passiveness.

Other kinds of scenes have their own zings. Maybe your scene is all about distance and longing, or about pure meaty muscular maleness, or about secrets. Maybe it's about this, this is the one, this person in particular, or maybe it's all about self-discovery and self-acceptance.

But you have to have one zing, because if you try to have two, then neither of them is going to be very effective.

Now, I'm not saying you can't have, say, bondage in your first-time scene or chocolate in your peanut butter, because obviously you can; I'm just saying that all the other elements have to serve the zing, not compete with it.

If you have both elements, and you decide the zing will be first-time, it will look something like this: "Oh, my god, I can't believe it, after all this time of watching and wanting I finally get to pin you down and take you ..." If you decide the zing is bondage, it will be more like this: "Since the moment I met you I've been dreaming of how you'd look like this, with the blindfold stark against your face and your skin reddening around the ropes ..."

Naturally I like some zings better than others, so if you want to grab me in particular, you'll stay away from power-dominance zings and incest zings and "X feels unattractive and can't believe gorgeous Y could possibly want him," and instead focus on sexual discovery, characters telling dangerous and complicated emotional truths, straitlaced characters suddenly letting loose and showing unexpected depths of wildness, love as the scariest risk ...

But, hey, it's your story. If your zing doesn't do anything for me, still odds are it will do something for someone. All I'm saying is, don't try to pack everything into a single scene. Find this scene's zing, and hone your focus on it.

By choosing one zing, you have to sacrifice a bit of the others. It's OK. There will be other sex scenes.

3. Make the sex fit the characters
(and not the other way around)

Some writers can stay in character for any scene but a sex scene. It's one of the most frustrating things in the world to be reading along, having a good time, following our guys as they do their thing and are entirely themselves, until suddenly they disappear and are replaced by two porn stars who superficially resemble them.

I'm guessing that some writers really just want that particular set of sexual behaviors more than they want to stay in character, and there's probably nothing I can say to them, because that actually is satisfying to them.

But I'm also guessing that there are other writers who want a certain erotic effect and don't know how to get it without going out of character.

Here's how to start: Don't think about what happens in the scene. Think about what payoff you want from it.

Now, there are two ways to do this. You can think about what one character feels, or you can think about what the other character does. For instance, maybe you say, "X goes all crazy and animalistic," or maybe you say, "Y feels like he's been pushed way beyond self-consciousness and can just let go." Or maybe you say, "X uses his mad sex skillz," or maybe you say, "Y feels utterly coddled and pampered and treated like a king."

Right. Get that spelled out in your brain. And then go, "OK, fine, then. How might, say, Rodney McKay go all crazy and animalistic?"

Now, there are obviously lots of right answers for that. Maybe he talks just as much as he talks the rest of the time, but it gets less coherent, or dirtier. Or maybe he stuns his lover by going entirely silent.

But what, you ask, is the difference between a silent Rodney McKay and a porn star who looks like Rodney McKay but can't be him because he's not talking? The difference is that if you've started out thinking, "How is Rodney in particular going to do this?" then even if your answer is, "Surprisingly, he's going to do it without words," you're going to take note of how unusual it is. John is going to take note of how unusual it is, and is going to find it strange, or frightening, or funny, or so hot he can't stand it.

And he's going to say, "Jesus, Rodney -- say something so I -- know it's you," and Rodney's going to put his mouth right against John's ear and say very quietly, "You know it's me," and I for one would have no complaints at all about a scene like that.

If you think of it that way, and it doesn't work for you, then try approaching it from the other side: How is John -- John in particular -- going to act if he's totally blown beyond self-consciousness and shame?

Again, lots of possible right answers. Maybe he doesn't change. Maybe he gets really clingy and needy. Maybe he starts babbling. I could be convinced of any of those, as long as the writer never forgot that this was John and nobody else.

You can have most hot things with most pairings, but some of them are going to take more work than others, and I suspect that some of them may be impossible. If your thing is seductive stripping, you may be out of luck if your pairing is Snape/Lupin or Rodney/Radek. If you're writing a teen Ray/Stella or Harry/Ron and your thing is smooth, confident dirty talk, you've got an uphill battle. (Though to see any of these done well would be fascinating.)

By the way, this problem also sometimes comes up in scenes where the payoff is not erotic but romantic. Suddenly my two canon characters go away and I'm left with two guys who are quoting John Donne to each other. And here again, unless you want the Donne more than you want to stay in character, the solution is to define the exact payoff you want (say, "A guy making a heartfelt emotional declaration") and then ask yourself, "OK, how does Rodney in particular make a heartfelt emotional declaration?"

Because he probably doesn't quote poetry, I can tell you that, at least not in a way that isn't utterly embarrassing for him and everyone else. He's probably not smooth and suave, not if it really means something to him. He will, in fact, probably babble something highly parenthetical and only partly comprehensible, and then go away, and it will only be hours later that John will suddenly go, "Oh, my god, I thought he was complaining about being on jumper pilot rotation but actually I think he just told me he's in love with me."

4. Choose your details carefully.

When I was in college, a student group showed a bunch of Swedish porn films from the seventies. (In fact, that was all the porn I'd ever seen until somebody on my flist uploaded her Patrick collection.) One of the movies began with a shot of a nipple that filled the entire movie screen. Not the aureole, mind you -- just the nipple. The pores were bigger than my head. It took me several minutes to figure out what it was.

I always think of that nipple when I'm tempted to put too much detail in my sex scenes.

Actually, of course, the problem isn't too many details. The problem is ill-chosen details. Brighid can write a sex scene four lines long that I'll be unpacking in my head for days; Paian can knock my eyes out of focus with a sex scene so in-depth that a single orgasm requires more than one paragraph.

All other things being equal, I personally prefer more detail, but only if it's the right detail.

Use too many details that have no significance, and one of two things will happen: I'll start skimming, or I'll start laughing because the whole thing sounds like Wild Kingdom: "The male retracts his nictating membrane; the female responds by opening her dilator ..." *

The right detail is one that does one of these things:

1. It supports the yearning you're trying to create in me.

For example, say you've got a hand. It sweeps down over a guy's chest, gets to his navel, hesitates for a moment, goes down until it brushes the boundary of his pubic hair, hesitates again, brushes very softly up his cock ...

Now, if you're writing a scene in an established relationship where I'm waiting for some verbal declaration, this is kind of irrelevant. Make it go on too long, and I'll start skimming.

But if you've set things up so that the owner of that hand is kind of freaked out about being in bed with a guy, and so far has allowed things to be done to him but hasn't done very much in return, and I'm wanting, hoping, longing to see him get over his inhibitions -- well, then, I'm going to want to see every centimeter those fingers cross.

2. It supports your zing.

For example, we all know about the inexplicable sensitivity of necks, collarbones, and ears. The kiss behind the ear, the resulting shiver -- in most sex scenes, these only get a passing mention.

But if your zing is sexual discovery -- if, say, you're writing Harry Potter's first make-out session -- then that detail becomes really sexy, because he doesn't already know about it.

3. It tells us something about the character and the relationship.

Benton Fraser's got a gunshot scar on his lower back. What Ray Kowalski does and feels when his fingers brush across that scar for the first time is likely to be significant. What Ray Vecchio does and feels in the same circumstances is likely to be even more significant.

4. We need to know about it to understand what happens next.

Usually, if you're not laying out every detail, you can still count on me to assume nudity, horizontalness, lubrication, without you necessarily telling me about them. On the other hand, if somebody's going to get smacked for putting his hand in the wrong place, I probably need to see the hand go down.

5. It really turns you on.

Hey, we're not writing essays on historical criticism here, we're writing porn. If it does something to you, there's a good chance it will do something to me, too.

If your detail doesn't do any of those things, it may still be fine, but if you're in doubt, try deleting it. You can use transitions to get over boring parts in a sex scene just as you would in any other scene. My favorite example is from Helenish's Sentinel story Seemingly Impermeable:

"Good," Blair said, tumbling off him, "good. Jim, my room, I can't carry you." and the next thing that was worth focusing on, after a blur of yanked off pants and Blair's frantic fumbling in his closet, was Blair, wetly kissing his left shoulderblade, rubbing a wet finger into his hole and whispering,

"Don't worry, I'm sure two fingers is enough, you have very big fingers."

* eyefuck!