Some people are really, really good at it. Some people fumble around like they don’t know up from down. Your first time is the most awkward, and you definitely get better at it with practice. You can do it on your own, or with someone else.
Today, we’re talking about writing sex scenes (what did you think we were talking about?).
Sex scenes aren’t just for writing erotica or steamy romance novels. Compelling sex scenes are parts of all sorts of books, regardless of genre (because, after all, sex sells).
So, if you’ve never written a sex scene before or you feel like your sensual writing has a little room for improvement, you’ve come to the right place.
Here’s everything you need to know.
What makes a good sex scene?
There are a few things that make effective sex scenes stand apart from the pack.
It moves the story forward
A well-done sex scene moves the plot forward. It’s important for character development. It’s not just there because you thought, “Hey, I’m not sure what to write here. I’ll throw in some sex.”
The scene has to make sense for your two main characters (or more characters, if that’s what makes the most sense).
Before you sit down to write your scene, ask yourself, “Why does this have to happen now, in order for the next thing in the story to happen?”
If you can’t answer with a good reason, your planned (or spur-of-the-moment) scene might not be necessary and you can leave it out.
It’s only as graphic as the book permits
If you’re writing a cozy mystery, with low-violence and low-shock factor, that centers around a middle-aged meddling hobby detective who likes to knit and bake on the side (when not feeding the local ducks), you’re probably not going to interrupt your lovely, bucolic setting with a hardcore steamy scene right in the middle—even if the actual act of having sex fits your two characters and their plots at the moment.
It just doesn’t fit the vibe and feel of the rest of the book (unless, of course, your humble detective is also a dominatrix on the side, which is probably something you would have brought up earlier in the plot, rather than springing it on your readers).
In these cases, you might use what’s sometimes referred to as “fade-to-black” sex scene or a “closed door” sex scene, wherein you make it known that your two characters have sex, but you leave the details up to the reader’s imagination.
This option is popular in young adult novels in particular, as some authors don’t deem sexual content suitable for younger audiences.
However, if you’re writing something a little more graphic anyway, whether it’s erotic fiction or a transgressive fiction thriller, you might find your graphic scene really fits the tone of the book.
So, think about your story’s overall vibes and plan your scene accordingly.
It isn’t hokey
Listen, most of us have read our fair share of sex scenes that use terms like “throbbing member” and all sorts of interesting euphemisms for “penis.”
However, if you fall on hokey, overdone descriptions and overly dramatic writers tools like these, you risk losing your reader’s attention. A scene that’s intended to make them swoon over two characters’ love story may just make them giggle or, worse, cringe.
Be real with your intimate scenes and don’t rely on overdone clichés.
It’s sometimes trope-y
While you don’t want to rely too much on overdone, tired, and boring sex scene clichés, you may, depending on your intended readership, want to include some much-loved tropes (hint: tropes and clichés aren’t the exact same thing; you can learn more about the difference here).
Many readers love a good romance trope, simply because they work. Tropes have become popular with both writers and readers because they effectively add tension and intrigue to your characters’ relationships.
Even if we’ve all read about the only one bed trope over and over again, we still love to see two weary, will-they-or-won’t-they love interests stumble into the quaint inn’s one singular available room only to find one bed waiting.
Will they share? Will one of them take the spot on the floor? Are they going to end up in bed together, or will they just longingly think about it all night long?
The tension is palpable!
It’s physically accurate and realistic
So maybe you got caught up in the heat of the moment and you weren’t really thinking about how feasible the actions you were writing actually are.
Or maybe you’re just not as experienced in the bedroom as the character your writing is (and that’s totally okay!).
Whatever the case may be, though, you don’t want to end up with an intimate scene that’s not biologically or physically accurate—because readers are going to notice.
So, think about all the limbs and body parts and where they’re flailing, and how truly likely the physical elements of your scene are.
For example, if you have a small, rather spindly character who’s physically very weak, they’re not going to suddenly be able to lift and throw their partner onto the bed, or hold them up against a wall.
Similarly, if you have two characters going at it on the beach, sand will get places—uncomfortable places. You have to mention it or account for it.
How to write a sex scene
So now that you know a few of the elements that make an excellent sex scene stand out from a ho-hum sex scene, how do you actually go about writing one?
Here’s how to start putting pen to paper or fingers to keys.
Get down and dirty with the sensory details
Okay, so you don’t have to get dirty, at least not that way… unless you want to!
The key thing is to focus on those details, details, details. If you look at effective sex scenes in popular novels, you’ll notice that the sex scenes can take up multiple pages—sometimes even multiple chapters.
Talented authors labor over the details that make up what can be, both in fiction and in real life, a very all-encompassing act.
That said, get into your character’s five senses.
What do they see, smell, taste, feel, and hear? All five senses are used during sex, so tap into them. What’s the texture of their partner’s skin? How does their partner taste? How does their hair smell?
You may be surprised at how even relatively tame descriptions can really make an intimate scene feel more immersive and rewarding for your reader.
As you’re describing all these details, though, make sure you’re not inadvertently writing a sex scene that feels very technical. Remember—the details should help convey your character and their experience, not just give your readers a play by play of who’s doing what, when and where. This is supposed to be a great sex scene, not a sports broadcast.
Keep an eye on your pacing
While there’s a time and a place for a quickie, if you’re not writing one, you’ll want to keep a very close eye on your pacing. Adding more details will help with this, but also take time to really plot out the rise and fall of your scene—just like you might plot out the rise and fall of your overall story or book.
How will you build tension, leading up to the big finish? What happens after the big finish?
There should be a natural progression of actions that lead up to climax, and then a natural progression of actions to follow.
Don’t make it all physical
As you’re effectively pacing your sex scene and keeping it very detailed and five-senses heavy, don’t lose sight of what’s happening to your characters internally. Sure, there might be a lot going on physically at the moment, but they’re also probably having a lot of thoughts, too.
So, what are those thoughts? What’s happening in your character’s mind?
Is your point-of-view character worried about the ramifications of this sexual encounter? Is it part of an affair, or are they worried that this will ruin a decades-long best friend relationship?
Or can they not believe that the big moment that they’ve been waiting for is finally happening?
Or are they nervous because they’ve been in a bit of a dry spell, and they’re worried that their performance might not be up to par?
As you write sex scenes, make sure to weave those feelings and thoughts—and the bodily responses that will go with them—into your scene.
Ask for feedback
Beta readers are a writer’s best friends, but the value of beta readers who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to whatever particular aspect of writing you’re struggling with at the moment? Those folks are irreplaceable and invaluable.
As you work on your sex scenes, ask some true romance novel fans or erotica writers to give your work a read. They don’t necessarily need to read your entire story, but have them read just those scenes. They’ll be able to point out what’s working and what’s not based on their years of experience.
Read from the masters
One of the best things you can do to level up your sex scene writing? Read more sex scenes.
After all, anyone will tell you that, to be a better writer, you have to be a reader. More importantly, you have to read what you want to write to see how other, successful writers do it.
So even if romance isn’t typically your genre, if you want to add more layered, nuanced love stories and sex scenes to your literary fiction or historical adventure novel, you can learn a thing or two by picking up some of the bestsellers in your book store’s romance section.
Examples of great sex scenes in literature
On that note, what books should you pick up, if you’re hoping to brush up on your sex writing skills? Here are a few suggestions. These aren’t erotica, so they’re a little more accessible for the average reader who’s maybe a little sex scene-shy, but who still wants to learn a thing or two.
The Widow of Rose House by Diana Biller
This book is a historical romance that follows a disgraced woman who buys a haunted house and the man who she’s enlisted to rid her of her ghosts. The tension between the love interests is strong throughout the entire book, but Biller’s multi-chapter sex scene smack-dab in the middle of it all is an excellent example of how to really linger on the important details and create a scene that follows a natural arc.
To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters
Another historical romance, this story about a plotting, conniving married couple shows how to make sex scenes work for the broader plot of a book. The sex isn’t just there for fun (even though it is fun). It’s also working to help increase the characters’ stakes and drive the book’s broader purpose.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
This historical fantasy book (and the concurrent series) offers up sex scenes in spades and they’re known to delight even those readers who wouldn’t normally find themselves big romance fans.
The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn
Similarly, this a series that doesn’t shy away from the spice. If you’ve glimpsed the Netflix hit show at all, you have an idea of what to expect, but Quinn shows you how to get all that heat that you see on-screen, and translate it to the page.
Things are gonna get a bit spicy
Writing hot sex can be difficult, but, as is the case with writing anything—any genre, any trope, any point of view, or character type that’s unfamiliar to you—practice makes perfect. So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and make a few characters get frisky.