(This post was originally published by Beyond The Margins, 9/19/2013.)
So you’re having a little trouble?
Things don’t seem to be working quite the way they should?
You’re just not feeling it, and you don’t know what to do to make things better?
Well, relax. You’re not alone. We all have problems sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with a little help from the experts…
Writing about sex can be daunting. We’re squeamish or we’re prudish or we’re terrified our mothers will read it. We bring not just the weight of our own social mores and emotional baggage, but also a healthy fear of failure. When these scenes go wrong, they go wrong badly, and they can bring a piece of writing down faster than a cold shower can…
Well, you know.
So for those of you out there who find you just can’t get things started, or find yourself petering out just when things are heating up, here are a few important strategies for making the most of your “sexual encounters.”
- No, it’s not all about plumbing. While we all know that the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone, writing about sex should not be a primer on what goes where. Sure your audience will need to have some sense of what’s going on in the live-action department, but for my money the best sex scenes often have little or nothing to do with mucous membranes. There is a place for anatomical detail: medical textbooks. As with film, or art, the most erotic renderings are often defined more by what is left to the viewer’s imagination than by what is included. A woman’s back, partially draped, captured in just the right light and just the right words, can be infinitely more evocative than a full-on blow-by-blow of who is doing what to whom.
- Writing about sex is writing about the people having it. I’ve found that writing a scene involving sex is in most ways no different from writing a scene about grocery shopping or fly-fishing. It is, first and foremost, about your characters and how they reveal themselves through their actions. Yes, sex can be an intense and climactic event in any piece of fiction, but it is also a deeply human one – one which should give significant weight to the two (or three, or four) particular people having it. By this I mean the specific habits or inclinations or aversions that are consistent with – and extrapolations of – the characters you have already developed on the page. What is going on in her head while he turns away to take that cell phone call? Why does he always leave the light on, or off? What is it about his hands/neck/eyes that invariably throws her into (or out of) the mood? The more we recognize the people who are having sex as the characters we already know them to be, the more credible and evocative the encounter will be.
- Sensual and sexual are two different things. When writing about sex, it is always a good idea to give the senses equal time. Yes, the reader will want to know what is going on in the bedroom/bathroom/boardroom, but just as important is his/her immersion in the quality of the experience. What do the buttons of her blouse feel like against the skin of his belly? Does his hair smell of smoke, or wet grass, or pomade? What does she taste when she kisses him on the mouth, and does it remind her of something/someone else? Writing with sensual detail is critical to creating the mood or tone of a sex scene – and rendering it as something consistent with the characters you’ve created. A sexual act is not passionate just because a writer asserts it is so; it’s in the specific sensual qualities of the details that a scene will really come alive.
- Not all sex scenes have to be erotic…or even pleasant. For my money, there’s nothing better than a disappointing or disturbing sex scene to reveal something important about your characters. We all know that sex can be a crucible – a barometer of what’s going on globally in a relationship. When things are tense or downright hostile in a marriage, they’re bound to show up in bed. The value of focusing on what these individuals are thinking, or saying, or not saying, and of qualifying their actions with language that feeds into the tone of the scene, cannot be overstated. There’s no end to what a reader can learn about what’s going on in a relationship in one brief, conflicted sex scene. Maybe it’s just me, but some of the best sex scenes I have read have been anything but passionate: they’ve been downright devastating.
- Know when to pull out. Obviously, sex acts have a beginning, middle, and end. But that doesn’t mean you have to report them in soup-to-nuts detail. Leaving some things to the imagination will encourage greater reader engagement, building anticipation by offering up partial, fleeting, titillating glimpses. It’s like hearing only half a song: for the rest of the day you can’t stop humming it to yourself, as though the lack of closure keeps it on permanent re-set. How many movies have been built on the premise of the almost-romance? Interrupting an unfolding sex scene can create a kind of frisson that adds urgency to both the relationship and the plot line. Like a striptease act, sometimes a little at a time is more than enough.
So go ahead. Write that scene. Pull out all the stops. Just remember: those are real people between the crisp white sheets of your manuscript – not inflatable sex toys. Treat them with all due respect.