The language of love

One thing I know about writing sex scenes – I find it tricky to strike the right tone and, as a consequence, I tend to stop at the bedroom door, so to speak.

These scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. The Literary Review even created the annual Bad Sex Award to celebrate ‘the worst, most redundant or embarrassing description of physical joining, in a novel.’  http://www.literaryreview.co.uk/badsexpassages.html

Published writers admit that writing sex scenes turns them on – and the best way to make sure a scene is sexy, is to make sure you find it sexy.

Writing my sex scenes physically excites me, as it should.’ John Updike.

The problem with writing about sex is that in a way you’re preaching to the converted. Almost everyone over a certain age will have experienced what you’re attempting to convey. You’re not writing a how-to manual on tailoring a suit; you can assume that your readers will already have a thorough knowledge of the mechanics and you don’t need to report on this unless it gives some insight into a character’s state of mind.

It may no longer be possible to fob readers off with a row of dots as soon as the action hots up, but this doesn’t mean you can get away with anything. If you’re not writing explicit pornography you may have difficulty deciding which terms to use to describe, erm, certain anatomical attributes, but if you listen to your characters, they will know for sure.

Sex can be an expression of love, anger, frustration, rage, submission, sometimes all of these at once, but it must have a purpose in the story. An erotic encounter in our writing should obey the usual rules of giving some insight into the characters’ personalities, as well as moving the story forward in some way, but it’s also an opportunity to show them in action and reflect their thoughts and intentions. It should reveal something about the characters – a tendency to be cruel, perhaps, or a worrying lack of self-control – or it should illustrate some aspect of the plot.

The era your characters inhabit will affect how you write about their sex lives, as will the sex of the characters themselves. The tone you use should be appropriate to the time, but also to the characters and their particular situations. If you know them well you will also know what they want and how they will ask for it. Familiarity might breed contempt, but it will also inform what your characters say to each other and how they react. A couple married for 20 years will approach lovemaking in a different way to a boy and girl exploring the sexual aspect of their relationship for the first time. Familiarity, or lack of it, will play a very important part in how you write the scene; the type of relationship the characters have is crucial to how you describe it.

These days there’s no need to rely on slang or euphemism, and technically precise descriptions won’t win you many fans, either. Too much emphasis on how the various parts are moving in relation to each other might just suggest that the mind isn’t similarly engaged. Also, check for ambiguities – in a sexual encounter unintended double-entendres will render your work laughable.

Remember that fashions change and what may have been considered pornographic a couple of decades ago will now be perfectly acceptable. In a novel with serious themes and properly drawn characters sex scenes form an integral part of the whole. Including a few gratuitous sex scenes will not transform a poor book into a good one.

Don’t forget that, even in real life, not all sex is mind-blowingly good. We all have our off days. Some sex is clumsy or unsatisfactory and your writing should be able to illustrate this. The sex might not be very good, but your writing should be. Enjoy it.

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10 thoughts on “The language of love

  1. I tend to stay away from this type of thing in my writing, not so much because I’m averse to it, but because in thrillers, stopping to include a sex scene can slow down the pacing. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. 😉

  2. My tendency is to leave things at the bedroom door (or family room floor or wherever….). Honestly, I’m just no good at writing a sexy scene. So the reader either knows that’s where they’re going or where they were. If there’s one area where we all share good imaginations, it’s probably sex. So I figure readers can illustrate those scenes for themselves if they so desire. 😉

  3. I don’t have sex scenes per se but my characters do venture into passionate embraces and then I leave it. More like before and after scenes. Great post. 🙂

  4. I have never written one as it wouldn’t fit in the novels I’ve been writing but thinking about it now that I’ve read your post, it would be a very difficult thing to do

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