Fish do it, bees do it, even microbial plankton do it.
Humans do it, they pant and moan, groan and thrash about as characters in books. Sometimes in beautiful prose, other times in awkward stinted description that leaves the reader confused, squirming, or in hysterics if it’s done poorly―brilliantly if a comical angle was the intention. The best and worst scenes tend to get noticed.
There are awards for poorly written sex scenes: the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for ‘outstandingly bad scene of sexual description.’ Maybe some writers find it difficult to write about sex and get it horribly wrong. Cultural reasons might be at play, or simply it’s a squeamish topic to write about so it isn’t treated with the degree of care as it should. As a corollary, the Good Sex in Fiction award goes to that piece of writing scrutinised and judged “best”.
First, let me set out I’m talking sex, not love. These aren’t mutually inclusive ideas. You can have one without the other. Relationships of deep love can exist without sex, and sex can be a simple transaction with little or no emotion or further explanation required.
How to Write a Sex Scene
Think of the act itself as a character in your story, with all the depth and complexities you’d expect from one your characters. Make it believable and treat it as an entity worthy of your time and effort to get right. After all, people have wonderfully weird ideas about sex and probably your characters do too.
Sex is hardly ever just about sex ― Shirley MacLaine
Writing a sex scene should read as natural as any other scene. It should fit in with the rest of the work unless the scene is pivotal, then it should leave a lasting emotional imprint. And like every scene it has to serve a purpose. The reason can be purely physical desire, but the scope of possible reasons is wider. The seeking of power and wealth, to corrupt or blackmail. To show a character outside their comfort zone and introduce some inner tension, or release. I’m not talking about erotic books whose sole aim is to titillate. And I’m not talking Fifty Shades.
Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power ― Oscar Wilde
If it’s promiscuous youthful experience, the description might be more mechanical, about discovering mysteries, busting myths and self-discovery. An older person might be pragmatic about sex, more emotionally equipped than someone younger with less sexual experience. Then again, it would be great to turn this on its head and have the older person the virgin, and the younger person with more experience than their age suggests.
The reader can be drawn into your story through sharing the intimacy between characters. It can introduce a flaw, to open up a pathway for empathy, or to compound an established opinion. Typically, there exists an imbalance of power. There are plenty of examples in literature of someone powerful loosing him or herself over to their sexual desires; power shifts exposing a character trait not otherwise seen. Sex doesn’t have to be the lever, but we are sexual beings. And as sexual beings, sex is a natural part of life. Like eating and sleeping, to not get it right misses an important part of who we are.
The Nuts and Bolts
Sexual description doesn’t have to be explicit and detailed, but it can. It can be as detailed as you like, if its appropriate. And sex can be suggestive but shouldn’t be confusing to read. Take the following example in Bunker, by Aniruddha Bahal.
“She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.”
Nor should it be blatantly banal and unimaginative as in Head of State, by Andrew Marr.
“They bucked like deer and squirmed like eels. And after that, vice-versa.”
The difference between pornography and erotica is lighting – Gloria Leonard
Visceral experience of a sexual nature tend to acquiesce to clichéd sensations and descriptions. Though tempting euphemisms might be, don’t go there. Think of the words typically used to describe sex; hot; steamy; wet; hard; explode.
Have your bump and grind, adult nap time, bit of crumpet, baking the potato, banana in a fruit salad, bow-chick-a-wow-wow, doing the horizontal greased-weasel tango, monkey business, opening the gates of Mordor on your own time. Not every sexual encounter “rocked my world”. So unless you’re writing a book on Sex Euphemisms, keep your beef bus away from tuna town and buy a machine to roll the hay. Your readers deserve better.
Even getting it right doesn’t shield against criticism. Those self-righteous prudish types insensitive to the human experience are always lurking. Here are some classics once banned because of their sexual content; Lady Chatterley’s Lover; The Great Gatsby; The Catcher in the Rye; and Lolita to name a few. Currently banned in Malaysia is the Fifty Shades Trilogy.
But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will not ignore at its very root: there is no God worth worrying about ― Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera (I just wanted to add a line from Márquez).
Also published on Medium.