Writing Effective Sex Scenes (Without Embarassing Yourself or Others)

In honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m tackling a subject that many beginning novelists find challenging: sex scenes.  Sex scenes require finesse and attention to craft, but they don’t have to be difficult to write.  Just keep in mind the purpose that they serve.

Like any other scene, sex scenes must do the following:

  • advance the plot
  • develop the characters
  • create a mood
  • leave the reader wondering what will happen next

Love in a cave

Sex scenes work best when much is left to the reader's imagination.

Sex scenes do not require detailed description of the action.  One of the cardinal rules of writing fiction is that you should never tell readers something they already know.  Readers already know that characters have certain body parts, and that during sex, those body parts will interact in certain ways. Unless you want to stress something that’s unusual about the body parts or the interaction, you can avoid mentioning them altogether. Implication is sufficient.  The readers’ imagination will fill in the rest.

What does interest readers is how the characters feel about the action. Are they blissful, bored, insecure, or confident? Is the protagonist hoping that this is the man she’ll spend the rest of her life with, or is she mentally composing a grocery list?

As in any other scene, sensory detail is important. Again, you don’t have to tell readers what sex feels like; assuming that you’re writing for adults, most of them already know. Instead, choose details that are specific to the character. Does the protagonist notice that her lover’s sheets are cheap and rough, whereas she’s used to 300-thread-count cotton? Does that make him less attractive to her? Or does she think he just needs a good woman to teach him about the finer things in life? If the latter, do you, as the author, want this to be a warning sign to readers that the protagonist is blind to how incompatible the couple is? Or do you want to show that they complement each other—that they’re both open to growth? Focus on how the action of the scene ties into the larger action of the novel.

Sex scenes can be emotionally intense.  They often show characters at their most vulnerable. They can be turning points in a relationship or a novel. Remember that sex scenes are about character, not about sex, and approach them without fear.

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3 thoughts on “Writing Effective Sex Scenes (Without Embarassing Yourself or Others)

  1. This post gave me a lot of food for thought. I’m working on my NANO book right now and central to the plot is an affair between a therapist and his patient. The first time they sleep together has to be shown in real time to work, but how to show it has been confusing me. I wrote just a paragraph or two implying what happened, but this post has given me great ideas for improving it. Thanks!

  2. Thanks so much for posting this, Andrea! I really needed this post tonight as I’m about to approach my first sex scene. I knew I would get to it, so I knew I had to come check out your post first. This definitely is going to help me. Thanks!

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