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Writing Sex Scenes: How Much Is Too Much?

writing a sex sceneWe all know that sex sells. But when it comes to writing, it can be difficult to pull off a sex scene. In certain genres (like general fiction and memoir), a writer takes a big risk by exposing nitty-gritty details. An analogy explains why:

  • A badly written scene is NOT the guy who lights up the party. But at least nobody pays attention to him.
  • A badly written sex scene is the guy who does too many shots, gets up on the table to dance, hurls on his shoes, and then drunk-dials every ex-girlfriend in his phone before passing out in the bathroom.

In other words, when a love scene goes wrong, it goes really wrong. Sex scenes, especially bad ones, stand out.

In fact, awkward sex scenes—especially ones that were meant to impress—are so noticeable that there’s a Bad Sex in Fiction award given out by Literary Review.  This is one award you don’t want to win!

Decisions, decisions. Do you really need an explicit sex scene?

If you’re writing an erotic romance, you will need a detailed sex scene (or ten). Sometimes, more is more. And in erotic subgenres (like erotic thrillers and even some horror fiction), readers lust for dirty little details. If you’re writing the type of book that deliberately leaves readers panting for a sex scene, then it’s probably a good idea to follow through.

But for general fiction and nonerotic genre fiction, steamy sex scenes aren’t always necessary (or even recommended). Mainstream fiction and nonfiction can be hot and sexy without crossing the line into blatant erotica. The trick is to incorporate sensuality into your story in a way that 1) doesn’t offend your audience and 2) fits the overall tone of your work.

Sex Scenes: How To Avoid Overkill Or Underkill

Consider the genre. Unless your story is meant to be consistently and explicitly erotic, readers generally don’t need to examine the sex act in microscopic detail. Every genre will have its “rules.” If you’re going to write a sex scene, know what your particular readers like. (If you’re not sure what readers of a certain genre expect, it’s time to head to the library and start studying your favorite writers’ techniques.)

Setting sets the mood. In a thriller, where the characters are racing the clock to save the president, a scene of prolonged sexual seduction is a little unlikely. But if the characters survive a huge tragedy, they may fall into each other’s arms, happy to be alive and anxious to reaffirm life. In a futuristic fantasy, the scene could take on an entirely new dimension!

Move it or lose it. A good sex scene moves the plot forward. There are perfectly good reasons for incorporating a sex scene into your book. If your book is about a budding romantic relationship, then a natural culmination of that relationship might be a passionate love scene. Or if a hunky hero needs to steal the combination to a safe, it’s plausible that he might use his manly charms to get the job done. But simply throwing sex scenes into an otherwise non-explicit novel because “sex sells” is selling out. It will make your book feel uneven, awkward, and contrived.

sex scenes in writing, kiss markQuit while you’re ahead. Consider whether subtle seduction would be more powerful than a graphic description of the sex act itself. A heated glance across the room. A lingering touch as hands brush in the hallway. Focusing on the subtle cues of sex—rather than obviously sexual acts—may create a powerful and lasting impression on the reader. Chances are, if implication is enough to get the job done, then you’ve done enough. Any more may seem like a ploy for attention, like our friend with the lampshade on his head.

Fill in the blanks. If you’re afraid of overkill, remember that the power of suggestion can be…powerfully suggestive. Hint, imply, tease, and tempt, and you’ll find that readers will hang on your every word. Force the reader to actively use his or her imagination, and you’ll craft captivating prose without stepping into explicit erotica territory.

Go with the flow. A general rule of thumb is to be consistent: If you lean heavily on elements of physical seduction—with lots of increasingly sweaty detail—your climactic sex scene will need to follow through. If the tension between your characters builds in a more subtle way, with more emphasis on emotion than lust, then the sex scene should be subtle too.

Stay true to characterization. A nervous, flighty, fidgety woman is not likely to be languorous and smooth in bed. An artistic character may be aroused by visuals—the light on a partner’s skin, etc. Newlyweds may act differently than an old married couple. Keep characterization in mind when it comes to dialogue, language, and sexual terminology as well. And don’t forget to address the characters’ reactions afterward—sex can be loaded with emotion.

To be clear, we’re NOT saying that you should always tone down, obscure, or lessen your sex scenes. Sometimes, a book needs a sex scene…or three…or five. The key is making good choices.

It’s up to you whether your characters are going to end up, well, together. And it’s up to you how much of their togetherness you want to share with the audience. If the scene fits the theme, character, audience, and genre of your novel, go ahead, include a sex scene. Just keep it real, keep it exciting, and make your readers happy!

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: How do you balance sexy with smutty (or do you even need to)? Share your tips for generating heat without going overboard.

27 Responses to Writing Sex Scenes: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. I’ve started writing intimate scenes quite recently, and found that I rather enjoy it. But I do confess that my descriptions thereof might be a little bit ‘dry’ now and again (for lack of a better description). But, reason for that – I want to make it captivating without making it sound dirty, so to speak. I want to make it more loving, rather than lusting, if I may use that term. But any further suggestions might really help me, if you have any time.

  2. I find writing sex scenes incredibly difficult because I am inexperienced. I don’t think I am much of a writer actually.

  3. Personally, I am usually a less is more kind of person when it comes to sex scenes in mainstream fiction. I do agree that in some cases, more detailed depictions are necessary to advance the plot, or even to fit the personalities of the characters. However, when I’ve come across scenes in mainstream fiction that seem to include more detail than is needed, it feels a bit forced to me. Plus, I’ve found that in books that tend to be more subtle in development, an explicit scene would likely just seem tacky. I believe that in mainstream fiction, especially because it may be picked up by a larger audience than more specific genres, overly detailed sex scenes may in fact be a turn off for readers who were not expecting such detail in a non-erotic book. But as I said above, there are definitely some valid exceptions to this.

  4. I don’t know if I am too late to post here, but here is my 2 cents worth.

    I think that the explicitness of the description should match the point you are trying to make. In an affair that is purely lustful you can be more explicit because the emotion of lust focuses us on the acts more than the emotion. It is about the tingle, the heat, the touch and the feel. Where as, sex as a result of a deep, loving relationship is more about the connection of the people involved than the specific acts of love. Therefore, you focus less on the sex and more on the feelings engendered in your characters as a result of it. You have to tailor your description to match the emotional state of the characters in the scene. This I do believe there should be no “gratuitous” scenes of any type in a story. All scenes should act to move your plot forward and establish your characters, or they should be removed. This goes for sex as well.

  5. I think Terry up there has the right idea, because suggestiveness is very appealing to the mind. You don’t want the book to describe every little thing in detail- (most) people like to use their imagination (a lot of the time). This is because the reader has a view of this character; who they are, what they would say or do in a certain environment. This is one of the reasons why a lot of authors prefer to just use “said” after a character talks. Plus I’ve found that the people who like things being described perfectly are the kinds of people who value movies more than books (again, most of the time. Everyone’s different).
    I’ve read my fair share of books with such scenes in them, and each is different. There aren’t really any rules as to how it’s done, nor any codes to follow.
    The best advice: do what feels right for your story.

  6. I don’t know… It all depends on the plot, right? Some inexperienced characters, after crossing paths with “the one”, find themselves liberated {inexplicably!} and multiple wanton sex scenes follow. I’ve also read books on the reverse, where the brash and experienced protagonists opt for celibacy, culminating in a single sex scene in the last chapter, or none at all {Grrrh!}. One of my novels, Love’s Pendulum, has the characters getting busy within pages. Another that I’m slaving over truly has no need for the scenes though in these times we live in, not including one will probably leave my readers feeling cheated.
    Plot and characterization are of greater importance in a romance novel than plying the audience with unnecessary sex, I believe.

  7. Sarah, that’s quite the comment! Notably, our line, “But for general fiction and nonerotic genre fiction, steamy sex scenes aren’t always necessary,” was meant more towards writers with a target audience in mind.

    It’s true that sex is a part of life, and so, when appropriate, it can be just as integral a part of your story. What we’re warning against is inserting detailed sex scenes for the sake of having a sex scene. Sometimes, anything more than generalization—or even just a subtle hint that it took place—can be detrimental to a story, depending on the attitude of the characters, the setting, etc. Likewise, if your novel is a very serious mystery/thriller, an unexpected, steamy sex scene might turn off an otherwise engaged reader.

    Regarding the physical attributes of your characters, it, again, depends on the direction in which the author is going. If the author wants his/her characters to seem like flawed, average Joes, then a steamy, complicated sex scene might be slightly out of character. How the author uses sex is what truly matters; if it’s supposed to be meaningless, then detail isn’t all that important. If, however, the sex is an important part of the story and, as you mentioned, reveals certain attributes of the characters to the reader, then it would be appropriate.

    We certainly don’t want to “scare” authors away from using sex in their books. We do, however, want to warn said authors not to use it inappropriately or outside the scope of their work; outlining your story in advance and planning when, where, and how sex will be most appropriate is the best way to get your work accepted!

    Hope this helped!

  8. A quote from above:
    “But for general fiction and nonerotic genre fiction, steamy sex scenes aren’t always necessary”

    Ok, “steamy” being the operative word. Some of this is hilarious BTW. looks like we’re talking about scenes designed to get people excited. In lit fiction or mainstream I don’t think that is the point. In porn it is so yes, the scenes need to be followed through to the sticky steaming end…BUT, if you are trying to say something with the inclusion of the sex, then it is like sex itself, the performance doesn’t matter on the usual expected levels…did this make me hot, did this make me want to read more etc. If a writer is trying to do someting with the sex like bring you into the intimate life of a couple, or use it as a metaphor for something else, or even test the reader by including lots of details and by doing that they are making a point and trying to make the reader think differently, then by all means go for it and be fearless!

    Another quote: “If you lean heavily on elements of physical seduction—with lots of increasingly sweaty detail—your climactic sex scene will need to follow through.” Also, this line again shows how this seems to be written for people who have just story in mind and may need to be reminded not to veer off the path for too long. The thing that bugs me about all of it, really is how sex just continues to be this comodity. In movies and books. So if you are writing it in a book, sex can’t be between two people who just got done with a run, they are sweaty, and fifteen pounds overweight, that would not be sexy so it really can’t go into a book where the author is pandering to what people expect.

    I am imagining one of these sorts of books where the hero is wealthy, ripped and an international adventurer, and runs his own corporate enterprise of some sort. This sort of hero, and its corresponding heroine, the gorgeous woman who doesn’t think she is, who can do everything better than everyone else, and in heels! come up in all over the place. People are again judged based on outward stuff, and like in pornography, they exist based on these things. This person is worthy of love because they have XYZ going on…the sex is a reward of sorts.

    So in books like EL Doctorow’s ‘Book of Daniel’, there are these awesome and disturbing scenes where you get to see what the person is like on the inside, while they are having sex, and what they do with the sex says about them. In scenes like this, whether or not anything is “sexy” is completely irrelevant.

    I just wish we could treat sex not as a commodity, but as an important aspect of being human. Characters eat, watch sunsets, walk dogs, do yoga, have sex, kiss, bathe…all these things. Why should one be more important than another, or left out if it is telling about the character?

    Your point about characterization was good, but should go to everything you have a character do. The fact that sex is discussed differently is telling on its own.

    So, ok, to sum up…I agree you should not put sex in a book just to make it sell. BUT I am against giving writers rules that will scare them away from going all the way with their work. If there is any conceivable reason to include sex in a book, I of course am for it.

    Other excellent writers who include sex in their work: Marco Vassi, Anne Rice (Rampling), Junot Diaz, David Guy, David Steinberg, Nicholson Baker

  9. Since I write erotica, I’m not sure I’m competent to write on this topic.

    But when I come across a scene where the author fades to black just as things are starting to get rolling, it comes across to me as an act of cowardice.

    The authors I’d emulate when it comes to sex scenes are people like Jacqueline Carey, who can be quite explicit without being laughable.

  10. Writing the first sex scene in Z.O.S. with help from CW Smith in Taos, NM, I first drafted “fold flap A into slit B and twist to 90 degree,” or some variation. After a bazillion drafts, I pared back to a more sensuous scene. A rape scene in a bar in Sai-Gon 1968 is challenging to pen.

  11. Old books opening to certain pages, which might indicate some rereading, which might lead into a plot of a story. At least in the near future before everybody förgets about paper books…

  12. Some people (largely males) are turned on by danger. But since most romance readers are women…
    At one point I worked in a used book exchange/store. Drop a romance novel on the floor and guess what page it opens to. There’s a market for that readership and writers who will create content for it.
    Otherwise romance and sex scenes should be used sparingly to advance the story line.

  13. IMO, I don’t like sex scenes. I’d rather get on with the plot than the lovey dovey stuff. What gets me is when the scene happens to be when something, or someone is chasing the characters down. How is it that you decide to do the deed when you’re in danger? I’ll never understand that….

  14. I write multicultural romance/ women’s fiction so sex scenes are a part of the story. My stories average three scenes, but each has a reason to be there. Not just for entertainment, but to progress the story, show the characters emotional development, and in some cases set the stage for a upcoming story point. Let’s face it, sex can be fun but if smart decisions aren’t made, the repercussions from it can have a ripple effect for not only the characters involved, but others as well. It all depends on the story your telling.

  15. My recently published book (Facets of Love) has two love scenes. One is a teaser where only desire happens. The other is a married love scene with details that mature people will understand, but not explicit enough for younger ones, (I hope). I needed the culmination of the love scene, because throughout the book, there was tension and desire as the young, engaged couple thought about their upcoming marriage. The second love scene was not only sensual, It was fun. The couple started laughing about trying to quell the sounds of the squeeky bed springs with a family member in the room next door.
    I agree with Helene. A sex scene is certainly not easy to write.

  16. This is an important consideration when you’re selecting your audience. Be discreet and teens will be able to read your novels without overreactions from their parents/guardians, even if most of the rest of the content is ‘mature.’ Be too explicit and your novel may never see a high school library.

  17. I’m pretty conservative, so I write what I think will be good for general audiences, then refer to my critique group for more or less. Usually they say ‘more’, and since they are mostly women, I feel pretty safe. Still, I like to leave a little to the readers’ imaginations.

  18. In my own work, I try to keep things to a PG or PG-13 level. As William Goldman remarks in ‘The Princess Bride’, everyone is entitled to a few moments of genuine privacy. You can inform readers of who’s doing what with whom without getting clinical. Too much detail kills romance.

  19. I share Terry’s wish for a new Edit button.

    More to the point, I’m rather in the Jasson team, although no longer a teen either :-)

    A related question is how much consistent shall a boundary-crossing writer stay? Same percentage of sex scenes in most stories and novels (readers know what to expect), or “amusement” (through surprise and variation ;-) ?

  20. My novel, based on real persons, locations and history, has two love scenes. They both involve the heroine (who is my mother, of all people). No doubt she’s either laughing or weeping at me from above. She never breathed a word of her sexual experiences, so these scenes are 100% from of my imagination. I made it a point to avoid derogatory terms or slang. I read it aloud to a male friend as an experiement, who admitted arousel. In retrospect, the scene is a useful facet of the heroine’s total take on life and love. It wasn’t critical to the story, but a insightful element. Talk about using a Thesaurus! I believe the finished product is seductive, classy, sexy and realistic. It ain’t easy though! Indeed it’s easier to write smut. SWAK (and write on)

  21. Wish we could edit our comments before posting … I often mistype because of tremors and uneven strength in my fingers, and sometimes the result is a misspelled word which I don’t see until it is in bold print. Does anyone else share this wish?

  22. It is why I often go back to older books … tastefully written rather than gratuitously embellished with the apparently required for marketing scenes… I have an imagination. I don’t need a how-to scene. I’m in my sixties, call me a prude, but I buy books… and I don’t buy those that tell too much.

  23. It is why I often go back to older books … tastefully written rather than gratuitously embellished with the apparently required for marketing scenes… I have an imagination. I don’t need a how-to scene. I’m in my sixties, call me a prude, but I buy books… and I don’t buy those that tell to much.

  24. I’m of the more is more school. I don’t think a love scene should have to move the plot forward in a step by step way. Sometimes taking a break from the story for a sex scene is a good thing.

  25. Sex scenes in literary fiction don’t even need to involve sex at all! One of my favorite ‘sex scenes’ that I ever read was about a girl riding a horse. The scene was meant to parallel two other characters who were about to ‘get it on’. The description was so incredibly erotic and sensual that there was no doubt in the reader’s mind what the writer was truly getting at.

    Don’t rule out sex if your genre doesn’t call for you to be smutty. Just think outside the box!

  26. I think for mainstream novels, you’re safe if you’re not mentioning body parts that make people blush. Like a “safe” Hollywood love scene, you show the kissing, maybe the man’s shirt comes off, and then the scene cuts to the couple covered up again, at least under sheets. You kind of skip over the parts where you’d have to describe the “nitty-gritty.” Once you move into the specifics and pointing out ALL the actions from start to finish, it gets harder to keep that mainstream and seeming relevant to the story. That level should probably be kept to romance genre books where it seems more appropriate and not shocking.

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