Writing Sex Scenes.Because, honestly, there’s so much bad sex in novels these days.
One of the biggest things that annoys me about a lot of novels I read is sex. I have had a varied and interesting sex life, so there’s little that will snap me out of a novel faster than sex scenes that don’t work, or that the author clearly has no experience with.
Do you have to write sex scenes in your novel? No, of course not. But if you do, please try to get it right.
What does that mean?
In broad strokes, to begin with, it means the type of sex scene you include depends on the needs of the story and the intended audience. Is this book erotica? How expicit do you want to be? If it’s not intended as erotica, who is the audience, and what is the sex scene serving?
A lot of novels are perfectly served by a “boots scene:” you show the characters flirting, you imply they’re headed for the bedroom, then you fade out on their boots at the foot of the bed. Drop curtain, next scene.
A book that isn’t erotica will generally paint sex scenes, if it doesn’t fade to black, in broad strokes, briefly, and without a lot of detail. Enough to inform the reader what’s happening, but with enough space for the reader’s imagination.
The post-cyberpunk novel Eunice and I wrote isn’t particularly sexy at all. We didn’t quite want to show boots ont eh floor beside the bed, but we also didn’t particularly want a full-on sex scene either, so we painted with a wide brush, enough to inform the reader without showing sweaty bodies and voluptuous curves.
After a while, they came to some sort of resolution. Anna came in and locked the deadbolts behind her. “Sorry.”The contemporary urban fantasy we wrote involves a guild of spellcasting sex workers, so we couldn’t fade away wherever there’s sex; the magic system in the novel runs on sex. But we also didn’t want it to be straight-up porn, so we handled the sex broadly, without getitng into the details of the squishy bits and the old in-and-out. The most graphic scene in it looks like this:
“Ha! He wishes.”
“He’d need to be a boyfriend first.” She tossed the envelope onto the desk, where it skidded to a stop against the curved foot of one of the monitors. Neatly-banded bundles of cash slid out. She draped her arms over Nadine’s shoulders. “Where were we?”
“Right here, I think.” Nadine kissed her lower lip.
Without breaking the kiss, Anna half-led, half-dragged Nadine through a door that hung slightly askew in its ornamental frame into a large bedroom with a vaulted ceiling. A battered fan with wide black blades rotated slowly overhead. She pulled Anna down onto a huge, rumpled bed, scattered with unmade sheets and old clothes. Wherever they touched, Nadine’s skin buzzed. “Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” Nadine murmured.
Their lips met again. Electricity crackled. Anna hooked one leg around Nadine’s and pushed her off-balance. Nadine fell flailing onto her side. In an instant, Anna rolled atop of her. Nadine put a finger over Anna’s lips. “Aren’t we moving kind of fast?”
Anna’s eyes searched her face, pupils enormous under the effects of the hallucinogen. “You prefer the slow approach? Casual meetings separated by periods of longing? Furtive glances over restaurant tables? Gradual accumulation of erotic tension, building up to explosive release in one wild night of unrestrained carnality?”
“When you put it like that,” Nadine said, “it sounds like a lot of work.”
“My thoughts exactly. Now come here.”
Nadine woke the next morning to an empty bed. The sounds of someone humming floated in through the open door. She looked around the floor for her tank top, pulled it on, fished her panties out from between the bed and the wall, and followed the sound.
May had just settled behind a smooth, gleaming cherrywood desk when a tall, dark-skinned woman in a flowing blue dress swept into the room, accompanied by a group of women about May’s age who followed her in a way that reminded May of ducklings following after a mother duck.Fairly explicit, to be sure, but (I would argue) not porn, though porn is often in the eye of the beholder.
The woman—Madame Florence, May assumed—stopped in front of May. “You must be the new girl. I hear you’ve been transferred into my class without finishing your basic introduction to visualisation.”
“Um, yeah, I mean, I…yeah. I got pretty banged up. Can’t finish the yoga stuff until my rib heals.”
“I also hear you fêted Lord Dormer. You may have come out on top, but I would caution you against being too pleased with yourself. He is a formidable opponent, and now he knows you. Our adversaries bear grudges.”
“I didn’t intend—”
“It doesn’t matter what you intend. Only what you do.” She swept the dress around herself. “I am unconvinced you are a good fit, either for my class or for the Guild. Serene feels otherwise, so for her sake I will see what can be done with you.” As the others settled into their seats, she took her place at the head of the class. “Yesterday, we discussed energy storage. While it’s easiest to harness and direct sexual energy as you generate it, and particularly easy to channel your spellcasting during orgasm, you cannot always be in flagrante delicto at the exact moment you’ll need that energy. It’s useful, then, to build an internal reservoir of sexual energy. New girl.” She beckoned. “Care to help demonstrate?”
May looked around. “Me?”
“If you don’t mind. Up here, please.”
“Um, okay.” Blushing furiously under the watchful eyes of the rest of the class, May made her way to the bed at the front of the classroom/bedroom hybrid.
“Well?” Madame Florence said. “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry,” May said. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”
“Take your clothes off.”
May gaped at her. “You’re taking the piss.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“What? Here?” She glanced around at the room full of students. “In front of everyone?”
Madame Florence sighed. “You can’t expect to learn sex magic if you’re embarrassed about nudity. However, I realise this isn’t for everyone. If you’d rather not be part of the Guild—”
“Okay! Okay, fine!” May pulled off her shirt, then the lacy bra she’d worn in case Iris wanted to perform any experiments that afternoon. Eyes widened at the enormous, mottled bruise across her side, now progressing into spectacular shades of purple and black. Madame Florence lifted an eyebrow but said nothing.
Blushing, May stripped off her trousers and panties. She folded her arms as she stood waiting. “Lie down, please,” Madame Florence said. “I need another volunteer. Who is confident in their limiting spells?”
Sinnamon raised her hand. Madame Florence beckoned her up. “Now then,” she said. “With your permission, Sinnamon will place a spell on you to prevent you from getting too carried away. Class, you remember the basic emotion sensing spell we covered last week? You will cast it on May to observe how she channels her energy inward. May, I trust you remember your elementary visualisation, yes?”
“I think so,” May said, “but I don’t know how—”
“Then pay attention,” Madame Florence interrupted. She sketched out a quick diagram on the whiteboard. “Home symbol here. You have chosen a home symbol, yes?”
“Good. Shield direct open open focus union self,” she went on, sketching a pattern of symbols on the whiteboard. “Hold this pattern in your mind while you do it.”
“Do what? Why, masturbate, of course! Don’t worry, Sinnamon will make sure you can’t reach orgasm.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Madame Florence raised her eyebrow again. May sighed. “Okay, I guess you are serious. Anything in particular I should fantasise about?”
“Only this matrix.” Madame Florence tapped the whiteboard.
“Right.” May studied the whiteboard, then closed her eyes. This isn’t the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, she thought. Except it totally is, she answered herself. She lay on her back, looking up at the ceiling. The slanted mirror overhead showed her a splendid view of her classmates, all their eyes focused on her.
Sinnamon sat primly beside her. “I’m going to cast the limiting spell on you now. If it works, you won’t feel anything. Are you ready?”
“Wait, if it works?” May said. “Does that mean I’ll feel something if it doesn’t?”
Sinnamon grinned. “Nothing to worry about. Probably. You know, statistically speaking.” She closed her eyes, took several deep breaths, then laid her hand on May’s forehead, lips moving slightly. May’s heart skipped a beat. She looked away from the mirror, where all her fellow students watched her in her naked glory. “Okay,” Sinnamon said, “it’s done. You probably won’t be able to have an orgasm now, no matter how hard you try.” Her grin grew. “Though it will be fun to watch you try.”
“How long does it last?” May said.
“Focus,” Madame Florence said. “Hold the pattern in your mind. Turn your erotic energy inward.”
“Right. Visualise,” May said. “Erotic energy inward. Become a human battery. Got it.” She ran her hands over herself. Above her, in the mirror, one of the students, a short woman who looked barely out of her mid-20s, took notes in a spiral-bound notebook. May’s cheeks flushed.
She closed her eyes, trying to hold the diagram in her head. Every tiny sound, every breath, every little shift, reminded her of her audience, even as she caressed herself. She tried to shut it all out and concentrate on Iris in her lab jacket, the jacket parted to show the silky underthings beneath, but no arousal stirred. She gave up and opened her eyes. “Look, this might be normal for all of you, but it isn’t working for me. It’s hard enough wanking when there's just one person watching. With a whole room full of people? You lot are just freakier than I am, I guess.”
The woman with the notebook frowned. Students whispered behind their hands. “Would you like my help?” Sinnamon said.
“Um, well, I…” May stammered. “I, um, look, you’re lovely, but…”
“I’m flattered, but I had an arousal spell in mind. Though if you’re up for something more, come find me later.”
“I, err, that is…” Titters swept through the room. A hot flush crawled down May’s body. “Okay, fine. Do it.”
Sinnamon brushed the hair away from May’s eyes. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed. Look into my eyes.”
May gazed up at her. This woman really did have beautiful eyes, May realised, a rich warm brown. Her lips curved upward in a quirky smile that made May wonder what it would be like to kiss her. May let her eyes trace the curve of Sinnamon’s neck, following the line of the deep-cut V in her dress that hinted at wonders within. She wore no bra, May noted, and the dress flattered her body in exactly the right way…
“I think you’re ready,” Sinnamon said. “Try again.”
May jolted back to herself, aware suddenly of the heat within her, the hunger. “Holy hell! That’s a neat trick. You could package that and sell it.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
May closed her eyes and conjured the image of the symbols behind her eyelids. She let her hands wander over herself without haste. The small noises from her audience seemed less intrusive. A mental picture of Iris floated through her mind, her lab jacket slipping open…
May pushed the image firmly aside and thought about the symbols on Madame Florence’s whiteboard. She held them there behind her eyelids while one hand crept down her body, lower and lower. When her questing fingers reached her most sensitive spot, she let out a soft sigh. For just a moment, it occurred to her to wonder if the student with the notebook recorded her sigh. “57 seconds in, the subject emitted a nonvocalized sound of pleasure.” The thought nearly shattered her concentration.
She dragged her attention back to the diagram Madame Florence had drawn, with its symbols whose meanings were opaque to her. A flutter passed through her as her fingers worked. She wondered what she looked like, sprawled naked on the bed, women sitting in tidy rows paying such close attention to her. The thought, rather than embarrassing her, seemed to add to her excitement. Might as well give them a show, she thought.
She parted her legs wide and brought her other hand up to fondle herself, fingers running lightly over her nipple, wondering what it would be like to feel Iris’s lips there. The symbols in her mind grew more vivid, etched in her imagination with lucid clarity. Her pulse quickened. Her fingers moved faster. Her body tensed. She moaned, oblivious to the audience, focused only on the heady glow of oncoming orgasm.
Faster and faster her fingers blurred, as May screamed and writhed on the bed, need vibrating through her body. The symbols blazed in her mind, fierce and bright, filling her head. She yearned desperately for the ecstasy that seemed just out of reach, always coming closer without ever arriving…
May arched her back, lifting her hips entirely off the bed. She bucked frantically, every nerve alight with desire, with a need for release stronger than she’d ever known before. The classroom and its people faded to nothing, completely forgotten as she pursued ecstasy that would not come.
Madame Florence touched her shoulder. “That’s enough.”
May crashed abruptly back into the real world, onto the bed beneath the mirror, panting, skin glowing with sweat. She drew her fingers away from herself, suddenly and acutely self-conscious. The fiery need still blazed within her, a desperate yearning for blissful release, even as the symbols faded from her mind. She still trembled on the edge of orgasm, even though she no longer touched herself. She propped herself up on her elbows. The near-orgasm rang through her body. “What’s happening?”
“You’ve successfully cast the spell,” Madame Florence said. “The pattern you just utilised is a simple charm designed to catch and hold your energy, so that you have it available when you need it.”
“So I’ll just…keep feeling like this? Like I’m just about to come?”
“That’s the idea.”
“How long will this…state I’m in last?”
“Class, who can answer May’s question?” The woman with the notebook raised her hand. “Yes, Freya?”
“Until you either release the energy, which you won’t be able to do as long as the limiting spell remains in effect, or channel it into a casting.”
“Correct,” Madame Florence said.
“So you just…walk around like this?” May said.
“Of course,” Madame Florence said. “Learning to keep a reserve of emotional energy to power your spells is foundational to effective spellcasting.”
Light dawned behind May’s eyes. “Those people who tried to kill us last night, the mages or spellcasters or whatever you call them, if their magic runs on rage, then…”
A book that is intended to be full-on erotica? Sex scenes can be written in detail, with imagination and vividness, from inside the characters’ heads. The Passionate Pantheon series of far-future, post-scarcity erotica Eunice and I write can get quite explicit:
“This is your first party?” Lanissae said. “Did you pledge yourself as entertainment?”In all these cases, the sex scene (and the degree of explicitness) serves the interests of the story. Eunice and I have removed really hot sex scenes from our science fiction erotica because they didn’t advance the plot or tell the reader something about the characters or the world.
“No,” Kaytin said. “Jakalva just asked me a bunch of questions about my City. My old City, I mean. She said that was my price of admission.”
“You got off easy,” Royat said.
“What was it like being in that cage?” Kaytin said. “Did you like it? Did you hate it? Did you have any fun at all? Was it awful?”
“Yes,” Royat said. “To all of those.” He shook himself. “I’m sorry if I hurt you, Lanissae.”
Lanissae chuckled. “Don’t be silly! You didn’t hurt me. Well, okay, I mean, yes, you did. That’s what I was there for. But you didn’t hurt me hurt me.” She leaned back and stretched languidly, arms over her head. The front of her robe slipped open. “I wouldn’t mind getting in that cage with you again. Not right now,” she added at his expression. “Perhaps another party.”
The woman came by with the tray, gasping and moaning openly at every step, her body shuddering with pleasure. Lanissae snared three vials. She drank the contents of one of them, then held up a second, a small jeweled transparent thing filled with deep amber liquid. “Would you like this?”
Kaytin blinked. Her body buzzed. She remembered Lanissae’s cries when Royat ravished her, the way she struggled beneath him. A hot flush ran through her. “Yes, please,” she heard herself say, as if from a long way away.
Lanissae uncapped the vial and poured it into her mouth. She beckoned Kaytin with her finger. Kaytin leaned forward, heart hammering. Lanissae put her hand delicately behind Kaytin’s head and drew her forward. Their lips met. Sweet liquid flowed from Lanissae’s mouth into Kaytin’s, tasting faintly of vanilla. Kaytin swallowed. A warm flush spread through her body.
Lanissae leaned back, smiling lazily. “Give this to Royat,” she said. “He looks like he could use it.” She uncapped the third vial and emptied it into her mouth, then leaned toward Kaytin. Kaytin kissed her again. Electricity crackled through her when their lips touched. She accepted the liquid and turned toward Royat. He touched her shoulder gently, hesitantly. His lips brushed hers. She flicked her tongue against his lips. The liquid flowed. He swallowed.
Time stretched out. They kept kissing while the party drifted away to someplace small and insignificant. The kiss went on and on, until it seemed to Kaytin she could not remember a time when she had been doing anything besides kissing him. His robe parted. Kaytin crawled forward without breaking the kiss. After a moment of fumbling with her dress, she settled onto his lap, still kissing him, sighing softly as he slid into her. She remained still, feeling him unmoving deep within her as she focused her attention on the warmth of his lips against hers, the delicate flutter of his tongue. Then somehow Lanissae was behind her, hands soft and warm on her shoulders. She turned her head to kiss Lanissae. Royat’s lips found the hollow of her neck. She moaned.
She stayed there, motionless, savoring the erection thick and hard within her while Lanissae and Royat kissed her neck and caressed her body. She was briefly aware of Jakalva, who came by and watched them for a moment with a half-smile on her face. Jakalva gestured to the utility drone that floated above their heads and put her finger to her lips. The field shimmered. The music faded away, shrouding the three of them in silence.
How do you manage sex scenes? The same way you manage a non-sex scene: you imagine the setting, the characters, the dialogue, then write down what you see.
A lot of people who include explicit sex in their fiction seem to have a kind of dumpling-stew approach, with great blobs of sex floating about in a broth of plot and characterization. Eunice and I have made a conscious decision that if we write a sex scene, it must serve the narrative in some way—plot and sex aren’t separate things, but rather, in our porn, any sex scene must serve the plot. The characters make choices or reveal something about themselves during the sex, or the plot advances during the sex, or the reader learns something about the world during sex.
That actually created a weird disconnect with some early readers of our first porn novel, when one reader complained that the plot made no sense. We determined later that that reader sort of glossed over the sex scenes (which is apparently common in written erotica, as weird as that seems) so missed some important plot and worldbuilding points. I’m not quite sure I understand why you’d read erotica and then skip the sex, but what do I know?