Long ago (in a galaxy far, far away) I work-shopped a novel in an online writing workshop. One of the draws of the workshop was the “Editor’s Choice”: a professional critique given by the editor in residence to two lucky selections a month. I had the honor of having a chapter selected as “Editor’s Choice” one month. The editor was a scifi writer that I hugely respect. His critique, in retrospect, was kind and encouraging. At the time, it literally made me puke. Several times.
Why? Because he’d chosen a sex scene to review. It was the first sex scene I’d posted in public, anywhere. I was incredibly uncomfortable posting it, and incredibly uncomfortable with his review. I focused on the one negative thing he said to the exclusion of all else, decided I couldn’t write sex scenes, and didn’t publish another sex scene for several years.
Then I got over myself.
Sex is fundamental to the human experience. Whether we’re having it, thinking about having it, not having it, wanting to have it, or wanting to have it with someone different, sex defines much of our thinking between puberty and death. It follows for me that writing which concerns itself with the human experience, is necessarily concerned with sex. I’ve always liked this Gertrude Stein quote on the subject:
The literature that I want to read addresses sex, one way or another. It may not show it explicitly, but I rather prefer it when it does. Graphic violence, horror, gore, doesn’t bother me. Why should graphic sex? I suspect it’s just the lingering Puritan in me. Time to shed that particular lineage.
Given that sex is so fundamental, why are sex scenes so hard to write well? The “Editor’s Choice” review I got was a review of my chapter, but it was really about the difficulty of writing an effective sex scene. It’s a tightrope. Err too far on the side of clinical description and the sex scene becomes decidedly unsexy, even creepy (which can be fine if you’re writing horror – some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read were the sex scenes in Nancy Collin’s Sonya Blue and Wild Blood series). But on the other end of the scale is soft-soaping the sex scene down to where the reader isn’t sure what went where, when or why. Quite the tightrope.
Although my books are full of sex scenes, I actually find them incredibly difficult to write. I labor over sex scenes, writing and rewriting them. I’ve abandoned stories because I’ve gotten stuck on sex scenes. But I’ve also had incredibly positive feedback on the sex scenes I’ve exposed to the public eye. So what makes a sex scene work?
- Pitch it right. Like Gertrude Stein, I prefer graphic sex scenes, but I appreciate that not all genres, or even all stories, fit graphic sex scenes. If the story glosses over graphic violence, gore, etc., then a graphic sex scene doesn’t “fit” and feels gratuitous.
- Advance the plot or characterization. I’m totally fine with plot-less erotica on its own, but not as part of a story with plot. A sex scene can advance the story in a lot of ways. It can be a plot point, or reveal some detail of characterization. Sex can be intimate – it can bring characters together. Or it can be alienating and drive them apart. But the story or characters should not be the same coming out of the sex scene as they were going in. If they are, then the sex scene has actually stalled the story and maybe it doesn’t belong there.
- Make it “climactic.” This has nothing to do with orgasms (sorry). Most sex scenes are the culmination of some interaction between the characters. It may be the apotheosis of a long flirtation, or it may be the result of a quick bargain (as in the beginning of Snowburn). However it comes about, it should feel like a climax (whether or not the characters do!).
- Throw in a twist. Sex has been done and done and done (for thousands of years). I’ve read a lot of sex scenes and the ones that stand out in my mind have some extra element. Whether it’s the emotional “high stakes” of the sex, or a surprising position or kink, or a very beautiful description, it’s that “something more” which makes me want to re-read it. That’s true of every scene and every story, of course, but I think it’s particularly important for sex scenes, which can easily become dull or repetitive.
Anything I’ve missed? What do you look for in a sex scene? What turns you off when you read a bad one? Leave me a comment and let me know!