From the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award to the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey, sex in literature—and the ways it can go terribly, terribly wrong—is being talked about a lot these days. But sex in fiction is hardly a new trend. Some writers, especially writers just starting out, tend to balk at sex scenes, often because they’re worried it’ll be too difficult, or they’ll mess it up. But characters are sexual beings, too, and you shouldn’t shy away from sex if the story requires it. But how to start?
First, some definitions. What is the difference between erotica and a story with sex in it? A good rule to follow: In erotica, the plot serves the sexual content. Think about a classic pornographic setup in which the delivery guy brings a pizza to the wrong house, where he encounters a lonely lady. In this case, the plot—the misdelivery of a pizza—is merely an excuse to get the hunky employee and the lonely, horny housewife in the same place.
Inversely, when the sex serves the story—that is, it furthers the plot, or develops the characters—that’s a sex scene. A sex scene in a story can still be arousing, but it has a function in the bigger picture. For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to the sex scene and not erotica.
Here are some ways to write sex scenes that arouse, make sense, seem real and do what you need them to do:
Know what you’re calling stuff.
People who are nervous about writing sex scenes often have difficulty figuring out how to refer to genitals mid-coitus. You have so many choices, and they all have different implications. “Penis” and “vagina” can sound more clinical—does that fit your characters? “Pussy” (can be misogynistic, flirty) or “cunt” (blunter, sometimes empowered, something insulting)? “Dick” or “cock”? Previously unheard-of euphemisms?
A certain type of character may be more veiled about referencing genitals—would they just refer to them as their “place” or “down there?” What about names that reflect the dialect, language and time period?
Just make sure you don’t switch between words. Writers searching for synonyms to avoid repetition should try to find other ways to do so, instead of rotating through a long list. These words don’t mean the same thing—or at least, they don’t have the same connotations—so they shouldn’t be treated that way. If they are, your scene will feel confused or deflated. Avoid purple language—no manstaffs or Gates of Sodom, unless there’s a very, very compelling reason for a character to use that language.
Draw from life.
If you’ve had sex, think about the sex you’ve had. You’re a writer. Use it—the good and the bad.
Avoid romance novel and porn clichés.
Lovers shouldn’t be climaxing at the same time. Penetration without lubrication is painful. Is the character a bad lover who doesn’t understand how bodies or sex work? Make sure these details are realistic. They are important.
Remember, the sex won’t always be sexy.
Remember, the sex is meant to serve the characters and plot. Are the lovers tragically mismatched? Is their relationship dissolving? Is a terrible sexual encounter a needed catalyst for the rest of the plot? Are they awkward because they haven’t seen each other in a long time? They’re getting together for the first time? Is one of them a virgin? Is this their first orgy ever? Are they pining after someone else?
These are all perfectly legitimate reasons sex can go awry. You can get away with consistently ideal sexual encounters in erotica, but not in literary fiction. (The incredibly painful and awkward sex in Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is a good example of this point.)
Know where everything is at all times.
An instructor of mine recently cautioned my workshop against staging fight scenes that are hard to follow or don’t physically work. She compared it to a common problem in romance novels: “If he’s got a hand on her thigh, a hand on her breast and a hand in her hair—unless he’s an alien, that’s too many hands.”
Treat a sex scene as you would treat a fight scene. Make sure you can account for your lovers’ bodies at any given moment. Even if you have to draw stick figures or bribe a good friend to help you stage your scene, make sure your reader can focus on what is going on—and what’s changing between the characters, or how the plot is advancing—instead of being confused about how, exactly, they are doing that particular gymnastic move in a flowerbed with no hard surfaces.
Study other good sex scenes in literature.
Literature is chock-full of sex scenes—some that work, and some that really don’t—and you can always learn from them. Think to the most memorable sex scenes in your favorite books. Study them. How do they work? How don’t they work? How do they advance the plot, or show us something new or deeper about the characters?
And as always, here’s some general advice that applies to sex scenes and regular scenes alike: Always read them out loud. Your ear will catch jerky sentences, awkward phrasing and other hitches that will kill your scene well before climax. And we can’t have that, can we?
Carmen Maria Machado is a fiction writer and essayist whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The American Reader, Tin House’s Open Bar, Five Chapters, Best Women’s Erotica 2012, VICE, The Paris Review Daily, The Hairpin, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Dean’s Graduate Fellow, and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop.