And that was the one I dismissed immediately. I waved it off and said, “The others sound good. I’ll do those. I have nothing useful to contribute about writing sex in fiction.”
My brain apparently didn’t agree with me. (Which surprised me, given that it’s my brain, but since this insurgency happens frequently I dunno why I’m surprised.) While I had dismissed the idea out of hand, my brain nipped at my heels like a shepherd dog. Nippy brain-dog continued to remind me, “Hey, dickhole, you served up some sex scenes very recently. You can actually contribute something to this conversation! Get on it! Rock out with your cock out! Jam out with your clam out! Go all out with your balls out! Go to a machinist’s house with your… ahhh, eh, penis out?”
And then I chastised brain-dog, and said, “You basically just want me to write about penises and vaginas,” and then brain-dog gave me a guilty look and ran into the shrubbery to lick himself.
The brain always leaves me just when I need it most.
Still. The brain was right. I had written sex scenes fairly recently — three of them, if I count correctly, though one of them was a bit of a non-starter (in the context of the story). Writing those scenes merited extra thought at the time, and so maybe you can derive some usefulness (or at the least, amusement) from my travails. I’m not here to tell you what makes a good sex scene in fiction, and what makes a bad sex scene. I’m not sure it’s really any different from a good anything scene and a bad anything scene (fails to convey action, fails to convey feeling, clunky writing, cliched dialogue, whatever.) Instead, I’ll just tell you what went through my head. Hopefully, you’ll add to the conversation, because as it stands it is an incomplete one.
The (Fake) Problem
We’re a nation of Puritanical assholes.
Or, we come from that. It’s why as Americans we get all goose-pimply and blushy about sex. It’s why Janet Jackson can’t show her cosmic nipple on TV, but you can show dead bodies and blood spatter and explosions and disasters. It’s why most of our dirty words are sex words, and why none of our dirty words have to do with violence.
So, writing sex scenes doesn’t come naturally. We get giggly. Nervous. We get the vapors, like a Victorian woman on a fainting couch. (Irony: to end the vapors, the women often submitted to “pelvic massage.” Mmm-hmm, lady, I’m onto you. Whenever you get the vapors, you or someone else has a medical excuse to tickle the little man in the boat. Clever girl.)
Think about that, though. They say, “Write what you know.” I know sex. I’ve had it. More than twice! Violence, on the other hand…? How often have I jammed a grenade belt down an enemy soldier’s throat? (Answer: less than twice!) Why then, was the latter easier to write than the former? Why does the description of violence come (heh, come!) so easily, when writing sex does not?
Because we come from Puritanical assholes.
So, that’s the only true challenge in writing sex scenes. Find that hump (heh, hump!) and get over it. You’ve had sex (and if you haven’t, and you’re of proper age, please go have some now; it’s super-fun!), so you know everything that makes it awesome and awkward and clumsy and perfect and messy and strange and beautiful and primitive and so on and so forth. Stop ascribing sex taboo significance, and just write it.
In my admittedly limited experience writing these things, I figure you have three ways to go when you settle down to write some sweet, sweet fictional love.
The Gynecologist’s Indelicate Touch: The Clinical Approach
The approach here is all mechanism. Sex is a physical act, and so the writing of sex is about what happens. This is the real “Tab A to Slot B” shit. (In a perfect world, I’d have real world examples, and I’d quote them like a professional. But I’m writing this half-asleep, and you jerks don’t pay me for this, so suck it up, Jennifers.)
This is all about the cold, clinical approach. It doesn’t need to default to “The penis enters the vagina. It exits the vagina. It enters the vagina. It exits the vagina.” But it is about what happens. It’s about the act. Where do the fingers go? The lips trail down to… where? The act of sex can have an almost chess game feel to it; the pieces move a little differently each time, so describe how those pieces move, and to where.
Why Go This Way?
This approach eschews poetic language and goes right for the clarity of the act. Embracing that clarity might indicate you’re writing a scene that isn’t about emotion or sensation, but is about two people getting their rocks off. Or maybe it’s a business transaction. Or maybe it’s a hollow reiteration of a once-beautiful thing. I used this approach in a recent work, because it was about two people fucking. I don’t know that they even liked each other that much. The scene became about the mechanical act, and (if I did it correctly), the description of pure mechanism was isolating. It created distance between these two characters.
Sex can be transformative. It can be an epiphany. It can be downright bizarre, even under the simplest of circumstances. The memory of sex — in real life — can be one of pure sensation, not one that recalls exactly what was on the booty-menu that night (in narrative terms, this is sex that’s all story, no plot). You don’t remember whether she wore the red panties with the black hearts or the pink strap-on with the Hello Kitty cock-topper — you only remember what it felt like to see her for the first time that night. You don’t remember at what point she stuck the duck up your ass, you only remember the feeling of soft feathers or the echoes of quacking quaking deep in your bowels.
Sex might take place in the dark. Or in dark places. Or in strange places. Or when you’re both tired (either late at night or early in the morning). Sometimes you can’t see everything. Sex can be an act close to sensory deprivation — your eyes are vestigial to the process, but your nose may be critical, or your tongue, or your skin. By cleaving to pure sensation, you take the visual out of it, and make it all about the feeling. Moreover, emotion comes into play — revelatory sex can stimulate bizarre-o emotions, and the fiction should highlight that. Not just glee. Some people cry after sex. Some get giddy. Some feel guilty. What emotions rise up?
Why Go This Way?
I think I already covered it, but by approaching it this way, you’re bookmarking the sex as something strange and poetic, something both firmly within and way outside our frame of reference; it’s an individual’s game, with each sex act like a crazy fractal snowflake. You’re saying that it doesn’t matter what actually happens. What matters is how it feels to the characters, and what it does to them.
The Gynecologist’s Pineal Gland: A Little From Column A, A Little From Column B
Take clinical, mix with sensation, and you’ve got what I consider the mainstream approach to writing sex scenes in fiction. Not much else to say. It’s up to you what the ratio of mechanism versus sensation is: 60/40? 75/25? 90/10? I dunno. Best guide is to ape the style you’ve already been using for the rest of the work.
Why Go This Way?
Again, I consider this the mainstream approach. Sex in a piece of fiction — unless it’s purposefully designed to take us out of the narrative and show us a new face of the story — is ultimately just another part of the story, no more or no less important than any other moving part. In Chapter 4, Billy wrestles an alligator. In Chapter 6, Billy has sex with Miranda. Yes, they’re separate acts, but in terms of distilling the story down to an equation, X is not necessarily greater than Y. By taking a standard descriptive approach, you’re not making the sex stand out needlessly like a hammer-struck penis. Or clitoris, if you’re into giant throbbing clitorises. Man, that is going to get me some delicious Google hits one day. Surely from people looking for a blog just like this one!
Did I say you had three options?
Scratch that. Here’s number four.
See, I’m just realizing that sometimes, to write a sex scene, you need to write around the sex scene. The before, the after, but not the during. Forget the moment. The act of painting or drawing can be as much about what you don’t paint as much as it is about what you put on the canvas, right? You can even draw a face or a scene by drawing everything but that face or scene; the shadows, the negative space, become your definition. I think of this, and I think of Glengarry Glen Ross — Ricky Roma in the Chinese restaurant? Talking about the people with whom you’ve had sex? “What do you remember about them? I don’t know. For me, I’m saying, what is is, it’s probably not the orgasm. Some broad’s forearm on your neck, something her eyes did. There was a sound she made…or, me, lying, in the — I’ll tell you. Me lying in bed. The next day, she brought me café au lait. She gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete. Eh? What I’m saying, what is our life? It’s looking forward or it’s looking back. And that’s our life. That’s it. Where is the moment?” Good question, Ricky Roma. Good question.
Why Go This Way?
Going this way, you’re singling out that it’s not the sex that matters. It’s what the sex means. It’s what results from it, and it’s how we moved to it. In this approach lies an interesting truth, I think. The before and after tell us the during. Paint with negative space.
The Perilous Perils Of Porn Mining
In writing sex scenes, it pays to watch out for hazards. “Mind the gap,” as it were.
The biggest danger is telling, not showing. Don’t tell us “she felt ecstatic.” Give us the indicators of that ecstasy. If I were standing in the doorway, hidden in shadow, and I was able to watch these two people have crazy wombat sex on the bed, how would I know she was caught in the throes of ecstasy? When I was telling my buddy later, how would I describe to him the moment I knew she was cresting the hill on the Orgasm Express? The best language is clear but illustrative.
Second danger? Don’t get porny. You’re not writing porn. Porn is clumsy. Porn is heavy-handed. Single-camera, zoom in on the naughty, pimpled parts. No. That’s not what you’re doing. The sex serves the context of the story. It’s a moment for these characters. In porn, character is lost (sadly). Don’t lose the characters. Don’t lose the narrative throughline.
This leads to danger number three: overwrought language. You can cross the porn border and move into tawdry erotica, and that’s not great, either. Okay, it’s great if you’re writing tawdry erotica. If you’re writing mainstream fiction, though, you can work language too hard (heh, hard!), the same way you can overwork pancake batter. It ruins the pancakes. If you ever describe some dude’s junk as “his turgid tumescence,” somebody should probably kick you right in the turgid tumescence. You’re allowed to use poetic language. Just don’t get purple (heh… uh, purple?).
Finally, the sex shouldn’t go on too long. You’ll chafe. … I mean, the reader will become bored. Less is more. If you take ten pages to describe a sex act, it’ll probably take most people longer to read that than to actually put the book down and engage in the sex act. Get in, get out, do the job.
So, That’s That
Now you know as much as I do, which is to say, probably not that much. But, I figured this is something that I’d been thinking about without even realizing I’d been thinking about it. I’m interested to hear your experiences, fellow wordheads and penmonkeys.