1. Fifty Shades Of Splayed-Out Sex-Play
Sex is big again. Or it’s “okay” again. Or something. With 50 Shades of Grey out and appeasing desperate housewives the world around with its pseudo-kinky faux-S&M vibe, sex is suddenly a seller again. It’s like a switch got flipped — “We’re tired of repressed teenage lust with glittery vampire-types, bring on the penetrations.” Is it back to stay awhile? Not sure. But right now: sex sells.
2. But Also, We’re A Nation Of Puritanical Shitbirds
To write sex in America, you have to understand America’s problem with sex. Which is to say, we’re a nation of Puritanical douche-swabs who feign shock and horror any time we see something resembling a nipple, yet can giddly chomp on a bucket of Fiddle Faddle as we watch dudes blow other dudes (wait for it) apart with their chattering machine guns. We love violence, and fear sex. And yet we don’t really fear sex at all, we just pretend we do because — well, I don’t know why. Because we don’t want the neighbor to know we own a flavored lubricant? Because we’re afraid our bosses will find out we like to dress up as ponies with requisite pony-tail butt-plug? Utah is perhaps the best example of this conundrum: they’re constantly making laws against sex and perversion and yet they remain the biggest purveyor of Internet porn in the nation.
3. We’re All Riding The Sexual Train
And yet, sex links us all. We all do it — it’s human nature. And everybody got here somehow, which is to say, our parents slapped their genitals together until sexual fluids commingled together and resulted in — oops — us. (Sorry if that insults any of you secret clones out there. You’re just going to have to cope. YOU MONSTERS.) Sex is part of the common experience along with birth and death. We have to write about it. Most people will never shoot or stab another human, but most of us will insert Tab-A into Slot-B (or mash Slot-B against Slot-B or swordfight with both Tab-As). This is in part why we need to write about sex. This is our urge. This is our collective human experience. Being a prude doesn’t change who we are, how we got here, or how we want to swim in one another’s love-puddles all day long.
4. The Smashing-Two-Action-Figures-Together Approach
One approach to writing sex is to spell it all out. It’s action like any other and so you take the two characters and put them together — on a bed, on a train, in a treehouse, rolling around in the warm doughy colon of an ancient beast — and you show the act of these two people rubbing nubbins. Squish-squish-squish. It’s an act of clarity, of definition, of writing sex-as-action.
5. The Drop-Acid-And-Feel-The-Soul-of-Sex Approach
Or, you instead embrace what sex feels like –half of our sexual experience is the feeling of the act in addition to the act of the act. There we are, in the dark (literal or figurative), all our pleasure pistons firing at once — everything is probing fingers and tickled nerve endings. It’s sweat and little moans and then big moans and somewhere, a donkey brays? Sex written in this way can be disorienting, as this approach ignores the physical beat-by-beat action in favor of the physical abstractions and emotional impact.
6. Hybridize That Mofo
Personal opinion: good sex writing does both. It tells me what’s going on and who’s got their index finger where, but it also lets me feel the experience from the perspective of our POV character. I’m not just a little boat bobbing on a sea of sensation, nor am I watching two stick figures jab their dark marker lines into one another. So: do both! (Sidenote: “Hybridize That Mofo” is the command I’ll give on the bridge of my own starship when I want that motherfucker to enter warp speed. Please update your records.)
7. The Danger Of Throbbing, Purple Prose
Sex seems to lend itself to clumsy writing. It seems very easy to fall into the pattern of overdescribing or using words that would require Magnum-sized condoms to fit over them — “His turgid tumescence pressed into the dewy folds of her efflorescent humectation.” Part of this, I assume, springs again from our Puritanical origins: we’re squicky about sex, so we hide it under the robes of our own overwrought language. This “poetry” (not really poetry) seems to give us distance but what it also does is sound fucking awful. Cardinal rule of writing sex: put down that thesaurus.
8. The Danger Of Overly-Clinical, Gynecological Prose
Swinging too far the other way, you’ll end up with a Dick-And-Jane-sian VCR manual of sex: “Tony puts his penis inside Maria’s vagina. Maria massages Tony’s perineum. Tony ejaculates. Maria yawns.” This is probably better than the throbbing purple prose, but not by much. The big takeaway here is, just as you should never use “tumescent,” don’t call it a “penis,” either. If you were sexting to somebody, would you refer them to your penis? OMG MY PENIS IS HUNGRY FOR YOUR CLITORIS. LOL. Probably (er, hopefully) not. Find that balance: a poetic touch with clear descriptions. (Good writing advice in general.)
9. Take A Boat Trip On The Sex Ark!
That sounds like some kind of boat where Noah brings two of every race and nation and then they get aboard and bang like rabid lemurs while the world drowns. Then they repopulate the world with their beautiful little mocha babies but that’s not at all what I mean — rather, what I mean is, sex is itself a story. And, the general arc of a story matches the sexual arc — the way two people meet and flirt and tension builds, then the gravity becomes irresistible and then it’s foreplay and conflict and will she will I ow my hamstring ooh that feels good and — climax! It’s called climax in both modes, both in sex and in story. Then there’s the denouement of laying there in a mussed-up bed-tangle and one person falls asleep while the other feels shame or dissatisfaction or bliss. Sex is a story. And stories are like sex. Cool.
10. Implicit Instead Of Explicit
You can write sex without writing sex. Use negative space to create shape. You can write about all the elements surrounding sex, like the looks beforehand, the dizzy post-coital haze afterward, the puddles of clothes on the floor, the awkward looks from the cat — all of this showing the fact sex happened without having to devote word count toward the actual act itself.
11. Writing Fucking Is Like Writing Fighting
Learn how to write a fight scene, you gain clues as to how to write a sex scene. Two characters crash together in a very big physical and emotional way. One is violent. The other is (likely) not. But they share space just the same, and one can help inform the other.
12. Do Not Watch Porn, I Repeat, Do Not Watch Porn
Er, rather, do not watch it for inspiration. You can watch as much porn as you like. But mining it for your fiction is a grade-A dog-fuck of an idea because porn is to sex what McDonald’s is to food. Porn — rather, most porn — captures nothing of actual sex and everything about some overblown false fantasy of sex. Boobs that look like over-inflated kickballs. Dicks that look like leprechaun shillelaghs. Botox faces and needless zitty closeups of genitals cramming into orifices. No character, no emotion, no story. Just human inflatable dolls pawing at each other and performing acrobatic sex acts that are a surefire way to slip a disc.
13. Sexual Archaeology, Ooooh Yeah
Don’t look to porn for inspiration: look to (gasp) actual human contact. You’ve had sex, right? Use that. You can turn the dial up on the sexiness or aspire instead to capture the overall goofiness of the act, but look to your own sex-life — feelings, sensations, something someone did, the way the Hello Kitty dildo tasted (“It tasted like burnt plastic. Like cat milk and bourbon. It tasted like love”).
14. The Sex Isn’t Just The Sex
Sex isn’t just about the act. It’s about the ramp up. The before. The foreplay. The after. The snack. The nap. The toweling off. It’s all these little weird details — setting and mood and time and event. The Roma character in Glengarry Glen Ross has a great speech that keys into this: “I don’t know. For me, I’m saying, what it 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.” I love that line.
15. “I Think I Maybe Just Jizzed On Your Alarm Clock”
Sex can be really awkward. Fiction doesn’t usually show this approach (bonus points to HBO’s Girls for showing exactly that), but sex in storytelling is usually, well, sexy. And it doesn’t have to be, not at all — sex can be goofy and funny and awkward as all hell, limbs flailing and heads cracking headboards. Wrestling with condoms and cats on the bed. Hell, it can even be boring (though, be aware: the sex can be boring but the scene shouldn’t ever be). Sex can in fact be so many things besides and beyond sexy — why not go there?
16. The Definition Of “Gratuitous”
Sex for the sake of sex — and in spite of story — is gratuitous. (To mention HBO again, the sex in Game of Thrones tends to fall into the “gratuitous” column — it feels like the scripts often have AND NOW BOOBS AND FUCKERY BUT NO DICKS NO SIR inked hastily between scenes.) This doesn’t make it bad, per se, but it does disconnect it from character and story and is just as gratuitous as inserting a scene of violence for the sake of showing violence. Better perhaps to let it be organic and natural in the storytelling.
17. Exposing Character
Not “exposing” as in, WOO HERE’S MY JUNK but rather, as in how a character exposes her very characterness — persona, psyche, wants, fears — in bed. Sex doesn’t stop a character being who that character is. It reveals it. Selfish. Selfless. Nervous. Anxious. Afraid. Angry. Griefstruck. How characters, erm, “do the sex” says a helluva lot about them. They’re not automatons. Sex is raw, abrasive, illustrative. Sex tears away our barriers, our armor. Show that!
18. Fucking Is Never Just Fucking (AKA, The Sweet Subtext Of Fuckery)
(AKA, “Sub-Fuckery?” I dunno. Shut up, you.) Subtext is the distance between what we say and what we mean — and here, the subtext is between what happens in the bedroom and who we really are. What motivates the act? What lurks not just beneath the sheets but beneath the skin? Is the sexual act an act of revenge? Of distraction? Mutual commiseration and a refutation of shared sadness? Between two people (or, hell, whole orgy of motherfuckers) lurks all these invisible threads in the relationship — it’s not just about who the characters are but also who they are to one another. Sex exposes all that.
19. Ass To Ass — Er, I Mean, Tone To Tone
Any sex scene in your story should carry the tone of that story. If your story is one of melancholia, a porny happy goofy sex scene may feel entirely out of sorts.
20. Sexy Tension, Lusty Conflict, Libidinous Mystery
Sexual tension is just another version of narrative tension — there exists a question of will they won’t they — who will come, who won’t, what’s really going on, what does this scene say, what does it reveal, who put the goat in the corner, what’s that smell? Conflict lives in two characters furiously trying to reach a sense of fruition (which is how I refer to orgasms now: “Dearest, my plans are presently poised to achieve fruition — NNGH”). Whether the sex is frenzied and violent or slow and sad, it presents mysteries and conflict.
21. One Conflict: Sex Changes Everything
In real life — and thus, in most fiction — sex is a bunker buster bomb dropped on a relationship. People do the rumpy-pumpy and think it won’t change anything and ha ha ha you stupid fools, it most certainly will. Fiction thrives on conflict and change and the audience knows that sex is both of those things. It changes the game. It ups the stakes. Sex offers your story a lusty sex-slick pivot: use it to turn your story heel-to-toe.
22. Your Squicky Seat-Shifting Discomfort Shows
If sex makes you uncomfortable, don’t write it. We’ll know. It’ll rise off your words like a hot, funky miasma from a jock-strap left in the sun for days. Back away slowly from the sex scene. Or we’ll mock you.
23. Genre Can Dictate Sex
This is an “it is what it is” kinda thing, but some genres will demand sex in certain fashion — romance, for instance, has rules and sub-laws about what works and what doesn’t. I don’t write like that and I’m not sure that’s great for storytelling, but certain genres demand certain things and it’s a muddy uphill marathon to change that. Maybe a worthy battle to fight? That’s on you.
24. A Sad But Necessary Digression On The Subject Of Rape
Rape is a tough, troubling issue that fiction can explore; it should not be a cheap plot device an author exploits. Exploration over exploitation. Handle it with aplomb; don’t bash at it with a hammer.
25. Treat Sex Like It Isn’t Sex?
That’s weird advice, innit? But a sex scene is just a scene — it has a rise and a fall, it shares the same tone and tension of the story, it’s about character and not plot, and yet something must also happen (the best scenes do double-duty and operate as multi-taskers, after all). The sex part is — well, not incidental, it’s not merely a throwaway, but in the deeper treatment of the thing a scene is a scene is a scene. Maybe that’s the best way to look at a sex scene — not as a preening peacock operating under its own laws but rather, a scene like any other. Except, this scene involves, y’know, sweaty genitals. Which is the worst ice cream flavor ever.
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73 responses to “25 Things You Should Know About Writing Sex”
As they always say, sex sells!
[…] Talking of erotic fiction, at Terrible Minds Chuck Wendig has 25 tips for writing about sex. […]
Chihuahua Zero: You’re underage too . . .? I’M NOT ALONE!
Buuuuuuuuuut yeah. Found this useful as always, Chuck! Which is kind of scary for somebody my age, but you know. I have to wonder, though, have any articles about building sexual tension? That would fit very well with this article.
[…] 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Sex […]
Just finished draft one of my novel, “One of 36”, and the area where I felt most insecure was the sex scenes. Chuck to the rescue! I read parts of your blog out loud to my husband and, well, turns out it was some pretty seductive stuff. Thanks for that, too!
[…] the spirit of no inhibitions, here are 25 Tips for Writing About Sex. “Do not watch [porn] for inspiration..because porn is to sex what McDonald’s is to […]
OMG – I freakin’ love this advice. So hilarious but totally accurate!
[…] Chuck Wendig […]
I loved this, hilarious, and entirely true.
One random thought though. The sex scenes in the Game of Thrones show stick out like a sore thumb, but they fit much better in the book. It wasn’t just “sex because fuck you that’s why”, it usually followed what you outlined here pretty acurately. Im my opinion at least.
But anyway, no complaints, loved it.
I am a young writer ( How young? 14 going on 15) Why am I wrighting about sex, BECASUE I CAN. Anyway, this list helped alot If anyone has any more tips I could use the help. ALL THE HELP I CAN GET. Thanks!
Hey, this was posted a year before I sent you an email! hahaha, what a coincidence!
http://theartofwritingfiction.wordpress.com/ my spin on sex in fiction is here
OMG, had to share this with about 10K people on social media. I had tears coming out of my eyes. As an erotic romance author (erotic romance, not erotica to be clear), I’m so glad I came across your blog on the subject of how much is too much sex in romance (that was my exact google search). Great tips and an extremely humorous presentation of them. I signed up for your newsletter of course and will take a look at your books!! Cheers!! xoxo
This is a great list, spot-on in so many areas; I will check out your Amazon books and definitely recommend this list to my students. Thank you for writing and sharing it here. (I’m here for inspiration–lots of sex in my current book–too much? too purple? too clinical? too many or too few orgasms?–and am wandering around the internet pondering . . . This was useful, and made me laugh . . .
This was awesome. Am very new to the novel writing scene. Second career and all that. I have been very intimidated by the whole “writing about sex” thing even though it is such an integral part in how we humans deal with one another on almost every level.
But I must say, you took a lot of the sting out of it!! I almost spewed a mouthful of iced tea all over my laptop before I even got to number 3!!
It was the whole I laughed, I cried, (not literally, but…), just loved it, thank you!!
[…] Chuck Wendig – http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2012/06/26/25-things-you-should-know-about-writing-sex/ […]
[…] 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Sex […]
Epic Cosmo cover is epic.
I think alluding to sex can be far more provocative and classy than actually writing it. It’s too easy to get caught in the purple description of it and it can come (hah) off looking like, well, like you’re writing one-handed.
I choked on my coffee, giggled and then registered how good your advice is. Thank you for that.