Writers take varied approaches to sex scenes in their work. These range from ‘avoid them entirely – not even the slightest whiff of innuendo’ to ‘blow-by-blow descriptions of every step from glint-in-eye to steamy finish, with scenes that span several pages if necessary, complete with labelled illustrations and diagrams as well as a helpful Glossary in the appendix section to help readers fully understand what’s going on.’
I have no problem with sex scenes in fiction. I often find them quite enjoyable in other authors’ work, and include them in my own when they’re appropriate. The Ballad of Iron Percy features a few sexual encounters, for example. It would be relatively impossible to write a book narrated by a Succubus without a few risqué moments. The tricky part is keeping them tasteful, appropriate, and interesting.
Unless you’re writing erotica, your readers probably didn’t pick up your book specifically for the sexy thrill. Sex in media is a bit of a contentious topic to begin with, and if you include lots and lots of sexual encounters, you run the risk of alienating your audience unless you’re sure that’s what they’re after in the first place. I’m writing this post to share my own ideas about what makes an effective sex scene in fiction, with a couple of caveats. This advice assumes that the genre you’re writing for is not primarily intended to be erotic – again, if you’re writing erotica, my method and rules will probably be too restrictive for your purposes. Instead, it is intended for fiction designed for general consumption. This advice is also just opinion – my opinion. ‘Your mileage may vary,’ as they say. Maybe you prefer to include more (or less) sexy bits in your own work, and this is totally fine. These are also more like guidelines a la Pirates of the Caribbean than actual rules – sometimes, if the context is appropriate, I’ll violate them.
Now, without further disclaimer, here are my rules:
Less is More: It’s way easier to overdo sex in fiction than it is to underdo it. If you have to ask whether the scene is too long and explicit, it probably is. Readers can forgive you for spending too little time fleshing out a sex scene and will quickly forget their annoyance that you didn’t go into more detail. Go into too much detail, however, and they’ll remember it. It will stick out in their minds as a Bad Thing. Personally, I can think of several sex scenes in books I’ve read recently that I thought were way too long and graphic for their context. I can’t think of a single one that I thought was too short. Err on the side of caution.
The One Page Rule: “If it’s more than one page, it’s porn.” I always do my best to keep the description of the actual physical act down to one page or less (single spaced, enters between paragraphs – how I normally format my drafts). This does not include lead-up or flirtation, just the mechanical part. This is related to Less is More. Your readers probably enjoy sex and sexuality, but they also probably didn’t pick up your work looking for it. My own goal is to give them just enough to keep them interested and give them the idea without beating them over the head with it, and one page is often enough to do that. It also forces me to get creative and use allusions rather than full descriptions, which I find can actually improve the scene.
This is probably the rule I break the most. Especially if there’s lots of dialogue – then, it’s easy to go over one page and have it remain an appropriate length.
Use The Terms Your Characters Would: If you’re like me and you went to a public high school, or if you’ve ever been inside a men’s restroom, you likely have a stack of colorful euphemisms in your vocabulary to refer to every element of a sexual encounter. Use the ones that are most appropriate to the participating characters and don’t be shy. Nothing is less hot than a medically correct description of sex, but on the same note, using the most puerile nouns, verbs, and adjectives in your lexicon is about as sexy as unclogging a toilet.
So, strike a happy medium. This one should be fairly obvious to just about any writer – you should be able to catch issues with the propriety of word choice in sex scenes in your first editing pass, because any problem should stick out like a cliché. Or a sore thumb.
Also, be careful about metaphors and similes. I use the giggle test – if I or my reader giggle, laugh, or even crack a smile while reading the scene and I’m not actually trying to tell a joke, then something about the comparative phrase I’m using is inappropriate and potentially hilarious. Getting it perfect is challenging. Even the work of published authors can (and frequently does) fail the giggle test.
The Thesaurus Clause: “If you have to consult a thesaurus to find synonyms for ‘thrust,’ ‘gyrate,’ ’surge,’ or other words to help you describe what’s happening in your scene, you have almost certainly gone too far.” Rely on your own vocabulary for sexy bits. Don’t repeat memorable words too close to each other. If you can’t follow both of these guidelines at once and without compromise, it’s a good indicator that you could stand to cut down on the scene.
You can break this rule without treading on tasteless. Just be aware that by choosing to do so, you are definitely walking in the Minefield of Gone Too Far.
Gloss Over The Finish: I am firmly convinced that there is no way for a writer to describe male ejaculation without it being unintentionally hilarious or at least giggle-worthy. It just never works. It’s probably a little easier for the ladies, but even given that, it’s still tough to do without making the reader grin and shake their head. I find that the best way to describe the climax is to gloss over it or refer to it without delving into the physical details. This is not because they’re gross or disgusting – they aren’t. Rather, this should be avoided for the same reason you don’t use medically correct terms to describe what’s going on. On any human being, the largest and most sensitive erogenous zone is the imagination – be vague and make your readers use theirs. They’ll thank you for it.
Whatever you do, do not use a metaphor or a simile to describe an orgasm. Under any circumstances.
No, seriously. It always ends poorly, like the warm, shameful gush of the leaky faucet you tried to fix yourself after your significant other begged you to call a plumber. See what I did there? Just don’t. Ever.
That’s not to say that metaphors and similes don’t have their place in sex scenes – they definitely do. Figurative is way better than literal and anatomical when it comes to these things. They should be included, just with caution – it’s really hard to blow it if you’re not careful with your comparisons.
Sex As Character Development: Even a well-written sex scene can seem tacked on and out of place if there’s no connection to the wider story. There must be at least a cursory tie to the development of the characters – it can’t just be for titillation. Otherwise, readers will spot it, and the scene will stand out as weak and pointless in their minds.
Usually, this isn’t an issue, but some authors do have problems with it. Sex scenes are great and, in my opinion, they can add to a work. But they need to have a point, or it looks tacky - unless, of course, the scene is just that damned hawt. If this is the case, then I’ll forgive the author more often than not.
And that’s pretty much it.
All puns were totally intended.