Questionable: Sex in Stories

Deb Blake asked:

Sex. I have to put the occasional sex scene in my books, and it is SO hard to write sex scenes (or seduction, or even just attraction) well. Your sex scenes are among the few I actually like to read. Any suggestions?

Sex scenes are about sex the way dinner scenes are about dinner, which is to say, not. Sex is the action the characters are doing, but it’s not what the scene is about. Instead, it illustrates what the scene is about. If the characters have sex and it’s fabulous and there are no problems and they’re the same people at the end of the scene that they are at the beginning, then you can just write “And then they had great sex” and skip writing the scene because it doesn’t move story. But if something happens during the sex scene to change character and move story, then you have to write the scene, but you have to write the action of the scene (that would be the sex) in a way that shows character change and story arc.

The biggest mistake people make in writing sex scenes in books that aren’t erotica is writing the sex. Anybody who reads your book has either had sex or seen it on cable TV, so there’s no need to provide instructions. Your reader knows where everything goes. Your characters are likely not describing the action to themselves, and in fact as things heat up, they’re likely to become non-verbal. So what does that leave you? The things that are different, the actions that change things, the details that make those changes vivid. A sex scene is like every other scene in that it’s part of the story that the reader wants to live vicariously, in the same way she wants to vicariously flirt with the love interest and vicariously defeat that bastard antagonist. So you concentrate on emotion and sensation, putting her in the scene so that she can feel what’s happening, as the events change the characters.

This is one of the reasons that I love writing bad sex. It’s so much more interesting than good sex and it gives you so much more room to arc character and relationship. I think that problems that occur are a lot more interesting because then the characters have to solve them, right there, and the way they solve them characterizes them, shows them things about each other, and deepens the relationship. Anything that makes sex more difficult heightens tension: how do they handle people walking in on them, not being able to find privacy, wanting different things, misunderstanding what each other wants, their respective hang-ups and fears? That’s the stuff that makes scenes with sex interesting, arcs characters, and moves plot.

Don’t write sex scenes. Write fascinating scenes full of conflict that changes character and advances story shown through the sexual actions of the characters. Once you stop thinking “sex” and think “character and conflict,” it becomes a lot easier.

23 thoughts on “Questionable: Sex in Stories

  1. I’m just finishing the last CD of “Trust Me on This”. I’d forgotten how funny it is. I was laughing in the car all the way to work and back home. Thank you for keeping me entertained. It was so delightful. Hope you do more slapstick comedy. I love your work.

  2. As a reader I am so over scenes about wonderful, perfect sex. I’m not a prude, but dear Unnamed Author do you really need a chapter and a half of sex that’s like every other sex scene in all your other books? Gah.

    Thank you, thank you for writing this, Jenny. This one definitely gets printed out. The way you approach sex scenes is such a useful way to think about them.

  3. I love your take on this subject. I’ve admired all of the sex scenes you’ve ever written because they make the characters come to life. Their stresses, their funny moments, the great and the not-so-great sex is something we can all relate to.

  4. Faking It. The first couch scene. It’s hilarious “listening” to Tilda’s thoughts and hangups. Then when she is in the basement and she’s free… wonderful!!

    1. Ah, Tilda. She was a joy. And the scene when Davey figures her out and she tells him all. Cocoa on a cold day, that’s good stuff.

      1. Re-read Faking It this weekend by the pool. Now I’ve got my neighbors reading it.
        “Eve gave you the vibrator. What did Louise give you? A sailor?”
        Good goddess, that is priceless.

  5. Thank you, Jenny. This makes a lot of sense to me. If I think less about the sex itself (body parts! what to call them! where do they go?) and more about the motivation and emotions of those in the scene, and how they are going to feel both during and afterwards, that might help. (So would renting a male prostitute, but sadly, my accountant insists that doesn’t count as a deductible research expense.)

  6. Oh gosh! Every time I think I know it all, you write something like this, and I think: oops, I know zip. Thank you, Jenny. I guess that’s why I actually read your sex scenes and like them while I skip them in most romance novels: they don’t move anything except the man’s dick. Yours move the story.

  7. I like the way Jenny writes sex scenes because they’re not written in anatomical mechanics.
    Min and Cal’s consummation in Bet Me is a fave. Every molecule of affection they had for each other was in that act and cemented, for me at any rate, what they’d become to each other.
    And seriously? Who wouldn’t enjoy a radiant afterglow with humble and honest dialogue like this?
    “Sorry we didn’t talk about what you wanted.”
    “I wanted THAT.”
    “You got it.”

      1. Ha! Phin was hot as hell. He could have gotten away with that line fully clothed and standing a yard away.

  8. Love this, and it’s so true. When I read a good sex scene it’s about the characters and emotions (funny or overwhelming) I don’t want to read about slot A nailing slot B, I can pick up a Playboy for that, lol

  9. Emotion, sensation, a sugar-fueled doughnut and a little bit of bondage = my favorite sex scene ever. It’s amazing how combining those two basic needs (food and sex) really amplify the feelings I felt as a reader.

    Or maybe I just have a food kink. I don’t care.

    Another great Maslow combo sex scene: dark closet, security, and sexy guy. (Faking It).

    I guess it goes back to having the hero provide the heroine with what she really needs . . . .

    1. I think a lot of it is both of them understanding what the other needs. That recognition that you don’t need roses, you need an air conditioner is huge.

      1. I feel like this goes for your murders, as well. People never just kill each other for the plot in your books, they always have a reason and it always turns out to be a *big* reason.

  10. As I was reading your take on writing sex scenes (Which by the way is one of many reasons I obsessively read your books.) I immediately thought about the scene in “Bet Me” where Cal and Mel are finally getting physical and are interrupted by a flood of unwelcome visitors. Kind of like all in the family. They all seem to be a bit wacko. Hilarious but it indeed showed the growth and change emotionally in both the male and female protagonists.

  11. An interesting post as always! Here’s a question (and hopefully it’s ok to drop this in a non-question post). It’s also about a subject you’ve addressed before. When are flashbacks ok? I’m on board with not using flashbacks in general – you’ve had several great posts on the subject. However, I started reading The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood, and the book is built around flashbacks, and it seems to work to me. How does it work? Or am I misusing flashback? Thanks!

    1. I hate flashbacks in classic linear storytelling, but that’s me. You get to do whatever you want in your story.
      I haven’t read Divine Secrets so I’m not sure what the structure is. It may be patterned, or it may be linear with flashbacks. Doesn’t matter, if it worked for you, it worked.

    2. If I remember correctly, Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood is patterned storytelling. There is sort of the linear arc of her doing soul searching, and then going home to the south, but over half the story are the things that happened to her, and to her mother, and those are told out of order in a way that slowly changes the stakes for the more-or-less linear plot line with the daughter. I think it’s patterned, but I also read it several years ago.

  12. Quinn and Nick in Crazy For You! First bad sex I ever read and perfect for showing where Quinn is in her development.

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