Questionable: What's Too Much Detail in a Sex Scene?

Gina asked:

How do you know if your sex scene has too much detail? This is a scene that’s necessary for the story to move forward because it reveals character and/or moves plot. I have one in my manuscript, which is a first person narrative, and I had one test reader say it was fine just needed some fine tuning. I had another test reader say, that though the scene is a good scene, it’s not necessary at all and should be cut short.The scene has been revised multiple times before anyone read it – it started short and vague, then got really detailed, then was cut again – so how do you know if the details are too much? Does point of view make a difference in the amount of detail included?

The first requirement of any scene is that it move the story and show character change, not just “here’s what this character is like,” but “the events of this scene have such an impact that the character is different at the end than she or he was at the beginning.” The change doesn’t have to be huge, but it has to be clear. So “reveals character” isn’t enough, but good for you for moving plot.

Then your real question: “How much detail?” The first thing I’d ask is, “Who’s your reader?” One thing about betas, God bless them everyone, is that they’re all different. One good thing about getting several betas is that you can spot the outliers, but essentially, you are never going to write a scene (or a book) that everybody likes. It’s never going to happen. So that’s why you always go back to the real question, the Big Question:

What is this book about?

What’s the promise you make in the first scene and fulfill in the climax, where’s the juice in this story, what matters most to the story you’re telling?

Obviously if you’re writing erotica, detail is extremely important because the book is about sex, about creating those feelings for the reader.

If you’re writing a suspense story, detail is probably unnecessary and may even be harmful as it takes up page real estate from the suspense story you promised the reader.

So if you’re writing a romance, you have to ask, “Where is the tension in this love story? How does this sex scene change this story? And what does the detail in this sex scene do for this story? Essentially, what does this sex scene do for this love story, and what do I need to include in order for it to serve this love story best?” Then you write that.

Sex scenes always cause stress in writers, they’re fraught with pitfalls that are made deeper by our own fears and hang-ups. I used to look at my sex scenes and think, “Will people think I’m depraved? Will people think I’m boring? Will people think I’ve never had sex and I’m just guessing?” Now I look at them and think, “This is what the story needs” and cut everything else. Makes it much easier.

What makes them much harder? Writing them in first person. First person establishes a much more intimate relationship with the reader because it feels as though you’re talking directly to him or her about your (fictional) self instead of standing at a distance and talking about someone else. If your character is the kind of person who would discuss her sex life with a stranger on the bus, you’re home free. But if your character is somebody who’s private, somebody who probably wouldn’t discuss intimate details with people other that his or her lover, then you have to figure out how to get around that barrier. So in first person, I think it comes down to the personality and voice of your first person narrator. How much detail would she or he share and still be in character? Then go back to the Big Question, and revise according to that.

27 thoughts on “Questionable: What's Too Much Detail in a Sex Scene?

  1. Well, I do write erotic romance on the side, as Susanna Stone, but I’m really a girl who’d rather tone it down. My editors want more intense sex, more vocabulary, and I walk a bit of a line. Anyway, in the interests of research, I recently reread Welcome to Temptation for the umpteenth time (oh the hardship) and made a list of all the relevant words in the sex scenes. Very illuminating, Jenny.

    I find the scenes between Phin and Sophie truly madly deeply sexual, and barely a mention of a body part. I counted 4, including “stomach” and “nerves”. Feelings, reactions. No clinical terms, no cheesy terms. One class act, there.

    1. I think clinical terms throw readers out of the scene because not many people think in clinical terms when they’re having sex. “Oh, look, there’s a penis.” No.
      Oh, and thank you!

      1. I just wanted to add my vote for sex scenes, since lots of people seem to be giving them the thumbs down, unless they’re Jenny’s. I understand that, but as a kid, I remember flipping through books and being puzzled and disappointed at zero detail. Everyone in my grade liked to pick up Judith Krantz or Stephen King for more explanation.
        The pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction, and readers and writers may be getting burnt out (I don’t envy Susanna her editor), but I like that we have a variety of choices of what to read and write today. Vive la difference!

        1. Absolutely. There’s quite a range of detail in my stuff; I have written books with no sex at all. And then there was Sizzle . . .

      2. Yes, anyone old enough to be reading the book probably can figure out which part of each person’s anatomy is being referenced. But I did love how Courtney Milan got that into one of her novellas where the hero is a very literal-minded 19th century doctor, so it is perfectly in character for the sex scene that’s from his perspective that the clinical terms were used.

        1. Oh, and it also worked thematically because the heroine had gotten into a lot of trouble and hardship and heartache from her ignorance of exactly what sex entailed.

  2. Detail will always be dependent on what you are writing.

    Story sets up the promise or contract with the reader. If it is Conservative (by faith or culture) romance, there won’t even be a sex scene. If you promised me a sizzling romance but I get a damp squib or erotica, well, I’m not interested any more.

    Words that you use do matter in the text, “stuffed” still is best used in connection with a good meal. Not the heroine’s glitery hooha.

    1. Think of all the fun we’d have reading a passage – a brief passage – of technical intercourse when the phrase ‘glittery hooha’ is used. 🙂

      “He inserted his impossibly engorged branch o’happiness into her welcoming glittery hooha, and the festive strains of ‘I love the nightlife. I like to boogie’ sang into their hearts.”

      1. On a meta-level, I like a good “the jade gate will open, easing the entry of a strong adversary” — but it better be a farce. Otherwise, there’s SO much wrong with that. A stone-cold bitch and a rapey sort of “love is a battlefield” guy is NOT the romance I want to be reading.

        (I googled to make sure I wasn’t misremembering something, and came across this: “Her ears are hot, as if she has drunk rich wines.” All joking aside, I find that really lovely. Exotic, rich, and with a loss of control that passion often brings.)

        1. “Exotic, rich, and with a loss of control that passion often brings.”

          Yes. What Micki said.

          The line about the ears made me immediately think of The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam. I don’t know why.

  3. A couple of New Adult writers and I were talking about this question. They have no sex in their book, and I have explicit sex. My books are about passion–soul mates colliding. The sexual tension builds and builds, until they finally HAVE to be together. If I closed the door or even sketched out the sex scene, I suspect my readers would be disappointed. For my stories, it’s the natural progression, where the book is leading, and closing the door would make the reader feel cheated or frustrated. I haven’t read the books of those other authors, but they call their books swexy–sweet and sexy. Sexual tension without any details. The tones of our books are very different. As you say, the promises we make our readers. I promise lots of can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other.

    1. like in real life, it’s the tension buildup *before* the sex that makes or breaks it. Nobody goes from 0 to 60 with a blank line indicating a new scene.

  4. I don’t write, although I’ve tried. I’m a better secretary than writer, so I just read, read and read more. I can tell you what I like in a sex scene though. I don’t like the down and dirty tell everything thats going on. I have a GREAT imagination and mostly prefer to use it than read every word. I like a hint of what is going on but not the ins and outs, pun intended. Don’t get me wrong a good sex scene is great and I’ve never been offended or felt “hmm, that’s just too much detail for me” with any of your books, or any other of the ladies here. But it does depend on the story and how it moves it forward. I love learning from you.

  5. Thank you so much!! I truly appreciate you taking the time to answer my question. This definitely helps, especially the questions you ask. I’m just starting revisions again and these questions will be so helpful. Thanks again! 🙂

  6. Best sex scene in any book, ever.. the dock scene in Welcome to Temptation. I’ve made all my friends read that book (and they’ve all loved it) and now, any description of world-rocking intimacy in our world is called a “dock scene” regardless of the details or location. All of the Crusie sex scenes are powerful, but that one burns the retinas and the heart in a very good way.

  7. Note: I am not a writer. I am a reader. I am a reader who is over 60.

    Most of the time I skip sex scenes. Even in romances. Been there. Done that (well I have been married longer than most of you have been alive. And most of that has been with a great sex life). So I am not particularly interested in sex scenes. And writers that I used to love I now find incredibly boring because all they write about is sex and action other than in bed is secondary. I don’t read because I want yet another sex scene.

    When I was younger and sex in novels was limited to only erotica, I was very interested. So I found sex scenes in romances exciting since they moved beyond erotica. Currently you cannot go to a movie or read a book without at least one sex scene, usually three, and in excruciating detail, so no. Not interested. Even if it influences character. Although from my own experience, sex has never changed me for better or worse (well, maybe worse if I just missed a climax, then I could easily have become Lizzie Borden – only without the incest).

    One of the great things about “Welcome to Temptation” , “Crazy about You” and “Tell me Lies
    is that they have some of the funniest sex scenes I have ever read. Actually that is one of Jenny’s strengths. Sex is not sublime. It is awkward and strange and most of the times is like assembling a toy with Chinese?English? translations (Insert tab A into Tab C or not and what am I doing here) And when it is right it is really fun. But it is not really life altering or affirming. So scenes that say that seem really silly. So I skip them.

    1. I’ve noticed some authors I read have done just that..”all they write about is sex and action other than in bed is secondary.” I’m with you on this one. I’ve counted over five pages almost every time the h/h have sex. Boring and same old, same old, reads like a recycled scene with different names. I’ve started skipping the scenes too.

      As Kelly noted further up, the dock scene is one which comes to mind when I think of a good sex scene. Jenny, you do write wonderful sex scenes and there is much action before they go to bed. A wonderful and very sensual scene is Cal & Min in the dressing room without ending in the bed. Your characters were sexually frustrated, then, you added more tension with the donuts before the deed.

      I’ve been told there has to be at least one sex scene in a book, so I wrote one, very tame and more sensual than instructional. The critique class said it was well written and worked, but then again, I had great examples to inspire me: your books.

  8. How much detail varies not just by author, or book, or characters, but by when in the plot the scene takes place. Consider Linda Howard’s “To Die For”, a work of romantic suspense where early in the plot she spends an entire chapter on foreplay at the beach. Late in the plot there is an obligatory sex scene – those characters could not possibly get engaged in a kitchen without having an immediate hot encounter on the floor afterwards – which lasts for the length of a subordinate clause.

    1. Any scene has to earn its page space which means if the scene doesn’t move the plot and change the character, you can skip it and cover the action in that subordinate clause you mentioned. But I don’t think time is the determinant. One of the interesting things about the impact of sex on a relationship is how it changes the relationship and how the relationship changes it. So a story may really benefit from a full sex scene toward the end of a story if the contrast between it and the earlier sex scenes show how much the relationship has changed.

  9. If it’s organic to the story, arises naturally out of character, the heroine’s journey to love, finding herself, or what she wants in life, then a sex scene can be wonderful and life and love affirming. If it’s gratuitous, in book or film, it loses my interest and I skim. I think the error in some stories happens because someone says, “Better spice up this baby. We need a sex scene at page sixty,” and so it is slotted in. I know I’ve been swayed that way. Now if I find myself thinking like that I know not to take that road. Unless you’re writing erotica, where there is a promise of sex, most romance novels are more about the getting there than the doing it. ; )

    1. Or what happens emotionally to the characters, character change, during the act instead of what happens physically (assembly instructions).

  10. Count me as one of those who generally are turned off by overly clinical descriptions — in particular, when they appear to be relatively gratuitous (i.e., the editor wanted some “heat” in there, bleugh). I will also skip over them, as most of the time they do not bring anything emotionally to the story. They seem, well, inappropriate, like an obvious product placement in a movie, know what I mean?

    I think in many ways the “negligee principle” is best (i.e., hint at the goodies without showing/telling all) — partly because most of the time our imaginations are more powerful and creative than the descriptions we read. Unless, of course, you really, really do want smut, but then you probably would go to another part of the bookstore for that.

  11. I think one of the things that happens in the books I like best is the hero’s discovery that once he’s turned on by the heroine it doesn’t matter what she’s wearing or not wearing – even a ratty set of pajamas or paint splattered jeans become erotic because they are on the individual in question. And then the juxtaposition of, say, Eeyore PJs and hot sex becomes evident and necessary.

  12. I’ve noticed that my favorite sex scenes put the emphasis on the verbs. Reaching, wanting, leaning, etc. get more emotion into a scene than naming the body parts involved, and you avoid the purple prose problem of too many adjectives. Of course, verb heavy sex scenes also tend to focus on what the character wants and how they’re trying to achieve it, which is normally more relevant to the story than describing for the umpteenth time how beautiful the heroine is, or how studly the hero is.

  13. I am not a writer and never intend to write. I enjoy reading your discussions about writing more than I enjoy some author’s books. Thanks for freely sharing.

Comments are closed.