We’ve all been there. Yes, it’s an awkward subject to talk about, but we’re adults here. Human sexuality is a part of us and we’ve all experienced terrible disappointments at one time or another. I’m talking about novels we’ve been completely absorbed in up until we hit a bad sex scene – and there are a lot of ways to go wrong here.
A sex scene that has been added in order to move a story forward and has been written well will allow me to remain in the “fictive dream”. Sex that’s been added gratuitously or that isn’t written well will pull me out of that experience and I become hyper-critical. I suspect most of us tend to be that way. There are several common ways to lose me and most readers.
Pitfalls to watch for include the value judgments and values of the intended audience, making sure the scene is serving a purpose, describing the encounter in the proper context – is it simply sex between two people, is it two people in love, is it both? Is it a first encounter? Is it adulterous sex? Is it sex between married people? Is it gay sex? Is the sex being forced? Is one or the other of the characters bored? Distressed? Is the description too graphic? Too metaphorical or corny? Too perfectly orgasmic?
Based on the number of articles I found when I did a search on “writing sex scenes”, most writers consider this is one of the most difficult aspects of writing.
If you had attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in July, you could have attended this:
Writing About Sex
Writing a good sex scene is no more difficult than writing a good battle scene, a good hospital scene, a good bar scene, a good office party scene. Novels, short stories, memoirs, poems, plays, movies—you’ll find sexual activity in every genre. The writer of sex scenes is faced with making a private act into a public performance. This requires attention to language and perceptions that are both intimate and universal. Sex can be sad, funny, quick, joyful, desperate, illegal, impromptu. So much depends on the character, the situation, the setting. We will explore writing about sex (with a nod to Elizabeth Benedict’s wonderful The Joy of Writing Sex) by reading examples from Michael Chabon, Scott Spencer, Audrey Niffenegger and Sue Miller. We’ll write our own sex scenes—subtle and bold, sad and comic, metaphoric and meandering, striving to make an honest scene on the page. This workshop is for those writers of fiction and nonfiction who feel their work could be energized by a well-crafted sexual moment.
Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex was published in 2004 and all comments and reviews I’ve read indicate it may be a great “how to” reference on this tricky subject. I'll let you know after Amazon delivers my copy.
This link to an article in The Boston Phoenix, by Steve Almond is a humorous set of rules about writing sex. Rosina Lippi’s blog has a series of posts on writing sex here. Marge Piercy also has an article on writing sex scenes here. Just About Write has a good article by
When at all possible, many writers will simply “close the door” to avoid writing a sex scene entirely, but sometimes the story really needs it.
How do you feel about writing sex scenes? Are you good at it, or would you rather avoid it? Can you recall scenes you’ve read that have been done well? Done badly? What do you think are the keys to writing sex scenes well?