That Vexing Sex Scene

Many writers have commented on various sites about their difficulties with writing a good sex scene.  I have found the best book on this subject to be The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict.  She has authored four novels, one of which was a finalist for the American Book Award.  She knows from where she writes, and I highly recommend this guide for your writing book shelf.

She states that there is a difference between porn, or erotic writing, and literary sex writing.  “In pornography, consumers will demand their money back if the sex is lousy . . . or the girl cries when it’s over.  This other kind of sex writing thrives on all the things that nourish good fiction:  tension, dramatic conflict, character development, insights, metaphors, and surprises.”  The best fiction writing is not a sex manual of what happens, but who it happens to, the characters’ inner lives, and must engage the reader on all levels, not just the physical.

  • The orgasm is not what is important.  What is important is the connection or lack of connection.
  • Sex is in the realm of the mind.  What are your characters thinking during their encounter?  Robert Owen Butler’s recent book, Intercourse, is full of excellent examples of couples’ thoughts.
  • For many, “suggestion, suppression, and sublimation are more potent aphrodisiacs than the real thing.”
  • Set a tone of heightened erotic tension by using sensual description of your location and/or items within it.  Anne Rice is an expert at sensual and lush description.
  • Sex can be scary.  One person never truly knows what the other is thinking.
  • Do both want the same thing out of this encounter?  Always remember that a good character must yearn and yearn intensely.  Here is another opportunity for dramatic conflict.
  • I love this, from the book:  “Sex can be an expression of affection, love, fear, vulnerability, anger, power, rage, submission–or nearly all of these at once.  Sex strips us of our defenses, leaving us vulnerable to feelings that are often repressed.”
  • A good sex scene is not necessarily about good sex.  Consider what this means for your characters, how it might send your story off into an exciting new direction, how it might show something about each of them.  It might express your theme, be a symbol or a metaphor for something within your story.

There is more for next time.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite sex scenes from Barbara Kinsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer:

“Carefully she took both his hands off of her, raised them above his shoulders, and rolled over him and pinned him like a wrestler.  Straddling his thighs this way, looking down on his face, she felt stunned to her core by this human presence so close to her.  He smiled, that odd parenthetic grin she already knew to look for.  It’s that simple, then, she thought.  It’s that possible.  She best down to him, tasting the salt skin of his chest with the sensitive tip of her tongue, and then exploring the tight drum of his abdomen.  He shuddered at the touch of her warm breath on his skin, giving her to know that she could take and own Eddie Bondo.  It was the body’s decision, a body with no more choice of its natural history than an orchid has, or the bee it needs, and so they would both get lost here, she would let him in, anywhere he wanted to go.  In the last full hour of daylight, while lacewings sought solace for their brief lives in the forest’s bright upper air, and the husk of her empty nylon parka lay tangled with his in the mud, their two soft-skinned bodies completed their introductions on the floor of her porch.  A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair, but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.”

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