Performance Anxiety 

The Ins and Outs of Sex Scenes

Ah, the sex scene. Is any other aspect of writing so adored and reviled? There’s entire contests devoted to good and bad sex in fiction. Writers eternally hope their own scenes wind up in the former and not the latter.

Sex scenes are tricky on their best days. Use too much proper language and the scene becomes too clinical, sucking out any power and emotion it might otherwise contain. Veer too far to the other side, bogging the scene down in extra description and flowery language like “love chamber” and “blossoming flower,” and you wind up with purple prose.

Any type of story—no matter what the medium is—needs each scene to move it forward. There are no “throwaway” sex scenes. The act itself, and your description of it, needs to move the plot forward and/or show us something about the characters that we didn’t know before. This is true regardless of whether you’re writing a historical romance or a hard-edged thriller. That can be a lot of pressure.

No wonder writers get performance anxiety.

Is there a cure? Well, no, but we can explore the anatomy of a sex scene and teach ourselves how to master the structure, if not the uneasy feelings some of us get. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve broken down the sex scene into three stages (much like sex itself).

The Buildup

The buildup is, quite simply, whatever your characters consider foreplay. A quick-witted pair might engage in a sizzling round of banter that ends with someone up against the wall. A more traditional couple might lie down on the couch with some soft music and candles playing.

The Act Itself

This is the place where some writers end up slipping a little bit, often as they try to think of other words for “thrust” and “moaned” and all those other fun verbs that accompany sex scenes. This section hopefully ends with an orgasm (although unfortunately not always).

The Afterglow

Science calls this the refractory period. If your characters are lucky, they get to lie around gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes. Often, however, one decides this was all a terrible mistake and decides to run out the door. Readers may often learn the most about characters and their backgrounds from the afterglow (or lack thereof).

I know plenty of writers who love writing sex scenes, but there are many, many more who admit to being a bit nervous about them. When asked why they’re nervous, they tend to gloss over the whole “I need to propel the story in a meaningful way!” and mumble, “What if it’s silly? What if my mother reads it?”

There’s nothing wrong with being a little uneasy about writing a sex scene. No matter how many you write, there’s always a little bit of worry about something so critical to the story and your characters. And yes, there’s some stuff you just don’t want your mother to ever read.

The best advice I can give regarding getting started on or improving your sex scenes is to read and write. Read as often as you can and take note of the sex scenes that appeal to you. Why do you like them? Pick out specific aspects—whether it’s the way they’re written, the language the characters use, or anything else—and keep a running list. You could even call it “Things I Like in Sex Scenes.”

Once you’ve got a decent list, set out to emulate it. Start writing. Always write. Write practice scenes using the elements you enjoyed from the books you wrote. If you find you like characters who argue with each other before falling into bed, let them practice witty one-liners on each other. Experiment with different settings, different characters, different situations. Don’t show your work to anyone—this is strictly for you to look at. No one else will be reading it, so don’t worry about writing to others’ standards. This is your project. The only person you need to perform for is yourself.

You may find it easier to create a couple of characters who already know each other well. Write a few scenes where they banter back and forth before sending them off to bed; this may make you feel more comfortable with what’s about to follow. And see, now you’re working on crafting dialogue, too!

Once you master that, a good sex scene is just a few clicks of the keyboard away.

A glass of wine sometimes helps, too. 😉