Writing Sex

Victor Infante has an interesting column on writing sex posted on GotPoetry.com.

I find sex easier to write than anything else–and I’m told by numerous people whose opinions I respect that I write it well. :-) Why it’s easy for me, though, I have no idea. Part of it, certainly, is that it doesn’t embarrass me to write it. Part of it’s the enjoyment I have in the subject. Victor shares those characteristics, too, though, and says that writing sex is still something he struggles with. So the other part’s a mystery to me. :-)

What are your opinions? What makes sex easy or difficult to write well?

15 thoughts on “Writing Sex”

  1. I like sex, and I’m not embarrassed about it, but my problem is that most of the time sex is relevant to the story (for the stories I write), the character interactions are a bit fraught. If what happens is that the two characters have happy fun sex, I can write it easily but also quickly — not quite “fade to black, good time had by all,” but close. But when there are things going on in the sexual relationships that are relevant to plot and character and so on, it often seems to mean that someone is not being honest with someone else, or something goes awry (modern Tam Lin story, broken condom!), or in some other way it’s a fragile or not entirely straightforwardly pleasant experience for all concerned. And that’s not my favorite thing to write.

  2. Seems that it’s a matter of getting past the initial embarrassment barrier. Once you get past, it’s like a dam opening. And the more honest you write it, the better it comes out. The funny cliches happen when you are a) still embarrassed b) not going all the way with authorial honesty) c) are not really visualizing it as it really is in all its raw detail, but as some mechanical romance-perpetrated stereotype.

    At this point in my writing journey I believe I also write sex really well and easily, but in fact what I love most writing is dysfunctional sex. When things go wrong, when characters have major insecurities, etc. I also find that kind of sex most interesting to read.

  3. I think the problems people have with writing sex are mostly functions of the fact that our language has a poor vocabulary for fiction writers’ purposes. So writers who self-consciously avoid pornographic slang become cooly clinical, mawkishly euphemistic, or, most often, use emptily abstract romantic superlatives and clichés.

  4. I find a similar problem of vocabulary when I want to describe how something smelled. Other than to say the object something smells like, we have very few ways to talk about smell, I think! Putting aside the specialized vocabularies of perfume-makers and wine-tasters.

  5. NB: the below applies to novels that are not specifically erotica novels.

    A couple of issues start to crop up, I think, and they depend on what the author is trying to write:

    1. If it’s romantic sex, then it almost by definition can’t be realistic. People in romance novels never fart during sex. The man never has a problem getting or maintaining an erection, nor does he experience premature ejaculation. The woman always has an orgasm (usually multiple, but sometimes just one that leaves her semi-conscious with its power). Everyone always fits together perfectly, their sense of rhythm is perfectly in sync. There is never a wet spot. No one ever worries about pregnancy or disease. The character’s thoughts are all about how much they love their partner, or how much they are enjoying the sensations.

    2. Sex with purpose in the plot is more interesting. While most of the above often applies (again–no one farts during sex!), the author is usually giving more information that furthers the plot. Why this or that character is having sex, what he or she observes about their partner(s), possible ramifications of the act. (I suppose it is possible for a romance novel hero to have difficulty getting it up if part of the plot is that later the heroine “cures” him with her combination of utter hottness + innocence.)

    And here’s the thing: in the romantic situation, there’s not much to talk about other than what the people are doing, feeling, and experiencing. And we have a limited language to describe all that. There are a limited number of words for all the body parts that are not either (a) clinical or (b) considered offensive. There are a limited number of verbs as well: quick–synonyms for “thrust”?

    The problem is that many rookie sex writers assume that the hotness is in the act. They describe a bit of foreplay, the physical action of insertion, and the building tension that leads to orgasm, yadda yadda yadda. That is not so very different from person to person or event to event. Hot sex, on the other hand, will talk about what’s going on around the characters, why this moment is hot. A good sex writer will have foreplayed the reader for a couple of chapters (anticipation is much hotter than fulfillment!), and will approach the actual penetration less clinically and more obliquely.

    I also think sex is very hard for some people to write well because we have a whole literature of vanilla sex in the mainstream romance novel industry. The good writers can come up with new, interesting phrases, but the bulk of them are cliche-ridden. The authors borrow phrases and terminology (probably unintentionally), and so after a while, the scenes all sound the same. This was my particular bugaboo in wrting sex scenes, and I had to learn to look for the cliches and get rid of them.

    I think in sex scenes, less is more. Too much point-by-point coreography and the reader is bored. This is true for any sort of action scene. Even baseball play-by-play has to be broken up by observations about how painful the slide into second was, and perhaps note how many bases this player has stolen already this year, or wonder if he’s really recovered from that shoulder injury that had him on the DL for three months.

    I’ve written hot sex scenes and dull sex scenes. I think my hot sex scenes are hot in part because they’re not vanilla (as once observed, sometimes it’s hard to tell the sex scenes from the fight scenes in my book), and partially because I work very hard to avoid cliche terms and clinical description.

    I’ve got one scene that I suspect is kind of dull, and I originally wrote around it (i.e. fade to black), but beta readers kept asking for it to be there. I put it in, but I don’t think it’s very hot, because there’s no inherent conflict between the characters. I worked really, really hard to put plot movement and worldbuilding into the scene, to justify its being there, but I think the actual sex is not very interesting or hot.

    Bah, I’ve blithered on too long, and LJ says I’m over the character-limit.

  6. That is so utterly true. The protagonist in my novel is blind, and the paucity of olfactory terms drove me insane.

    I can tell my husband’s scent from another man’s, for instance, but there are absolutely no words to describe the difference; it just smells like him.

  7. I am anosmic, and yet I have no problem describing scents in books. Perhaps a case of “I didn’t know it was impossible when I did it.” Maybe there’s nothing wrong with saying “it smells like X”?

  8. Amen, that’s exactly my problem. There are no attractive words for smutbits, darnit.

    (I had a poll about that, recently.)

    My other problem with writing sex is currently wrecking her new Cars car with a great deal of yelling and wailing. The distraction factor of a six year old in the house should not be discounted.

  9. I hope it’s okay to play in your world for a minute. Archangelbeth linked to this journal entry as being very interesting. She was right, of course.

    “1. If it’s romantic sex, then it almost by definition can’t be realistic. People in romance novels never fart during sex. The man never has a problem getting or maintaining an erection, nor does he experience premature ejaculation. The woman always has an orgasm (usually multiple, but sometimes just one that leaves her semi-conscious with its power). Everyone always fits together perfectly, their sense of rhythm is perfectly in sync.”

    Thank you for such a good laugh! It’s so true!

    Two sex scenes stand out in my mind as being the antithesis of the “perfect sex” scene. Dave Barry (who is never hampered by the need to right a straight romantic scene), in his novel Tricky Business, has a hottie character who has one slight problem as a result of her all vegetarian diet. The other is Lois McMaster Bujold in Komarr, where our protagonist diffuses her jealous/unpleasant husband’s bad mood by offering pedestrian sex during which she is basically checking the ceiling for paint chips.

    “Hot sex, on the other hand, will talk about what’s going on around the characters, why this moment is hot. A good sex writer will have foreplayed the reader for a couple of chapters (anticipation is much hotter than fulfillment!)”

    Absolutely. It is the tension and need build up between the characters that makes the culmination satisfying, not the flying body parts.

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

  10. Pretty much the only words I can’t stand are the highly clinical, and ‘cum’ spelled with a u.

    You’ve read my sex scenes, and you know I use a number of the words most people complain about routinely, but I don’t seem to get complaints about it–I think it’s because of the way I do it.

  11. I’m definitely finding it easier to write sex scenes the more I push myself to do it. Most of them won’t ever make it into a story, as I don’t think I’ll change my policy of only including them if the sex itself tells us something new about the characters *and* moves the plot along. But it’s fun to actually type out the ‘in-between scenes’ that I have in my head as well as, I find, a good ‘getting to know the characters’ exercise.

  12. We all had to learn to write. None of us were born with any innate skill. It was not given to us by angels (or fairy god mothers) who descended at our birth and touched our forehead and said ‘you will write well’.

    A lot of our learning is subconscious. We read, through the years and as we do we learn. Everything we pick up and read teaches us something.

    Comparatively through our lives we read very little smut. If the majority of language skills we pick up are in the first six years of life, it’s safe to assume your writing skills are developing then too (read to your children, people!!) and while they continue to develop all through your life and we continue to improve, those fundamental first years affect us more profoundly in adulthood that we would like to admit.

    I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I wasn’t reading any erotica when I was six. Or even seven. I chewed through books, upwards of twenty a week, from when I was six to when I was fifteen. Vast, vast amounts of text were devoured by a hungry mind and not one of them contained any pornographic material.

    Even if you are an avoid reader of smut in your older years, compare it with the amount of text that isn’t smut and with all the newspaper articles and magazines you read and you will realise it encompasses a very, very, very small minority of what you read.

    Everyone puts forward a lot of thought provoking arguments as to why smut is hard, but I propose it is just another one of those things that we have yet to learn, simply because we are poorly exposed.

    Want to write smut well? Read a /lot/ more. Write a /lot/ more. And learn it the hard way just like you did grammar and characterisation and all those other aspects of writing.

  13. Wow, I’m sorry I don’t have anything to add to this interesting conversation… I wandered in because I’m an aspiring editor/writer and it was recommended by some of my fellow Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction students that I add you as a friend. I thought I’d introduce myself and let you know that I had.

    So, good afternoon!
    Hanna

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