When I first got the idea to write this I thought that I could use the Guardian Bad Sex Writing Awards as an example of what not to write in a sex scene. However, having just ploughed my way through several extracts, there were several where I couldn’t see exactly why they were nominated (although there were others that shouted out in rampant ecstasy that they were more than qualified)! This could mean one of several things:
(a) Some of those extracts had been taken out of context because of the style of book.
(b) The reviewers were being a little snobby about sex scenes in general – especially by literary, and mostly male, authors.
(c) What one person regards as a great sex scene, another may see as a really awful example.
(d) I can’t tell what a shit sex scene looks like and therefore there is a great danger that mine are also shit!
I’m really, really hoping that it isn’t (d); in which case the following tips will be completely useless! I tend to think that it is more a case of (c): that we all have different tastes when it comes to how sex is portrayed (and even whether it should be) and what may be disgusting or hilarious to one person may be highly arousing for another.
That said, here follows my own personal top ten tips for writing sex scenes:
1. Don’t be embarrassed about what you’re writing: sex is nothing to be embarrassed about – unless you’ve been caught with your pants down in the Queen’s private WC, with an equerry, holding a picture of Mary Whitehouse.*
2. Don’t be embarrassed about what you’re not writing. Not every love scene has to be a full on hot and sweaty grappling match. Subtle scenes that hint of what is to come can have just as much of an arousing effect.
3. If you are happy to write hot and sweaty grappling scenes (and it isn’t a book about WWF) – don’t put in too many. Believe me, it can get boring and predictable. Of course, if you’re purposefully writing an erotic novel put in as many as you want and don’t worry about any plot (readers will only flick through to read the sex bits!).
4. Give your readers a wide spread. No, no, no, not THAT kind of wide spread! I mean, mix a couple of hot and heavy scenes with the subtle ones – make your reader use their imagination!
5. Write appropriately for the genre and market. In general, readers of romance and historical fiction do not want to see pages and pages of graphic sex acts, especially if they include violence, group sex or other perversions. However, if any of these genuinely fit with the plot, use very sparingly! On the other hand, some genres like crime and thrillers can handle heavier doses of grittiness, although, once again, they should always be part of the story, never put in just to shock (there again, there is Fifty Shades of Grey…!).
(a) Use appropriate words for the act, body parts etc. This is definitely true for genres such as historical fiction where certain words, e.g. gangbang, would really, really, sound wrong!! Not that I’ve seen any hist-fic with such goings on! For a bit of authenticity, use words that were used at the time, although do beware of those that may sound a little bit funny (and I mean hilarious) today. For contemporary scenes use contemporary slang but keep it to dialogue or the narrator (if the story has one).
(b) Try not to use some medical terms e.g. penis, vagina – as it will sound more like a sex education lesson than an erotic venture. On the other hand other medical terms such as breast or nipple are fine (don’t ask me why?!)
(c) Beware of and do not touch with a very long barge pole too many adjectives, clichés or metaphors – it just sounds silly!
7. Practice! Practice, practice, practice – and then practice some more! No, I don’t mean sex – although that’s fine by me if you need to do further ‘field research’. I mean the writing of sex scenes. If you do find yourself a little coy of writing such unfamiliar words or else writing scenes of which you have no experience, and you’re worried that the readers will know it (on the other hand you might be worried that the readers will suspect you of having a very interesting sex life!), then write a few drafts just to try it out. You’re not going to show them to anyone. In fact you can even burn them afterwards. Just keep writing and practising until you find that writing about Emily shagging George is just second nature. More importantly, it will also look natural to your readers. Some of the worst sex scenes I’ve read look like they’ve been written by someone cringing behind their hand at every ‘naughty’ word or action!
8. Research. Once again, you can make this a practical exercise if you wish and if you have the resources on hand, but what I really mean is to read other authors’ sex scenes. See how they handle the ‘ins and outs’. Look at what you like and what works and also note what doesn’t. And learn from them.
9. Remember that, like most people’s first time, the first draft of your sex scene is likely to be terrible: all fumble-y and clumsy. And just like the rest of the story it will need to redrafted again and again until it flows. But just make sure that the scene doesn’t get too tamed down or lose its fire in the editorial process because quite often your editorial head will get all Mary Whitehouse on you and will start to censor what you’ve written.
10. Very important! Enjoy what you write. If you enjoy writing the love scene and even get turned on by it then your reader will too (unless you get turned on by excessively pervy horrible things of course!). Keep in mind that although sex scenes can be very important and sometimes the most read part of the book, they are still just a part of the whole. Don’t get hung up on them. And if you do, after all the tips and practicing above then it’s easy: just don’t have them in your book. After all writing, like sex, is something you do for pleasure isn’t it?
* Please note, this really is just an example and has honestly never happened to me nor anyone I know! Oh, and for non-Brits and those under a certain age, Mary Whitehouse was a self-appointed keeper of public morals especially when it came to the TV.
** Words and phrases I’m banning right now are ‘engorged’, ‘virile member’, ‘delicate petals’, ‘polished orbs’, ‘joystick’, ‘love-stick’, ‘like a stag in rut’, and never, ever have (as one entry in the Bad Sex Writing Awards did): an ‘impossibly stiff, impossibly eloquent cock.’ *shudder* I’m sure you can come up with more. In fact, consider it an exercise you can do: fill up an A4 sheet with all the most dreadful sex scene phrases you can. It will crush any inhibitions with fits of the giggles, I promise!