Writing Sex Scenes?

There has been some discussion lately about how to write sex scenes in effective ways. Perhaps Valentine’s Day got us thinking in that direction. In any case, it gave me pause for thought.

Recently I had the privilege of critiquing such a scene for a fellow writer. She’s amazing but has a very different style and writes in a different genre. The scene I read really got me … well … you know. Just as it was intended to. And she did it without graphic descriptions of body parts like heaving bosoms and … well, you get the idea.

I don’t write steamy scenes in my books. I got to thinking about why that is. And why hers was so effective and appropriate. My initial reaction was to feel inferior, like maybe I don’t have the skill to write such a scene. Then I recalled a couple of ‘inner fantasy’ scenes I had written a while back, scenes that will never see the light of day, and realised that this is not true. Those were very erotic, possibly even pornographic.

Which made me think about the appropriateness of sex scenes and where, when, and how they can enhance or detract from a novel. And I came to the conclusion that the answers to all of those lie mostly in the genre in which we write.

My friend’s WIP is what I would call a historical romance – although it is also fantasy and several cuts above the popular bodice rippers I used to enjoy but have grown out of because they are too formula. Her work’s primary theme is the development of a romantic relationship under unusually strained circumstances. So my friend has woven sexual tension on some level into many of her scenes, even those that have no sex in them whatsoever. It’s that tension that drives much of the book forward, which makes the erotic scene I read perfectly appropriate.

I also thought about the few sex scenes in my first book and the role they play. And to wonder why my second book has none at all, the third one only one. (It’s not finished yet.) My genre is fantasy – what I would describe as old world fantasy. Each of those scenes is very different from the others. The first a light-hearted consummation of a political union, one a gang rape, another of a prostitute giving a lesson to a man who wants to make sure he does not frighten his lady-love and the last, a scene of healing from the previously mentioned rape. None of them are graphic, physically. I focus on the emotions of the characters, not their physical aspects. Before writing this post I reread them to confirm that they achieved what I wanted. They did, much to my relief.

I also recalled scenes from a few mysteries I have read and the way they were handled in that genre. The most effective ones were the least graphic and also stayed within the style of the rest of the book. While I do not read YA I can deduce that romantic episodes would be handled quite differently there.

Lastly, scenes in erotica and porn, which have titillation as their primary purpose, can appropriately be much more graphic, physically. Even here, I question the effectiveness of a graphic approach.

I think that most of us will agree that we must approach writing sex scenes in a way that fits the genre and the maturity level of our target audience. And that the style of these scenes must remain congruent with the rest of the book so they flow seamlessly within the story.

I have read books in the past where it seems that the sex scenes were thrown in because of some arbitrary rule. They were written in a different style from the rest of the book and added nothing to the story. It seemed as if these authors thought their book could not succeed without some obligatory graphic sex. These scenes actually detracted from what could have been a good story.

I expect there are those who would argue otherwise, but in my opinion, even in scenes meant to arouse the reader, this can be done more effectively with suggestion and nuance than with overt graphic references to every body part and the actions taken on or with them. I find subtlety much more effective in drawing me into the scene … and in making my temperature rise.

So a question remains. What is the most appropriate approach to achieve the purpose for which a sex scene is written? Is there a time when graphic sex scenes are necessary? What would that be, aside from possibly pornography? Or is it needed even there?

Author: Yvonne Hertzberger

Yvonne Hertzberger is a native of the Netherlands who immigrated to Canada in 1950. She is an alumna of The University of Waterloo, with degrees in psychology and Sociology. Her Fantasy trilogy, ‘Earth’s Pendulum’ has been well received. Learn more about Yvonne at her blog and her Amazon author page.

49 thoughts on “Writing Sex Scenes?”

  1. The nature of the sex scene depends on the intended audience. Sex scenes in a story are about what the reader expects. If I want to attract an audience that likes explicit sex scenes, then those are the kinds that I need to write. If I’m writing for a conservative readership, then I would need to adjust my scenes accordingly.

  2. I think the sex scenes also have to do with plot and how they move that plot forward, or give insight into a character, whether it be male or female. The few sex scenes I write have to do with female character and how his sexual prowess attracted her to him, causing her to overlook some of his more obvious flaws. I could make a bad joke here…about how I used to write what sex scenes I needed from memory…and now I no longer can reach that far back into my memory bank! Hahaha! Yeah…bad joke 🙂

    1. lol. I think we’re on the same wavelength.

      Since I don’t really get into Romance or Erotica as a reader I expect I’ll hear some differing points of view on this. Maybe I’ll learn something.

  3. I enjoyed your post, Yvonne. It’s a timely article for me. Just recently I deleted a sex scene from my mystery novel. It was “hot” but not at all graphic. Also, it was directly related to the story. All in all, I was very pleased with its subtlety and effectiveness.

    So, why did I get rid of it? I did it because members of the wonderful critique group I belong to felt that, in the given situation,the woman should have prevented going through with the sexual encounter. I decided they were probably right, and I have no regrets about cutting the steamier part of the scene.
    I was confused, though, about a couple of comments that the scene was too much like a romance novel.

    If a scene of this kind pertains to the plot or subplot, is it a mistake to write it into a mystery, or thriller, or what-have-you? If a sexual situation develops in anything other than the “romance” or “erotica” genre, is it smarter to just skirt around the details altogether and allude to what happens like the “cut-away” scenes in movies like From Here to Eternity?

    While I think the decision I made was right for my story, I’d like to be prepared to make an informed decision, if faced with the decision again in upcoming novels.

    1. I like what you say about ‘hot but not graphic’. That’s part of what I was getting at. For me the ‘graphic’ takes away from the ‘hot’.

      As for whether to include or leave out a sex scene – I really think it depends on whether it moves the plot or character development forward – in the desired direction. In your case it sounds to me like you made the right decision – at least, if you trust your group.

      Maybe you’ll find a better avenue for your scene and won’t have to toss it forever.

    2. Interesting comment! My current novel is upmarket women’s fiction with suspense elements. My critique group actually thought I should add a few sex scenes so the reader could see why the protagonist was so attracted to the antagonist. To just say it seems like exposition. They are not graphic…as I too think there is a tendency to lump fiction that has sex scenes into the romance genre. This has given me pause to think about it……hmmmmm………..

  4. I’ve never written a sex scene. Innuendo? Yes, and I’ve always found that to be enough (hopefully).
    I write for adults, yet want my books to be read by all ages.
    Plus, at 80, I’m afraid I’d get giggly writing it, or be
    considered a dirty old man by those reading it.

  5. Interesting post, Yvonne. My beta readers actually made me add a scene because they said everything until that point in the story had been leading to the sex scene. I was uncomfortable writing it because we’re fairly private as a nation (despite being the land of Kama Sutra! 🙂 ), but once I put the scene on paper (nothing overt at all), I felt it was the right thing to do.

    1. It’s a part of life, so when we try to keep truth in our writing it is often necessary to include. But we still choose HOW to do that. It sounds like you made a good choice.

  6. I think a lot of it has to do with the audience you’re targeting, and what they expect from a given genre. I’ve been marketing my series in two categories, urban fantasy and paranormal romance. But I suspect the readers coming to it from the “romance” angle aren’t getting what they’re after — hot sex within a traditional Christian framework. I’ve got sex scenes, but they’re of the “camera pans to the curtains billowing in the wind” variety. Just can’t bring myself to write the detailed stuff with a straight face.

    BTW, Yvonne, I really liked the way you handled the healing sex scene. 🙂

    1. I agree. That’s why designating your book with the correct labels is so important. Then readers are more likely to get what they are looking for. Sometimes, though, finding those key words is tough.

      Thanks, Lynne. I’m so glad that worked. It was a tough scene to write.

  7. Ah, my little coquette . . . nothing like sex to draw me out of the dark.

    As you know I write with my son and he always tones down the graphic sex scenes I write. They are not meant to arouse, although the same scene in my erotica writing is meant to excite the reader. I write the scenes graphically because, for me, they add an unseen dimension to the character. (My son David is a police officer and as such, some of what we write needs to be a bit circumspect.)

    My series main protagonist Danny is a multi-faceted character. We get a better understanding of his complex nature when we compare the tender and fun sex he has with a woman he loves, to the brutal sex he has with the women he considers to be only receptacles.

    I’ll close with the words of the ancient Roman playwright Terence: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”, or “I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.”


    1. Ha ha, Neil. Gotcha. lol

      I’m beginning to wonder if we need to define what we mean by graphic. It seems we are using that word in different ways here and it is confusing the issue

      I certainly agree with the need for distinction between the ‘fun’ and the ‘brutal’ and sometimes that (especially the brutal) can only be done with some graphic description – as in the rape scene I wrote. But those are not meant to titillate. For me, a scene that describes every movement of every body part in superlative terms simply is not ‘hot’. Bottom line, for me is , if you want to turn me on keep it more suggestive than in my face – allusion is more effective than a blow by blow. It allows me to insert myself more easily. (Oops, pun not intended. tee hee)

  8. Good article, though I have to admit I did cringe at “bodice rippers”. I’ve read and written romance a good long while and I enjoy writing it. I currently have 9 out. My love scenes, as I call them, are never just plopped in there, but lead up to the moment by progression of my character’s emotions and therefore it’s the plot moving forward. The scene(s) depends how the book is positioned. I never write to a formula of any kind, which is why I no longer write for Harlequin/Silhouette (gee). I write sweet romances where there is sexual tension, no love scenes at all, and then romance with love scenes where the heat index is somewhere in the middle, (not sweet but not erotica) but I’ve been told they’re pretty darn good. 🙂 I actually don’t do any graphic words for body parts, lol, just not my style. Actually, for me graphic words in a romance take me out of the scene. So in my non-sweet romances, readers usually expect love scenes (no set amount for me, it has to fit with the story) and if they get to know an author’s style they may have a good idea what to expect in the bedroom…or wherever. 🙂

    1. Sorry if that term felt negative. I did say I used to enjoy those. They definitely have their place. (Kathleen Woodiwiss comes to mind, if memory serves. It’s been a while) From your description of what you do it seems to me we are actually in agreement. Do you have a particular favourite of yours I can check out? Maybe you can convert me. 🙂

      1. I read Kathleen Woodiwiss back in the day, too. She was one of the few whose editor knew where commas belonged, so I could sit back and enjoy the, uh, ride, without wanting to take a red pen to the book. 😀

    2. My first real reading binge was on Barbara Cortland novels…omg…talk about some bodice rippers!!! She’s never graphic, but the old gal sure knew how to get your imagination there by some “rake” ripping a bodice or two.

  9. My first book had a rape scene that, in retrospect, was probably too graphic for the book. I learned my lesson quickly. Even from a distant memory of such events, I know not to go there if the rest of the novel wasn’t headed in that direction. I’d like to take my reader on a gentle journey not a shock ride. LOL

  10. I don’t think I could write sex scenes into my novels. I write soft seduction moments. Recently I was asked to read an erotic manuscript. I read through, and told the author it was pornographic, not erotica. He asked what I thought the difference was, and I told him that to me, erotica has a story woven throughout. Porn is basic sex in graphic detail, and that is what he had written. It did not ‘do’ things for me, as a sensual scene might do.

    1. Hmmm, you know, soft seduction moments may actually BE sex scenes. I agree on the difference between erotica and porn. And in my view, porn almost always involves abasement of some kind.

  11. I appreciated the way you handled the sex scenes in your books, and also agree that an effective sex scene must fit the story and not just be thrown in for the rating (As if the writer is saying “The reader will read more of my books because they will be looking for that special sex scene.”).

    Also, your statement – “Subtle can be more sexy that graphic.” as far as I’m concerned is totally true.

    So far, the sex scenes are hard to find in my books, even though the implication they were either happening or going to happen. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to include a steamy sex scene in my life series written as historical fiction, but the implication that there was one seemed to be more effective to me.

  12. Funny you should ask. I just spent several hours toning down some Internet sex chat room scenes in “my” best seller, As The Twig Is Bent. What prompted the changes was the fact that I am embarking upon the process of turning my Matt Davis Mysteries into audio books. I observed that when one reads a graphically sexual scene, the words are processed differently from how they are received when read aloud by another voice.
    I believe one should write sex scenes according to the particular genre involved, and be careful not to overdo it (unless the nature of the subject matter demands that the sex be graphic). Euphemisms have a place in romantic novels, whereas they might seem very out of place in a hard-boiled detective novel.
    Let the situation “dick”tate how you write about sex. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    1. lol.
      Your observation on how reading aloud changes how words are heard and received is interesting. It’s an angle I had not thought of. Thanks for adding another dimension to the discussion.

  13. I write in the science fiction genre and traditionally there has not been much sex in sci-fi. That is changing, but getting the balance right is hard. The same applies to ‘romance’.

    My personal take on the question is that the /main/ focus of the story has to be in keeping with the genre/plot. Romance and sex are fine so long as they are not the be all and end all of the story.

  14. Wow! You certainly know how to attract attention to your article, Yvonne. The very mention of sex, it seems, will do the trick (create fervent debate).

    I am definitely with you, Yvonne, on where, how graphic and how much. When I was very young (I mean teen years) anything that hinted there might be sex (explicit or otherwise) ‘between the covers’ was guaranteed to attract my attention. While my experience was somewhat stunted I would have been, to a certain degree, a voyeur. I’m from the same era as you, and for me, when I was at school ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was the big draw card.

    However later on, I found that my imagination would only be inhibited by someone else’s ideas of what is hot or erotic and therefore, explicit, graphic, pornographic scenes, I tend to either not read that kind of thing or, if I come across it somewhere I hadn’t expected it, I kind of skip through, preferring, as you mentioned, subtlety and innuendo. Don’t we, as writers, want to stimulate every reader to make their own movie, in their imagination, of the stories we tell.

    Having said that, though, it does also depend on the genre, the general tone of the story and what might be expected from that.

    Great post, Yvonne!

  15. Wow, Yvonee, quite the cage rattler today!
    I write YA (not paranormal and not love stories) so I don’t write “sex” scenes. However, there is a budding relationship. That’s where the problems begin. How much “budding” and does it add to the story if the relationship isn’t the central theme.

    On another note, I think some are really good at writing these scenes and others are not. The few attempts that I had to bring the romance into the scene was laughed off the page and never made it to the final cut. That left me with some powerful tension that was left unresolved. Not necessarily a bad thing, but at some point I’ll have to deal with it.

    Better go practice …

    1. Well, I had to do something about that ‘nice, sweet’ image. lol

      It’s true that some writers have a real knack for these scenes and can make the steam rise from the page. I don’t think I’m one of those. Maybe I need more practice, too. I need to tarnish my halo. 😉

  16. A very interesting article, Yvonne, with some great points. I think sensual scenes have to do the same thing any other scene; reveal something of the character, change something of the plot or the conflict or the goal. And I agree with what others say, that it depends on the genre as well as on the particular story being told in that genre.

    I definitely agree with you that subtle can be more sexy than graphic.

    Great post!

  17. Good grief, Yvonne! I’m going to wait and read your article and all these detailed comments on the weekend when I have more time.

    As a newbie writer, authenticity without cliche is what I hope and strive for in all scenes; this definitely carries over to scenes of an explicit nature.

    Thanks as always for writing about a hot topic. Yes, pun intended, but the thanks is still very genuine. :))

    1. lol. Thanks, Jo-Anne. I think perhaps the number of comments is more a reflection of the topic than that I wrote the post.

      I love your phrase “authenticity without cliche”. It’s perfect.

  18. I have written a detective novel with a strong sex scene, bordering on forced sex. Is this a deal breaker for women?

    1. I assume the issue is considered a crime in your book, as it is a detective story. I think the answer for me would be how the scene is described. I have a rape scene in my first book but I describe it mostly from an emotional viewpoint without graphic physical details. It is integral to the story, so has to be there. The other part of my answer is that I’m not sure there is a big difference in how men and women respond to such scenes. We are all individuals and have different responses. Thanks for bringing that angle up.

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