If you read adult fiction, you’ve likely read at least a few sex scenes. Sex scenes range from well-executed to cringey. At writers, we often find opportunities to include sex scenes in our stories. Even if we’re not in the romance or erotica genre, sex is just a real life thing that happens, so it makes sense for our characters to do it too.
Outside of erotica, sex scenes can be used for developing character, progressing the plot, and revealing dynamics between characters. As with all scenes, a good sex scene will accomplish more than one thing (unless you’re writing erotica for the sake of erotica).
So how do you write a sex scene, and how do you do it in a way that doesn’t make your reader cringe?
We’re going to talk about some things you can keep in mind–not all of these tips may apply to you, and everything in writing is, of course, pretty subjective.
But here are seven tips for writing sex scenes that will engage and interest your readers:
Think about why it’s there
Including a sex scene just to include a sex scene usually isn’t going to make for a very compelling plot beat. Just like any scene, it should be doing something to develop the characters or progress the plot–unless it’s an erotica! Then you can have them just for fun.
Most of the sex scenes I’ve read in my client’s manuscripts don’t belong. They just wanted to include a sex scene. If you’re writing a romance, the first time your characters have sex should typically be an important plot point or maybe even the climax (haha) of the story. In most cases, a sex scene should be like an argument scene or a fight scene, in that your story has to earn it for your reader to be super invested. If it’s a significant scene with your main characters, then it should be done intentionally and when it happens will be important for their dynamic. Make sure your scene belongs in the story and makes sense where you placed it.
Know what you’re talking about
I’ve read a lot of sex scenes from clients that biologically didn’t make sense. It’s totally fine to write about experiences you haven’t personally had, just make sure you’ve done the research to understand the mechanics of everything, or you might be left with a scene that’s unrealistic or difficult to follow.
Keep your characters in mind
Don’t write A Sex Scene, write those specific characters having sex. How would they do it? Why are they doing it? Are they selfish, are they giving, are they squeamish, are they adventurous? You should know the character well to write the scene. If you can copy paste any character into it and it reads the same, it’s probably too generic. And if a scene is generic, it won’t serve your character development.
Pay attention to tone
Sex scenes can mean a ton of different things because people have sex for so many reasons. Why are your characters having sex right now? Are they in love? Is it for fun? Are they doing it because they feel like they have to? Are they trying to have a baby? Are they doing it for revenge against the other person’s spouse? Are they bored? Are they looking for validation? Are they trying to manipulate the other person? Are they looking for acceptance and love?
This is true for any piece of writing as well, but: you can write two scenes where the EXACT same thing happens, but you swap the tone. You use different vernacular. You see it from a different character’s point of view, and that completely changes what the scene means. So think about what each character is in this for, which character we’re “seeing” it through, and how we can convey that through the tone and our word choice and what details we decide to emphasize. Sex can be really nice or it can be really gross—and it’s usually both. So which side is your character deciding to focus on, and what does that teach us about them or about the character dynamic?
Don’t focus on the play-by-play
I see a lot of writers do this—they’re describing exactly where every limb is at all times. It’s very technical and not very sexy. Erotica author Anais Nin said:
“Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore.”
So what do we write if we’re not writing the technicalities? Focus on details that matter. Connect what’s happening physically with what’s happening emotionally in your character. The same way we talk about writing any description—you can do a lot more with a focused, meaningful detail than you can do with two pages of general description.
The thing everyone wants to know about is..
What words do we use?
Do we say penis? Do we say throbbing member? Do we say Deep Into Her Womanhood. Up to you. Whatever suits the tone or taste of your book and your particular writing style. Using the technical terms might make it seem too clinical, but using goofy euphemisms might make it seem too juvenile. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a straight solution to this. Some readers are gonna hate it no matter what you do, so write to your own preference.
You know more than your characters
Earlier I mentioned knowing what sex is. Yes, you should understand sex when you’re writing a sex scene. That doesn’t necessarily mean your character does. Maybe it’s their first time, maybe it’s not their first but they’ve simply never bothered to figure out their partner’s anatomy—this can all be characterizing. Maybe your character is a little ignorant and that works for the story, but YOU YOURSELF should not be ignorant.
Know why you’re writing and what you’re talking about, utilize the scenes for characterization, keep tone in mind, and don’t focus on the play-by-play to write engaging and compelling sex scenes. As with any scene, there are no definitive right or wrong ways to do it, but I hope these tips gave you some ideas and guidance!