By Paul Goat Allen
I’ve had the opportunity to interview some legendary authors in my 25 years as a book critic and editor—Michael Moorcock, Dean Koontz, Laurell K. Hamilton, China Miéville, Kim Harrison, Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, Justin Cronin, and Harlan Coben, to name a few—but arguably the highlight of my career was getting the chance to interview Anne McCaffrey, who not only wrote or co-authored almost 100 novels in multiple genres but was also the first woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. McCaffrey shared many tidbits of wisdom during our chat but one thing she said has stuck with me through the years. When talking about the many challenges she faced as a writer, she stated that one of the hardest things to do well—for any writer—was to write genuinely erotic sex scenes.
After decades of reviewing titles in all genre categories, I couldn’t agree with her more. While I’ve read some amazing, I’ll-have-what-they’re-having sex scenes over the years, the vast majority fall well short—some comically so.
We’ve all read sex scenes that were cringeworthy. As a reviewer, on countless occasions, I’ve read sex scenes in novels that were so badly written it absolutely ruined an otherwise solid read. It’s a risk to include a sexually explicit scene in your novel, regardless of category. If it works, that’s a win. But if it fails, it crashes and burns in spectacular fashion. So before I examine what makes a sex scene succeed, I thought it would be fun to explore how NOT to write a sex scene.
1. Use flowery language whenever possible.
I see this quite a bit—and, if I’m being honest, reading these cheesy sequences are a guilty pleasure. Ever read something so bad that it’s actually strangely entertaining? I wrote an article for BN.com more than a decade ago about sex scenes gone bad and in it, I referenced some memorable scenes from novels that I had reviewed. Here are some of my favorite excerpts that utilized excessively figurative description in sex scenes.
• “His man lance prepared for duty.”—Naked Dragon by Annette Blair
• “I let my hand stroke boldly downward, my fingers aching to set him free, to grasp his turgid magnificence.”—A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang
• “His body knew only one goal, to bury itself into the snug fist of her femininity and let it milk him dry.” – Demon Rumm by Sandra Brown
• “Her pubes was a field of wheat after the harvest, a field neatly furrowed; it was a nest, a pomegranate, an arrowhead, a rune. It was a shadow. It was moss on a smooth white stone. There was an orchid within the moss. There was a drop of dew upon the orchid.” – Bronwyn: Silk and Steel by Ron Miller
And lastly, here is another one I stumbled across a few years back that remains memorable:
• “Squeezing her fanny tight, he found her damp, soft entrance and plunged in like a hot velvet spear seeking its sheath…” Nobody’s Princess by Jennifer Greene
The takeaway here is pretty clear. While this figurative description can certainly enrich a sex scene if done properly (ie: subtly), as a writer you don’t want to push the envelope too far. There’s a fine line between sensuality and laugh-out-loud comedy.
2. Focus on the mechanics of sex—and be graphic!
Nothing ruins an erotic scene quite like when an author neglects emotional intensity and connection and focuses on the mechanics of the sex act. This is where—in my humble opinion—erotica devolves into porn. The infamous Taken by the T-Rex of dinosaur erotica fame is a great example of gratuitous description. In the excerpt below, a cavewoman gets intimate with her tyrannosaur lover:
“…she clutched tightly onto the big lizard’s dick, her arms and legs tightening on the throbbing, red-hot member. The Tyrannosaurus Rex yelled loudly as pints of white fluid shot from the tip of its fat cock to splash onto the rocks below them. Once, twice, and then a third time, the big lizard rammed its shaft against her naked body, each time more of its semen ejaculated across the canyon, wetting the rocks below…”—Taken by the T-Rex by Christie Sims
The takeaway here is obvious. If you write a sex scene that’s supposed to be steamy but makes your readers want to vomit, you’re probably doing something wrong.
3. Ignore your audience.
This is a big one. Successful authors understand what their readers want, what their readers expect. Being aware of the tone of the novel is incredibly important here.
I see this one all the time—writers forcing hardcore sex scenes into storylines that just don’t need them. Ask yourself this: is a graphic sex scene needed in a certain scene? Will a sex scene enrich or improve the storyline? If not, don’t force a sex scene into the narrative.
Here’s a great example of this. I love Wilbur Smith, who has written countless bestselling adventure fiction novels. But in Desert God, he needlessly included a sex scene that included both flowery language and unnecessary graphic body part description.
“Her hair was piled high, but when she shook her head it came cascading down in a glowing wave over her shoulders, and fell as far as her knees. This rippling curtain did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare’s milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them. Her body was hairless. Her pudenda were also entirely devoid of hair. The tips of her inner lips protruded shyly from the vertical cleft. The sweet dew of feminine arousal glistened upon them.”
The bottom line here is that Smith’s novel would’ve been so much stronger without this scene, which was unarguably cringy. It was inorganic and unnecessary. His reading audience—I’m willing to bet—wouldn’t have cared less if this scene was deleted.
Writers also need to be aware of tone when it comes to understanding audience. Not every sex scene needs to be like a sequence from Fifty Shades of Grey.
The excerpts below—from two wildly successful paranormal fantasy series by Charlaine Harris and Nicole Peeler, respectively—are great examples of authors who knew their audiences and delivered the goods. Both series (Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse and Peeler’s Jane True saga) featured identifiable and endearing female leads that had highly entertaining senses of humor. While the excerpts may seem strange, they fit perfectly in with their respective narratives.
• “While I stood stock-still, paralyzed by conflicting waves of emotion, Eric took the soap out of my hands and lathered up his own, set the soap back in its little niche, and began to wash my arms, raising each in turn to stroke my armpit, down my side, never touching my breasts, which were practically quivering like puppies who wanted to be petted.”—Dead to the World by Charlaine Harris
• “She has seaweed pubes.”—Tempest Rising by Nicole Peeler
Conversely, this kind of humorous sex scene wouldn’t work in Laurell K. Hamilton’s hardcore Anita Blake series, which is fueled by a gritty, courageous, and polyamorous female lead. Readers expect a different kind of sexual undertone—and Hamilton delivers as only she can.
• “Fuck me,” I said. “Fuck me, God, fuck me, just fuck me. Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, fuck me, please, please, please, just fuck me.” – Incubus Dreams by Laurell K. Hamilton
While the tone and content of sex scenes can—and will—change from category to category, there are definitely aspects that need to be utilized in order for a sex scene to work. First and foremost is emotional intimacy. If the dynamism between the characters involved in the scene isn’t so intense it’s almost palpable, the scene will probably fall short. As a reader, I want to feel that connection—like I’m living vicariously through the characters. Equally important is the physical attraction. I want the sequence to have an authenticity about it, an impactfulness and immersiveness that draws me into the scene like a magnet to steel.
That’s the key, I believe, to a genuinely steamy sex scene—that fusion of emotional intimacy and physical magnetism. When it’s done right, and the reader can experience that mix of emotional and physical intensity, the scenes virtually set the pages on fire. Below are excerpts from two novels where the sex scenes were masterfully constructed:
• “There was a dangerous purr to his voice that sent a shiver through me. I could feel the warmth of his big, hard body and smell the richly masculine scent of his skin. I was falling under his spell, deeper with every minute that passed.”—Bared to You by Sylvia Day
• “Kim laughed. Liam growled and sprinted up the last of the stairs, slammed into the bedroom and tossed her on the bed. As her clothes came off, then his, Kim gave in. For one night of her life, she was going to enjoy making wild, crazy love with a man who promised to make it unforgettable, no matter what might come in the morning…”—Pride Mates by Jennifer Ashley
McCaffrey was correct. Writing a good sex scene may be the hardest thing you’ll ever attempt to do when it comes to specific writing goals. If you can get that blend of emotional intimacy and physicality just right, and understand the reader expectation associated with the category you’re writing in, you’re already ahead of the game. And, oh yeah, try not to use the word “velvet”….
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program.