Write fiction for long enough, and eventually you’re going to land on a storyline that requires you to address a sexual relationship between characters. If you write in a sweet, mannerly style in which sex only happens once all major story questions and conflicts are addressed, you might get away with writing closed-door sex scenes. (In fact, some readers specifically seek out this kind of read, and some writers have learned to telegraph this experience in their title, cover art and back cover copy.) But if your voice is earthy or sensual, or if your characters’ world is rife with sexual politics, you’re probably not going to get away with a decision to fade to black. Try it, and your readers will protest outright. Or they’ll give your book a low rating, feeling vaguely dissatisfied because they didn’t get the payoff to the setup implied by the rest of the book.
Let’s assume, then, that you’ve decided your genre, voice and storyline require one or more sex scenes. Let’s further assume you’re going to work through your feelings about your parents/boss/worship leader reading your work. The question then, becomes How? How do you craft a sex scene that goes beyond the mechanical insertion of Tab A into Slot B? How do you write sex scenes that are a necessary part of the storyline and thus, material that your readers can’t and won’t skip?
While I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject, my understanding has grown by studying another author:
At a recent seminar I attended, when talking about authors who manage their social media with panache, a fellow writer mentioned the author Ruby Dixon. A figure rendered somewhat mysterious because of her anonymity, she is reputed to be a NYT-bestselling traditional writer by day, and by night, under her pen name, a bestselling independent writer of Sci-Fi romances.
I went to Ms. Dixon’s Facebook page to watch how she interacted with her large and dedicated audience. (Sadly, I am no closer to understanding how some writers fascinate whereas I maintain the charisma of a boiled chicken breast.) Before long, I ended up buying several books in her Ice Planet Barbarian series to see if I could identify what had earned her a rabid readership. Then I realized that the series’s setup makes it an ideal place to learn about compelling sex scenes even if, like me, you don’t write Sci-Fi romance.
Science to the Rescue?
Remember in the scientific method how you attempt to hold all environmental factors stable, save for one? Then any variation in the results can be attributable to the sole fluctuating factor? Well, because of her world-building, Ms. Dixon’s series inadvertently holds a number of variables steady, making it possible to see what creates fascination and shapes mood within a sex scene.
The series premise is that a cadre of Earth women have been abducted by aliens who intend to sell their captives off as exotic pets and sex slaves. Fortunately for the women, a weather event forces them to be temporarily abandoned on an ice planet. They soon come to the attention of a benevolent tribe of mostly male, smart, and socially progressive hunters. (Aside from being blue, and having an extra body part with erotic potential, the men are remarkably humanoid.)
Unfortunately for the women, to handle the planet’s toxic atmosphere, they must enter into an irreversible symbiotic relationship with a worm-like creature specific to the planet. The act of accepting the kihue, which lodges in one’s chest in the vicinity of one’s heart, both seals off any chance of escape from the planet and obliges the participant to engaged in a compulsory form of matchmaking. For once two parasites determine that a (heterosexual) couple is fertile and compatible, they “resonate” within their hosts’ chests. The resulting song is the very public signal of an upcoming period of biologically enforced lust, and if all goes well, an imminent pregnancy the male will do his utmost to protect.
While there is a larger arc to the series as the humans and barbarians integrate and fight common enemies, each book is devoted to the Happy Ever After of one particular couple.
Had she wished to avoid writing graphic sex scenes, could Ms. Dixon have done so?
Unlikely. You have a world of Stone Age men for whom discussion of reproduction and mating is routine and connected to the tribe’s survival. (Before the Earth women’s arrival, a relative dearth of females meant the tribe was on the verge of extinction.)
The external conflicts driving the story in the larger world have mortal stakes. It would be odd to have the reader inhabit a gritty, realistic story world then suddenly, when it came to sex, be asked to retreat to a closed-door sex scene.
Also, notice how the setup creates conflict-ridden themes ripe for exploring within the context of a newly formed couple.
Here are a few thematic examples:
- consent in a world of arranged mating
- importance of tribal wellbeing versus an individual’s identity and independence
- importance of traditionalism versus openness
- possessiveness versus protectiveness
- desire for privacy versus public stakes
- romantic love versus biological primacy
Fortunately for the expectations of her readers, and anyone who would learn about sex scenes from her, Ms. Dixon is willing to “go there” multiple times within one book. And despite the comparatively few sex acts possible within a given coupling, she delivers wildly divergent experiences for each bonded pair—divergent both in meaning and tone.
All this, in a world where the following remain consistent:
- the author’s voice and worldview
- the physical consequences of the kihue’s resonance
- with few exceptions, because of the hostile environment, sex acts must occur in caves on furs, meaning that setting variation can’t play a huge part in the emotionality of the scene.
- because the men all come from one tribe, they tend to use the same language for body parts, sex acts, etc. So if there is an appreciable difference in mood between pairs of lovers, it’s not coming from variations in the male’s language around sex, or their understanding of sexual mechanics.
- again, because of the commonality of experience, the men don’t have much divergence in religious or cultural beliefs.
Given All the Above, How Does Ms. Dixon Make a Sex Scene Count and Avoid Repetition?
Firstly, even within the male community, the characters’ personalities and parental relationships cause them to view a fated mating differently. One barbarian might see it as his due, another as an incredible privilege. Yet another views it as the ultimate spiritual experience.
We can see the variation much more in the female point of view, because of their larger divergence. The women come from different races, occupations, cultural backgrounds, sexual experience, and comparative status. Accordingly, they have a bigger variation in whether they embrace the sexual politics of the new world.
Reflective of the above, there is a significant difference in the euphemisms the women use to describe the same sex act.
The sex itself is usually conflict-ridden, so it’s not just about the participants getting their rocks off. Readers, therefore, have to scan every word to understand how the “battle” is advancing both within the person and within the couple, and what that means for the larger community’s survival. The best sex scenes incorporate conflict at many levels, with real consequences for the outcome of the encounter. A spoiler follows!
For example, in Barbarian’s Prize, as a virgin on the brink of his first consummation, in the grip of kihue-inflicted mating lust, the hero battles for physical self-control and patience. Meanwhile, we know the heroine is battling fear from a prior sexual assault. She wants to overcome her past experience. She resents and enjoys her blossoming physical desire. And she worries that if she is seen to reject the hero in any way, he too might become violent. To make sex scenes even more loaded with meaning, Ms. Dixon creates a backdrop of potentially lethal tribal competition where the same heroine’s attention is the ultimate prize among eligible males.
Variation in mood, then, comes from differences among the characters’ personalities and backstories, and therefore, what a given sex act means to them within their larger battles.
Applying the Lessons:
→Create characters who have divergent expectations and understandings about what a given sex act signifies.
→Unless their sex act occurs at the end of the story and is signifies a couple’s resolved interpersonal conflicts, create a sex-specific point of conflict that will impact each individual’s internal and external story goals.
→Find a series written by one author with sex scenes akin to those you’d like to write. Study how they create different moods and meanings within the same sexual act. Specifically note the amount of time devoted to describing body mechanics versus the emotional experience of the body mechanics. Note the language used for body parts and how they reflect the individual’s education, culture, and social background.
→Does your story world include gender politics? (If writing any form of realism, it probably should.) If so, can you make the future couple embody opposite points of view on a sexual or reproductive issue? Alternatively, can you make your couple’s sexual conflict create consequences that will ripple through the public realm?
→What does your character go into the sex scene believing? By the scene’s end, how are they changed? (In other words, sex scenes should contain a character arc.)
→Focus on the meaning of the sex act for the character and work to create unexpected meaning in expected places. (Depending upon the setup, a kiss can be a promise, threat, offer to play, a put-down, public claiming, or a boundary-crossing more taboo than intercourse.)
Now over to you, Unboxeders. What are the resources you’d recommend for writing good sex scenes? What do you wish you understood better about sex scenes? Can you recommend an author with unusual competence in this arena?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!