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Writing Sex Scenes

April 27, 2009

kissing-coupleAs a teenager I was equally fascinated and disturbed by the sex scenes I sought out in my mother’s books.  Most famously I remember trolling the pages of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues getting more than I bargained for. One thing I realised, even as innocent and inexperienced girl of 14 was not all sex scenes are equal.

An evocative sex scene is tough to create and it can go from bad to worse very quickly. Writers fall into the use of uninteresting and overused cliques or inappropriate and mismatched names for body parts that verge either on the ridiculous or the offensive.  A memorial writing circle last year had the three of us critiquing a sex scene and debating the best term for the appendage of the male character.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne, author of Consciousness of Sin, writes:

I still find that one of the most annoying things about many otherwise great books is the sex scenes…or as I like to call them the ‘unsexy scenes’.

According to Langley-Hawthorne the top five mistakes authors make in writing sex scenes are:

  1. sex happens in the most unlikely of moments
  2. euphemisms are taken to a whole new level leaving the reader giggling or cringing
  3. there is never boring, mundane or unsatisfying sex
  4. ‘no’ is meant to ‘mean no’, not I will eventually give in and have earth shattering sex
  5. men and woman are never just ordinary people, but Adonises and Aphrodites.

Some writers daunted by the task of writing sex leave well alone and completely avoid sex at all which can be more frustrating (no pun intended!) than a badly written sex scene. A recent trip to Kill Zone turned up numerous authors all admitting to refraining from writing, or editing out sex scenes in subsequent drafts. I admit to stringing together numerous expletives when I realised Stephenie Meyer had built the sexual tension across three and a bit books only to completely side step the “sexual congress” of her lead characters. Not everyone will agree believing some things are best left to the imagination but personally I felt it was a cop out.

Brian Kiteley author of The 3am Epiphany: uncommon writing exercises that transform your fiction agrees that sex is a subject which persistently trips up writers. Food Fight is an exercise which allows writers to explore writing sex scenes from a unique angle.  It is an exercise Kiteley picked in one of Harry Matthews’  workshops.

Kiteley writes:

This exercise should … show you how much of the syntax of a sex scene remains after you’ve eliminated the words that seem to point to the act … it might also be a step in the direction of honest reporting of an act basic to human behaviour.

So who is game?

Food Fight is written in three parts across three days.

Day One
Spend time compiling a list of 100 – 150 food and kitchen items both nouns and verbs.

Tips:    The longer the list the better.
Think to how food is also prepared!

Day Two
Write a short uncensored scene about a sexual encounter between two people who know each other well.

Tips:     Write to avoid the use of cliques.
No one is going to read this so no self censure!

Day three
Write a second draft of the sex scene substituting every noun and verb with a word from the list of food.

Tip:       The final piece should be no more than 500 words.

Come back Wednesday and post a link to your day three piece and your experiences while doing this exercise. I’ll be back to share mine as well.   Until then – here’s one I prepared earlier, written around this time last year, when I finally gave in to months of badgering by two characters to let them get it on.

For more information on writing sex scenes check out Annie Evett’s tips here at Write Anything.

Image © Franco Vogt/Corbis via CaylaWonderful at Flickr

Jodi Cleghorn realised this week some conversations should be private when her son rolled over at bed time and said with a sleepy cherub smile “Happy Vampire Dreams Mummy”. She is pleading the case it was a G Rated dream to unbelieving friends. You can find more of Jodi’s musings Writing With Passionate Abandon.
  1. April 27, 2009 1:17 am

    Yeah, I fall into that category of writers who shy away from writing sex scenes, partly because I’m very aware that my mother and godmother read my work!

    I was actually discussing the lack of sex in Twilight yesterday morning (I suppose on one hand we should congratulate Meyer for subverting the usual “vampire as sexual metaphor” theme by not letting her characters get together) and realised that I’ve got a human and a vampire in a will-they-won’t-they sort of relationship.

    My excuse is that when you’ve got a world to save, a conspiracy to unravel, and spend a third of the time either dead (well, deader) or evil, who’s got the time for romance?

  2. April 27, 2009 7:35 am

    I have done the exercise Jodi has outlined and it really pushed my buttons to write a free flowing piece focusing on a sex scene. you become dreadfully aware of all the cliches available and how stilted the writing of it is. There is no way I am publishing THAT steamy little number anywhere – I am blushing now thinking about it. However, adding the fruit and veges, kitchen utensils, pots and pans into it – made it all the more wrong.
    For me – I think less is actually more – keep the sexual tension up – will they won’t they…adding a brief glimpse and allow the reader to fill in the gaps. They ain’t stupid – they will “get” that the characters have had sex.
    Re Twilight Paul, As much as it is killing me to say it – I too think Stephanie Meyers is to be congratulated in upholding a view on teenage sex. It certainly doesn’t detract from the story.. her writing however…….. but thats another issue.

  3. April 28, 2009 6:16 am

    One of the best books around is “The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers” by Elizabeth Benedict. One of the things I like about the book is that she tackles all types of sexual encounters (even those between husband and wives). My favourite quote from the book? “A good sex scene does not have to be about good sex.”

  4. April 28, 2009 6:20 am

    Never shy away from writing a sex scene – after doing the exercise last year, Jodi, I was actually shocked by what I’m capable of writing. The veggies certainly added another dimension (humour – and why not – ? – sex really is funny!) . I wish I’d kept mine, but it was R rated and it meant I had to put an ‘adult content’ on my blog.

    What puts me in the zone for writing a sex scene is to completely drop the story of how sex ‘should be’ and to get down with how it actually is. Its not pretty, its not always loving – its an animal act driven by instinct and chemicals (oh, ok, and emotion). People will do completely unexpected things when it comes to sex – characterisation be damned!

    thanks for the reminder – I’m missing writing fiction right now.

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