How to write sex scenes – without cliché or embarrassment
If you’re writing romantic fiction, sooner or later you’re going to have to write a sex scene. How can you avoid cliché, embarrassment – and a ‘Bad Sex’ award? Write in your usual style, and stop worrying, says Mitzi Szereto.
This article first appeared in issue 4 of Publishing Talk Magazine.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
There’s an assumption by writers new to the game that there’s some magic formula to writing, particularly when it comes to writing in specific genres – such as sexy romantic fiction. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, we’re seeing a huge influx of writers all wanting to pen the next bestseller—and they’re certain the formula can be found in Fifty Shades. Well, formulas might be good in a laboratory setting, but they aren’t so good when it comes to penning quality prose. And I’m assuming that’s what you’d like to do.
The can of worms has been opened and there’s no going back for romantic fiction. The more innocent tomes of Barbara Cartland and her ilk are fading fast, being replaced by works featuring female characters just as happy to be tied up as kissed. These days readers and publishers want sex scenes in romantic fiction – and if you’re writing romantic fiction, you don’t want to get left behind. So how do you write a sex scene without it sounding corny or pornographic? It’s not that difficult – though if you look at what’s out there, it certainly seems to be difficult for some!
That’s one of the main reasons why I got involved with teaching erotic writing—to help keep authors off the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction awards list. I’ve been teaching erotic writing workshops in the UK and mainland Europe at literature festivals and on residential courses as well as for writers’ groups since 2001. I’m also an author and anthology editor whose work contains a fair amount of erotic content. I’ve always approached the subject from a literary standpoint and have tried to get participants on my workshops to do likewise. If you approach the writing of a sex scene as seriously as you approach the writing of say, a literary novel, you’ve half the battle won—meaning you will not be regurgitating trite and hackneyed scenes riddled with clichés and tired old euphemisms. Instead you’ll be creating something fresh and new, even if it describes something that’s been written about a zillion times. As they say in art, it’s all been done. Perhaps this is true, but it’s how you do it that counts.
When I get asked by the uninitiated: “How many ways can you write the same thing?” I just smile at them with patient indulgence (then hit them over the head with a hammer). I wonder if the same question is posed to Val McDermid, whom we all know to be a prolific and imaginative crime writer. I realize there are more ways to kill someone than there are to have sex with them, but look at it like a recipe. Nearly everyone’s mother has their own recipe for chicken soup. Sure, it’s ALL chicken soup, but the chicken soup has variations in ingredients, flavour, texture and appearance. Think about that next time you tackle a sex scene.
The biggest problem in writing a sex scene is the writer. Writers tend to go into embarrassed mode, as if their granny is perched over their shoulders reading every word they’re typing. When this happens the self-censor kicks in, resulting in an inability to reach the nuts and bolts of the scene and simply skirt around it, giving you lots of build-up, but no action. You can’t remain true to your writing if you’re going to worry about who’s reading it. So first rule: Get rid of Grandma.
You can’t remain true to your writing if you’re going to worry about who’s reading it. So first rule: Get rid of Grandma.
The second biggest problem is trying to take the easy way out. By that I mean parroting sex scenes from other books. These scenes, especially those containing terminology and descriptions you’ve read a thousand times before, may not be very well executed (let alone creative), therefore they are not the sort of thing you should be emulating if you ever hope to produce quality prose with some ring of originality to it. In fact, if you keep seeing the same sort of scenes being written in the same exact way, take it as a hint that you need to avoid doing likewise. Second rule: Don’t copy everybody else.
Let the writing happen. A sex scene should blend in naturally, not stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Get rid of that silly shorthand sex language and terminology and actually create. By that I mean utilize description and incorporate the senses into the scene. Don’t write a play-by-play report of your favourite football team’s winning goal. And don’t suddenly switch to some boys’ locker room style of prose. Write in the same style in which you’ve written the rest of the piece and stop worrying so much. You’re not writing about you—you’re writing about your characters. It’s just a sex scene. And I’ll tell you this for free: it’s no big deal!
Mitzi Szereto’s book, Phantom: The Immortal, is a collaboration with Ashley Lister and a contemporary erotic sequel that relocates the original character from The Phantom of the Opera to present-day Paris.
3 thoughts on “How to write sex scenes – without cliché or embarrassment”
My first editor, at St. Martin’s, called me out because I omitted important sex scenes in some of the stories in my first collection. Sex tells us something about people we can’t learn any other way, he said. And he was right. I’ve been teaching sex writing workshops, too, and they’ve sometimes been SRO. I always start with bad scenes which are hilarious before getting to some well-written ones.
I am one of the most dirty-minded people I know, yet I still manage to be extremely modest at the same time! I mean, what if someone I knew found out I’m trying to learn how erotic scenes? My biggest problem is, “What will people think?” I know exactly what I need to write, but my own self-consciousness is preventing me from doing so. I feel so…lewd.
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