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Let’s talk about sex (scenes)

Sex scenes tend to loom large in romance. So let me first note that they don’t have to. Romances can be closed-door (sex happens off page) or entirely sex-free (asexual romances, books that lead up to a marriage with no shenanigans in advance) and work brilliantly.

Don’t believe anyone who says you have to have on-page sex. Don’t believe anyone who says it has to happen at certain “beats” in the story, or by a certain percentage of the MS. Don’t believe anyone who says that sex has to follow a progression of escalating acts in a particular order. Ignore everyone. Listen to me, and only me. Send your credit card details to—

Sorry, got carried away there.

Okay. Let’s assume you want sex scenes. So, how to go about it?

The received wisdom is that in romance (not erotica or erotic romance, which are separate beasts to which this blog post does not apply), every sex scene needs to advance the plot on some level. A sex scene should not be skippable.  Remember here that plot is character in action. A sex scene might have any of the following effects:

  • MCs who don’t know each other well create a tentative connection, so MC 1 feels able to flee to MC 2’s home when disaster strikes
  • MCs who click/laugh/otherwise develop their emotional relationship in a way they have not before now
  • MCs reveal insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities, or past trauma
  • MCs reveal a quality that hasn’t been apparent before, whether unexpected kindness and consideration, humour, passion, or a more alarming side
  • MC says something stupid in the aftermath and borks everything
  • MCs are seen shagging, setting off plot repercussions
  • MC1 develops trust and feelings that will be catastrophically let down when they learn that MC2 is a lying liar
  • MC lets something slip in the throes of passion that alters their partner’s opinion of things, whether “I love you” or “[ex girlfriend’s name]” or “okay, the double agent is…”
  • Bonking sets off magical effects eg moving tattoos, prophecy, visions, portals to other universe
  • The desk on which they’re shagging breaks, and MCs discover the long lost will in the wreckage.

I have written most of those, if not the last one, though I am keeping it in my back pocket.

You will note I’m not including “MCs fall deeper in love”, although that is perhaps the most popular sex-scene outcome. That’s because it’s not enough to say “they bonked and the rush of endorphins did its thing.” I want to see them falling more in love, not because the sex was good, but because of exactly why it was good, and how that springs from and affects character.  

A few questions to ask yourself:

Are they going to end the sex scene in a different place to where they started?

Not physically (unless you’re doing the portal thing), but mentally/emotionally. Who’s going to regret it? Feel stupid? Wish they’d clarified relationship terms beforehand? Blurt out I love you? Fail to say I love you when it’s called for? Has this moved their relationship forward, or sent it off in a different direction? Have they had a useful conversation? If they are in exactly the same mental/emotional place at the end except sweatier, what have you added to the romance or the plot? Possibly they broke the desk and found the will, and that’s fine. But make it something.

What are we learning about the MCs by what they do in bed?

In some books, an MC’s sexual urges are plot drivers. A Seditious Affair has an upstanding Conservative government official who is secretly a gay submissive with a pretty extreme humiliation kink, and has been fairly badly traumatised by a previous lover’s inability to understand his desires. The sex scenes in this book are numerous because that’s initially the lovers’ only means of connection, and because we the reader have to understand quite how poorly matched his desires are to the rest of his life, and how wretched and ashamed he feels about it, and the extremity of those desires, and the kindness and consideration shown by his lover, and their growing mutual understanding/trust, and the fact that their idea of post-coital pillow talk is arguing about books. The conflict, internal and external, of this book boils down to sex and politics, so there’s a lot of sex on page (and also a lot of politics, sorry).

In other books, the MCs’ conflicts have nothing to do with sex, and all of the plot and relationship progression happens elsewhere. That’s absolutely fine: it’s not all about bonking. But in that case, you’ll want to consider writing fewer/less detailed/no sex scenes. Or if you feel you need explicit scenes on page, identify why that is, and see if you can, eg, shift some of the emotional progression to within a sex scene. Don’t just stick one in because romances have to have sex: a) they do not and b) it will be skippable.

Let me here beg you not to have the MCs do super-sexy things just because it’s a sex scene. The kind of sex they have and things they say will still be rooted in character. Some people don’t like to talk, are perfectly happy with affectionate vanilla sex, don’t enjoy penetration, have no idea what they’re doing, or are otherwise not classic Romance Sex Gods in any of a million ways. They are entitled to that, and those scenes can be just as hot and satisfying as any other.

What happens if it’s lousy sex?

Most romance sex is orgasms all the way, as it should be, but why not try negotiating failures, not liking stuff, when someone asks to stop, or the need for improvement? If a hero who comes in thirty seconds and rolls over to go to sleep is good enough for the great Beverly Jenkins, it’s good enough for you. (A Chance at Love, and obviously he gets better, but this scene is magnificent.)

One of my most important sex scenes comes in Subtle Blood, a m/m romance and book 3 of a trilogy. So far Will has always been on top in penetrative sex. He asks his lover Kim to switch things around. It goes super badly and Will hates it, so they stop. This triggers a conversation where he’s forced to explain himself (a thing he is also incredibly bad at) and thus leads to the big love declaration.

Will took a deep breath. “I wanted to give it up to you, the way you do to me. The way you make me feel when I have you, the things you say when I do it. I wanted to do that for you. I thought I could show you that way.”

Kim’s eyes widened. “Oh.”

“I wanted to,” Will said, wretchedly. “Only, it didn’t feel—”

“Hold on a moment. I would also like to have you give yourself to me. I would like that more than anything. I’m not sure why you think it needs to be physical.”

Physical would be easier, or at least he’d assumed it would be. “Doesn’t it?” he said, knowing he was stalling.

Kim brushed a thumb over his eyebrow, down the side of his face. “I love you, Will. I’ve told you that, knowing you weren’t ready or able to answer. But it isn’t the easiest thing to repeat I love you and I want you to a man whose idea of the future is ‘we’ll see where we go’.”

“Kim—”

“You were always welcome to my body,” Kim went on steadily. “Making you free of my soul was a great deal harder. I am unsure of your intentions, and unsure I have any right to ask for them, and I told you how I felt anyway because I promised not to lie any more. That’s giving it up to you, and it’s really not the same thing as a spot of recreational sodomy.” He gave Will a half-smile that wasn’t happy. “You’re confusing truth with acts, my love. If you’re offering, I’d rather have truth.”

I wrote it this way because we already know they’re terrific in bed, so another great shag wouldn’t actually move the dial on their relationship at all. Whereas the awkward failure to launch forces Will to confront and vocalise the feelings he was trying to avoid talking about.

How much detail and at what point?

You don’t need to make every scene blow-by-blow-job. It may be that you concentrate on the dancing around, heated glances, slow undressing, discussion of what they both want, and then pretty much skim over the actual Insert Tab A Into Slot B. Or perhaps you want to make it super physical which means getting down quick to the nitty-gritty of thrusting. You might need just a few lines of lovemaking to establish that they’re clinging to one another, or an extended X-rated sequence, or an entire chapter that’s mostly negotiation and discussion. You can play it any way you like, as long as you consider what you’re trying to convey. But don’t feel compelled to write any more detail than the scene actually needs.

***

I was considering writing about the mechanics of writing sex scenes here but this is already too long plus I have reached a conclusion on my way, which is: once you work out what a sex scene is for, in the plot, you’ll know what sort of sex should be on the page. If it’s an intense exploration of kink, then there’s going to be issues of power and vulnerability and trust and a lot of physicality. If it’s hatesex in an enemies to lovers, you’ll need to make it wild. If it’s about making an emotional connection, you’ll need to focus on dialogue and feelings–the warm fuzzy kind as well as the knickers kind. If the sex is just underpinning how great everything is, there may not be a lot more to say than that it happened.

A few mechanics

  • Do think about your characters’ actual bodies, relative heights, number of limbs (unlikely to be more than four each except in certain subgenres), etc, and make sure whatever’s happening is physically possible. You don’t want the reader breaking off to find a couple of Barbie and/or Ken dolls in order to check if something works.
  • Use the level of language suitable for the people and their experience (and, in a historical, the time period. Here I highly recommend the work of Jonathon Green whose Dictionary of Slang gives dates of first use.)
  • Silken sheaths, quivering cores, pebbled nubbins etc are so last century. “His manhood” and “her feminine core” are uncomfortably gender essentialist as terms for body parts and also somewhat ew. There is nothing wrong with the word ‘cock’.

The interesting part isn’t what MCs do with their genitals: it’s how the people involved feel about it. Smells, shudders, sensations, touch and taste. Emotional needs and responses along with (or at odds to) physical ones. Something in the world shifting, a little or a lot, because of what they do. That’s what makes an impact on the reader, which is what it’s all about.  

Thanks to Iona for the inspiration for this one!

18 replies
  1. Alicia
    Alicia says:

    Interestingly, on the word cock, I read a Goodreads review recently of a book I really liked. The reviewer is a gay man and he felt that the (female) writer’s use of cock threw him out of the sexytimes. He felt that the men he knows in the demographic of the characters in the book would be much more likely to use dick in the bedroom.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Depends on the time period and country! It’s not “penis” till about 1890 so your Regency gentleman isn’t going to be using it.

      Reply
    • MichelleZB
      MichelleZB says:

      It really does depend! I often find the word “prick” is a bit underused in the historical romance genre, because it’s the word men would have used, but it’s also not a word that resonates as well with a modern audience. “Cock” has the advantage of being an old word which is still in use today.

      Reply
  2. Gill
    Gill says:

    Great post. There are still authors out there who refer to manhood and feminine core, or similar variations. It’s always slightly annoyed me. The worst I came scroll was manroot!

    Reply
  3. Theo Fenraven
    Theo Fenraven says:

    I’m a book editor. I have come to despise sex scenes with all my being because so many of them are written poorly. “Oh, another one of those “I’ve never felt anything like this before” moments? Thanks for showing there’s a different way to do it. I hope everyone who writes will read this post and learn from it.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      IMO the problem is when we approach a sex scene purely as a scene of sex happening, not a scene with a plot/character purpose which is achieved via depicting sex. There’s no reason sex scenes shouldn’t be hot, but unless it’s erotica, they need to be doing more than that, both for the book’s sake and to make it a really impactful sex scene. (Hot is character in action. DAMN, I’m annoyed I didn’t think of that before.)

      Reply
  4. Dan
    Dan says:

    Oh absolutely with the whole ‘cock as a word is right there’ sentiment. It seems to me that some authors feel compelled to write sex scenes for the presumed benefits (adding hotness to the story, exploring intimacy between characters etc etc), but then can’t commit to it and start using euphemisms for genitalia and sexual acts that even 12 year old fanfiction writers on Wattpad would find ridiculous; they not only fail in getting those benefits, but also take from the story some of the value it has otherwise. Some books would really benefit from their authors understanding that sex isn’t necessary and that they don’t have to write it, and others yet would benefit from their authors just *committing* to it and starting to use words like the adults that they presumably are. (Sorry for the rant-ish quality of the comment; some ten minutes prior to running into this blog post, I had to lay my eyes on yet another ‘straining manhood’ in a book that was otherwise going pretty well, and I’m at the end of my rope here)

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      I agree. So many people say things like “I need a glass of wine to write sex!” and, like…why not just not do it if you don’t want to? Some of my favourite romance writers never put it on page.

      Reply
  5. Mara Ismine
    Mara Ismine says:

    Thanks for putting that all together in a nice neat bundle. You just reminded me that I don’t need a detailed sex scene when the lads get up to the flat after a long day doing diy elsewhere. Thank you!

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Give us some affection, some jokes, some physical closeness and skin-tingling moments, and the romance will swoon on the page.

      But don’t give me DIY because I’ve got builders in right now and all I can think about here is dust.

      Reply
  6. Issy Stark
    Issy Stark says:

    It occurred to me recently that sex scenes should serve the same purpose as songs in a post-Oklahoma musical, that is not as a simple entertainment break but as something that moves on the narrative or gives more character depth. Anything else is just hay nonny no-ing.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Yes, that’s an excellent analogy! You can just have them in as an entertainment break but it’s so much more interesting and satisfying if they play a plot/character role….and if they ARE just a big musical number for the sake of it, it had better be a real showstopper, ahaha.

      Reply
  7. Angela
    Angela says:

    That makes so much sense to me and it’s so nice to see those views articulated so well. I am more than happy to read a book which has perhaps only two or three sex scenes as long as they mean something like moving the plot forward or where the emotion between the two MC’s are so strong that sex is inevitable. I’m even happy with just one good sexy happening. What I don’t like, is a book about many sexual interactions, held loosely together by a poor/boring/nothing happens plot. These are the books that I generally cannot finish.

    Hence, one of the reasons that I appreciate your writing.

    Reply
    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Thanks! Erotica and erotic romance both have their place, but if I’m in the mood for a romance where the story is central, that’s what I want!

      Reply

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