Okay, when it comes to writing about sex, it’s not always straightforward. And it’s not always sexy, either – something which ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ made us forget. So what does writing about sex involve?
1. Where is this going?One of the first things you should think about when writing about two characters getting it on is the significance of this scene. Why would you include this scene? (light relief is a terrible idea because you get sidetracked from the storyline), so make your characters’ events in the bedroom functional! From the description of the curtains to the smell of perfume, EVERYTHING MUST COUNT. Angela Carter’s Evelyn, for instance, focuses heavily on how exotic Leilah’s “hot, animal perfume” and “sexual black nylon” make her “a devil in female form”. It’s not a very pleasant description, but it says something about Evelyn as a man. 2. What are your character’s motivations? Give your character a reason to get between the sheets (or wherever) with their sexual partner. There hundreds of reasons why our characters might have a romp; money, power, status, revenge, jealousy – the list goes on. If you just have your secretary and her boss having coffee on page 31 and by page 33 she’s on her back whilst her boss is doing his thing, not only will the reader be quickly bored, but this is a waste of words! (It’s also a massively overused cliche, but that’s not the point). It’s sex for the sake of sex, and it kills any good plotline. 3. Is this prose or porn? Granted that porn is usually in visual form, writing can be the closest thing if you go down the wrong route. Language that is too emotionally charged and extreme focus on genitals and sex positions are symptomatic of pornographic fiction. Intimate acts are not a vacuum; there is more to a character than whether she is sucking his nob. My point being, if you just rabbit on about people rabbiting on, you’re failing to tell the reader your story, and what the message of that story is. 4. Clichéd romantic fluff A moonlit exotic island? red candles? silky cushions? All boring and uninspired! Surprise the reader, try to catch them off guard with something fresh (no, this isn’t BDSM – unless you actually want to be E.L. James, forget it). clichés start with “classic” ideas being trivialised, so don’t fall into that trap. 5. Human relationships Attention writers, you are writing about people. Even if they are cats, fireflies or a couple of bacterium, you should make them appear like people. This doesn’t necessarily mean making them walk, talk, sing and dance – that’s fantasy, not personification. I’m talking about thoughts, emotions, physical senses, and communication. How do these two people feel about each other, and why do we need to know? What is it about sex that brings them together? (physically if nothing else). How do these people relate? Are they friends, colleagues, strangers? How do these people know each other, and how might the audience feel? It doesn’t have to be soppy, it can be a sex offender abusing a child, a gang rape like Ugwu raping the barmaid in Half of a yellow sun, or an incestuous relationship like Margaret and Francie’s in The Magic Toyshop. Unfortunately, Mills & Boon have not yet realised that sex is all sunshine and lollipops, but it doesn’t have to be sinister hell either. You can, ahem, have “shades of grey”. 6. Setting When and where is this act of lust taking place? Sex in the Victorian era is probably going to be quite different to sex in the year 4000. Are they a mythical fairy or mermaid? Are they a cyborg/android? An alien? A pig? Mention where they are, what they do, and any relevant politics. Be warned, these details are minor, as is the actual sex. Get the right balance of ingredients goes a long way. 7. Avoiding the obvious Essentially meaning that you shouldn’t be too blunt or use slang. Nor should you blatantly describe the act of sex, unless for a specific reason. This is sex, not an examination of the human anatomy. Baroque/eloquent prose is fine in moderation, and especially if your characters are quite ‘flowery’. Go on, be creative! 8. Sexual imagery Anything has the power to be sexual. A tall building is more obvious, whereas a shepherd’s pie is less so. It’s all about analogies and metaphors – create an unusual link. Call it psychology if you will, but sex can often symbolize something else (which Freud was fully aware of). Is your character lacking something, or have too much of something? 9. Genre Don’t fall into the trap of following strict genre conventions. A story with vampires in it doesn’t always make it supernatural fiction. 10. What happened next What occurred after the sex? Whether they saw each other in the street or one of them dies, the moment was important. Even if your character loses their memory, it has still impacted on them. De Flores knew that once Beatrice had gratified his desires for her, she was stepping outside of her class as a noblewoman. It sounds clichéd but actions have consequences, and a night of passion is no exception. 11. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder We all have attractive features, as well as unattractive ones. Does your character have a blotchy complexion? Sparkling blue eyes? A bad temper? A nice voice, or a sense of humour? 12. Barriers and conflicts Are there any problems that might taint the sex or cause strife? A cheating partner, sexual impotence and body hangups are just a few, but that’s just a few. Is your character a pessimist, or controlling? Are they mentally ill? Sex can drive people apart as well as bring them together, and it’s your job to show how. 13. Sex as a life experience Sex can be seen as something which causes change in your story. Has your character changed after having sex? Did they learn anything? How did they and do they view the world? These are all questions to consider when writing fiction. 14. Fetishes and desires Is your character a necrophiliac? Love Uniforms? Are they afraid of body hair or strange piercings? Everyone has turn-ons and turn-offs, and fictional people are no exception. Characters have weird quirks or strange hobbies, and they might find their way into their sex life. The nerd down the street is probably drooling over a virtual elf princess, but you might be surprised at their actual desires. The goth down the road might not go mad for the punk princess clad in faux leather, even if we expected it. 15. Where should you put it? There is no rule in stone stating at what point sex should occur, but it’s not usually a good idea to go with extremes. Put it at the beginning and sex can come across as ruling a character’s life (unless this is what you are aiming for), and putting it at the end can be a shock to the reader. 16. Sex is more than the physical Memories, emotions, the language etc. Thoughts on quite a basic level, because any kind of heated act – fighting or the like – seems to boil down our thoughts on a fairly basic level. Unless your character thinks a lot, I can’t imagine thoughts fogging this scene up much. 17. Passion This can range from anger to happiness in a broad spectrum. What makes your character tick? This in part will be influenced by what they are like as a person, but it can also be mini goal that they work towards. 18. Taunting the reader You can always bend the rules by leading the reader up the garden path. The reader might think that sex is about to happen, but ambiguity can block the way. 19. Length How long is your story? Is it a novel, flash fiction, a scene in a play? The medium of writing and how long it is meant to be gives you a framework for how much sex is included in your writing. 20. Boundaries Does this act say something about how men and women are supposed to behave? Does this challenge or reinforce stereotypes about race, gender, class? If so, how? Since sex often creates the next generation of humans, it is interesting to see how two characters can symbolically represent the change 21. Family Values One theory about why we are attracted to certain people is because they reflect our parents. The parents of these characters are always in the picture, even if they’re right at the back, and not least because they created your characters. What is their religion, their job? Have they been copying their parents, or going off on their own? Or, since you are the godlike author figure in many ways, how many of your own traits are you imparting into your character? 22. Author values Surely your own life has influenced the writing of this novel? Think over your husbands, one-night flings, boyfriends, girlfriends, sexuality and upbringing. How have they manifested in your writing? Your memories about losing your virginity or your wedding night can prove as invaluable experience. 23. Culture and the media Where do our ideas about sex come from? Think about Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” and how the clones all watch sex scenes from films and pornographic magazines to learn from them. Sex in art, literature, music, humour can change the way we perceive sexual acts. School heydays can leave us mystified as we go through hormonal changes as teenagers, and sex is part of growing up. And, of course, porn. 24. Myths From “the stork” to “Pandora’s box”, these fables are just the start of how babymaking is introduced to us as young children. As we get older, we learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and the story of Adam and Eve. Then we start to wonder what happened with Adam and Eve, along with how animals keep their race surviving. 25. What’s it doing there in the first place? Apart from spice, what function does sex play? It can be comedic, moral, dramatic or disastrous. Sex doesn’t always equate to drama, but there’s usually a reason why it’s there – and it can go beyond “heehee, I like naughty prose”. It can be about how men view women, how people are different from animals or what makes a sinner or a saint. 26. It’s not about human anatomy There’s really no need to ramble on about the human body at great length. It’s sex, not a science lesson. That said, there’s no need to have an excess of anything. Whilst the characters may be feeling hot and bothered, trying to pile it onto the reader might make them dizzy and confused, leaving them burnt out. 27. Don’t be boxed in Whilst there may be “men’s” and “women’s” writing, you can and should allow your prose to appeal to everyone. This doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on the fence and being ambiguous, but you can try to include experiences that anyone can relate to. If you are wanting to specialise in an audience, do so with care. 28. the anticlimax What was all the buildup for? So you’ve given us sex, and it counts for nought. Unless there is a specific reason why you chose to do this, you should always do what you intend to do. It’s why it’s called a “plot”! 29. Sex isn’t always sexy Only porn glamorises sex. Allow your characters to have weaknesses and quirks, otherwise they are difficult to identify and relate with. You aren’t allowing women or men to drool over their fantasies, or write a sex manual. You’re here to effectively represent a certain type of person. 30. Sex adds to the plot Like in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, there is often a reason why the author includes this scene. Like Hardy, you can leave something to the imagination, since as I’ve already said that this isn’t porn. Drip feeding the reader with subtle details goes a long way, and allows them to think over this moment. Remember, the plot doesn’t – and shouldn’t! – revolve around sex. Like this post? Then you should subscribe to my blog to hear more!