Writing a Sex Scene

The bedroom, a common setting for a sex scene.

: This post is a serious discussion about writing a common feature in literature and how to do it. It is not meant to be humorous, titillating, or controversial. That being said, this post will go into a topic that many people find uncomfortable, so please use your own discretion before proceeding further. Thank you for your understanding.

Sex scenes show up quite a bit in fiction, and seem to have increased with the passage of time as society has become much more tolerant of (or maybe obsessed with) the subject of sex and sexuality. That being said, many writers aren’t sure how to write these sort of scenes into their stories, let alone if they should have one to begin with. I recently wrote one into my WIP, and I figured now might be a good time to talk about this subject.

Now, I don’t write sex scenes often. However, I’ve written a few in my career, as well as read too many to count, including some in erotica novels and short stories (though not for the reasons you’re probably thinking). I’ve gained some insights over the years into this type of scene, so I think the ones I share here with you should be helpful.

This brings us to our first question:

Should I have a sex scene in my story? The obvious answer is, it depends. And it depends on two factors: the story’s need for one and the author’s level of comfort. Some stories just don’t require a sex scene. My upcoming novel Rose didn’t require one and adding one would’ve felt gratuitous, so I didn’t include one. For my WIP River of Wrath however, I could see where a sex scene might actually add something to the story, so I included it.

Should I have a sex scene in my story?

How do you tell which stories should have a sex scene? Well, some are more obvious than others. However, if you’re not sure, go back in later drafts and see if the scene feels weirdly inserted upon a second reading. And if you’re still not sure, ask your beta readers. That’s what they’re there for.

And if you as the writer don’t feel comfortable writing sex scenes, no problem. Everyone’s comfort levels with these things should be taken into account, and we’re all comfortable with different things. If you don’t like the idea of casually broaching the subject of sex, let alone writing about it, don’t. No one will send you to prison for it, let alone prevent you from ever getting published.

So if the story could use a sex scene and you feel comfortable enough to write it, what’s next?

Have the scene evolve like sex normally does. Sex doesn’t just happen: there’s a progression. Sometimes it starts with a kiss and involves foreplay. Sometimes it involves a look and goes straight to doing the deed. It depends on the people involved and what they’re up for. Likewise, how it happens in your story should have a natural evolution. Just having characters talk or meet and then go straight to sex doesn’t usually work, so show how it happens.

Pay attention to language. I’ve received some feedback on this from my own sex scenes, so I’m passing it on to you. First off, don’t be afraid to actually talk about certain body parts or their nicknames (apparently women are okay using the word c**k or d**k in literature. I was very surprised to learn that). You don’t have to get super-technical about it, using words like “vulva” or “vas deferens.” Just don’t be afraid to talk about them or what’s being done to them.

The second point is that the language should match the mood of the scene. Going for something risque? The language should reflect the adventurous nature of the scene. Kinky, maybe even involving BDSM? Rougher words would work better. Romantic, like the one in my WIP? Words emphasizing sensuality, connection, touch and love work the best.

What language you use in your scene matter quite a bit.

Just don’t use phrases like “Holy cow” to describe one participant’s reaction to the other’s penis being unveiled. Sorry EL James, but that’s more laughable than erotic.

The scene doesn’t have to be super-long. I’ve encountered sex scenes that have gone for a whole chapter comprising of several thousand words, and I’ve encountered some that were as short as a page. The one I wrote in my WIP was a little over a thousand words, or about four or five pages. So if you write one that’s maybe three pages, don’t feel bad that it isn’t longer. As I said, they come in all different lengths.

Pay attention to all body parts and surroundings. As much as we think of sex as involving only a few select body parts, it involves the entire body of each participant. As much as the scene may emphasize what the lower parts are doing, pay attention to what the arms and legs are doing. What is the back doing? Is the hair doing anything worth noting (yes, it can be worth mentioning)? Keep all that in mind while writing the scene.

Also, pay attention to surroundings. Is the scene taking place in a bed? Does it creak during the scene? Are items on the wall affected? Perhaps it’s taking place in a more public setting, like the back of a car. The participants may worry about being spotted by passerby. In a club? Are they noticing music playing or other people passing by?

These are important things to keep in mind, so don’t lose track of them while writing your scene.

 

And finally, there’s one more piece of advice on this subject I’d like to impart:

Read plenty of other examples and practice. Writing is often learned by intuition, example, trial and error. That being said, only so much can be imparted by reading this article. If you’re truly interested in writing a sex scene, read plenty of scenes from other authors from many different genres. See what works and what doesn’t, and incorporate it into your own style.

Always learn from the examples of others if you can.

And it couldn’t hurt to practice writing these sorts of scenes. It hasn’t have to be part of a story you’re working on, or something you’d ever consider publishing. Just try it to see if you can write a scene that you’d consider halfway decent. Like anything in our field, getting good takes practice, and that includes sex scenes. So consider practicing them as well when you have a moment. It can’t hurt, can it?

Whether or not you’ve ever considered writing these scenes or whether or not they’re necessary, it’s always a good idea to have some idea on how to write a sex scene. A lot goes into writing them, so it’s always a good idea to have some idea of what to do when working on them. I hope this article helped in some capacity with your own sex scenes.

How often do you write sex scenes? What tips do you have for writing them?

Avoiding the Info-Dump

I graduated from college back in May after a very busy senior year, during which I was fortunate enough to not only do a senior thesis, but to do a novel that I really wanted to write as a senior thesis and get excellent feedback from my advisor and a fellow senior. Around April my advisor, a creative writing professor with quite a few books published, my second reader, a favorite teacher of mine who was as much a nerd and an even bigger science-fiction enthusiast than I am, and I met for my thesis discussion, where we’d go over the progress of my novel and where I would go for the third draft once I got around to that.

While they generally liked my story, which is titled Rose, they had a number of very good suggestions on ways to make it better. One of the suggestions, and something that I hadn’t even considered, was that a lot of the information received about my antagonist came in three big bursts over the course of the story. They suggested that maybe I should space out when such information was given, and maybe vary my sources. In fact, they pointed out that one character seemed to be there only just to dole out information about the antagonist. He didn’t really serve any purpose beyond that.

This stunned me. And you know what else? I realized they were right. I was doing a lot of info-dumping in this story, and that it was actually working against the story I was trying to tell. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to avoid info-dumping in this and future stories, and I thought I’d share some of those tips with you.

But first, what exactly is an info-dump? It’s when a huge amount of information is deposited in a single place. In fiction, it’s like exposition, only it’s too much exposition. Think of it like this: if any of you watch Once Upon a Time, you know that flashbacks are a big part of the show and that the writers take care to reveal new facts over time, peeling away layers so that there’s always a bit of mystery left in the characters you think you know very well. Now imagine in one episode they took all the backstory of a single character and reveal it all at once? That’s so much information, it’d make for a five-hundred page biography! And all in the course of forty-two minutes. You’d be overwhelmed. That there is an info-dump, and it’s something writers should take pains to avoid.

So how do you avoid the info-dump?

The key is to space out the information you reveal. Don’t reveal everything about a character, a place, or an object all at once. Instead make sure it happens gradually, over a long period of time, and between reveals make sure there’s time for the characters to do other stuff and for the reader to focus their attention on other aspects of the story. After all, between flashbacks on Once Upon a Time, there’s still evil witches or monsters or manipulative adolescents to deal with.

Another good tip is to make the information come from multiple sources. Look at Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. How do we find out about him, who he is, where he came from and what he did? Well, we find all that out over time, but we also find out about him from many different sources. We first learn his name and the night he disappeared from Hagrid in the first book. We later find out what happened to him after his defeat from the villain himself at the book’s climax. In the second book we find out about his life as Tom Riddle and a hint at his political views from the piece of his soul in the diary, in the fourth book we find out how he came back to power when he tells it to his followers, in the fifth book we find out about the prophecy from Dumbledore, and our information is completed when we find about him from the flashbacks Dumbledore provides us in the sixth book.

But how do you decide when information is to be revealed? Well, that’s for you as the author to decide, but info should come when it fits or works for the story. Back to Harry Potter for a second. There’s obviously a lot of information about the Wizarding World. So much, that not all of it was revealed in the books and JK Rowling is still giving out snippets of information to us through a variety of sources. Wisely, she only gave out information when it was relevant. Would it have really have helped us, the reader, to know about goblins’ attitudes towards wizards keeping their works in the first book? It would’ve been interesting to know, but it wouldn’t have mattered much to the story at that point. And while we wondered if Hogwarts was the only school for magic in the world, the existence of other schools was only revealed in Book 4 because other schools were a big part of the story. In a similar, you should only reveal information when it’s relevant to the story you’re telling.

Another thing to keep in mind, especially in terms of characters, is we should already feel we know and have an opinion about someone or something before the information is revealed. In one of my favorite anime, Code Geass, we get to know one of the main characters early on, not through the info given to us about his past, but by his personality and actions. We get to know that he is kind, selfless, and will gladly put his life on the line for others, even when it doesn’t make sense to do so. It isn’t until halfway through the first season that we find out the incident in his childhood that made him this way, but by that time we already have a very positive and sympathetic view of this character and the info reveal does surprise us, but doesn’t color our opinion of the character as much as it would’ve if we’d learned that piece of information at the very beginning of the series.

Another great example is Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery. Early on we don’t know much about Annie besides what she chooses to reveal, and we can’t even rely on that. Why should we? She’s nuts! She’s violent, obsessive, and can switch from sweet to scary at the drop of a hat. By the time we find her scrapbook later in the book, we already know her and how we feel about her. The info in the scrapbook is certainly revealing, but it only adds to our dislike of the character. It isn’t what we base that dislike on.

There’s more I could say about avoiding info-dumps, but that’s a very long article to write. Let’s just finish it by saying that learning to avoid giving out way too much information is something we earn through time and practice. With experience, great tips, and a good bunch of people around you, we learn how to do it while still telling the excellent stories we want to tell.

All that and more will certainly help me when I get around to the next draft of Rose. I’m looking forward to seeing how that turns out when all is said and done!

What tips do you have for avoiding info-dumps? How have they worked out for you?

What Writers Should Do (My Opinion)

Today’s post is inspired by an article I just read where four people gave their personal ten tips on writing in the “What you shouldn’t do” category: http://threeguysonebook.com/50-things-a-writer-shouldnt-do.  (Note: This is an old post.  It dates back to 2009, but I still love it.)

I thought this was such a neat idea that I’d imitate them with a list of things I think writers should do.  Keep in mind these are my opinions.  Ultimately, you will have to decide what you want to do or not do.  

So here goes….

Here’s what I advise other writers to do…

1. Tell a good story.  Don’t sweat the need to make “beautiful language”.

No matter how sweet your prose is, if you don’t have a story that compels someone to turn the page, it’s a flop.  The problem is that writers are so hung up on “how” they write, they often neglect to consider “what” they write.  I was in a writing group with this person (X) who mastered the art of beautiful language.  To listen to her read was like opening a bottle of fine wine and delicately sampling a piece of expensive dark chocolate.  X was, to say the least, weathly in terms of how she wrote…until you listened to content.  Most of the time, I was left wondering what the heck the scene she read was even about.  It’s like those commercials on TV that are flashy and appealing, but at the end, you ask, “What product were they selling?”

Content is key.  If you can tell a story that draws people in and makes them lose sleep because they have to finish it, then you have succeeded.  BTW, a poorly edited book won’t keep someone reading because they’ll get stuck working through your errors.  So good editing is assumed in telling a good story.

2.  Make it clear who is talking.

In writing groups, I was told “don’t repeat” and mentioning the person by name over and over in a dialogue of three people was on the “don’t repeat that person’s name” list.  But you know what?  When I started getting feedback directly from my readers, instead of other writers, the readers said they wanted me to just say the name.

And another trick that writers say “don’t do” that you probably should is use the verbs ‘said’ and ‘replied’ just to simplify things, esp. if what you want is to make the reader focus on the actual dialogue.

I have a writer friend who still goes ballastic when I say the person’s name more than once in a dialogue scene and dare to say “said” or “replied”.  But you know what?  My readers are thanking me, and they’re the ones buying the book so…  Yeah.  Who is it wise to listen to?

3.  If you write a scene, make sure there’s a point.

Every scene in your book should advance the plot.  A lot of authors get hung up on word count or they learned something neat that they want to slip into the book.  The problem?  There’s nowhere to put that exciting tidbit of trivia fact, so they opt to write a scene to slip it in.  The problem?  The reader might end up skimming this fact so the author has just wasted their time.  If a reader skims your book, chances are, they won’t read another book you write.

And let’s face it.  If you make each scene count, what is the harm done?  I say, better err on the side of caution and only include things that make the story stronger.  Like I’ve been told in the past, “Sometimes less is more.” If a lower word count makes your story better, go for it.

4.  Don’t take crap from readers who give you a hard time.

Seriously, this is a lesson I learned the hard way, and it wasn’t an easy one to grasp.  The sooner you get it, though, the better off you’ll be.  There is always a whiny, complaining, snobby person who thinks that your job is to bow down and write your book their way.  It doesn’t even matter what the topic of their discontent is.  If you used something in your book that matters to you, keep it.

The fact of the matter is that you can’t please everyone.  So why try?  Yes, readers get downright rude and nasty when you stand up for yourself and don’t take their “suggestions”, but they are free to write their own books or to find another author.  You are not the only author on this planet.

But…

You are unique.

Don’t let readers treat you like a buffet table where they dictate what you put into your book and what you throw out.  And there’s never any reason why you should put up with verbal abuse.

5.  Don’t let someone else tell you how to publish or tell you what success is for you.

This is your journey, not theirs.  Their method of publishing and their definition of success is not yours.  Some people write to have a memoir or a gift to hand their friends and family.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Others are writing in hopes of being the next JK Rowling so they can make it to Hollywood and be a household name.  Then you have others (probably the majority) of writers who fall somewhere in the middle.  If you’ve reached your goal, you’ve succeeded….and please don’t let someone come in and tell you otherwise.  This is your life, your dream.  Live it to the fullest and enjoy the fruits of your labor.  If someone tries to tell you that your dream is not enough, tell them to “talk to the hand” because you’re not doing it their way.

6.  Do the marketing you want to do, not what the “experts” tell you to do.

If you’re not having fun, then chances are the social media you’re doing is not going to be effective.  Some people hate blogging.  I love blogging.  Some people love Twitter.  I hate Twitter.  There is no “one size fits all” marketing strategy (except for write the best book you can, polish it up, get a great cover, and write your next book).  All the other things are optional.  Should you run ads?  Should you do book trailers?  Should you go on Pinterest?

What do you want to do?  I have my name set up on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, You Tube, and Google + but I spend most of my time blogging.  I heard of someone stealing an author’s identity and pretending to be her on Facebook and Facebook refused to remove the person unless the author set up an account.  (This was a traditionally published author.)  After hearing that, I made it a point to have a presence on Facebook and on other sites.  You have to do what you can to protect your identity.  But it doesn’t mean you have to be active in these places.  Now, I’m not saying you should go around and establish an account on every site you can find.  I’m just saying I did it on the most popular social networking sites for this reason.  But I spent most of my time blogging.

Bottom line: if you are enjoying it, you’ll stick with it.  If you aren’t, it’ll bomb.  So do what interests you.  There is no “one” way to do this.

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Well, those are my six tips.  Anyone have any they want to add?