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March 12, 2013

Dread Writing Sexy Scenes? 5 Tips for Success

Man with a bag on his head with text: 5 Tips for Writing Sexy Scenes...without Dread

Whatever genre we write, we often have to write scenes that make us uncomfortable. High on that discomfort scale for many authors are romantic scenes between characters.

Whether we write romance or another genre with love interests, or whether the characters merely kiss or have sex with the door open to the reader, many of us must find a way to overcome our embarrassment or squeamishness to write the necessary words. And let’s not even think about others reading those words.

The stereotypes some people have about romance authors can lead to the assumption that writing sex scenes must be easy for us. However, the truth is often very different. I’ll share a secret with you: I never expected I’d become a romance writer.

I didn’t have a “sex positive” history, so when I first started down this writing path, I didn’t think I’d ever write one of those scenes. I didn’t think I could. I probably even stated oh-so-knowingly that if my characters made love, I’d “close the door” and not share details.

My muse laughed.

To me, love is the most powerful force in the world, so every story I’ve written includes a romance of some kind. (Even the Harry Potter fan fiction I wrote years ago had strong romantic elements.) But the first couple of stories I wrote were of the “romantic elements” variety, so a few kisses were enough. Imagine me thinking: *whew* I can do this.

My muse laughed harder.

Then I started getting ideas for paranormal romance stories. Okay, I could still “close the door,” right? Wrong.

I’m a firm believer in listening to my characters as I write. And the honest fact is that the first time we’re intimate with someone, we often feel lots of emotions—some good, some bad, and some a mix of we-don’t-even-know.

Emotions are the essence of our storytelling. Emotional turning points drive the characters from one plot event to the next. The bigger the turning point, the deeper the scene triggering that turning point needs to be.

So “closing the door”—pretending that no realizations about love or lust or trust happen during the characters’ first intimate encounter—felt like a cheat to my characters, my story, and my readers. That meant I had to learn how to write those scenes or end up with a blank page. *smile*

5 Tips for Overcoming the Dread of Writing Sexy Scenes

  • Treat the Scene like Any Other Scene

Just as with any other type of scene, know why this scene exists. What changes? What are the turning points? What’s being revealed about the plot or characters? The scene must contain goals, motivations, and conflicts.

If we throw in a sexy scene that doesn’t need to be there—it has no purpose for the overall story or character arc—it will feel gratuitous. Our subconscious can pick up on that and dread writing the scene even more than usual.

That’s why my stories have different “heat” levels. Some stories have only kissing and some go further than I would be comfortable with if I were in my character’s place. I go where the story needs me to go, but no further. Trying to force an unnecessary sex scene isn’t any less of a cheat than trying to ignore the turning points that should happen between the characters.

Ensuring the scene needs to be there can also help reduce the embarrassment we feel when others read our words. We can be less defensive or feel less need to justify the scene if its purpose is self-evident.

  • Read Romance Stories at a Heat Level Equal to What We Need to Write

For me, reading romance pushed me past the shyness inherent in my embarrassment. The romance genre focuses on showing positive relationships, so romance stories help us see that there’s nothing wrong with those desires and emotions, that they are, in fact, healthy.

Reading stories at the heat level of what we need to write (to do justice to the story and the characters) demonstrates how it can be done. We learn what words to use—and which ones not to use. We also learn the appropriate balance of physical, emotional, and mental description.

What are heat levels? All About Romance (AAR) has great descriptions of the different heat levels of romance (including example authors and publisher imprints at each level):

    • Kisses only
    • Subtle (closed door or allusions)
    • Warm (open doors, sensual, some physical descriptions)
    • Hot (very sensual, explicit descriptions of desire, graphic physical descriptions)
    • Burning (explicit everything, strong focus on sexual feelings and desires, may include kink)

The first two categories are often called “Sweet” romances. Mainstream romance ranges from AAR’s Subtle to Hot (and includes some Burning, depending on the focus of sex versus romance and the type of kink). Erotic romance is AAR’s Burning. (Note: Erotica is a separate genre, as it doesn’t focus on the romance or the happy ending.)

  • Read Romance Stories One Heat Level beyond What We Need to Write

Desensitization is a real psychological phenomena, and here we can use it for our benefit. If we read one heat level beyond what we need to write, suddenly the details and descriptions we need to use won’t seem as bad. *grin*

  • Use the Opposite Gender’s Point of View to Distance Ourselves

Sometimes what’s holding us back from being able to comfortably explore our characters’ lives is that we’re inserting ourselves and our own experiences into the story too much. We’re uncomfortable and therefore we think they should be uncomfortable. That disconnect can make it near-impossible to write the scene.

I wrote my first sex scene from the hero’s perspective. That opposite gender point-of-view (POV) created distance between my experiences and the story. I was able to listen to my hero’s thoughts and feelings without interjecting what I thought they should be.

If we take this opposite POV approach the first time we need to write beyond our comfort level, we might be able to break through those barriers more easily. We don’t have to leave the scene in that POV or even keep it at all, but if nothing else, the scene can be a valuable writing exercise.

  • Avoid External Distractions

Getting into the right frame of mind can be hard for the most straightforward of scenes, much less for sexy scenes. Kids arguing behind us, family reading over our shoulder, bills sitting on our desk, and us, sitting there in our less-than-sexy writing clothes, can all add up to making it difficult to get “in the mood.”

Some authors set a better mood by lighting candles or listening to sexy music. Some wait until the family has gone to bed. Some take the laptop out to the car for privacy.

With practice, we can gain familiarity and confidence in our ability to write what our characters and the story demands. I now don’t mind writing sexy scenes at all, whether they’re at the kisses-only level or the hot-to-burning level. If the scene is needed, I can write it.

However we work past our dread, we essentially have to do the same thing we do for every scene: get into our characters’ heads. If we can do that in a mental environment that feels “safe,” we’ll have better luck getting those sexy-times emotions down on the page. And if we’re feeling our character’s emotions, so will our readers, and that’s the real goal of any scene. *smile*

(Special thanks to a commenter (who’ll go unnamed due to the subject matter) for triggering the idea for this post.)

Do you struggle with writing sexy scenes? Has your comfort level changed over time? Have you tried any of these tips before? What methods work for you? Do you have other tips to share?

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54 Comments on "Dread Writing Sexy Scenes? 5 Tips for Success"

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Rhenna Morgan

OMG. Love this post! The first time I wrote a steamy scene I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching. Every now and then I start you use a particular word and my fingers FREEZE over the keyboard. “Do you really want to use THAT word?” The more I write, the more I just breath through it and type on…

Juli Page Morgan

I’m almost hesitant to admit that writing the sexy scenes usually comes easier to me than any other type of scene. (Okay, did that totally make me sound depraved? LOL) While my scenes aren’t at the Burning level, they are Hot, and most of my characters are quite willing to cooperate when one is called for in the story. But I do have to shut out the external distractions to write them. If anyone else is even close to being in the same room with me I feel there’s a giant bat-signal (sex-signal?) glowing over my head, and that kills the mood – for me AND my characters. The only tip I can add to the excellent ones you outlined here is to write them like no one’s going to read them. If you start worrying about what your mom or your friends are going to think it’ll throw a monkey wrench into the process and you’ll end up with less than the emotional punch you intended. 🙂

Buffy Armstrong

Writing a sex scene is hard. I cringe every time I see a tweet that reads something like this: “Wrote an awesome smexy scene today. So much fun.” Really? Fun? Really?

I’m not a prude; I have a foul mouth and an even fouler mind. I’ve read romance since I was 13 and I’m not talking about the YA versions either. Made for interesting reading with my girlfriends at slumber parties. It’s hard to shock me.

Anyway, it’s not the mechanics of the act that is difficult to write, though that not easy either; it’s the tension, the emotion, the sensations. The whole relationship up until they have sex is foreplay and I’m not even counting the actual foreplay. I do have to be geared up to write a sex scene. I have to block off a lot of time. Thank goodness I have my own office at home. I haven’t tried using sexy music. I’ll have to give that a try.

I saw in one of the comments about not letting your dad read what you write. I’m having the same problem with my 75 year old mother-in-law. She’s always hounding me to read something. I’m terrified of sending her anything.

Amanda

My 95 year old grandmother’s been doing the same thing, asking to read something I’ve written. Between the foul language and the sex scenes, I think I’d be disowned. So I just keep putting her off 🙂

Melinda VanLone

Oh, how I dreaded writing those scenes in my first book! I was convinced I would do the “fade to black” just because I couldn’t fathom writing it. I didn’t know how. mostly I was just embarrassed. Then I took a class Roni Loren taught and the part that stuck with me was to sit down before you write the scene and think “I am an adult. I am allowed to have sex. I am allowed to talk about sex. I am an adult.” LOL. I would recite that, and push out of my mind the thought that my mom was going to read this…and then yes played sexy music, had a little wine and wrote it late at night when I was really tired. It all helped!

Amanda

Seriously, Jami, you must be a mind reader. I actually did a post myself a few weeks ago on my comfort level with sex scenes.

I always knew I’d have “open door” scenes when I started my first urban fantasy novel. But I got so embarrassed just writing the scene that I ended up taking the more graphic language that I was used to reading (from authors like Nalini Singh and Richelle Mead) out. It stayed that way through several different projects, including one where it wouldn’t have been out of place to include it, due to the nature of the relationship between the hero and heroine.

I credit erotic romance to breaking down the last of my barriers.

The manuscript I completed most recently has a very high heat level. The other thing that helped? Writing the first love scene from the hero’s point of view. I figured he’d be more comfortable using those words for various parts of the human body than the heroine would, and when it came time to switch it around and write the next one from her point of view, I had no trouble.

Not writing the scenes while I was at work might have had something to do with it, too 🙂

Melissa Maygrove

Great post (as usual – you never let us down. 😉

I’m good as long as I don’t picture my mom reading the scene. LOL

I like including a little heat when it’s called for. In romance, I see the way the leads treat each other and speak to each other during intimate scenes as part of their character. The story seems incomplete with out it.

Widdershins

I don’t have a problem with writing sex-scenes, its writing sex-scenes that I sometimes get bogged down with … like, who is doing what to whom, (F/F – no differentiating pronouns) avoiding repeating myself, (will someone write sex thesaurus, please?)

… and deciding if it fits in with Vernor’s Law about scenes (Vernor Vinge, SF writer) … ‘all scenes should accomplish 2 of 3 things. 1 – Provide background information. 2 – Develop the characters. 3 – Advance the plot.

… as for letting certain folks who are bugging us read our stuff? Tell them about the content, and if they still want to, hand it over … then retreat to the ‘I told you so’ moral highground!

Melinda S. Collins

Oh goodness, sex scenes! Yay!! I’m with everyone else who’s already commented. It’s the mechanics, the intimacy, the emotions, the much-needed privacy while writing them … all of that combined makes my eyes twitch, my palms sweat, and my inner-self cringe. All while making my muse laugh like a madman in the back corner.

But! And I’ll probably wish I hadn’t said this, but I usually find that after two glasses of wine, these scenes aren’t so difficult to write. Much like real life after a bit of wine, the inhibitions are released, the walls are broken down, I don’t care about possible future judgments, and I can just write, write, write. With that being said though, these are the only scenes that I’ve ever been able to say I * occasionally* need a drink to write. Any other time, I don’t bother with fun drinks until the day’s writing is done.

The only other tip I could add is what Juli mentioned above. I have a post-it note that I break out when I’m about to write sexy scenes that says, “Your retired Southern Baptist Missionary grandparents are NEVER going to read this. So do it already!” Seriously. LOL! 😀

Thanks for the tips, Jami! 🙂

KC
KC

Awesome post, thanks. What you say about desensitization is really true. The more I read, the more “normal” the words and the feelings they evoke become in my head. What initially was completely mortifying now flows much more easily on to the page. Reading has also helped to me write much more natural actions. A friend of mine was once asked early in her writing career, “have you ever actually /had/ sex?” My goal is to avoid that.

I do like to be alone in the quiet when I write those scenes, they need concentration but I would freeze to death if I had to go sit in the car though. Going to have to try the wine.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
LOL I love this post! XD (That sounds so wrong…^_^”) I have to admit, I’m one of those weird people who are not at all scared of writing affection/ sex scenes. Seriously, I think I’ve been desensitized already since high school or even junior high (!!! blame those English teachers’ choice of books…), that very little seems to shock me anymore. The scenes in Nora Roberts’ romances didn’t appall me, nor did any other romance novel I read so far. But the book that didshock and discomfort me was Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, written in the 18th century. Seriously, it had an intense sex scene every few pages!! :O It was amazing how he could write about the same thing over and over again without being repetitive. His use of metaphors was very impressive too—such a variety of them and all used so aptly! As for writing such scenes, I have absolutely no fear of kissing scenes, as I can imagine how pleasant it would be. (Yeah, I’m so sick/ sappy, right? XD) As for actual sex scenes though…in the work that I show to people, I never did anything more that imply that they’re going to bed together now, and then they got up in the morning one on top of the other. So kind of closed door scenes. However, I have tried writing explicit (“warm”?) scenes in private before (wrote 4 in total, I think); I’m way too embarrassed to let anyone see… Read more »
Rinelle Grey

Great post. I found it really hard in the beginning, but it has become easier with time. Writing a few higher heat level books (that I don’t ever plan on publishing!) helped too. And I definatly find that I can write these scenes better from the hero’s POV than the heroine.

Angela Quarles

I find it easier than I did at first but I still find that my output (words per hour) is slower. I used to have to listen to a specific track with absolutely no words and the right tempo or I’d be even more distracted, but now I’m not finding it as necessary. I don’t cringe when they come up (I actually look forward to it now) as I’ve finally made my brain realize that my first go at this is not going to have all the emotion and sensualness that I’d want the end product to have (much like how I shut off my inner editor for other scenes on a first draft) though my inner editor protests still and I have to swat it down (I think that’s why my output is lower). I just try to write it, like any other scene, and come back in revisions and edit for Deep POV, senses and emotion…

Laurie Evans

How timely, I’ve been rewriting my book’s first sex scene this week. It helps to read books at the same heat level I’m writing, plus one level above. I didn’t have a very sex-positive experience growing up, either. In fact, I didn’t even get into reading romance until a few years ago. I have lots of catching up to do! Never knew how much fun it would be to read (and write) romance!

Lexa Cain

I never thought I’d include any romance in my novels. But I tried once, and it worked! I never thought I’d be able to portray sexiness. But I did that, too. Now, everything I write has a romance in it (though I don’t write romance). In a new NA WIP, I may leave the door open. Or not. Like you suggest, I’ll listen to my characters and my muse.
Thanks for the tips – they’re great! 🙂

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[…] Jami Gold on the dread of writing sex scenes. […]

E.B.Pike

Oh, I so needed to read this. I am always uncomfortable writing romantic scenes past the kissing stage. I will totally use these tips! 🙂

Sarah Madison

Darn it, I really wanted to pin this, but it tells me there is no image to pin. Great post!

Diana

LOVE this post! None of my scenes have progressed to full on sex yet, but lots of close encounters. My struggle is creating the right amount of sexual tension without making the story focus on that.

Joanna Aislinn

Nothing like showing up to the party three weeks late, lol. I SO needed to read a post like this. So glad I happened on it today, when I’m all tangled up in myself trying to write exactly that and figuring the heat level I want (for a couple that are going to have issues over practicing organized religion, among other things–go figure).

As always, Jami, thanks!

Erin M.
Erin M.

This was super helpful. I’m not a prude when it comes to my own sex life, but sometimes my characters turn me into one. I have such issue with the language in the scenes. I hate the flowery euphemisms. And currently I’m writing a YA semi-epistolary novel about a teen who gets pregnant her senior year. Clearly, there’s lots of sex. I’m not having too much trouble with her journal entries (I can convincingly write like a lovestruck 17 yr old) but the omniscient narrated scenes are pesky. I have no intention of describing full on sex scenes that way, but even him taking of her shirt makes me feel like Sr. Ann Julie Peters is tsk-tsking at my writing!

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[…] A few days ago (after I wrote my scene, of course) I was reading about how romance writers classify how heated the romance and sex will be in their stories. At the milder end of the “heat” scale is the “closed […]

Eveam
Eveam
The scenes I write are generally hot or burning, usually because of kink or dubious consent. I do not normally write the scene before I “see” it fully played in my head. I have a lot of “music video” moments in my mind and I just write it as I see it first, then add more tension and emotion later along with extra detail. Music is a huge help for me. A song is usually what sparks that “music video.” I write what I “see.” Then, read it. I add a cup more foreplay, a dash more dialogue, sprinkle in some private thoughts, and a pinch of tension. Read it again. Adjust accordingly. THEN…go back through and detail it until I make myself blush! I like to have sexually provoking words that I use to describe non-sexual things leading up to the act. It creates tension just by teasing the reader. The sound a glass makes as it “grinds” across a table, a clock ticking in “urgency,” water from the shower “vibrating” the skin, or having a character show languid movements or breathing. Draw out those particular things into an almost slow-motion act; put focus on it. I also agree that you should write as if only you will read it. Once you begin to hold back due to fear of what a reader will think, you’re done. Writers push people to question, to think about things they wouldn’t normally think about, to bring out emotion, and make them wonder.… Read more »
Deborah Ann Davis

When my 20 year old daughter read my first book, her criticism was that there was no sex in it. After teaching sophomores for so long, I couldn’t bear the idea of one of them reading sex I had written, so I opted for the sweet route. But I didn’t explain that to my daughter. I just said I didn’t feel comfortable writing sex scenes. Her response? “I’ll write it for you, Mom.”
Umm, no thanks. I don’t want to see sex through my daughter’s eyes, not yet, at least.

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[…] Dread Writing Sexy Scenes? 5 Tips for Success […]

Leticia Toraci

I couldn’t find the heat level page, the like shows “Page not found”

Bella ardila
Bella ardila

I am going to try to write sex scenes in my new book. Probably it will not end well because I have never had sex or making out with a boy

Scarlett West

Thanks for another fabulous post. I just found this blog post. Writing these scenes is not my strong suit either. I do find it helpful to read romance to get ideas or what goes in different categories. The thing I find tricky is coming up with variations of appropriate vocabulary for the way the character’s feel or their physical reactions.

The part I loved most about this post is the point that we need to get inside our Character’s mind no matter what type of scene it is. I think that’s doable for sure and takes the pressure off!

Clare
Clare

I am not sure I know where to start to write a sex scene… don’t you have to have life experience for that? I’m a 34 year old celibate, abused (by my father and YES in that way) barely educated, special needs, emotionally stunted (because of my useless father) “writer” I’m not employed or employable… I WANT to write intimacy but I’m either too stunted or too stupid to do it (the criminal version of a sex scene seems to come far easier to me for some reason) how do I fix this mess?

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