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September 26, 2017

Dread Writing Sexy Scenes? 5 Tips for Success

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

Several years ago, I wrote the original version of this post to help others struggling with this issue. However, now that I have several more writing years—and many more sexy scenes—under my belt, I wanted to revisit the topic and see if I could add more insights. *smile*

Whatever genre we write, we often have to write scenes that make us uncomfortable. Some of us struggle with making our protagonist’s life difficult and settle for a too-gray Black Moment. Others cringe from depicting conflict, especially between characters we like. High on that discomfort scale for many authors is intimate 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.

Authors of Every Genre Might Struggle

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.

Complicated Emotions Need to Be Shown

In the real world, virtually no sexual encounters coast along a single emotional note. Even between old married couples, partners might bounce between thoughts of pleasure, obligation, ecstasy, impatience, desire, and “did I remember to start the dishwasher?” *snicker*

All that applies a thousand times more for new couples who are still in the throes of power negotiations, discovering favorite techniques, trying to impress each other, reveling in the sense of connection, suffering from insecurities, cringing when something doesn’t go perfectly, etc. In other words, we can be an emotional mess.

In our stories, the same idea also applies, except readers are in the dark about all those conflicting emotions unless we share them. Or at least hint at them.

If we’re writing stories with complicated emotions, we might not be able to avoid exploring them in our story’s sexy scenes. Or if we’re including those scenes but not going into that level of emotional depth, maybe that’s pointing out an opportunity for us to add meaning to our story.

“Close the door” might not work for sexy scenes that involve complex emotions. Click To TweetI’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

#1: 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.

Sex scenes should affect the story just like any other scene. Click To TweetIf 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.

(Tangent: This is why I’m not a fan of the new trend among some romance authors to release two versions of the same story, one with the sexy scenes and one without. If the story doesn’t change when we cut those scenes, they were never needed to begin with. Either make the scene matter or cut it before publication.)

#2: 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.

Learn the balance of description that's right for our story. Click To TweetReading 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) shares these descriptions of the different heat levels of romance:

  • 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 extent 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.)

#3: 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*

#4: Use a Different 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.

Struggling to write a sexy scene? Try a different point of view. Click To TweetI 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 different 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.

#5: 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.

We Can Strengthen This Skill Just Like Any Other

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.

In fact, in the time since I originally wrote this post, I’ve released five stories, and four of them would fall into the “Hot” category above (sometimes also called Steamy). Guess who’s read all my books? Both my mom and my dad. And I didn’t die of embarrassment! *grin*

These five tips have helped me tremendously over the years, and by the time I published my first story, I felt confident in my skill at judging when a scene was necessary (even if that means finding a reason to include it if the story’s pacing needed one). That confidence also erased my worry about what others would think.

Now, my main goal is to ensure my sexy scenes flow with the same resonance and depth as the rest of the story. As mentioned above with my tangent on Tip #1, the scenes should be an integral part of the story and unable to be skipped or cut without losing meaning and emotional insights.

Yesterday, I noticed a recent, in-depth review on my Treasured Claim story and stopped at these lines:

“Each sexual encounter emphasizes where the lovers currently find themselves at every stage of their relationship. Unlike many other stories of this type, the shared intimacies between Alex and Elaina are not simply pornographic diversions, but symbolize instead the challenges they face in their evolving commitment to each other, yet serve the narrative that there is much more to genuine intimacy than its physical expression.”

That aspect of the sex scenes reflecting the growth of their relationship is exactly what I was hoping for, so I had to smile at that review. (All right, I’ll admit to a fist pump as well, especially as that whole review gives me warm fuzzies. *grin*)

Do I think I get it exactly right every time (for every reader’s sensitivity)? Absolutely not. But that’s what first drafts and beta readers and editors are for, as we find the right balance for our story. The point is that the first step of getting our first draft down is often the hardest, and hopefully this post will help with that.

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*

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

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Kristine

I spewed my coffee reading Step #1 tangent. The best thing I ever did was read, read, read. Not for entertainment but to study HOW and WHY the scenes enforce and show relationship/character development. My personal #6 – My children, mother, mother-in-law are adults and know that grown-ups have sex, and if I write it well they might think my husband is a lucky man.

JulieS
JulieS

All terrific tips. Make sex scenes as integral to the story as any other action scene (with added intimacy as the main difference, of course!).

I’ve read too many romances where this integration does not happen. Or it’s much too mechanical. Sure, sometimes an audience for the books like that don’t want emotional intimacy in their sex scenes, but if that’s not the audience you’re going for, you *have to include emotions* into it.

I reviewed one romance that plunked the sex in, complete with dirty name-calling and some kink without any warning that it was part of the relationship. The *tone* was so different from the characters’ inner dialogue that for me it was off-putting. That review got me three or four negatives on Amazon. If the vaguely repellent sex had been cut out of the book, it would have been a better book, and the relationship better (to me).

Carradee / Misti
I used to be the “I will only ever write fade to black” camp. Then I got to thinking about Song of Solomon (a book of the Christian Bible that gets rather graphic in analogies) and decided I’d only ever convey the clinical necessities for a story (as appeared in my short story “Romeo and Jillian”). Then I realized that not all stories could be told that way, so I’d stick to working on the ones that could. Then I realized I’m entirely aromantic and asexual, contentedly celibate, and I read romance for the same reasons some folks watch something because gone viral and they’re trying to figure out the appeal. (Okay, I also like psychological dynamics, but that’s a bit more complicated.) I skip many a sex scene because I’m more interested in what’s going around it than the details of the bedroom (or wherever they’re hooking up). Romance is essentially a form of speculative fiction, to me. I drafted a romance novella that I wanted to classify as genre romance and needed someone to point out gaps in physiological and psychological reactions that I missed because I don’t get it. (And thanks for that, Jami.) And then I’ve had a few WiPs where I needed to know the details of two characters’ night together, even though it wouldn’t end up in the story, in order to have clear definitions of their associations and triggers, because that would affect what they did and said outside that scene. And now… Read more »
Carradee / Misti

Sorry—hit post too soon—but I meant to add a note of:

It’s okay to be embarrassed/uncomfortable with writing sex scenes due to issues of not wanting to ignore or erase a minority or a particular orientation. But even if you are different, it doesn’t mean all your MCs have to share or illustrate that difference.

If you want to write “everybody’s X” stories, that’s fine. But you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

Sherry
Sherry

Great article, Jami. Thank you for sharing. I write science fiction (no website yet and nothing published at this time), and I and don’t usually read romance, but the intensity of the relationship between the two main characters in my current project requires (basically begs for) a sex scene. I have never written a sex scene before so I started reading a few “steamy” romance novels, but I was not very impressed. The authors were skilled, the plots were good, and the scenes were VERY well written, but something felt “off” to me. I have no problem with sex, but the scenes in these books stood out like a sore thumb and just didn’t add anything to the stories. They seemed to throw everything out of balance and I couldn’t figure out why. Your article made things much clearer for me. Now I have a better understanding of how to write this scene and where I want to go with it. The review you received describes the kind of response that I want from a reader, so I will definitely be purchasing a copy of “Treasured Claim” to see how you integrated the sex scene into your story. Thanks again for the great advice.

Clare O\'Beara
Clare O\'Beara

Thanks! When the scene contributes to the development of the story or characters, or where it demonstrates character or the nature of the relationship, yes I think it is important.
I’m not interested in reading a sex scene that is three chapters long.
If the scene is not actually required but you just want to establish that it has happened, remember that less is more. Waking up in a tangle of sheets or whatever is sufficient.

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[…] time, we discussed how to get over our dread and write sexy scenes for our stories. As I mentioned in that post, no matter our genre, at some point in our career, we […]

Sieran
Sieran
Hey I was excited to see your posts on sex scenes, because I’m very opinionated about them, lol. From your explanation above, I understand why you don’t like it when authors make a separate version with no sex scenes, but I personally would be very thankful if the books I love had a no-sex version. To me, partly because I’m an ace, I find sex scenes so boring and repetitive, and often I feel that they add nothing to the plot— even though many readers praise that the sex scenes were “hot.” When I was younger, I was more interested in reading sex scenes, but that was when the books only had 1-2 sex scenes, not 10! (Okay maybe there are not literally 10 sex scenes in a modern romance novel, but it certainly feels like that.). Whenever I see a sex scene starting, I go, “Oh bother, not again! When can we go back to the REAL story??” While I agree with you that sex scenes that actually add to the story are much better, I think even if epiphanies or other developments happen in a sex scene, I would still rather that I didn’t need to read them, because I find them SO boring… I think it’s partly because I’ve read several hundred sex scenes already, since the vast majority of romances I read lately had many sex scenes in each book, which seems to be the trend for adult romances nowadays. So I’ve never felt embarrassed or… Read more »
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[…] 10 key scenes you need to frame up your novel, while Jami Gold examines sexy scenes in two posts: 5 tips for writing dreaded sexy scenes and sexy scenes: door open or door […]

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