In this post, we’re going on a couple of field trips—to the very first blog post I ever wrote and to an article I wrote for Savvy Authors. We’re talkin’ about sex, baby.
You see, I write love stories, and sex is a (really fun) part of any love story, so I generally choose to include some level of intimate detail—but not erotica levels. I only write the bits that are absolutely necessary for telling the whole love story. But rather than regurgitate all my sound reasoning here, I’ll send you to the very first blog post I ever wrote at Nicki Elson’s Not-So-Deep Thoughts:
Are ya with me? Okay, the next field trip gives insight into my approach to writing sex scenes. This article was written as advice for other authors, but I thought readers might enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the process.
The article originally posted at Savvy Authors, but it looks like they’ve done some reorganizing, and that particular post is no longer there. But no worries! I went into the Way Back Machine and recovered the article. Here it is below.
How to Write Explicit Sex Scenes without Being Raunchy or Ridiculous
by Nicki Elson
There’s a fine line between sensuous and silly, a narrow gorge between captivating and nauseating. Do you tend to shy away from getting too intimate in your love stories because you’re afraid of coming off as raunchy or ridiculous? Or are you the opposite, jumping all in without much thought and ending up with pages reminiscent of Penthouse Forum? It’s entirely possible for explicit love scenes to be evocative yet tasteful, which is what I strive to do in every romance I write. But I’ve made enough mistakes along the way to have learned a few things. Savvy Authors has invited me over to share those “things” (i.e. my simple guidelines for writing good sex) with you today.
The easiest way to keep a story from tipping into the raunchy category is to fade to black, but there are many good reasons to keep the lights on and the doors open. Sex is, after all, an important aspect of any romantic relationship. I believe that to tell the whole story, you’ve got to let the reader into the bedroom. They need to see how the characters interact in those moments when they’ve made themselves vulnerable to one another. Readers can learn so much from feeling the hero/heroine’s emotions or seeing which partners are more concerned with giving pleasure and which only want to take it.
And then there’s the all-important chemistry. A couple can be intensely attracted to each other and wittily banter all day long, but that rapport doesn’t always translate to the bedroom. In my just-released novel VIBRIZZIO, we see the heroine, Lyssa, in intimate settings with different men—both real and fantasy. Readers see for themselves which guy is overly needy and which one makes Lyssa forget the rest of the world exists. The detailed fantasy scenes are important because they allow Lyssa to let go of her inhibitions and give the reader insight into what she really wants from a man (hint: it isn’t what she’s been getting from them).
Have I convinced you of the importance of explicit sex scenes? Yes? Good. Now let’s talk about how to effectively write them. The purpose of detailing these intimate scenes is to pull the reader further into the story—the last thing you want to do is to bounce them out of it by making them cringe or giggle. That’s why word choice is key. Thus, my first piece of advice:
Avoid Specifically Naming Body Parts as much as Possible
No matter how sophisticated a person might be, somewhere deep inside all of us resides a fourteen-year-old boy—and he’s always at the ready to giggle at the slightest provocation. Do not engage the inner fourteen-year-old boy! Avoid words like … ehrm, I’m trying to keep this post PG-13, so I probably shouldn’t list off the words I’m telling you to not use. I’m talking about street slang for body parts (e.g the word that means “cat” for girl bits and the one that means “rooster” for boy bits). And then there are cringe-worthy, dated terms, like referring to specific parts as the character’s “manhood” or “sex.” Using these words will efficiently get your point across, but it will also grate against the sensibilities of many readers, thus popping them out of the mood you’re working hard to evoke.
Writers love words, and more than that, we love being creative with them. When writing sex scenes, resist the urge to craft imaginative names for body parts. There’s nothing sexy about a fur fringed funhole or a glistening glory pole (terms so ridiculous and not evocative that they don’t even warrant censorship). Being creative with body parts puts too much attention on the words, drawing focus away from the sensuality of the scene.
But you’re writing a detailed sex scene—you’re probably going to have to refer to body parts at some point. The goal is to make body-part word choice as invisible as possible. It’s the same logic behind using the generic “said” as a dialogue tag rather than something more attention-grabbing.
I often use the simple pronouns “he/him” and “she/her” rather than naming body parts. For example, “He slid into her” or “She surrounded him.” In the context of the scene, readers know exactly what I’m talking about, and the pronouns are innocuous enough that they don’t steal focus. Sometimes I zero in on specific aspects of the body parts—e.g. “her sensitive flesh”—as ways to give readers a more specific picture of what’s going on without detracting from the moment.
There are ways to refer to body parts without actually mentioning them. The following is a quote from Jen’s sex lessons with David in THREE DAVES: “David pulled her tightly to him, and Jen felt in the small of her back that he was ready for action.” From VIBRIZZIO: “He sank his hips more deeply into her, leaving no doubt of his aroused state.” Is there any question of what body part I’m referring to (and what condition it’s in)?
Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and name that body part. When you do, it’s best to go with the obvious, standard name for it—the V-word, the P-word (sorry to be silly, but I’m not sure what words are acceptable for public posting at this site, so I’m playing it safe). Again, like with the word “said,” readers’ brains will glide smoothly over these standard words without distraction. You just want to avoid over-using them so that the passage doesn’t start to sound too clinical.
Below is an excerpt from “Impressionism 101,” a short story in which two subjects from classic paintings consummate their love. Note that the only body part named is their mouths:
His soft whites and pale blues encircle my bold navies and blacks. The reds of our mouths come together. In my eagerness to blend with his colors, I press into him and we tumble into the oranges and pinks of the haystack. My blue slips away. His white drifts off. We are beiges and pinks and browns melding into the haystack, melding into each other.
I only have one other guideline for creating tasteful, evocative love scenes. And that is to:
Make the Emotion as Important as the Motion
If your goal is to tell a love story rather than put a porno on paper, the emotion is just as important as the motion. Scenes that are merely a description of who’s doing what to whom will leave the reader cold, no matter how hot the lovin’. Readers want to care about the characters, and they can only do that if you let them inside their thoughts and feelings.
The emotion can be intertwined with the motion. As an example, I’ll share an excerpt from DIVINE TEMPTATION in which Maggie finds herself unexpectedly intertwined with her ex-husband:
Maggie moved with him, and they were in perfect sync. She reflected on how far they’d both come in the last two years. They were the new and improved Carl and Maggie. He smiled down at her. She was prepared to love him again, better than she ever had before. She was finally ready to truly forgive him. Carl grasped her around the waist and flipped them so that he sat back on bended legs with Maggie straddling him.
Readers don’t just experience the physical chemistry between Maggie and Carl, they gain insight into her lingering feelings for him. In the following excerpt from VIBRIZZIO, readers get a sense of Lyssa’s dissatisfaction with her current relationship. (Side note: his snippet is from one of the most explicit scenes in the story, yet the careful wording allows me to use it in this PG-13 article.)
She relished his tender ministrations and did what she could to coax his head to the angle she desired. When he hit a particularly receptive spot, she encouraged him with a soft, “Yeah, that’s good.” But after a couple more swipes, he failed to re-strike the chord and moved on. It all felt very nice, but Lyssa found herself yearning for … more.
I hope you found these tips helpful. Now go forth and write good sex!
More Savvy Authors articles by Nicki Elson: