Warning: Frank language within.
Some authors struggle with sex scenes. I struggled at one point, too—before all those years of roleplaying and fanfic-writing. When I moved into writing novellas and novel-length work, I realized I wasn’t a master at them. I’m still not, but they are my favorite scenes to write. They come the most naturally to me, and I love fitting them into the larger work because I’ve quickly become a plotting and storytelling geek.
Here are ten things I’ve learned about writing sex scenes that might help you improve yours or at least gain a new perspective or insight. I’m focusing on M/M sex scenes because that is my expertise, but many of these tips will apply to any type of sex scene. I also refer mostly to two characters being engaged in a scene, but these tips also apply to M/M/M and other types of poly scenes.
Tip #1: Read what you want to write.
This is non-negotiable. If you want to be successful at writing within a certain market, you MUST read in that market.
When it comes to sex scenes, reading a lot of them helps you do two things: get comfortable writing them and learn reader expectations. It can take you from “Knotting intrigues me but sounds pretty fucked up” to “I can’t read a shifter story if there’s no knotting”—in other words, it can give you familiarity, understanding, and a frame of reference for writing about things you haven’t necessarily experienced so that you can describe them from a character’s perspective. (I’m not telling you read about stuff you don’t want to read about, but if you’re interested in writing something, it will be helpful to read how it’s done in the genre first.)
And, after you consume a lot of M/M sex scenes (and other parts of these great stories), you’ll gain an instinct for what readers expect out of your work so you can be sure to give them, at minimum, what they signed up for.
Tip #2: Filter everything through the characters.
Sex scenes are not synonymous with drivel. You’ll encounter attitudes out in the reading and non-reading worlds that are negative toward work which contains explicit content. But those of us who appreciate sex scenes know that they offer a perspective on our characters and their relationships that the reader can’t necessarily glimpse in less intimate scenes (this is not a dig at non-explicit work as every heat level has its place).
To give your sex scenes substance, filter them through your characters’ identities and points of view. This means that everything they do—just like in every other scene—has to be in-character. Would this character drop to his knees and beg to give head, or is he more likely to push the other one to his knees and demand it? The inner monologues during your sex scenes must also be in-character. Would this character describe an orgasm as a space explosion, transcendent, heavenly—or is he more likely to lose his grasp on words and shout a bunch of expletives?
You already make decisions about what your character wears, what his mannerisms are, which words he uses often and which he doesn’t, and you should do the same with his sexual desires. As someone who almost always incorporates kink into my work, my characters’ BDSM affiliations are an important part of their identities, as are their individual kinks and fetishes and who and what they are attracted to.
Tip #3: Be careful with pronouns.
If both of your characters use he/him pronouns (or other pronouns which are the same), it’s important to maintain a balance between clarity and unobtrusiveness where pronouns and names are concerned. Your main goal here is to not pull your reader out of the story, which can happen if you don’t use enough pronouns and if you use so many that your reader is confused about who is who. You should also keep epithets like “the red-haired man” to a minimum—unless your character hasn’t been named yet and needs another way for your POV character(s) to refer to him.
I wish I had more concrete guidance for this one, but you kind of just have to use your gut, and an editor can help with this as well. Here’s an example of a passage from my own writing (Escorting the Escort) to give you an idea of what I mean (I’ve bolded the names and he/him pronouns).
Eden only hesitated a second before crawling onto Greer’s lap and pressing their lips together. Greer found Eden’s hand and clumsily took the condom from him before tipping Eden onto his back.
Eden’s skin was extra sensitive everywhere; he felt everything. The smooth texture of his lavender sheets against his back, the pressure of Greer’s hand on his knee as he pushed his legs open, Greer’s breath on his neck before he kissed him there, tonguing and sucking gently.
Eden moaned and arched up, trying to brush their cocks together, but Greer was moving down, tracing Eden’s satiny bra strap to a padded cup.
Greer slid up his gaze and grinned devilishly as he pulled the cup away from Eden’s pec to expose a hard nipple. A few clients had touched Eden here. Always it made him shudder in disgust or whimper in pain. But when Greer pressed his lips to the hard nub, Eden shuddered in ecstasy, aching for more stimulation. More, more.
Tip #4: Avoid flowery euphemisms.
I’ll admit, I don’t have experience writing lighter heat levels, and I have heard that euphemisms can be helpful when writing less explicit, intimate scenes. Nevertheless, for graphic sex scenes such as what you will find in erotica or erotic romance, it’s best not to distract the reader with varied names for sex organs.
Cock and dick will do just fine (and perhaps penis, though that can feel a little clinical). Of course, this is not a hard-and-fast rule, and break it at your discretion. Simple terms like shaft, length, and erection are probably fine. But generally, flowery terms like quivering member and imposing manhood that might make a reader giggle are a no-no (unless you’re writing humorous erotica), as are any terms that are likely to make a reader stop and think, “Wait, what?” or “Ew, no.” (Note, however, that this is a general guideline since every reader is different, and some will be grossed-out by parts of your sex scene that others will be aroused by.)
Since we’re talking about M/M, I’ll also suggest that you stick to unobtrusive words like hole to describe, well, your guy’s hole. Increasingly, I’ve come across such euphemisms as rosebud and star. Personally, I group these with member and manhood, but again, it’s really up to you at the end of the day. Just remember your main goal: Keep the reader’s focus on your scene, not on your language.
Tip #5: Include realism (and do your research).
Another delicate balance you must maintain in a sex scene is that of realism and fantasy. You don’t want a gritty, blow-by-blow of every single bodily response or characteristic (though if that is the kind of sex scene you want to write, I’m not going to stop you). But you do need to make your sex scene realistic enough for your reader to relate to it. This is perhaps best described using an example.
As you may know, I’m a kink writer. I’m also a kink reader, and I have a few years of experience in the real-world BDSM scene. So when I read a chapter (in a book which will remain unnamed) in which a character bottomed in three separate, intense BDSM scenes in one night, I was pulled out of the story. What’s more, this bottoming character got emotional, and the author framed this as unusual. Red, red, red, I thought. Stop the madness! The dominant character in this scenario was supposedly an experienced Dom, yet no experienced Dom would put a bottom through so much in one night, and they would especially not expect that bottom not to have some sort of psychotic break if they did put them through it.
Just like with every other type of scene, your character’s physical and emotional reactions need to be believable. As another example, if you’re writing contemporary, it’s not going to be very believable if your character has no refractory period and comes three times in twenty minutes. And if this happens in a paranormal romance, you’d better let your readers know in some way that the werewolves or vampires or alien creatures in your universe have no refractory period, so that’s why they can come over and over without needing a rest.
This tip is another that comes down to your goal of keeping the reader involved in the story. You don’t want them stopping mid-sex-scene to exclaim to themselves, “In no universe would that happen!” This is why you also need to do your research. If you’re writing about a particular fetish, for instance, you want to make sure you at least do a good Google search for information about that fetish. Some readers might not pick up on a lack of realism—that book I mentioned earlier has lots of fans. But your core audience—the people who have that fetish or at least are interested in reading about it—are likely to pick up on a careless depiction. Don’t insult your readers by writing about their kink in a way that shows you didn’t do your research.
Tip #6: Mind your heat level.
As I’ve said, I don’t have experience writing fade-to-black or no-sex romance stories. But I wanted to include this tip because it’s important where reader expectations are concerned. If you’ve decided to write romances without explicit scenes, make sure you read these types of stories to get a sense of how the intimate scenes work with the internal and external plots. If you want to write low-heat scenes, make sure you read low-heat romances to see what kind of euphemisms and/or interactions are present in the intimate scenes.
Okay, so this tip is just an expansion on tip #1, but you get the idea. Decide what heat level you’re going to write and stay in the boundaries of that in your end product. Don’t say your story is an erotic romance, for example, and only include one medium-heat sex scene. You will attract the wrong readers, you will disappoint them, and they will write bad reviews and otherwise bad-mouth your work.
Tip #7: Make sure the sex scenes fit into the story.
As with every other scene in your story, your sex scene needs to be crucial to either the external plot or the internal plot or both. In a romance, the internal plot will be the conflict and growing connection between your main characters. The sex scenes should feel natural to the characters, their personal character arcs, and their relationship arc.
This sounds really conceptual because there are several elements that go into making a scene necessary to a story. But to focus on the most important aspect, the scene should matter to your characters. It should have an effect on the rest of the story so that if the scene were removed, the story would not make as much sense. And, as I’ve mentioned a few times now in this post, the scene should be believable for your characters and their relationship.
Ask this question: With the external circumstances of your story pushing them, coupled with their own personalities and in-character reactions, would these characters believably be in this place, at this time, wanting to have sex with each other? The answer should be yes. Then you can ask additional questions like: What emotional impact does this scene have on the characters? What does it push the characters to do next? Let them lead you.
Tip #8: Create suspense for your sex scene.
Ideally, your reader should be jonesing for the next sex scene. That’s pretty much how I got through KJ Charles’ A Charm of Magpies series (not that the external plot wasn’t awesome). It isn’t always possible to create that level of suspense, but there should always be a question of how the sex will go, how the characters will react to it, how it will affect their relationship.
One way to create this suspense is to have your characters long for it. A bad way to create suspense is to have the characters start the sex scene and have it interrupted by some contrived external event like a character walking in. When in doubt, remember that everything that happens in the story should come from your characters. If the sex scene stops in the middle, it should be because one or both of your characters has a meaningful internal or external conflict that makes it stop.
Suspense can also come from your characters’ inherent personalities, as well as their sexual desires. As an example, let’s say you’re writing a BDSM story about two Dominants. Whenever these two men occupy the same space, they can’t help but be drawn to each other. One of them gets the unbearable urge to submit to the other, and he’s never felt that before. It makes him uncomfortable; he doesn’t like it. And yet, he’s having trouble fighting it. Would you be interested to see how their first sex scene would go? Readers would probably wonder how the characters, in particular the one feeling submissive, would react in the context of an intimate scene. They’d ask questions like: Will he submit, and if so, how will he feel about it afterwards? How will the other character treat him? What will their aftercare look like?
Tip #9: For erotica and erotic romance, don’t cut it short.
I learned this one from some of my earlier negative reviews. In an erotic work, the reader is expecting certain things from your sex scene, and one thing is that it feels complete. This is another tip that isn’t clear-cut; sometimes, your sex scenes will need to be shorter within the context of the story. But a full, graphic sex scene has a certain trajectory: foreplay, sex, after sex.
In addition, the payoff has to justify the build-up. Imagine a sex scene with a ton of foreplay and only a line or two devoted to the climax (in more ways than one) and after-sex cuddling or what-have-you (not all characters will cuddle, but there will always be immediate aftermath of some kind). Again, this isn’t absolute, but if you don’t devote equal time and words to the climax and resolution of the sex scene, your readers are likely to feel cheated.
Tip #10: Afterward, retain conflict.
Unless this is the final sex scene where everything comes together and all conflicts are resolved, you must continue to foster conflict in your story, even if the sex scene you just wrote went great for both characters (or all, if there were more than two characters involved). Let’s say the two Dominants from our earlier example had a fantastic time together. The one submitted, the other treated him well and did everything right, and both of them got off better than they’d ever gotten off before. There can still be conflict, and there needs to be. Otherwise, your reader will lose interest and stop reading—even if they were over-the-moon happy following your story up until now.
One way to keep the conflict going is through the external plot, but it’s crucial that the internal plot retain conflict as well. In our example, there are endless ways to keep the conflict going. Maybe after the sex scene, the Dominant who submitted regrets doing so. He’s a well-respected Dominant in his social group; what will his friends think if they find out he submitted to someone? The other character could react negatively to this reaction and be offended that his new partner would want to hide what just happened. It was so great; how could he?
When it comes to what happens next, let your characters lead you.
I hope these tips have helped you get over a roadblock in your sex-scene writing or otherwise benefited you in some way. Thank you for reading!