There isn’t a ‘throbbing member’ or ‘honey cave of love’ to be seen. But they are definitely on my mind during the ‘Writing Sizzling Sex Scenes’ workshop at Swancon 36/Natcon 50. And not just mine.
I haven’t written a story yet that requires a sex scene but attending this workshop was a no brainer (so to speak). Who doesn’t want to know what makes good sex?
So I find myself sitting in a brightly lit room with a marked absence of raunch and a posse of other wannabe sex-writers pondering the best names for body parts, the logistics of sex on a horse, in a moving coach and, disturbingly, in a coffin.
The workshop is led by Nicole Murphy, a paranormal romance writer who has put a lot of thought into what makes a good sex scene. She has a healthy sense of humour about the topic, which bodes well.
We start with the basic question of whether sex is even appropriate at this point of the story. Murphy says any scene needs to do at least one, preferably more, of the following:
- Reveal character
- Move the plot forward
- Help build setting
If it doesn’t do at least one of these, the sex is gratuitous. Once you decide sex is a good idea, there are a few things you can do to make it ‘pop’ and produce the desired reaction in the reader, be it arousal, fear, love or laughter.
In order to work, a sex scene needs four things:
- Emotional intensity
It’s important to describe the sensual side of the sex, not just the technical.
Murphy suggests we think about our most memorable sexual encounters. Perhaps it followed an entire date experience of meal, flowers, dancing etc. Or maybe a new negligee got things going.
“It could be the moments that work for you is when you have candles and the feel of skin, or clothing being, or not being, removed,” she says. “Or smells. A lot of us would be able to say that the person we chose smelt right.”
“Sometimes, when we are writing scenes, we can lose track of that sensuality that comes through.”
Murphy hands out some printed extracts to demonstrate her point about emotional intensity. The first is an original draft of a sex scene from her most recent book. It is explicit and portrays a fair whack of lustful one-on-one. But it just isn’t…sexy.
“I realised that what was wrong was we didn’t know how they were feeling about it,” she says.
In the rewrite, description of the same physical actions has been interspersed with the female character’s internal dialogue. It isn’t hearts-and-flowers stuff but reveals her emotional reaction to what is going on. For me, it elevates both relatability and heat in the scene.
Another extract, by another author, describes the first meeting of former lovers after an extended separation. Physically, the characters do not so much as hold hands. But the sexual chemistry on the page, conveyed through one of the character’s reactions and internal dialogue, is stirring.
“Emotions just make sex so much better,” Murphy says.
To me, this is the most interesting, if obvious, point: make the sex physically possible.
If writing a Regency romance, remember the characters have to negotiate swathes of voluminous skirting. Think about the logistics of sex in a moving coach – angles, limb placement.
As an example of logistical failure, Murphy provides an extract from an unnamed author. The piece is ridiculous for the sheer improbability of the characters’ behaviour in the circumstances, let alone the impossibility of the sex as described.
A man and a woman are kidnapped from their bed and find themselves transported within a closed coffin to a mystery destination. They fear they will be buried alive. When movement stops and the kidnappers apparently depart, the woman discovers the coffin lid can be removed. Before she can leap out, the man pulls the lid back over the coffin saying they need to develop strategy.
At this point, they are sitting up in the closed coffin. Within seconds, the man has grabbed the woman and “impaled” her on his apparently ever-present erection in what becomes an enthusiastic and mutual celebration of life.
As Murphy says, the author has worked on the emotional intensity (a little too much if you ask me) and the sexuality could do with a little more. But it’s the choreography that kills it.
With the blurring of the line between romance and erotica, the use of certain types of language in each genre is becoming less prescriptive, Murphy says. Previously, they were distinguished by more flowery terms in romance and ‘real’ terms in erotica.
“Nowadays, it (the distinction) is about the place of sex within the plot rather than the language,” she says. “My sex scenes are quite explicit.”
The real problem with language, particularly in the worst examples of romantic fiction, is the use of ‘purple prose’ that reinforces pre-conceived notions about the genre. Then there is simply bad description.
The Bad Sex Awards are awarded each year for the world’s worst sex scene in the English language. In 2008, one of the finalists, Kathy Lette, described a woman’s breasts as “jutting like mountains”. Murphy has read worse – a story in which a woman’s vagina was compared to a horse’s mouth.
“To me, when I’m writing, I worry less about the words than I do just getting it down. But at the end of the day, you need to stop and consider,” she says.
Murphy does not have an issue with using the proper terms for body parts but her female characters have varying degrees of comfort with their sexuality, which is reflected in the words they use. For example, one would say ‘penis’ while another is more likely to say ‘cock’.
“It is all about characterisation for me and it is all about the words that the characters would use. Characters guide you through so much of this stuff if you actually step back and let them.”
There aren’t any ‘throbbing members’ in Murphy’s writing but some clichéd terms, like ‘explosion’ for orgasm, are clichés for a reason, she says. They work. The bottom line is to avoid words that might throw a reader out of the story.
“All this is aiming to keep the reader there in the story with the characters,” Murphy says. “The moment you throw them out, they may come back in, they may not. But there are so many other books out there.”
So the lesson for the day is this: sex is better when it feels good, when there’s an emotional connection, no stupid words to break the mood and, most importantly, when it’s possible.
Nicole R Murphy is an author based in Canberra. She is a former teacher and journalist, has worked as an editor in the speculative fiction arena and is extremely active in fandom. Her most recent published work is a short story in the paranormal romance anthology, Scary Kisses (Ticonderoga Publishing).
You’re doing the best job of summarising these talks — I was at all of them and you really have captured the most important elements (you must have had a flying pen of fury!).
It’s amazing how many people write sex without any (or a lot) of visceral emotion. And it’s the visceral that we can universally decode (drying mouth – anticipation, hammering heart – excitement, painful pulse – need). I’ve just finished judging ten entries in a commercial fiction comp and without fail this is what was missing from those entries where the sensual tension (and the sex) just fell flat.
It doesn’t matter how sexy you tell me the hero is, if I don’t feel it I don’t buy it.
Thanks Nikki, I appreciate the feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether you’ve done the subject justice. 🙂
There were some fascinating workshops at Swancon/Natcon and I’m still working through acres of shorthand to get it all out. I was particularly taken by your scientific approach to ‘Arousing the Reader’. Stand by for the post..
When I write a sex scene, I redefine it as a “love scene.” If you have to ask me what is the difference? Stop reading now!
But, if you understand I will continue. The love scenes are for my characters, and I use the physical contact between them after increasing sexual tension and (for my teenage lovers) longing. The reader, I hope, is as “horny” as my two pure characters.
And is put into the correct mood. I want to say, your explanation on what words to use–including cliches—member—explosion, is absolutely correct. The actual word, non-cliche will turn the reader off. I like to think if you prepare the reader(literary foreplay) for the sexual encounter, it will put the zip in an already interesting story.
Ok, is there ever enough foreplay?
Jaye—thank goodness my mother can not read this