I've been asked to talk about writing sex, which I realized after saying yes was a tall order. It's not easy to analyze something as instinctual and gut-level as a sex scene. But I've done what I could to break it down, and hopefully some of it will be helpful to you.
My experience with erotica is largely in fanfic -- I've been divesting TV characters of their underwear and inhibitions for nearly eight years now, and I'm still having a blast. Thanks to my prolonged stay here at Fandom U (free critiques and advice from English professors, published authors, literary agents and pretty much everyone with an opinion? Who needs grad school?), it's safe to say I've learned a few things about what works and what bombs -- in this world, anyway. There are plenty of books in print on the art of erotica, and I haven't cracked a romance novel since the seventh grade, so I'll hinge this on what I know: sex starring characters that should be sleeping together but probably aren't. Let's take their clothes off and make it worth their while, shall we?
How To Write Smokin' Hot Smut
works in progress
In my head, my sex scenes are blazing. Like, knock-your-socks-off, take-your-breath-away, blow-your-brain-out-your-ears spontaneous-orgasmic-combustion hot.
Then I start writing.
I don't know about you, but trying to describe that thrill-ride of a movie I see in my mind always seems to sap the magic right out of it. This could be due to the fact that I'm not a natural prose writer. Or it could be that it's impossible to accurately translate such a beast without filming it for IMAX featuring brilliant actors and great lighting, shown through the miracle of virtual reality surround-sound, touch technology and smell-O-vision. Whatever the reason, it's difficult for me to reduce this experience to words and I'm never fully satisfied with the result -- yet in the end, people usually get what I'm going for. So, if you're having trouble, take heart. Writing an effective sex scene is easier than you think.
Some people will tell you that sex shouldn't be approached any differently than the rest of your prose, and they're technically right -- a sex scene should be no harder to write than a fight scene, or any other scene in which characters interact. Technically. But emotionally, it is different. For one thing, giving the entire world access to your freakiest sexual fantasies can be a tad unnerving. Even after all the balls-out, brazen crap I've thrown out there, I still get a little weirded out when I consider that. (When I first posted Older, by far the most personal, most taboo story I'd written for fandom, I was so paranoid about being branded a sick puppy that I closed it to a mailing list -- and then asked prospective readers to share their own dirty fantasies before I'd let them in. After repeated assurances that it wasn't nearly as incriminating as I believed it was, I ultimately made it public, but I still won't post it in html. Hey, my parents could come across that story! And there are some things parents should never know.) To add to the anxiety, sex scenes are so often ridiculed that when it comes time for us to write one, we're terrified that we're going to be that bad. And, unlike any other type of scene, sex calls for a specific vocabulary that many of us aren't readily comfortable with.
You know good smut when you read it. It's vivid, visceral, imaginative. It's evocative and provocative. Sometimes it's hysterically funny, sometimes it's gut-wrenchingly intense, but it never makes you cringe and it always turns you on (unless it's the literary stylistic anti-erotic type of erotica that I don't understand the point of). You know good smut when you write it, too, because it's pretty much the same. It excites you; it draws you in as you write -- you lose yourself in the heat of the moment, you hear the gasps and moans and whispers, feel the goosebumps, see hands gliding over skin; your body may even start to move in sympathetic rhythm. Once you're in that magical zone, all you have to do is convey that energy to the reader as best you can. If that's easy for you, you don't have to read on. If it's not, here are a few suggestions to get you on your way:
Talk dirty to me. There's no way around it: if you want to write sex, you have to quiet your inner prude and/or giggling 12-year-old and get down with the lingo. You can't afford to be shy. Frank sexual language is, in my opinion, far more powerful than florid euphemism any day: straightforward words like "pussy", "cock", "fuck" and "come" (or "cum", whatevs) naturally titillate. We hear them in context and our inner prude gets all, "Oh my! How dare you. Tell me more." You certainly don't HAVE to use strong words in every sex scene -- there are times when they're just not necessary -- but you DO have to be willing to use them when the the mood of the piece calls for it.
Turn off your inner badfic critic. Before you begin, promise yourself you won't think about what NOT to write -- only of what TO write. When you think about what not to write, it's easy to become paralyzed and give up altogether... or, worse, to proceed with caution, which makes for self-conscious writing. Instead, think: I can write ANYTHING I WANT, no matter how outlandish or raunchy or even (gasp!) poetic. Self-conscious smut, like self-conscious writing, seems forced and mechanical and just off. Let your style shine through, regardless of how many times you've been told never to write such a thing. Later, when you're editing, you can decide for yourself whether a passage seems clunky, clichéd or "bad".
Pleasure yourself. Not everyone gets off on the same thing, so it's best to stay focused on what works for you. Even if you're dealing with a request that's not exactly your cup of tea, whatever you write should get your blood pumping, or it's not worth your time. There's no shame in fading to black; blow your wad on something you really want to write.
Make it count. If a sex scene has nothing new to offer your story and you're only wrenching one in because you feel pressured to deliver more smut, skip it. An exceptional sex scene doesn't pause the action, it moves the story along, or at least arcs your characters from point A to point B. Even if it's PWP, something should change in the end. (Someone's feelings, more often than not.) Conflict, the element that drives all good fiction, is as useful in a sex scene as it is everywhere else. I think we all toss it in naturally, especially if it's inherent in our characters' relationship, but it's good to remember that there should always be some level of conflict, even if it's as minor as a stuck zipper. That said...
Or don't. This is fanfic, after all! I have nothing against the occasional gratuitous sex scene, as my body of work will attest. If you're feelin' the urge, write it. No one will be mad at you. The greatest perk of fanfiction writing is that you don't have to follow any rules: every scene doesn't have to progress the plot, nor does it have to start at the latest possible moment and end at the earliest. You can do whatever the hell you want. And even if you're thinking, sure, but those rules are based on what an audience responds favorably to, it's been my experience that the fanfiction audience is more attentive and detail-oriented than 90% of the world. They want a longer chapter; they like to read extraneous stuff. They are the opposite of the general public. It's awesome.
Keeping it real. Sometimes you'll be compelled to put your favorite characters in unrealistic situations. Maybe the most unrealistic thing about it is that these two people are sleeping together; or maybe it's that they got portaled to Mars. Naked. No matter how far-fetched the scenario, you must make it believable within the context of your story. The most fail-proof way to do this is to keep your character voices intact throughout. I'm writing a fic right now which shouldn't be at all believable: Buffy has wild uninhibited sex with soulless Spike in a ghost town saloon just a few months after she loses her virginity ...and just a few minutes after they beat the living shit out of each other. This never would have happened, I'm aware of that, but I got the idea in my head and knew that if I kept Buffy thinking like Buffy (or my interpretation of her anyway) and Spike thinking like Spike (ditto), and kept them harboring deep animosity toward one another and fretting about their respective true loves while experiencing overpowering mutual feelings of attraction and misplaced affection, it would work. And I think it has so far. Another way to keep it real is by introducing realistic obstacles: They're in a crazy position so his leg cramps. The kitchen counter isn't the right height, so they have to move to the floor. The steering wheel is in the way, the horn honks, they laugh. These common-sense obstacles make your world more vivid, and if that's the case, your readers will happily suspend their disbelief and take the ride with you.
The rhythm method: not just an unreliable form of birth control. Sex is rhythmic. In, out, in, out; up and down, up and down; circle... circle; pant pant pant -- even if it starts out clumsy, your characters will eventually be dancing to the beat of a silent drum. Convey this in your writing by any means necessary, and the reader will feel like they're right there in the thick of it. (Or, on the thick of it. If ya get my drift). You don't need to be repetitive, as shown above, but your language should convey a sense of rhythm that coincides with the characters' horizontal mambo, whether it's hard and fast or slow and leisurely.
Ahh, the fresh smell of smut. Sex is obviously a sensory experience, so now's the time to employ descriptions of touch, taste, sound, scent and sight (not necessarily all of them, and definitely not at once). The squeak of bedsprings, the texture of his skin; just one or two sensual references can make a world of difference. I'm all for simplicity, but if your sex scene is missing this ingredient, the reader won't be drawn in.
Emotional rescue. Sex can't be purely physical. Well, it can be, but it's so damn boring that way. I think we can all agree that it's the feelings and emotions and impetus behind the sex act that makes it intriguing. Why are they doing this? Are they angry? Thrilled? Are they having second thoughts? Is this illicit, forbidden, terribly wrong but feels oh-so-right? Do they feel guilty? Is one completely, unabashedly in love with the other, but knows the other will never return the feeling? Is one horrified and appalled that the other is turning them on? Are they dying to express their love? The more you underline these thoughts and feelings, the hotter your scene will be. And the more believable. If you give the characters believable impetus and inner dialog throughout, any pairing can be bought.
Less is more, more, more. This is a good rule of thumb for all writing, but it's especially important for smut because it's easy to go overboard with descriptives when people stop talking -- or in some cases, continue to talk, but about new and more exciting things. I'm all about dialog, so my characters never shut up. Of course, talking during sex can be very sexy, as long as they're not discussing their taxes or Grandma. But I digress. Unless your style is unapologetically verbose, it's best to say all you want to say in as few words as possible. When in doubt, always go the simple route. It's actually preferable to leave a few things to the imagination, because when you do, this magical thing called active reader participation kicks in, and the reader actually fills in your blanks for you and ends up loving your fic even more because it's going exactly the way they want it to. Win win!
Is that a lightbulb over your head or are you just happy to see me? If you're blocked, you're in for a treat. Ideas for sex scenes can come from three highly entertaining sources: imagination, experience, and written or visual media (ie, porn. But also erotic novels or movies). Most likely, your imagination is what got you thinking about this scene in the first place, so you know it's ripe for the picking; wake it up with a long walk or drive or discussion with a like-minded friend. While not totally necessary, but always fun, sexual experience certainly helps to convey the feelings and senses surrounding the act, and often it can help you come up with new and interesting positions or pillow talk. If you've read a lot of erotica, you may remember certain things that stood out for you. Reference them (without plagiarizing, of course). If you have access to porn, and you're over 18 (which you should be if you're planning to write smut, glare glare), watch some. Check out redtube or youporn. Believe it or not, incorporating an unusual position can actually lead to plot advancement -- and even if you don't get inspired to write, you'll be inspired to have sex. Also win win!
It ain't over 'til you say it's over. Congratulations, you've written an amazing sex scene! Now it's time to read the smut aloud. That's right, you're gonna speak these words! Why? To make sure the rhythm is right, for one. If your Mom is in the next room or your apartment building has paper-thin walls, you can read quietly. But if you're not completely confident with your scene, it's important to take this step. Reading aloud helps you catch all the unnecessary stops and starts, all the "where'd that come from?"s, all the repetitions and clichés and OOC moments and inconsistencies and all the silly euphemisms that'll make you cringe if they are in fact silly. A word of warning: now that you've turned your inner critic back on, you may be compelled to rip your story into tiny little pieces because that's how much you suck. This is NOT TRUE. This is just your insecurity talking. Approach it objectively, as if you're reading someone else's fic. Once you've edited after reading aloud, you may want to have the fic betaed by someone you trust and respect, who isn't afraid of smut and is sympathetic to your pairing. But always be willing to take or leave his or her suggestions; they're just another opinion in a vast world of conflicting opinions. You have total creative control over your final product (something you won't have when you're published, at least not until you get crazy-famous), so exercise it!
Now, all you have to do is post it, sit back, relax and enjoy the soothing chimes of your readers' post-orgasmic moans. But don't relax too long -- they're gonna want more.
Questions? Comments? Cookies? I like cookies.