How to write a sex scene

I’ve written sex scenes, oh have I written sex scenes.  I’ve written twelve-page ones, six-page ones, one-page ones.  I’ve also written two-paragraph sex scenes, and they’re just as special as the longest of the long.  The reason?  It’s all about the feeling behind the sex.

I came to this understanding through trial and error, so if you’re just starting to write, take heed.  At the beginning, it was about who touched what when, and what the touchee touched in return.  The first time I typed the word “nipple,” I thought the paper would go up in flames.  In time, my typewriter gave way to a computer, and the novelty of writing body parts faded.  I wanted those scenes to be meaningful, and to be meaningful, they had to be couched in emotion.  The strongest emotion?  Love.  It may be nascent; the characters may not yet put a word to what they feel.  But it’s there.

It’s been years since I’ve written a sex scene that doesn’t involve love.  That’s the nature of my books.  Gratuitous sex doesn’t do it for me – not as a writer, a reader, or a woman.

So how do I approach a sex scene?  First, I decide what the characters are feeling at that particular point.  Curiosity, fear, compassion, confusion, love – I write down the words.  Then I pick a setting that works both with the plot and the nature of the moment.  If, for instance, a relationship is tentative and new, I’m not sure I’d have them do it behind a cabana surrounded by raucous laughter from party-goers at the pool.  In my mind, tentative and new demands a gentler setting.  That said, the first sex in Escape took place on a forest floor.  Born of fear, relief, anger and love between a newly-reunited husband and wife, it was sudden and strong, and it worked.

Words, body parts, motions — all have to fit the emotional mix.  How blunt to be?  That depends on your audience.  Mine doesn’t like heavy graphics, so I don’t dwell on hardness, wetness, or thrusts the way I might have twenty years ago.  That said, feebleness doesn’t work for me.  My characters feel passion, and if that occasionally translates into fast and rough against a wall, that’s okay, as long as (a) there’s a reason for it in the plot, and (b) it’s mutual.

Just as every scene in a novel has to advance the plot in some way, so does every sex scene.  There has to be a purpose for it, ideally in furthering the relationship between the characters.

I just wrote the first sex in Sweet Salt Air.  What are the characters feeling?  Mostly, they are taken by surprise.  Neither is looking for sex.  Neither wants to feel attracted to the other.  Neither is conscious of the slow build until it hits.  Their lovemaking is startling, forbidden but sweet, which is exactly what they are feeling at that moment.

There you have it.  Write a sex scene from the heart, and it’ll leave you wanting more.  How’s that for a closing line?

P.S. I don’t post gratuitous photos, either.  There’s reason for this one.  A moonlit beach?  The rhythm of the tide?  No one around?  Think Sweet Salt Air and dream.

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  1. Diane Oliver on January 13, 2012 at 8:59 am

    Can you give us a hint of the location of “Sweet Salt Air”?

  2. Kay Glass on January 13, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Thank you so much for this information! I am a big fan of your writing, and I am collecting all advice, no matter how big or small, from estalished authors as I finish working on my first book. Part of me is still terrified of “doing it wrong”, so it’s comforting to read tips such as these. Thank you so very much, and please keep writing. You’re wonderful!

  3. Leslie on January 13, 2012 at 9:37 am

    Barb, I love your books for the story they tell. I don’t know how to explain it, but they seem balanced to me in content. My favorite part is how you incorporate a theme with their careers, such as the winery, the lobstering, the angora farm. After reading one of Cussler’s or Patterson’s books, I feel like I come home and can relax with one of your books. Thank you so much for sharing your creative mind with us!

  4. Becky on January 13, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for this article. I have been trying to write about a dream I had. It was so overwhelming, I didn’t want to ever forget it. I have had many dreams in my life but nothing that has stayed with me like this one . I am NO writer. I can feel the emotions and visualize the setting and all the “details” but it is so hard to put it into words on paper. So I really appreciated the input. Of course, no one will ever read mine, it will be my personal story.
    My question to you and I don’t want to embarrass you but… Do you get turned on writing the sex scenes and the anticipation leading up to them as I do as a reader? Don’t answer if its too personal.

  5. b on January 14, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Thank you for writing for your audience.

  6. Marcia Richards on January 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    This is timely for me. I’m nearly finished with a short story that involves a teenage girl’s and her father’s incestuous relationship. The girl has been living with this for 5 yrs and at 18, she’s confused, angry, guilty and drawn in by this relationship. She wonders how wrong it is to enjoy parts of it while hating him for forcing her into it so long ago, while loving him as her father who cares so deeply for her.
    It’s erotic, for sure, during the sex, about 15 pages. The rest of the story won’t have any sex because of the direction it takes. My audience will be mid-30’s to late-50s women, I hope it won’ be too graphic for them. The MC in this story is a secondary character in my trilogy, of which I am currently writing the first book. The short story will be the backstory; the reasons this girl behaves as she does. The trilogy will have more discreet and emotional sex, such as in your books.
    If you have an opportunity, I’d love to know what you think.
    I’m looking forward to your new book and have ordered Escape.

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