Let’s Talk About Sex (and the Art of Writing Sex Scenes)

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“If you don’t like sex, don’t write about it. If you are inhibited about sex, don’t write about it. If you are uncomfortable in any way about sex, don’t write about it.”

Emma Darcy, The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing

I’ll add one more to this: if you are bad at writing sex scenes, don’t write about it.

It’s perhaps not something that readers or writers think about all that often but writing sex scenes is a genuine talent. Finding the right balance between the mechanics and the emotions of the moment is crucial. Because no writer wants their efforts to be described as vulgar, creepy, embarrassing, distasteful or offensive.

Since 1993, the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award has been bestowed by the British Literary Review to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. It doesn’t seem to be working. There are still plenty of terrible examples being written and published.

The explosion of erotic fiction may be in part to blame for this but there are just as many bad examples in other genres and literary fiction. The explosion of self-published novels might also have something to do with it. But a lot of writers with publishing contracts seem just as culpable.

Fifteen years ago I was convinced I was going to be Australia’s next queen of romance fiction. I was, and still am, enamoured with a good emotional connection, a true love story. The problem was the kind of romance books I was trying to write (Harlequin Mills & Boon) had strict requirements, including the obligatory sex scene. And it didn’t matter how many times I tried, I could never come up with anything that I wasn’t completely frustrated with (no pun intended).

I don’t even attempt to write sex scenes anymore, mostly because the types of stories I write don’t require them. Perhaps I deliberately choose stories that don’t require sex scenes. Perhaps because I now recognise that it’s just not a strength of mine. And I have no real desire (pun intended this time – ha ha!) to get better at it if it’s at the expense of getting better at other areas of writing, such as plot development, character development, style, etc.

For those who are interested in writing good sex scenes, here’s a summary of Emma Darcy’s tips:

*Any discomfort you personally feel about sex will be reflected in your attempts to write it. Prudes, take note!

*Sex does not solve problems – but it’s okay if it creates them.

*It is not the duty of fiction to promote social messages, such as using contraception.

*Limit yourself to one major sex scene per book (unless, of course, you are specifically writing erotic fiction) as it becomes repetitive.

*80% of the sex scene should be devoted to the emotional states of the participants and 20% should be devoted to the actual mechanics. While the reader doesn’t want a boring step-by-step (or should I say “blow-by-blow”?) account (“Then this happened. Then this happened.”), it’s just as frustrating to not have any idea of what’s going on.

*Sex in and of itself does not sell books. As Emma writes in The Secrets of Successful Romance Writing, “[O]ne of the world’s most distinguished category romance editors said to me, ‘If all you had to do to write a best seller was to put sex into a book, you’d never publish anything but best sellers. This is not the case.’”

*There is no formula for writing sex scenes.

I highly recommend reading Emma Darcy’s book, even if you don’t write romance fiction. It’s a quick read and full of great tips that apply to all types of writing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be available for sale on any of the online purchase platforms at the moment but I did find a copy for sale on ebay.

Keep an eye out on Friday for when I post the last sex scene I ever wrote all the way back in 2004. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever written but it’s certainly not the best. And a little public humiliation every now and then is good for keeping writers grounded. Right?

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex (and the Art of Writing Sex Scenes)

    • I think for me the word is challenging. Take a look at my upcoming Friday post (which is the last sex scene I ever wrote from the last romance novel I ever wrote) and you’ll be able to judge for yourself. Enjoy (if you can) and thanks for reading!

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