10 Steps to Write a Great Seasoned Sex Scene
At their best, sex and writing have a lot in common: two forms of play that engage us creatively with others. Both make us vulnerable. And there is no subject we can write about that makes us more vulnerable than sex—even more so for older women who write about sex in a youth-obsessed culture. On the flip side, it’s the most fun you can have with your computer on.
Years ago I read an article by a romance writer in her fifties advising her contemporaries to create characters in their twenties if they wanted to be published. Fortunately, times have changed and publishers now feature the “Seasoned Romance” category for stories of women over forty. At forty women are, at most, lightly seasoned; by sixty, we have the verve and experience to write terrific sex scenes. In the words of Gray Panther founder Maggie Kuhn, “Learning and sex until rigor mortis!”
Kudos to you for engaging in this fun revolution! Here are ideas to get you started writing fictional intimacy.
- Celebrate Your Garbage First Draft
Writing about sex can be tough because it feels personal, and in a way, it is. But remember it’s not you having sex, it’s your characters. It’s best to sideline your Inner Critic when you write any first draft, and even more important when writing a sex scene. Decide in advance that your first attempt will be garbage and that it’s just fine, because you and your Critic will edit it later.
So, where to start? Begin at the beginning. Your characters kiss, and someone takes off one item of clothing. Then just imagine: What if you had no scruples, no worries, no anxieties at all about your writing? What if you were absolutely free to write anything you wanted? Now write that version of the scene: brave and wild. You’re not obligated to share your first draft with anyone. You can tone it down later for public consumption, if you choose.
- Why a Sex Scene at This Point in the Story?
A sex scene is not an isolated event. Like any other scene, an intimate encounter grows from the events in your story and the development arc of your characters. A sex scene exists to move your plot and your characters forward.
Be strategic. Plan where in the story your characters become intimate. You may choose to build tension by delaying the sex scene and letting your characters build up a good head of steam. If you’re writing a romance, ambivalence is the name of the game: Somebody is always chasing, somebody is always running away, and that can shift back and forth from one chapter to the next. The scene where everyone is ready at the same time may not happen until late in the story. And consider how this event changes things for your characters going forward.
- Build in Vulnerability and Surprise
When characters have sex, it’s not just their bodies that are naked. We see their traits writ large. Consider how your characters’ fears show up during sex. Or on the other hand, being sexual might help a character overcome a fear.
Characters can show new aspects in the bedroom. The shy one displays boldness we didn’t expect; the mean one turns gentle in bed. Character development happens. Does a character have sex with the “wrong” person? Enjoy it too much (by their reckoning) or too little? Are they more emotional or more lustful than expected? Your characters get to surprise you. And once they have, that new understanding carries forward through the rest of your book.
- Engage Your Characters’ Senses
Write about all the senses, from the characters’ viewpoint. Remember this is their scene, not yours. You might not mind Bach on the stereo during sex; your protagonist might hate it. Can she smell his aftershave? Does she like it? Is the washing machine running in the next room? Does he pay attention to the sound? Does her skin taste salty? Does the air feel chilly when she takes off her blouse? Does he notice the raised scar from her C-section? Bring your reader into the room through your characters’ sensory experience.
- Remember: A Sex Scene is about Emotion
Again, you are not having sex, your characters are. Based on all you know about them and the story so far, what would they experience from the start of the scene to the end? If you focus on their emotions, your characters’ body parts will mostly take care of themselves.
- Choose a Point of View
Initially you may want to write from each character’s point of view. What does this experience look like from each ones’ perspective? Later, when you edit the scene, you can choose to be in the mind of the character who makes the most sense for the story. Hopping back and forth between points of view during a sex scene may confuse your reader.
- Just How Hot Is It? And that language thing…
Stories have all levels of “heat,” from sweet to spicy, where sweet stops at the bedroom door and spicy has all the lust the author can muster. If you try writing spicy first, even if you move sweeter in your edits, you can decide if there are certain spicy details you want to keep.
Also keep in mind that it’s quite possible to write a great sex scene about bad sex (and vice versa!). The job of the scene is to advance the story, not necessarily to bliss out your characters. If bad sex does a good job for your story, so be it.
- Give Dialogue a Job
People talk in the bedroom and characters do too (Not that bedroom dialogue is the same as real speech, any more than real conversation of the “I’m off to the store. Do we need bread?” variety belongs in your novel). Depending on the mood of the scene, your characters may tease each other, compliment one another, set boundaries, give suggestions. You know what your characters are feeling during the encounter; what would they say (that will also advance the story)? How do they feel afterwards, and how would these characters express that? What has changed for them? The language your characters use should be true to each of them. That includes how they talk about sex.
- Make It Real for Older Characters
If you’re writing about older characters (and please do!), don’t be afraid to mention how their bodies look now, especially what the characters love about each others appearance. But don’t belabor it. Just as in life, the reasons characters are attracted to one another relate to much more than their looks.
Read senior sex educator Joan Price (e.g., Naked at Our Age) and consider fun ways olders are likely to have sex, such as standing up (you don’t need to point out it increases blood flow to the gonads). Or they can meet in the middle of the afternoon (If they’re retired, why not? And sex after dinner means digestion competes for blood flow). In one of my favorite sex scenes to write, an older couple leaned against a dishwasher as it vibrated away (from the Love in Lockdown series, if you’re interested).
Consider how your characters feel about their bodies. Maybe a character is self-conscious but once turned on is focused on sensation, not appearance. As the scene progresses, feelings can change, lending depth to your characters and potentially changing their self-image.
Should your scene be funny? Sure, but not at your characters’ expense. Too much is written that makes fun of older bodies. The world doesn’t need more of that.
- Creative Editing for Your Sex Scene
Writing benefits from a cocoon time between first draft and revision, and sex scenes are no exception. Set your draft aside for a week, then read it aloud. As you read, underline phrases that engage you; come back later and expand on those. Make your scene even more vivid. Editing can involve you again in the creative process.
On the next round of edits, circle back with your Inner Critic. Do the content and language accomplish what you want? Does the dialogue reveal the characters’ emotions, move the story forward? As you read aloud again, are there places where physical descriptions distract from the story? In this round, revise your language and tighten up your scene to share with others if you wish.
Be aware when you come back to edit that too much anatomical language (or euphemisms, or metaphors for body parts) can come across as clinical or even absurd. That’s the stuff of the Bad Sex Scene Awards, granted to some very well-known authors who laid it on too thick.
Just as sex adds power and joy to our lives, sex scenes can transform our stories. Crafting a strong sex scene is rewarding writers and ultimately for our readers. For more on fictional sex scenes, please see my free email class with prompts for writing a sexy story. And if you are writing memoir, see my previous article on creating a sexy memoir scene. To go with that one, there’s an email-based writing class on writing your sexy history over the decades.
If this were a one-step guide instead of ten steps, that one direction would be to have fun writing sex scenes. Because writing, like sex, is ultimately about having a good time. May you enjoy.