Every writer I know disparages 50 Shades of Grey. Many, like me, will do so even without ever having read a line of the book. I mean, bestseller or not, everyone knows it’s just porn, right?
But sex is, and has always been, a compelling part of literature. Think Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Madame Bovary. These novels caused a sensation when they were first published; and if the lines that were so scandalous now seem tame to us, it’s because we’ve been brought up on cable television and modern-day bodice rippers.
Even so, every writer of adult – and even young adult – fiction has to face the question: whether to include sex, or not? And if so, how do you do it? How explicit do you have to be? And do you name the parts?
In a recent class discussion on the topic, we came up with some guidelines that hopefully will help those writers who are struggling with how to handle sex as an aspect of their storytelling.
First of all, you don’t have to.
Really, you don’t. Unless you are writing in a recognized genre (such as those bodice rippers mentioned above) where sex is part of the allure, no one is putting a gun to your head and saying, write that sex scene now! If you’re uncomfortable with the whole idea, you don’t have to do it. It’s your story, after all.
The difference between pornography and an evocative, sensual scene is emotion.
Pornography is generally a description of moving parts. A sensual, well-written sex scene is so much more. In particular, there is emotion that is threaded through the physical act – feelings of love, trepidation, affection, romance, even hatred. Make sure you fully convey what your character is feeling.
There are as many different ways to write a sex scene as there are ways to write anything else.
A lot of writers struggle with sex scenes, trying to figure out how to make them original. In our recent class, we read twelve different examples and each one was wonderfully, often stunningly original. Here are just a few examples. (Note that we’re not including the explicit parts since we don’t know who will find themselves on this page!)
The cloth of her habit caught against the velvet of his coat. She threw back her white neck, swelling with a sigh, and faltering, in tears, with a long shudder and hiding her face, she gave herself up to him
—Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Evoking the senses
They were beyond the present, outside time, with no memories and no future. There was nothing but obliterating sensation, thrilling and swelling, and the sound of fabric on fabric and skin on fabric as their limbs slid across each other in this restless, sensuous wrestling….
—Atonement, Ian McEwan
She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time… She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing.
—Bunker 13, Aniruddha Bahal
He held her by the hip and strained up to her, rising off the bed and reaching in her, saying Megha, and she rolled down to meet him, and at the closest point of their meeting he felt the spill, ecstatic and alive, and in a last moment of thought he asked, is this me? Is this you?
—Love and Longing in Bombay, Vikram Chandra
You don’t have to name parts. But do if it fits your brand of storytelling.
Whether you name parts or not has a great deal to do with your own authorial voice. Are you writing a brash, contemporary, sometimes shocking story? Well, then naming the parts may be appropriate. But if you’re writing a more lyrical, literary piece, sometimes the blatant names can be simply too unsettling. On a personal note, I’ve always been grateful that I write historical fiction where I can use older, more suggestive phrases instead.
Use the senses. And metaphors, of course.
If there was ever a moment in which to invoke smell, taste, touch, and sound – as well as the more common sight – this is it. Sex is full of wonderful textures and tastes, and you should give full reign to your descriptive side. And sex can be evoked with so many wonderful metaphors, giving new life to many of the clichés – the sea, riding a horse, eating a meal, just to name a few. Have fun with this. Be inventive.
Earn the scene.
Don’t just let your protagonists jump into bed the first time they want to. There’s nothing sexier than sexual tension. How many television series have you watched, waiting weeks for your favorite characters to finally kiss? Put obstacles in the way of your couple finally culminating their passion for one another, and the pay-off will be that much greater.
Never write a gratuitous sex scene.
Sex is just one more component of your storytelling, even if it can feel like the zenith of so much. Every scene must serve the story, move the plot, help with characterization. You cut regular scenes that don’t move your story forward. Treat sex scenes just like every other element of your narrative.
Make sure you’re breathing faster as you write the scene.
To paraphrase Robert Frost’s famous comment, “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” the scene needs to arouse your reader – and it can’t, unless it arouses you first. Unless you eschew the scene entirely or obscure it by being completely suggestive, a la the movies of the ’30s and ’40s, make sure your own sex scenes make you blush.
And finally – as one of my students reminded us all – the best sex of all takes place in the mind. Make sure you’re engaging your reader’s mind as you write the scene and you’ll be sure to give them almost as much pleasure as your characters!