Sex scenes have hit mainstream fiction with a fury (and I ain’t complaining!) But how do you know if your readers will feel the heat? Admittedly, when I first started writing seriously, I wrote sex scenes all the time. While my fiction has tamed over the years, I still have my written sex scene advice ready, and I’m going to share some of my tactics with you. In no time, you’ll have the tactics and the confidence to write some hot sex scenes.
Note: In this post, I’m talking about writing sex scenes in regular fiction. While erotica writers might benefit from these tips, this advice doesn’t pertain to erotic fiction, wherein sex is the main focus of the story, and thus, must be more detailed.
What Makes a Sex Scene Hot, Anyway?
First off, shed the idea that a written sex scene will have the same impact that a visual sex scene has. A visual sex scene, be it on Lifetime, HBO or PornHub, for example, satisfies the voyeuristic part of your brain. A written sex scene provokes the reader to feel something deeper than lust.
Satisfaction. Obsession. Sadness. Rage.
If you want to write a hot sex scene, the ultimate goal is focusing on two things, which are TENSION and CHARACTERIZATION. So let’s get right down to achieving that in your sex scenes.
Don’t Get Physical
Now, you might be saying, “BUT THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT, REBECCA! WHAT THE HELL?! I CAN’T WRITE A SEX SCENE WITHOUT SEX!”
Active description is important for the sake of establishing the scene, but don’t get mechanical when you write your sex scene. Use description to build tension through SIMPLE VISUALS. For example: My shaking fingers fumbled over the buttons of her blouse. Or: She braced her legs around his hips. Or: Their laboured breath burned down her neck.
A Bad Example:
Here’s a very over-described excerpt from V.C Andrews’ Secrets of the Morning. In this scene, our protagonist Dawn shares a stage kiss with her signing teacher, Michael Sutton, only to give to her desire for him when he kisses her for real:
He took my wine glass from me and put it on the table. Then he turned back to me, moving his face toward mine slowly, and ever so slowly, brought his lips to my lips. I closed my eyes the moment we touched. This time my lips parted beneath his prolonged kiss. I gasped because his tongue touched mine, but I didn’t pull away. When he lifted his lips from my mouth, I stared to open my eyes, but he kissed them, kissing my eyelids softly and then kissing my cheek and moving down my neck.Secrets of the Morning, page 164
Is this sexy? No, it’s not. This scene tries to portray Michael’s unwavering lust and Dawn’s naivete, but it focuses less on action and and more on body parts. All those lips and mouths and eyes? All I’m seeing here is the accurate portrayal of a Biblical angel.
Please don’t write your sex scene like this!
Your reader knows how sex works. Therefore, they do not need the detailed play-by-play of thrusts or position changes, or what one partner’s tongue feels inside the other partner’s mouth. (Unless the emotion you’re going for is disgust, of course!)
What does the sex make your protagonist feel? Is he angry? Is she empowered? Are they relieved? Overall, how does the sex change your character?
Avoid Common Sayings
Dialogue like OH YEAH, or OH GOD, I LOVE IT, or YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!!!!
Your sex scene isn’t porn. Those commonplace sayings might peak your brain when you’re actually having sex, but they look cheesy in dialogue form.
Remember that your characters aren’t real, and thus, the sex they have cannot attain that carnal level that might entice you in an HBO sex scene. Your character’s mind-shattering orgasm is not going to make your reader feel anything, no matter how much your character screams during orgasm.
The sex your written characters have should irrevocably change them, which means that a bunch of YEAH BABY’S! is not going to cut it. Unless you want your story to appear on Literotica, do not write your sex scene with this garbage in it.
A Good Example:
Here’s a scene from my short story, “Cat Calls” (available in Vile Men). In this scene, an emasculated property manager, Jason, who has emotionally distanced himself from his bread-winner wife Leslie, finally gives to the advances of a young woman who’s sexually harassed him for weeks on his train:
“Do you wanna know what I feel like?”
Her skin’s warm, soft. I slide my palm up her thigh and under her dress. She’s smooth, her inside an abyss, slick lips warming my fingers. I stare out the window at the passing blur of all the shitty apartments that I control.
“How big is your dick, Jason?”
“It’s six inches,” I say.
“Is that not big enough for your wife?”
My throat tightens. “It used to be.”
The train shakes as it slows. I slip against her. She smells like rainwater.
People board, their gazes falling toward her open legs. She clutches my hand before I can pull away.
“Let them look,” she says. “Let them think what they want. I just want you to do this for me.”
The woman’s dialogue maintains power in this exchange. As a result, Jason gives to her commands and his resolve withers as she proceeds to interrogate him. While there’s heat in this scene, the ultimate mood becomes rather demoralizing for Jason. And that, my friends, is the power of a hot sex scene.
Avoid Extended Similes / Metaphors
One thing I’ve noticed about the Literary Reviews Bad Sex Award in Fiction is how many of the winning passages are loaded with similes and metaphors. Typically, writers use these tactics as methods to make the scene more pretty or impacting, but ultimately they’re just distracting AF.
I don’t wanna see a couple boning in a dirty motel room only to be magically transported to a fluffy cloud. Another thing I don’t wanna picture is a flowing waterfall or a breezy meadow with cotton billowing about. Furthermore, I don’t wanna visualize a woman’s chest as a pair of chocolate mountains or a dude’s boner as a long sword. Don’t make me think about my vaginal walls getting sliced.
A Good Example:
Here’s the sex scene from my love story, “Tourist” (available in my free ebook, Bedside Stories. Much of the story’s mood and imagery centers around grey skies and moody ocean settings, specifically Atlantic City. In this moment, my protagonist, an emotionally-withdrawn Angie, finally allows herself to be vulnerable with her love interest, Francis.
His slow caress takes me. He lays me down on the bed, soft covers under my back, warmth encircling me. He slips his fingers under my panties, eases his reach inside of me. The tremors fill me. My grasp slips over his shoulders. My fingers curl gently through his hair. He holds me close, pulls my legs around him.
I breathe in deep, taking in the scent of Atlantic City’s boardwalk, the ocean in my lungs. I gasp and moan. I ride the waves until I’m shaking.
Focus on Tension
Think about horror. In horror, it’s the unknown that you’re afraid of. You see bits of the monster. You hear things. Feel things. You’re terrified. But the goal of a horror movie is to ultimately see the monster.
So, when you’re writing your a story, think of the sex as the monster. Before the ultimate scene occurs, you need to tease it. Show hints of it. Build the tension. Sex is the monster.
A Good Example:
Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, (the show of which I raved about back in summer of 2018) contains a lot of great sexual tension. While the book is a murder mystery / family thriller, I did find myself quite gripped with the relationship between journalist Camille and the detective, Richard. Both exchange information on the case back and forth. Richard’s dialogue remains deliberately cheesy throughout their exchanges, but Camille’s inner monologue adds to the tension , creating a darker theme to her attraction to him, as well as supporting the overall mood of the novel:
Normally, Richard was the kind of guy I disliked, someone born and raised plush: looks, charm, smarts, probably money. These men were never very interesting to me; they had no edges, and they were usually cowards. They instinctively fled any situation that might cause them embarrassment or awkwardness. But Richard didn’t bore me. Maybe because his grin was a little crooked. Or because he made his living dealing with ugly things.Sharp Objects, page 144
See what I mean? Those last few sentences really add tension.
Keep the Sex Brief
No sex scene should be longer than a page. Ideally, the sex itself shouldn’t span more than a couple paragraphs. Why? Because AGAIN, writing isn’t porn, and the goal of a porn is to turn you on and get you off.
The goal of a literary sex scene is to make your reader feel something, so don’t get technical. Mapping your sex scene like a refrigerator schematic is not going to make your reader feel much. It’s gonna read like a textbook.
Sex at the end of the day is simply an act. To write a hot sex scheme, focus on the result of the act. Focus on the change, because fiction is about change.
So, What Have We Learned?
To summarize, if you want to write a hot sex scene, make sure you focus on your characters. So make sure you prioritize those emotions! Use proper dialogue. Build tension. Consider the tone of your story and allow it to build to that pivotal moment. This combination will give you maximum heat potential, thus allowing your readers to enjoy your fictional sex.