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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Writing Sex Scenes (SiWC 2011 Notes)

And now for something completely different!

A few months ago, I shared my notes from the late-night ConCarolinas 2011 writing panel, Writing Sex Scenes. That was more geared to writing about actual sex, i.e., erotica. At SiWC 2011, there was a class by the same title, taught by Outlander author Diana Gabaldon ... but this was about sex scenes of a completely different sort.

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Writing Sex Scenes
Diana Gabaldon

It's impossible to talk about writing sex scenes without falling into the double entendres. We can’t discuss the techniques in a vacuum, either.

The main thing about sex scenes: they’re not about sex.

Erotica: there are strict guidelines as to what you can and cannot do; everything must be consensual – but this deprives the story of opportunities for conflict, makes it vanilla (for scenes of that sort).

But like any scene, there must be conflict going on. This licences us to do anything.

If a sex scene is not about sex, what is it about? Emotion.
-          The key to emotion is understanding your character.
-          The power of the story relies on how well  you know your character, their needs, their wants, their emotions, and how they respond to other characters.
-          Emotions will be magnified for the character in sex scenes.
-          The more powerful the emotion, the more important it is to stand back.
-          Don’t stand between the reader and what’s on the page.

Write with restraint:
-          Use restraint. Show them clearly what’s going on.
-          You’re pulling emotion from the reader if you provide the bare bones. They’ll imagine what the characters are feeling, will respond to what’s happening in the scene.
-          Don’t let sex scenes be too physically detailed. Be restrained so the power of the story comes through. But also because detail raises the chances of the writing becoming ludicrous.
-          You can’t tell what reference/experience/background your readers are coming from. But it’s good to leave much to their imagination.
-          Don’t be gratuitous about your sex. Don’t have the scene just because the genre demands them. They’re not typically integral to the story (even the ones that require it)
-          The restraint helps say more. Rather than cascading details, maintain tension but don’t pull it so tight. Be restrained in how you write. You can have lots of excitement going on, just evoke it.

All a sex scene is, is a dialogue scene with physical cues.
-          Deeply emotional, need the basic logistics.
-          Need sensory cues so the reader will come to the page.
-          Use smell, taste, touch, to evoke the scene – not just sight and sound.

Non-Sex Sex Scenes:
-          Scenes about sex, but the conflict has nothing to do with what’s going on
-          Can show character
-          Physical details not necessarily explicit
-          Faint details: specific (drawing a finger up the sole of the foot, not just “touching him”)
-          Physical details of the setting around them, the weather outside
-          Sensual details that are deeply suggestive, such as curves of flesh – provide them with the faintest of details; the reader will fill in the details themselves

The language of sex is emotion.
-          Anchor it with physical details
-          Readers want to know about how people form pair bonds, come together. It’s about the emotion.
-          Use the emotion to focus things. Is it about intimacy, intiation of a pair bond, trust?
-          There’s a physical connection and an emotional connection
-          It’s the basis of the relationship, about trust. Once made, it can be built on, broken, violently taken away ... it provides meat for conflict.
-          The dialogue carries the scene. The sensual details give the underlying feelings. Can use body language of any kind, provided you understand the emotion that is passing through your characters.

-          Carry it out in the terms of a sex scene.
-          When you begin with the assumption of writing a sex scene, don’t let the scene just be about sex.
-          Human beings are hard-wired to appreciate sex, are prepared to have it anytime, anywhere.
-          People are predisposed to pay attention to sex, to movement. Redeem blocks description with movement. Include enough movement in the scene.
-          The physical details can provide the sense of movement.
-          Dialogue is the most important.
-          It’s not about the transfer of bodily fluids, it’s the transfer of emotion.
-          Made more interesting in the context of sex.

Do you need a sex scene?
-          If so, make it not just a sex scene, but an extension of the conflict, the characters, the plot.
-          Our society thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to go to sleep with someone we’ve met at a bar.
-          Don’t go on the assumption that you must have it to spice up the emotion.
-          Does it fit the plot, the character?
-          There are other ways to induce the feelings of yearning, attraction, sensuality.
-          Can evoke that sense, that sensuality, that idea, with specific details that bring it to life without being either explicit or having anything to do with sex.
-          Use the association of sex to create that heightened focus and sensitivity without using sex. Even if characters aren’t thinking of sex.
-          How close do characters stand together? What nonverbal cues are they giving?

You can’t write a sex scene from the outside. But it is much more effective from writing from the inside. Usually only one POV because it’s hard to move from one character’s head to another and maintain a sense of connection with your reader.

Don’t write a sex scene:
-          If it distracts from the plot or emotional development (except when hiding a detail, important plot element you don’t want them to notice, where you hide things in the lower layers)
-          If there is a sense of gratuitousness
-          If it’s not connected to the characters of the plot
-          If you just want that sense of sexual engagement
-          For boredom (“I should have a sex scene”)
-          If it’s just about physicality (two people having sex is boring. It should have layers).

Mind games:
-          Don’t feel embarrassed. It’s a private thing to do.
-          Write it for practice. Try to strive for the best writing you can do.
-          Write with the freedom of mind that no one has to see it.
-          It’s better if you don’t tell anyone what you’re doing while you’re writing it. Don’t be constantly fighting off what other people will think of it.

Sex is important, interesting, fun; should be a turning point of the section of the story that it’s in. Sex is life and death. Don’t play with it.


  1. Great notes. I wish I'd gone to this talk.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your notes! I hope to make it to Surrey next year...