Finally, a peek at the perv…
Updated: Nov 11, 2020
The last couple posts have been on the serious side, so I figured I’d break it up with something a bit lighthearted and definitely perverted: writing sex scenes.
Romance, as we know, spans the gamut, when it comes to sex scenes. From zero sex to all the sex, a romance can lie anywhere on the spectrum, as long as it has a happy ending (whether or not we witness it *wink, wink*). I’ve read a lot of that spectrum, and books with zero sex can be as fulfilling as the steamiest erotic novel. Good sex scenes come down to three *core* things: good character development, vivid language, and creative positioning—and I’m not just talking about between the sheets, or against the wall, on a coffee table, or in the shower, or in the car, or other myriad places where sex can happen—to meet the expectations of the readers.
**You may be wondering why a graysexual person is writing sex scenes. TBH, I wonder the same thing. I think it comes down to this: I like the idea of sex, but I find very few people who I like the idea of sex with. Just like romance, sexuality spans the spectrum.**
Appropriate character development is essential to a satisfying read—sex scenes or no—but they are essential for good sex scenes. You may be saying, “Soph, erotica doesn’t usually have much in the way of character development, but it can be imminently satisfying, wink wink.” Yes. I can’t argue that point. Instead, I want to direct your attention to the first word of the paragraph: appropriate.
Here’s the deal: when you pick up erotica, you don’t expect a fleshed-out love story with twists, turns, dark pasts, etc. You expect hot, steamy, bent over the back of the couch goodness. If the characters in the “bent over the back of the couch goodness” began talking about the depth of their feelings, tragic backstories, or general worries, you’d probably feel betrayed. You picked up erotica with the intention of reading sex, sex, and more sex. Conversely, if you picked up an Amish romance and then half-way through, the characters are getting railed in a barn with experienced dirty talk, you’d feel betrayed. You picked up the Amish romance for the romance, the sweetness, and the innocence! There's nothing innocent about being railed in a barn.
Appropriate character development means establishing an expectation and delivering it. It also means getting to know what to expect from your authors. People find authors whose work hits their feel-good buttons, and they reread or pick up new books by those authors.
Let’s face it, reading a book is an investment of time and emotional energy. Sometimes, I do not have the emotional energy for anything more than a romp against the wall, and sometimes, I crave the sweetness of the first handhold. I’ve known similar readers. Hell, check out any recommendation blog, FB group, or newsletter! The same people post different cravings, because needs—when it comes to entertainment, anyway—are transient.
People go through phases of what they want, and then there are the standard things they can always fall back on. This touches on my thoughts on tropes, but that, my dears, is for a different blog post.
As a reader, I like to find a niche that works for my emotional availability at the time. I read widely, but I also know that I don’t always have the spoons for certain authors at certain times. I get frustrated with myself, because I want to read more of their exquisite work, but I also need to replenish, so to speak. Reading them, for me, is an experience. I need to savor their words and give myself time to process. In between those deep reads, I glom fluffier, lighter stuff. Those are my habits, and I encourage you to consider yours so that you can tailor your TBR.
As a writer, I strive to provide a balance of emotional impact and fluff. I am not at a point in my life where I have the safety of delving so deeply into myself for my writing that it delves deeply into you. That requires a great deal of safety, which I don’t have yet. That’s not to say I don’t delve—I do, but I don’t think I rip your soul out of your body, tear it apart, mend it, and return it to you leaving you feeling satisfied with the experience. I would love to have the talent and capacity to do to you what Avril Ashton does to me—she’s a fucking genius, btdubs—but I’m not there.
What I want to provide is a good balance among delving, fluffy, schmoopy, and restorative content—was that too shamelessly self-promotional? Probably, but I’m rolling with it—and I do that with strategic sex scenes. The sex has to be essential to character development, and it has to match where the characters are. In Stroll into Love—which I hope you will read—each steamy scene has a different emotional undertone, because I worked really hard to make the development appropriate. Whether you are a reader or a writer, I encourage you to go back to your favorite sex scenes of your favorite books and identify the emotional undertones that resonate with you the most. Then pick apart the language.
**Almost 900 words in, and I’m just getting to the second point. Sheesh, I feel behind.**
Vivid language is more than just using sexual language. Even in erotica, there needs to be physical and emotional grounding—within appropriate development, of course. Grounding brings your reader into the story, and as a reader, it’s easier to get lost int the story when the scenes are grounded properly.
I have a confession: grounding is a weakness for me. Ask Morgan Mason—who is seriously one of the best beta readers I could have asked for, AND an excellent author in her own right. Also ask my editor, Ki. They sent me a book about settings to help with my weakness. In my first manuscript, Morgan pointed out a lot of issues that I had with grounding, and Ki did the same with the setting. Until the steam built and I reached momentum, that is. In the second half of my manuscript, I hit a stride where my grounding improved, but setting still needed work. My language became more vivid, but also more varied.
I tend to be more cerebral in the way I process the world. Last week, I posted about having EDS and some of the issues I face with it: being cerebral is a side-effect. Let’s get real together for a sec: most of the battle against pain and limitation is in the mind. I can do fuckall about my shoulder dislocating when I plug in my laptop charger—yes that happened, yes it sucked, and yes, I tried to avoid it—but I can do something about how I perceive the pain and process it. Part of that, for me, is disconnecting from my body in a way. Unfortunately, that means I’m not paying attention to my surroundings or what’s happening internally on a physical level. That has led to weaker grounding for me. I can create characters with trauma and growth that make sense, but they tend to live in a white space with minimal physical reactions. *Sigh*
Good news is that I realize this and can improve. What helped me to improve in my manuscript for Stroll was bringing in the physicality of sex. That centered my focus on the physical plane, and my descriptions became more varied and vivid. Sights, smells, touches, sounds, tastes, etc. became more real to me, which led to it becoming more real to you—at least I hope so. Then, I built the mental and emotional cause and effect of those physical experiences, and finally, I set those physical experiences in the world I created. I went back and I applied that tactic to earlier scenes, and it worked out well—again, I hope so.
Sex scenes in romance need that vivid imagery, emotionality, and grounding so that the reader can come to pleasure—literally or metaphorically—with the characters. When absorbed in a sex scene, it mimics the feelings of intimacy IRL. I would bet anything that there is a release of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain with satisfactory sex scenes. We should contact a researcher to study this.
Anywho, back to the language. When you get vivid, though, don’t get too vivid. Vividness in sex scenes is balancing the mystery and disclosure. Word choice helps a lot with that. For example, don’t use the word moist. I don’t know anyone who likes that word, but I can name at least twenty people who hate it. Instead, use wet. Use penis and prick sparingly, but cock and dick are fitting. And we like them too, tee hee. In essence, pay attention to the conventions of language. I’m American, so those conventions will be a bit different than what we find in the UK, for example, where prick is used more liberally.
In reality, sex is a bit weird, can be clumsy, and—for those with sensitive noses—doesn’t smell the greatest. Leave that stuff out. We aren’t doing something IRL, we are writing a romance. Romanticize the language, the emotions, the senses, the setting. All of it. Even the positioning.
Now for the topic of positioning—how was that for a clunky transition?
Yes, described positions matter, but that falls more under grounding—and for the love of Eros, please keep the positions attainable and not too obscure. What I mean by positioning is literally where sex occurs in the story. This is different than the matter of character development. Notice, I haven’t touched on plot—that’s what I mean by positioning. In the grand scheme of the plot, does the sex scene make sense and how is it built?
In my first draft of Stroll—and that’s the one I didn’t show to anyone—I had a couple really hot masturbation scenes. I loved those scenes. Like, they were sexy as hell, but where they fell in the story didn’t fit at all. Then, they didn’t fit with the character development, so I had to chuck them. And by chuck them, I mean stick them in a folder for future use either in another project or in short stories about Séb and Sky.
Now, how do we get creative with the positioning? It’s a matter of deliberation. Based on how you plot your story—and how you develop your characters—there can only be so much steaminess that comes to fruition, and the steam needs to build organically.
Part of the responsibility of the writer is to ramp up sexual tension, even in erotica. Don’t head too quickly to insertion and finishing—everyone needs some foreplay. And balance the steamy content with other content. Again, this is important even in erotica. In Stroll, I would say that no more than 17 percent of the word count is dedicated to actual sex. There are sexy thoughts. There is sexual longing. But those ramp up sexual tension, which—in and of itself—is foreplay for the reader.
Position your sex scenes in the plot and character arcs where it will lead to the most satisfaction. We have to balance tension with fruition. Too much tension, and the reader gets frustrated—which may or may not be a good thing, depending on the expectations you set. Too much fruition, and the sex feels hollow—which, again, may or may not be a good thing, depending on the expectations you set.
This is what I mean about it being a matter of deliberation. Creative positioning takes into account the plot, and it places the scenes where they have the most impact and meet the expectations of the reader. A romance about an established relationship likely won’t contain as much sexual tension, but it could contain hollow-feeling sex, because of the length of the relationship, if the story is about rekindling heat in the relationship. In that case, you can have sex scenes early on, but the nature of the sex changes (i.e. the vividness and the character development change) later. Tension can be created between the “old” sex and the “new” sex. K.M. Neuhold does a great job at that in Stay: Working out the Kinks Book 1.
In Stroll into Love, though, Séb has been celibate for a while, and Sky hasn’t had the inclination to pursue anyone, except Sébastien. That means sexual tension needs to build, and it needs to build slowly. In a bisexual awakening story, like Play with Me by Brittany Cournoyer, sexual tension needs to build to almost a frustrating point, because a formerly straight guy getting plowed in the ass and liking it isn’t believable until the plot and characters develop to that point. *Btdubs, Brittany did an amazing job with the tension. I literally made a dramatic entrance to Roomie's room and claimed, "The sexual tension is real in this book!" They had their headphones in and missed the drama, so I reenacted it for them... What can I say? I'm extra like that.*
Based on what you’re writing, you need to weave the sex in creatively but organically. It’s different for every story.
Ultimately, it comes down to setting expectations and meeting those expectations. You set the expectations through your blurb, tropes, and initial problems the MCs have. You use character development and plot to creatively position the scenes, and you bring them to satisfaction with vivid language.
Now, I’m over the word count I had for the porn post—which I wrote on my phone and completely messed up my predictive text, much to the hilarity of everyone, including Morgan Mason and Sam E. Kraemer—and I’m sorry about that, but at least it’s a fun topic.
I’m sure that sex scenes need more than what I’ve mentioned, but I’m looking at the core of what’s needed when entering into the foray of writing successful sex scenes. These are the broad concepts we need to think about when writing them. I may add another post to this in the future, as I gain experience, but I think this is a good start.