Art work by Ohmi Tomu from Midnight Secretary
I bet that got your attention. It’s amazing how a three-word letter can get so much attention, engender so much discussion and be so controversial.
And it’s such a teeny-weeny word. Almost insignificant. Easily overlooked.
And yet sex is far from insignificant or unimportant and rarely is it overlooked.
Sex is very important. Heck, if it weren’t for good ole sex none of us would be here. It’s pretty much the reason anything that is alive is alive. And however we may feel about it, we find ourselves drawn to it as much as we sometimes find ourselves repelled by it.
Same thing happens when it comes to writing about the sex our characters are having or reading about the sex other characters are having. It can set our hearts to pounding and our breath to quickening.
With excitement or trepidation.
You often hear readers say that that they usually skip the sex scenes. And usually it’s not because they’re squeamish or puritanical about sex. The reason that readers often skip the sex scenes is very simple.
Now, of course something does happen. One or two or more people are having sex. But in terms of the plot or the story or the character arc, nothing changes. The characters may grunt and groan or sigh and gasp. They may reach the pinnacle of ecstasy or plunge to the depths of despair but in the kind of sex scenes that readers say they skip over the characters come out of all those sweaty goings on with nothing of importance having changed in their story.
Now, we can’t have that, can we?
Nope, we can’t. And why?
Because, believe it or not, sex scenes are a fantastic opportunity for you, the writer, to reveal your characters at their most vulnerable, most defenseless, most exposed. And I don’t just mean exposed in the sense of being naked.
In a sex scene, you can, if you choose to, unmask your characters to the reader.
Now, in real life, sex usually doesn’t have to be that psychologically profound. You know that and I know that. People can have sex because they’re bored or horny, because they feel obligated to do so or even because *gasp* they actually want to conceive a child.
And that’s fine and good.
But in a story, sex, just like anything else, has to mean something.
If I decide to take a drive to go and get a burger, it usually doesn’t signify anything except that I’m hungry and too lazy to cook.
However, if your character decides to take a drive to get a burger, well, let’s just say something had darn well better happen on the way to get that burger or while he’s eating that burger or after he’s licked the last bit of ketchup from his fingers or your reader is going to say, okay, what was the point of all that?
It’s no different with a sex scene. Sure, the sex may be titillating, even arousing, but after it’s over (if the reader even reads the scene and didn’t just skip it once the kissing started) he or she is going to wonder the same thing if nothing changes as a result of the sex scene.
What was the point of all that?
That’s what this mini-workshop is about. Making sure there’s a point to the sex scenes you put in your stories.
So, where do we start.
With the same things we start with in every story.
What do they want, why can’t they have and what in the heck do they about it.
Goal, Obstacles and Action.
We start also with what Laurie Hutzler calls the Want, the Need and the Fear. If you’re not familiar with the Emotional Toolbox I highly recommend it.
Now, I’ve been using the Emotional Toolbox to create characters for the past few years but it wasn’t until Ann Voss Peterson, a Harlequin Intrigue author, gave a workshop to the local RWA chapter on how to use the Emotional Toolbox to write sex scenes that I realized the Emotional Toolbox is a great tool for that too.
I wish I had the time to go more into depth about the Emotional Tool Box but unfortunately I don’t. Therefore, I highly recommend you visit Laurie’s website to learn more about it.
However, in a nutshell, when you create your character you ask yourself what does my character Want, Need and Fear.
The Want is immediate and concrete and usually urgent. Your character may say, for example, that she wants to lose thirty pounds in order to be sexy. The Want is usually something the character chooses to pursue in order to deal with the Fear.
The Fear is something universal. Our heroine fears that because she’s thirty pounds overweight she’s not attractive. She fears that men will not want to date, much less marry her. And, she fears that, as a result, she’ll wind up lonely and unloved.
So, in order to deal with the Fear, the character comes up with a Want. She wants to lose thirty pounds because she Fears being unattractive to men and winding up old and alone. And, just to add a bit of urgency, she wants to lose the thirty pounds in time for her younger sister’s wedding, which is in six months!
(Exclamation marks always add a sense of urgency, don’t you think? :))
However, because the Want doesn’t necessarily address the Fear, it’s usually just a temporary solution. Because you and I know that our character may lose those thirty pounds and she may get the attention of men. For awhile. But how long will that last if she doesn’t eventually address and deal with her Fear.
Which doesn’t really go away because she loses the thirty pounds.
Because, for all we know, it wasn’t those thirty pounds that was keeping the guys away, It could have been the fact that since our heroine feared she was ugly, she unconsciously did things that made her less likely to do the things she needed to do to meet men.
And that, in fact it’s not the thirty pounds at all. It’s her perception of herself. She may lose the weight, but her Fear may then manifest as something else. Now she Wants a nose job. Next it may be a face lift. And so on and on.
And soon our heroine will find herself back at square one. Lonely and fearful.
What’s the solution?
The Need is the character’s higher self. It’s what they must embrace in order to move past their Fear. To grow and to become more than who they are. The character, initially, isn’t aware of the Need. It’s usually buried deep inside, smothered by their Fear.
But during the course of her journey through the story, our heroine slowly becomes aware of the Need.
In our example, our heroine’s Need is to accept herself for who she is. A woman who has more to offer than just her looks. A woman who’s actually bright and witty and fun to be with. When she’s not obsessing about her looks, that is.
This Need could possibly be exemplified in her best friend who is perfectly happy with herself as she is. Or possibly our heroine meets a man who loves her for who she is on the inside and outside. Or it could just be a growing awareness within the heroine that beauty truly is only skin deep or that it really is in the eye of the beholder.
Okay, so what does this all have to do with sex?
If our heroine is the main character in a contemporary romance, her Fear of being unloved and lonely because of her weight will be a major factor in whether she can bring herself to get intimate with the hero.
Her Want, which is to lose thirty pounds, could have her wondering just how many calories she will lose having sex. No, seriously. That’s how crazy a Want can make a person when it’s based on an irrational Fear.
She may even voice this to the hero, which could affect how he sees the heroine. He may wonder, does she really want to have sex with me or is she just using me for a strenuous bout of aerobic exercise.
Her Need, which is to learn to accept herself for who she is, could motivate the hero to make love to her in such a way as to show her that she truly is beautiful just the way she is.
The conflict in the sex scene could, therefore, arise from the heroine, who is acting from her Fear, not wanting to make love with the lights on and the hero insisting he does because he wants to see her.
Her Want, which is to lose thirty pounds, could make her feel awkward and unattractive during the sexual act, resulting in her not enjoying it or feeling uncomfortable. Even as the hero is kissing and caressing her, she could be internally wondering if he’s disgusted by the cellulite on her thighs.
The hero, hoping to help the heroine embrace her Need, which is to accept herself for who she is, could be attentive, thoughtful, caring, tender, but find it’s all for naught because the heroine refuses to see herself that way.
So, even as the two are having sex, there’s tension, both external and internal. They could even wind up consummating the act, but if the heroine still sees herself as unattractive, if she’s convinced herself the hero only had sex with her because he felt sorry for her, then there’s obviously a lot more growing that the heroine has to do and a lot more work on the hero’s part to convince her otherwise.
And maybe the heroine’s desire to lose thirty pounds has more to do with her finding a job, let’s say, than being attractive to men, but that Want to be slim and that Fear of being unattractive will still be factors when she has sex.
That is, it can be, if you the author want it to be.
Remember, you are all-powerful.
Now, sex scenes come in all colors and flavors. There’s your red-hot, spicy erotica, there’s your pink, candy-sweet romances, there’s your bourbon-colored, in-your-face, straight-up, no chaser mysteries.
So, in light of that, how much sex you have in your story and how much of a factor it is as it relates to plot and character will be determined by the genre you’re writing.
But a sex scene is still a great opportunity, no matter what genre you’re writing, for you as a writer to not only show your characters at their most vulnerable, but to explore their Wants, Needs and Fears.
Now, that’s just one way of looking at sex scenes.
Here’s another. Think of every sex scene as a journey.
The Hero’s Journey, according to Christopher Vogler, who popularized Joseph Campbell’s theories on narrative in his influential book The Writer’s Journey, consists of twelve steps.
1. The Ordinary World
2. Call to Adventure
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting the Mentor
5. Crossing the First Threshold
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
8. Supreme Ordeal
9. The Seizing of the Sword
10. The Road Back
12. Return with the Elixir.
Now, I’m not saying that every sex scene has to incorporate every one of these steps, but every scene in a story should be a mini-story. That is, every scene should have a beginning, middle and end. Just like your larger narrative, whether it’s a short story or a 1,000 page epic.
A character should enter every scene with a goal, just as she enters the overall story with a goal. In the scene she faces obstacles to achieving that goal. Just like in the story. And, by the end of the scene, she has either achieved or failed to accomplish her goal.
This structuring of a scene ensures that your plot is moving forward and, also, that your character is moving along her character arc. Every time your character attempts to achieve her goal, she takes action. And when she takes action she either succeeds or fail. Now, as we tend to learn more from our failures than our successes you, dear author, will see to it that most of the time the character fails.
And not only that she fails, but that she falls flat on her face and then you have an elephant sit on her.
However, due to her status as the hero(ine), she does not give up. And it’s that not giving up stuff that makes her heroic and, hopefully, will have your reader cheering for her.
Okay, so now we come to the sex scene.
Our plucky heroine is alone with our to-die-for hero. The sexual tension between the two is like the edge of a knife. Actually, your reader should be jumping up and down in her seat, egging these two to finally get down to some hot and sweaty business.
So, what do you do?
You do exactly what you would do if you were writing a scene where the heroine has to go into the villain’s lair and face down the bad guys.
You give her a goal, you throw obstacles in her path, you have her take action against those obstacles and you either have her achieve the goal or not. Preferably not. Or if she does achieve her goal, you darn well better make sure she’s in worse trouble as a result of it.
But it’s sex. What’s heroic about sex?
Because in most cases when your characters have sex the villain, the antagonist, the bad guy is, more than likely, either their own fears, hang-ups, guilt or doubts or the person they’re about to get naked with.
Because as mentioned before, sex is not only one of the most intimate acts two people can engage in, it’s also one of the times when we’re most vulnerable. Naked not only in body but in soul.
And the person we’re about to give our body and soul to?
Could do more damage to us than the most nefarious villain alive.
Now, I’m not saying that the sex has to be like a battle or a fight. Although, if you so choose, it can be. Brutal, vicious, rough. Emotionally and physically. But even sweet, tender sex can be dangerous.
Again, due to that vulnerability factor.
Every time a person has sex, whether they want to accept it not, they’re putting themselves in danger.
Danger of contracting a disease. Danger of getting pregnant or making somebody pregnant. Danger of losing their heart and possibly getting it broken. Danger of being caught. Danger of feeling guilty afterwords. Danger of regretting getting that close to someone. Danger of falling in love and we all know what love can do.
Yes, we most certainly do, have mercy. 🙂
But, danger is good for you, dear author, because you can play with that danger. Whether it’s emotional, physical or mental. You can use the danger inherent in sex to bring out your character’s Fears, Needs and Wants.
Even if the sex per se is not a vital part of the plot, make it a vital part of the character’s arc. Even if the sex is as sweet as cherry pie and as soft as a baby’s cheek, you can still make it dangerous to the character’s overall sense of well-being.
So, using the Hero’s Journey stages, you can then imagine every sex scene as a mini hero’s journey.
Our hero is in the Ordinary World. That is, he’s yet to have sex with our heroine. They’ve been dancing back and forth through the course of the story, the sexual tension building and building.
But now he’s alone with her. And she’s giving off signals. The Call to Adventure. He wonders what it would be like to touch her, to taste her, to be inside her. He wants to get to know her. To find out everything about her.
But he hesitates. Refuses the Call. What if he’s wrong about her? Judging from the way she’s been acting up until now in the story, he’s not even sure she likes him, much less wants to sleep with him.
But, suddenly, the heroine is there, touching him, kissing him, letting him know she wants him too and she’s more than willing to guide him into the Special World of their sexual bonding.
He’s Met the Mentor.
They begin to kiss, touch, caress, the heat building between them. They’re Crossing the First Threshold into the Special World of the sex scene.
Ah, but now, it’s time to make things interesting. Because here is probably where that reader we mentioned earlier will begin to start paging through the book to skip the sex.
And this is where you, dear author, need to get as busy as your characters are about to get.
And, trust me, this part ain’t easy.
Next stage. Test, Allies and Enemies.
In the Hero’s Journey, this is the step in the journey where the hero is tested. It’s the stage that Blake Synder, author of the screenwriting book Save the Cat, calls Fun and Games.
This is where, instead of writing a Tab A goes into Slot B kind of sex scene you bring out the triple barrels of your hero’s (and your heroines’) Want, Needs and, most especially, Fear.
You don’t make the sex scene any easier for the hero and heroine than you would any other scene. You make it a challenge, you make it difficult, you throw obstacles into their paths, just as you would any other scene.
Along with the character’s inner conflicts and fears, you can make use of the setting.
The circumstances of the where, the when and the why they’re having sex. Is this really a good time, for example, for them to be having sex? If it’s not, make use of that.
Okay, so the hero is now Approaching the Inmost Cave.
Yeah, I know. 🙂
I’m sure Vogler and Campbell were not thinking what I know you’re thinking when they came up with that term.
But you gotta admit, it’s pretty darn appropriate.
The sex is getting hot and heavy. Later I’m going to share the 12 stages of intimacy and this is the stage where, more than likely, Tab A is definitely about to enter Slot B.
But again, make sure there’s all that wibbley, wobbley Fear, Need and Want stuff going on. They’re having sex, it’s feeling good, but throw in a couple of monkey wrenches.
The hero wonders if she’s enjoying herself or is she faking it.
Or he can’t help but think about the fact that the last time they saw the villain he was hinting around about some kind of super-mega bomb.
Or maybe he’s already naming his and the heroines’ first kid.
Or perhaps he bumps her in the chin with his elbow just as they’re about to execute a rather complicated sexual position.
Whatever is appropriate in terms of your characters and your plot or your genre make sure you don’t leave it outside the bedroom door.
Bring it all in. The hang-ups, the guilt, the Wants, Needs, and Fears. The Ticking Clock. The Impending Doom. Just because they’re having sex doesn’t mean all that stuff just goes away.
Okay, next stage, The Orgasm. Sorry. I meant The Ordeal. 🙂
But yeah, if you want, you could see the Hero’s Journey stage known as The Ordeal as the climax of the sex scene or, at least, where the hero has gotten so close to the heroine and she to him that neither is probably thinking very straight and it’s nothing but sweet agony from here on out.
Actually, check out these two charts. The first one is a diagram of the sexual response cycle. The second is a diagram of story structure. Notice something?
There’s a similarity, isn’t there?
And that story structure chart could also apply to a scene because remember, a scene should be a mini-story. A beginning, middle, an end.
So you could, in effect, stage your sex scene to not only follow the sexual response cycle but the story structure schema, have the two overlap, and voilà!
A sex scene that matters.
Okay, back to our hero on his sexual journey
He’s experienced the Orgasm, I mean, the Ordeal, but there’s still danger ahead.
Because you see, when it comes to the stage of the Hero’s Journey known as Seizing the Sword, who exactly comes out of the sex scene with the Prize?
The hero? The heroine? Both? Neither?
Did the hero get out of the sex what he was hoping to get? If he only wanted an orgasm, did he get that? And if he did was it how he thought it would be? Did he want to make the earth move for her? And if it did, how can he be sure? If he didn’t, what now?
Or did he hope for something more from the sex? Did he want to get closer to the heroine? Have her open up emotionally to him?
What if, after the afterglow of the lovemaking, the heroine is just as closed off as ever. And, good grief, seems to dislike him even more?
Well, perhaps, if this sex scene happens earlier in the story, the hero will just have to try again. He and the heroine have further to go along their journey, both collectively and individually, until they finally make that connection.
If you’re writing a romance, that will definitely have to happen.
If you’re writing in another genre, perhaps not.
But, at some point, if you so choose, the hero and heroine can have sex again and in that next sex scene they can move further along their journey together.
The hero experiences a Resurrection of the love he had thought was never going to be. And this time, when they make love, probably near the end of the book, he Returns with the Elixir of her trust and her love.
My point is to look at your sex scenes as an opportunity to explore your characters at their most vulnerable. Challenge yourself to figure out a way to make the sex scene matter. Not only to the characters but to the plot.
See if there’s some way the sex scene can impact the story and the characters. Don’t lose sight of the fact that while the sex is going on, stuff has gotta be happening with your characters. And not just the sex.
They can not, they must not—and I can’t stress this enough—come out of any sex scene the same person they were going in. Whether the change is subtle or life-altering, it’s gotta be there.
Make sure that the emotions the characters are feeling are interwoven with the sex act itself.
Trust me, if you’re writing erotica for Ellora’s Cave, for example, you gotta have all the specific details of the sex act itself, including all the words that might still make you blush, but even in the hottest, most explicit erotica or erotic romance, you need to present all that in such a way as to engage your reader’s emotions.
Or even the most voracious erotica reader will, I fear to say, skip those pages too.
Seduce your reader into your sex scene. Make them want to stay with your characters as they make love. Give them a reason not to want to skip those pages.
Make your sex scenes matter.
The 12 Steps of Intimacy (based on Dr. Desmond Morris’ work)
You can use these steps to choreograph not only your sex scene but the sexual tension throughout your book.
1. Eye to Body. A glance reveals much about a person — sex, size, shape, age, personality, and status. You know, that surreptitious checking out we all do sometimes of that hot guy or gal.
2. Eye to Eye. Eyes meeting. Flirting. Looking away then looking back. Again. And again. That electric shock you sometimes get when you look at someone you find attractive and they look at you and Pow!
3. Voice to Voice. Voices can be very sexy and a great turn on. And lots of witty repartee and flirting can go on. A lot of the movies from the Golden Days of Hollywood made this stage, due to the incredible dialogue, as sexy as a full-blown sex scene
4. Hand to Hand. Could start out as a accidental brush of fingers across the back of a hand. Pow! Another electric shock. Hand-holding, fingers caressing or interlocking.
5. Arm about Shoulder. This could also be a casual touch of the hand on the shoulder. Or, in some cases, a hand on the arm.
6. Arm about Waist. Or hand to waist. Usually a good sign that not only are two people a couple but if the situation hasn’t become intimate it’s well on its way.
7. Face to Face. This could involve kissing or just pressing one’s cheek against the other’s.
8. Hand to Head. Think about it. How often do you see strangers touching each other’s hair? Well, yeah, hairdressers or stylists but that’s their job. Think of all those scenes in romance novels where the heroine brushes that stubborn, wayward lock of sable hair from the hero’s forehead? 🙂
9-12. Last but not Least. The last four levels of involvement are very sexual and usually done in private. They are:
9. Hand to Body: Foreplay definitely. Caressing, touching, fondling.
10. Mouth to Breast: Or wherever.
11. Touching Below the Waist: Hmmm, yes, definitely getting hot and heavy now.
12. Intercourse. Voilà!
These are not, of course in some hard and fast order, but most intimate relationships tend to follow this pattern. And you can definitely use these steps to show inappropriate behavior. Imagine a man meeting a woman for the first time and putting his arm about her waist.
So, remember, make your sex scenes matter. You won’t regret it, your characters won’t regret it and, hopefully, your reader won’t regret it and she’ll not only NOT skip over those sex scenes, she’ll bookmark them and return to them again and again.
Hey, one can only hope. 😀
Joely Sue Burkhart and I are doing this sex scene writing workshop as a tag team.
Click here for her LB&LI “Writing Transformative Sex – Part 1” workshop.
Click here for Part 2 of “Writing Transformative Sex”
Here is a list books and online resources that I’ve found useful for writing sex scenes. I didn’t have time to put links up for the books, but just Google them. I’m sure you’ll find them at your friendly neighborhood library, bookstore or online retailer.
The Joy of Writing Sex – A Guide for Fiction Writers – Elizabeth Benedict
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Erotic Romance – Alison Kent
How to Write a Dirty Story – Reading, Writing and Publishing Erotica – Susie Bright
Writing Erotic Fiction and Getting Published – Mike Bailey
Passionate Ink – A Guide to Writing Erotic Romance – Angela Knight
Elements of Arousal – How to Write and Sell Gay Men’s Erotica – Lars Eighner (Has great tips even if you don’t write gay men’s erotica)
Guide to Getting It On – Paul Joannides
The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex – Cathy Winks and Anne Semans
Nerve’s Guide to Sex Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen – Emma Taylor & Lorelie Shakley
The Big Bang – Nerve’s Guide to the New Sexual Universe – Emma Taylor & Lorelie Shakley
She Comes First – The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pleasuring a Woman – Ian Kerner, Ph.D
Sizzling, Sensuous and Steamy: How to Write Love Scenes by Carolyn Campbell
Steaming Up Your Sex Scenes by Emma Holly
Ten Essentials for Writing Love Scenes by Anne Marble
EDIT: Contest is closed and I will announce the winner of the print copy of Ellora’s Cavemen: Jewels of the Nile, Volume I, which contains my futuristic short story “The Emissary.” in next post. Thanks! 🙂