How to write (great) sex scenes

Picture the scene: your characters have been pining over each other for months and they’ve finally had their first kiss. They’re ready for more. They want to, no, need to have sex, right now

Or maybe your main character is away on a business trip. She often calls an escort service when she’s overseas, and tonight’s no different. And that’s the knock at the door. What’s going to happen when she opens it?

How do you write a sex scene that will leave your reader (and characters) breathless and your book off the Bad Sex in Fiction Award longlist?

Before you start writing any sex scenes, consider your genre. Are sex scenes appropriate for your genre? Will your readers be expecting them? Sex scenes are often expected in romance, but they’re usually not appropriate in young adult fiction. An explicit sex scene will be out of place within a cosy mystery, but it might be appropriate in a thriller.

Next, ask yourself, what is the point of the sex scene? What will it bring to the story? How will it develop character or push the story forward? If it’s just there to titillate, then it’s probably not needed. If you’re only describing where hands or mouths are and what they’re doing, but not exploring emotions and thoughts, then go back and work those details in. Emotion is key. When your characters feel emotion, your readers feel emotion too.

Finally, consider the type of sex scene you want to write. Knowing your genre’s conventions will help here. For example, within the romance genre there are many subgenres. Explicit sex scenes are expected in erotica, but fade-to-black or behind-closed-doors scenes are more common in sweet romances.

In sci fi, fantasy, and adventure, fade to black or emphasis on the emotion of the moment could be more appropriate than details about the act itself.

Let’s explore different types of sex scenes in more detail.

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Types of sex scenes

Sex scenes can cover all sorts of sexual acts, and they can be written with any level of detail. Types of sex scene include:

  • Explicit erotica
  • Detailed, but not explicit
  • Fade to black 

Let’s look at some examples from published novels.

Explicit erotica

This is an extract of an explicit sex scene from an erotica novel. The story is all about sex, and the reader expects explicit details. The word choices reflect this. The author describes where body parts are, but she also shows us how the main character, Tess, feels.

I hear the shot glass hit the table after he downs it, but he hasn’t moved away. He’s still behind me, kneading my ass, running his thumbs up and down my crease, going lower with each pass. I widen my stance but the panties along my upper thighs constrict my movement. “Goddamn it, Tess…” His breathing is labored as his thumbs press against my anus and then move lower, dipping simultaneously into my pussy. “You are so fucking wet.” A spark of pleasure cascades over my back and down my buttocks and I give in. … There’s no way in hell I can stop what’s happening between me and Connor. In fact, I don’t want to. I want him to push my panties all the way down my thighs. I want him to spread me wide. I want more than his thumbs inside me.

From How to Choose a Cowboy, by Daire St. Denis.

Detailed, but not explicit

Here’s an example of a sex scene that goes into detail, but doesn’t get explicit like the previous example. This is from a fantasy novel. This sex scene serves the story by showing us Syenite’s character, and it relates directly to the plot: Syenite’s duty is to get pregant by this man, Alabaster. The description and detail show us how little either of them enjoy the act, but they understand why it needs to happen.

So they go into his bedroom and he strips and lies down and tries for a while to work himself up to it, which doesn’t go well. The hazard of having to do this with an older man, Syen decides—though really, it’s probably more the fact that sex doesn’t usually go well when you don’t feel like having it. … He comes around once she takes over, though, perhaps because he can shut his eyes and imagine that her hands belong to whoever he wants. So then she grits her teeth and straddles him and rides until her thighs ache and her breasts grow sore from bouncing. The lube only helps a little. He doesn’t feel as good as a dildo or her fingers. Still, his fantasies must be sufficient, because after a while he makes a strained sort of whimper and then it’s done.

From The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin.

Fade to black

Here’s an example of a fade-to-black scene in a sweet romance. There’s teasing, there’s undressing, and the wider scene has lots of emotional build up. The sex itself is written in two short lines, but the reader has no doubt about what happened within those nine words. 

Bit by bit, he undressed the rest of her, taking his time, tracing every bit of skin he saw, tasting it.

“You’re killing me here,” she whispered, her breath ragged, and he lifted his head and smiled, and after a second, she smiled back. It wrapped around his heart, that smile, hot and tugging. “Hurry up, Connor O’Rourke.”

This was one of those moments of honest-to-God perfection, and he wasn’t going to rush through it. No.

He took his time instead.

There were no complaints.

From Anything for You, by Kristan Higgins

So, how exactly do you write a sex scene? 

Well, you write it much the same way you write any other scene. Keep in mind:

  • Point of view (POV)
  • Emotion
  • Showing and telling
  • Pronouns
  • Realism
  • Dialogue
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Point of view

Point of view is just as important in sex scenes as it is throughout the rest of your story. Keeping the point of view with one character will keep your readers engaged. Head hopping will just make them confused.

To help you write in one character’s point of view, picture yourself as that character. What can you see, hear, smell, taste and feel? You can’t see if your eyes are closed, so you won’t know what your partner’s expression is. You aren’t telepathic, so you can’t know what your partner is thinking, but you can guess. What does their body language tell you? What do their words tell you, and their tone? When you become the point of view character, you open yourself up to their experiences.

If you’re writing from a gender or sexual identity that’s different from your own, then do research so you can accurately capture that character’s experience. Ask your partner or friends (if you think they’ll be open to receiving such questions!). Search online. Read sex scenes written by those identities. For example, a lot of women don’t orgasm from penetration alone. A lot of men don’t have sensitive nipples.

If you’re writing a gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans character and you’re not gay, lesbian, bi or trans, then research is essential. Even better, ask someone from the queer community (more than one, ideally) if they can read your scene and provide feedback. Listen to their feedback and work in their suggestions.

Emotion 

Sex is about more than just who puts what where. Sex is about emotion. I’d argue that in most cases, the emotion of a scene is more important than the actual action. The three examples above are laden with emotion, both positive and negative. You’re writing a story, not shooting a movie, so take advantage of the written form and dive deep into your POV character’s emotions. Knowing who’s got what where is good, but if you only focus on the action, you lose the depth that emotion brings to a scene.

Lean into your POV character’s emotions. What does this moment mean to them? Is it the joyous culmination of years of yearning? Is it the comfort of practised familiarity? Is it simply transactional – a one night stand, an itch to scratch, a means to an end? Is it goodbye sex? Welcome home sex? An affair? The first time?

How do they feel about their partner? How is their partner making them feel?

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Showing and telling

As with point of view, showing and telling is just as important in your sex scenes as it is throughout the rest of the story. Showing lets the reader into the POV character’s head. We see what the character sees, feel what they feel. Showing creates depth and immersion.

Sometimes telling is just what the scene needs: not everything needs to be shown. The trick is working out how to balance the two.

Cutting out filter words is one of the simplest ways to show. Filter words include saw, realised, felt, thought, wondered, believed, knew. Rewriting the sentence to avoid filter words creates a closer connection between the reader and the viewpoint character, which is exactly what you want in a sex scene. 

Instead of:

She felt his fingers between her legs and wondered how he’d got so good.

Try:

His fingers between her legs sent waves of pleasure through her body. This was way better than last time. How had he got so good?

The first example tells us that she felt his fingers between her legs and that she questions his increased skill. Nothing more. The second example shows us what his fingers are doing to her body and dips directly into her thoughts. 

Here’s another example with the filter words “realised” and “knew”.

When he finally lay back, the night time sky had taken on the glow of dawn and he realised how long they’d been going. He knew they needed to do that again, but maybe in a few hours. Right now, he needed to sleep.

Let’s cut those filter words and dip into his thoughts.

He finally lay back, exhausted and sated. The night time sky had taken on the glow of dawn. Man, had they really been going that long? They needed to do that again, but maybe in a few hours. Right now, he needed to sleep.

When you’re revising your sex scenes, watch out for those filter words, and look for opportunities to dive into the POV character’s thoughts and senses.

Word choice

Try to avoid clunky euphemisms and medical terminology. Words like portal, rocks, button, petal, pillows, and crown jewels will make your readers laugh and cringe. Likewise, penis, vulva, and cervix are clinical and could turn your readers off.

So how to keep it hot? Use your POV character’s voice. What words would they use? One character’s cock might be another’s dick. Breasts or tits? And consider how much detail is necessary. Compare these two lines:

She cupped his balls.

She cupped him. 

The first line has more detail. We know exactly what she’s cupping. The second is less direct, but the reader will be able to figure out from context (and their own knowledge) what she’s cupping. Context is key here. Consider the line’s place in the overall paragraph, and consider your genre’s conventions.

Character voice is one place where you might be able to get away with using words that are usually clunky or flowery, but avoid overdoing them. A sweet young woman might react to her partner licking her nub, while a city-slicker might say clit. Again, keep in mind the level of detail that’s needed for the scene. 

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Pronouns

If you’re writing a sex scene with two characters of the same gender, keep an eye on the pronouns. Too many “shes” and “hers” can get confusing. Use their names. Avoid description like “the taller one” or “the blonde woman”. They’re wordy and boring, and the reader can forget who the taller one is, or which one is blonde.

Keeping it real

Depending on your genre and level of detail, keep the sex real. Let them fumble with the condom, let the lube bottle slip out of their hands. Readers will relate to those funny moments. Bite marks and bruises are common in sex scenes, but think about how hard you have to press on someone’s hip to leave a bruise, or how hard you have to bite to leave a mark. That’s going to hurt! If pain is what you’re going for, then leave those marks. Otherwise, have your characters leave a hickey or love bite, or dig their fingernails into those hips, or rake their nails down that back.

Keeping it real also means following the laws of physics and the limitations of the human body. Can your character really bend that way? Can they hold that position and thrust at the same time? Can that chair carry the combined weight of two people?

And if you’re writing a scene with anal sex, don’t forget the lube!

Dialogue

Most characters aren’t going to be engaged in witty back and forths while they’re busy getting down. If one character has his mouth full, he’s not going to be able to talk anyway. But people do still talk and make noises during sex. Keep the dialogue realistic and in character. Avoid spoken lines like,

“Oooh,” she moaned.

Instead, just try,

She moaned.

And avoid, 

“Oooh, that feels good.”

Instead, try,

“That feels good,” she moaned.

Let your characters ask each other if they’re enjoying what’s happening.

“Does that feel good?” she asked.

“Tell me what you want.”

“What if we just…” He repositioned himself.

Consent is also hot. Let your characters give consent at the start of the scene, and let them check in throughout the scene. If you’re writing a kink or BDSM scene, then consent will be an important part of your establishing scene.

Remember to punctuate your dialogue following publishing conventions.Consistently punctuated dialogue will give your readers a smooth reading experience and keep their attention on the story. Here’s my guide on how to punctuate dialogue.

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Summing up 

Before you write a sex scene, ask yourself:

  • What are your genre conventions?
  • What are your readers expecting?
  • What purpose does the sex scene serve?
  • What type of sex scene and what level of detail is appropriate?

As you’re writing the sex scene, keep in mind:

  • Point of view
  • Emotion
  • Showing and telling
  • Word choice
  • Pronouns
  • Keeping it real
  • Dialogue

Reading widely helps improve your writing, including sex scenes. See how other authors within your genre approach sex scenes, and read outside your genres too. Take note of how much detail they include, what words they use, how they show emotion and how they use point of view. What works? What doesn’t?

Finally, have fun! And count those hands. You’ll be surprised at just how many hands characters can end up having when you’re writing a sex scene.

If you need help finding the right emotional beat or wrangling point of view, I can help. Contact me and see how we can work together to bring your scenes to life.

There are some types of sex scene I don’t work on, so if your book has sex in it, let’s discuss it. If I’m not the right editor for you, I can help you find an editor who is.

References

Write Naked, by Jennifer Probst
How to Choose a Cowboy, by Daire St. Denis
The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin
Anything for You, by Kristan Higgins