For Valentine’s Day, Beth Miller, author of When We Were Sisters and The Good Neighbour, gives her advice on how to write steamy scenes – without embarrassing yourself or your Aunty Marge…
Before The Act (of writing, of course):
Embrace the embarrassment
If it’s difficult enough to talk about sex, it can be even worse to write it down, knowing that people might read it. Acknowledging the embarrassment is a freeing first step. Yes, it feels as if you’ll die if your Aunty Marge reads it (and she will read it).But if you’ve done a good job, Marge won’t remember that you wrote it while she’s reading it. She’ll be lost in the world of the book. Be prepared for people to look at you a bit funny, though, if you’ve really put something out there. Remember your mantra: ‘It is a work of fiction. It is a work of fiction.’
But not if it makes you REALLY uncomfortable
Don’t write a scene that makes you unbearably uncomfortable. Your reader will know. You could try an implicit scene instead, one which lets the reader do most of the work. This means you write about all the elements surrounding sex: the looks beforehand, the post-coital haze, the clothes on the floor, the stilted conversation in the morning…take a tip from the old Hollywood films in which the camera panned away from the kiss. The reader will know that sex has happened without you needing to write the actual act itself. (As a reader though, I should say that if every sex scene in a book is implied, I do find myself judging the writer as being a bit coy. Sorry. I do like at least one full-on scene.)
Know your genre
Each genre has certain conventions when it comes to sex, and you need to know your genre well. You need to know it well anyway, whether or not you’re going to bung in a sex scene. Look at how often sex scenes are used in books of the kind you’re writing, and consider how explicit they are. That’s your template.
Doing It (writing, of course)
- Develop metaphor madness. Even very good writers can fall to pieces when faced with the sex scene. Suddenly there are crazy metaphors everywhere: fireworks and roaring trains and roller-coasters. Focus insteadon how it feel What are the emotions? What are people thinking? Use the senses, as they always insist in Writing 101. How does it feel, smell, taste? What can I see and hear? (Alternatively, you can emulate Lauren Groff in Fates and Furies*, and pop to the greengrocers for some metaphor inspiration. “He shut his eyes and thought of mangoes, split papayas, fruits tart and sweet and dripping with juice.” Or perhaps not.)
- Cling to clichés. There’s an understandable tendency to clutch at the cliché life-raft. But seriously, if I never see another throbbing manhood it’ll be too soon. Well, not in my actual life, you understand, but in my reading. It’s easy to fall back onto clichés and metaphor when one is too embarrassed to think about what’s actually going on. Try and see the scene with fresh eyes. Describe what is actually happening.
- Trip up over your enormous… words. Sex scenes are a magnet for crazed over-description and huge words. Even plain writers start plundering the multi-syllable section of the thesaurus. “The pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement…” (Morrissey, List of the Lost*).
- Go all medical on yo’ ass. Let the pendulum swing too far from the big words, and you’ll end up with something that sounds like a sex education class from the 1970s. ‘Jim puts his penis inside Jenny’s vagina.’ The sex scene should be written in the same style as the rest of your book. (If the rest of your book is written like this, you might want to have a long, cool think about your direction.)
- Feel obliged to be sexy all the time. Sometimes sex is funny. Or awkward. There are weird noises. People have hang-ups. The dog starts barking. It doesn’t have to be impossibly glamorous and hot, unless that is what best fits the story and characters.
- Use dialogue in your sex scene. Sex isn’t usually completely silent. So they tell me.
Show us the main/POV character’s thoughts. People don’t switch their brains off when shagging. They often think about the oddest things. The ironing, whether they still have that tin of pineapple in the cupboard, other people (not always in a sexual way).
- Use words for sexy parts that you’re comfortable with. Cock is a bold, dirty kind of word, and less ‘Carry On’ than dick. But not everyone likes cock, if you know what I mean. Willy is the word a child would use. Cunt causes people to get flustered but if you’re happy to use it, go ahead. It is, after all, just a word. There are no really good word for ladybits (see Caitlin Moran for a very thorough discussion of this). You might have to make up your own.
- Use words which suit the characters. In Marian Keyes’ book, The Woman who Stole My Life, her main character describes sensations in her ‘lady area.’ It works because it is the way the character would speak.
- Know your characters. Writing a sex scene is a brilliant way to reveal detail about two characters. (Or three, or more, you cheeky writer.) Sex doesn’t stop a character being who they are. If they are very precise and honest, then they will likely be that when they have sex. If they hide things from others, then that’s how they will be about sex. On the other hand, if they completely change during sex, that’s an interesting part of the story: why does that happen? What does it show about them?
- Be a bit vague. In most situations, you rarely have to directly refer to everything by name. Your reader will join the dots, if they’re given enough dots.
* The novels quoted here were shortlisted for the 2015 Bad Sex Award.
(Beth Miller worked in sexual health education before becoming a novelist. Her embarrassment was permanently blunted by teaching fourteen year old boys how to put a condom on a blue plastic penis. She now writes unblushingly explicit sex scenes, though there is no way she would read them out loud. She also runs workshops on writing sex scenes, which are rife with giggling and terrible double-entendres. For more info, or to book a workshop for your writing group, please see bethmiller.co.uk)
With acknowledgements to the master, Chuck Wendig (terribleminds.com), whose advice about writing sex scenes I have freely ransacked.