How to Write Sex Scenes In Your Stories
The Difference Between Pornography, Erotica and Romance
One evening at Windsor, the windows steamed up as a member of the Writing Hurts Like Hell workshop read her exercise about a couple having sex. The catch was that the piece had to be written from inside the mind of one of the characters…no second voice descriptions, no “she panted” “he thrust” or “they writhed.” It had to be whatever was going through the mind of the character while having sex written as though the writer were that person.
Sometimes this exercise yields laughter; sometimes, shock. This evening, it was steamed windows. Granted, the room was small and there were seven or eight people, but the writing was everything that it should be. I won’t get into the exact details, but the woman who wrote the piece wasn’t narrating what the woman was physically doing…she was in the woman’s mind telling the world what she was experiencing.
The character was real enough that the listeners in that small room connected to her passion, her desires and her psyche.
This was sex well-written.
When I was in college, a group of us would get together occasionally and show porno movies. We’d drink beer and eat pizza as we watched naked bodies bumping and pumping on the screen (this was in the days of 8mm film on a collapsible screen). We also did one other thing.
And there was one guy who kept going to the washroom.
I have a feeling that, if the sex in the movie had been written in a book, it wouldn’t even make the reader laugh. I doubt that it would even stimulate anyone other than the guy who kept disappearing into the washroom.
Your sex scenes should make the reader think or understand, not laugh.
Sex is possibly the most intimate form of communication we have. It’s at once a physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual bonding, almost a merging of two personalities. This makes it the perfect medium to reveal character.
And that’s what well-written sex does…it gives us a glimpse into the personalities and souls of fictitious people who are made real by their thoughts, actions, feelings and interaction with other human beings. It answers questions such as: Are they people who give or take? Are they shy, outgoing, aggressive, dominant, self-conscious, confident or in fear they won’t be able to perform to their own or the other person’s expectations? Are they bored? Intimidated? Do they talk during sex? Do they say dirty things or romantic things? Do they like it hard and fast or slow and gentle?
What exactly is in their thoughts during sex? Is he saying I love you to a woman he met an hour earlier and thinking, “Just get this over and tell the boys about it,” while she’s thinking, “Just get it over because you haven’t had it in three months, but you have to get up early for work.”
The way your characters have sex can say more about them than all their actions and dialog put together. Take the lead character in the movie American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. On the surface, he’s a successful vice president on Wall Street. Under the surface, he’s an egocentric psychopath who doesn’t have an ounce of empathy for the people he kills just for the sake of killing them. His victims may as well be broccoli for all the humanity he sees in them. His focus is entirely on himself and everything and everyone around him exists merely as a backdrop to his own life. This is even more apparent in one of the sex scenes than in any of the murder scenes. He’s in bed with two women doing the doggie thing, but he’s barely aware that there’s a woman in bed with him as he gazes admiringly into a mirror at himself while doing as series of body builder poses. The women are simply props in his self-absorbed masturbation.
After seeing how he has sex, you have no doubts about what kind of person he is.
Now, some people may say, “But what about pornography? The plumber comes in, sees the half-naked housewife. She sees his hard-on and they’re on the counter doing the dirty thing. Where’s character revelation in that?”
There isn’t. That’s what makes it pornography.
“Biff,” said the imaginary crow perched on my shoulder,” will you tell us about the three types of sex in literature. I love that story.”
Well, alright. You can write three types of sex: romance, erotica and pornography. Admittedly, the borders between the three aren’t as clearly cut as they were twenty or thirty years ago, but there are some basic traits that distinguish the three.
Romance will almost always involve love. It may be explicit, but the lovers are in love. Or at least one of them is in love (In this case, it might be a good idea to narrate from this person’s point of view. Or not.) In a well-written romance, the sex should reveal character and/or advance the story. The main focus in a romance is the romance, not the sex.
In erotica, the sex is explicit, but there is a connection between the lovers. They may be using each other, but they have motives and the characters are real and the sex helps to reveal character and advance the plot (yep, same as in romance).Unlike romance, the focus is primarily on the erotic. The characters are highly sexual and almost always driven by their passions and desires. There will be more sex scenes than in a typical romance.
In pornography, the focus is on the sex…and only the sex. The plumber and the housewife are props. There may be a loose storyline, and there may be a little character development, but the characters are not going to be memorable for who they were in the story other than the well-hung plumber and the horny housewife. It’s unlikely you’ll know anything about their past or their motives. In this respect, pornography dehumanizes the characters and breaks them down to puppets performing sexual acts on a stage to be viewed by an audience that wants to watch but not enter the psychic worlds of real people.
And there will be mostly sex scenes. All other scenes will be transitional, linking one sex scene to the next.
The differences in the three generally come out in the actions and speech of the characters as they make out. And there are a lot of exceptions, a lot of overlap and areas of slippery definitions. Typically, though, in romance one or the other at some time in the act will say, “I love you.” The sex will be giving from both sides and the language is less likely to be evocative as in erotica or provocative as in porn. They might not even talk at all; just settling for saying I love you with their eyes and caresses.
In erotica, you can expect the sex to be steamier and the characters both giving and powerfully demanding. The language is likely to be stronger and the sex kinkier.
In pornography, the language is going to be…hmm…let me see…oh right…dirty. Dirty talk. Talk meant to incite, not enlighten. The sex itself is likely to be unemotional, detached and staged.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with porn. I know some psychologists who have recommended it to couples whose sex lives were on the rocks. But you should be aware of the differences between the three and make sure that the kind of sex you write is appropriate to the characters and milieu of your story. And your audience.
To get a grip on these differences, try this exercise that I force my writing students to do: Write one paragraph of pornography. For the purposes of this exercise, make it just two people. Go wild with lots of dirty talk, over the top explicit descriptions of genitalia and minimal character revelation. Now, take that same paragraph and re-write it as erotica. The sex can still be explicit, but it should have more description of the character’s thoughts and may even have some meaningful conversation. Now, write the same scene as romance. How would you do that?
Do the exercise and you’ll find out.