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How Exactly Does One Write Good Sex?

Alex Lam / Wednesday, November 25, 2009 Comments Off
"Come over here, Sugar - and type me something sexy."

"Come over here, Sugar - and type me something sexy."

In my sophomore year at NYU, I was writing a feature screenplay that required two types of scenes that I had never written before – the fight sequence and the sex scene.  Since I had less experience in the former, I decided to tackle it first (ha) and get it over with.  The fight sequence turned out to be incredibly detailed.  It was different, interesting and moved the story forward.  I proudly brought it into class that week and we did a read-through of the scene.  My predominantly red-blooded, action-movie-loving, male classmates really got into it.  They physically reenacted the scenes and asked me if personal experience inspired any of it.  I shared the story of the one fight I had ever been in: at thirteen, a girl slapped me across the face with a spoonful of ice cream to impress the boy she liked.  Long story short, I won the fight and we were banned from our local Häagen-Dazs.

Armed with the confidence that my classmates had given me, I returned home to write what I thought was the easier half of the ordeal – the sex scene.  After typing hours worth of blush-worthy, shuddery scenarios and being overly conscious that my classmates may associate what I wrote with my personal experience (or try to reenact it), I ultimately rejected it all and opted to have my characters simply enter a bedroom and shut the door.  I know… I totally wussed out.  I rationalized that implication and cliché was the way to go.  A screenwriter or even a playwright writes with the knowledge that their work will be seen.  If your actors are hot enough, who cares that the sex is clichéd?

So what does sex look like as a novelist? And what is this pressure to make sex scenes appear realistic and original? It’s not like the author has the stress of turning over to his or her reader and asking, “Was it good for you?” and getting an, “Oh, it was… fine.”  They do however, have the stress of being nominated for an award that I never knew existed: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Harsh stuff.

Let’s face it – a truly satisfying sex scene is as challenging to achieve in writing as it is in real life. Keeping it run-of-the-mill might get the job done but having it be a little, um, “too freaky” can be misconstrued as a necessity to quell what has become the boredom of the act itself.  Take Philip Roth’s Bad Sex in Fiction-nominated “green dildo” scene, for instance.  Unlike porn/erotica writers, a novelist has the pressure of making this sex scene “mean something.”  On top (ha) of that, the novelist must consider keeping this scene in the same voice and on par with the rest of the novel despite it being about a topic that usually renders the human mind useless for however long it lasts.  Strangely enough, it’s the latter half of the challenge that usually lands these poor writers a nomination.  The Literary Review cites Roth’s desire to give the sex scene any more insight than a sex scene can stand to give on its own the reason behind his nod for Bad Sex in Fiction.  The award has been described as a way to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”  But then golly, you say – if you know how challenging it is to write a sex scene, then why would you challenge and risk discouraging the authors of these already-written sex scenes? After all, anyone who’s ever taken a glance at a romance novel can sympathize with the author’s struggle of finding as many synonyms as possible for an aroused penis (that’s how we get gems like, “throbbing member”).

Though Sex and the City was one of the prime offenders in the overly-creative-synonyms-for-phallus game, the show was also revolutionary in how we discuss and ultimately write about sex.  Regardless of what one thinks of the show, Sex and the City deserves serious props for putting it all out on there.  Bar the often nauseating puns and double entendres, the dialogue was frank in its recollection of the good, the bad and the awkward.  It was straightforward and didn’t try to be something more than it was and most importantly, it was relatively nonjudgmental.

Most of us have learned by now that good sex = nonjudgmental sex.  Having an award that exists in pointing out bad sex in fiction may risk making bad sex even worse.  Of course, a writer should be conscious of how their work is perceived if they hope to turn profit from what they publish, but being too self-conscious also comes through in one’s writing.  We all know that the one thing worse than a person who’s bad at sex is a person who is painfully aware of just how bad at sex he or she is.  That being said, there are some pretty unforgivably bad passages of bad sex out there and despite my desire to create a non-judgmental environment for these writers to sexually explore, there is a greater need to get it right in writing sex than having sex because of the sheer number of people ultimately involved (cue orgy jokes).  There is exhibitionism and permanence involved in writing sex.  A novelist writes for his or her reader’s and whether it’s good or bad, it can be revisited without the mental edits one might make if the sex was only documented in memory.  Until your book gets picked up for a movie deal, you better hope your sex scene stands on its own without attractive A-listers strippin’ for ya.

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More: Books / Writing
  • http://www.wordsforwriters.com Bill

    One of my favorite go-to books on writing is “The Joy of Writing Sex” by Elizabeth Benedict. One thing she rightfully points out: we all want to have good sex, but we want to read about bad sex.

    Okay, maybe that was over-paraphrasing. The point being, sometimes the most awkward, bizarre, or dysfunctional sex scenes are the ones we remember the most.

    I’ve only tried two sex scenes in as many manuscripts. The first was overly explicit, the second much more subtle – and I ended it before things got too graphic. So far, my female beta readers vastly preferred the second.

  • Paulo Campos

    some years ago i wrote a dreadful sex scene. it was pivotal to the plot that my two characters had sleazy bar bathroom sex; i couldn’t see a way around writing it. just like one of the points you make: the tone went awry. it wasn’t a scene the narrative voice (3rd person) was interested in and i wasn’t either.

    not long after i read a non-fiction piece by nick hornby (probably in the polysyllabic spree, but i’m not possitive). in very plain language he described his eyes glazing over when reading them and during attempts to write them. he said he found it more compelling to write around most encounters.

    i remembered this months later when i was revisiting what i’d written and decided to cut the scene out. in its place i had my protagonist (who was waiting a certain amount of time before joining the woman in the bar bathroom) think about anything but following her into the bathroom. the only overt reference to what was about to happen was the narrator indicating how much time had passed. when the clock ran out, the character left the bar stool, crossed the room and the door closed behind him. end of scene.

    the rising tension was much more satisfying to write and (also satisfyingly) went over very well with my writing group.

    it was a good challenge.

    thanks for the post!

  • http://www.publeconomist.com/?p=101 Writing Sex | The Publeconomist

    [...] read a great article today on LitDrift, that can be found here, and is entitled “How Exactly Does One Write Good Sex?” by Alex Lam. As you can guess, [...]

  • http://thechocolatechipwaffle.blogspot.com/ Terresa Wellborn

    Arousing post. I think, as Paulo states, that sometimes editing out the sex scene may give rise to added tension and satisfaction that otherwise may not exist.

    How a writer approaches writing sex, I think, can reveal much about their personal life, their creativity, their honesty, their storytelling prowess.

  • Adam

    The first time I even came close was in eighth grade, and sex didn’t actually ever happen in the scene… it was also a straight sex scene. I don’t know what was going on in my head when I wrote it. It’s so awkward. I held off on sex scenes until I actually had experienced it–the first few times I actually did have sex, I tried to recreate it on the page as awkwardly as possible, because that’s really how it was. I was intent on making the scene as real as possible and not sexy.

  • http://the-second-look.blogspot.com Haley Wulfman

    To build off what Terresa Wellborn said, I agree…and further, it seems to be the case that any type of writing in some way reveals the author. Even as he might try to distance himself from his (or her) work.

    And yes, arousing post.

    -Haley Wulfman
    http://the-second-look.blogspot.com

  • http://www.johnnymurdoc.com Johnny Murdoc

    Sex is an important part of the human condition, and writing around it is as ridiculous as writing around any other kind of scene. Any scene. I’m not suggesting that every story or novel has to have a sex scene, but if it’s important for your characters to have sex, it’s probably just as important to write the scene. How people and characters interact with one another when they’re in a room, alone, with all of their clothes off can be incredibly revealing. Even more so if they’re not alone, or they don’t take all of their clothes off. Not so much if they close the door behind them and leave the reader standing on the other side.

    You have to learn to approach a sex scene like you would any other – it’s not hard to maintain a voice or style during a sex scene unless you tell yourself it is. It doesn’t have to, though. Any more than a scene of a guy walking into a bar and ordering a beer has to be.

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