Steam The Windows, Lock The Door

Or Aunt Sarah’s Clinic on how to write sex if you absolutely must.

In this case we’ll assume you’re not writing erotica, but sex as part of a larger, non-sex-oriented work. These rules don’t apply to erotica (well, most of them don’t.)

I’ve actually written erotica a dozen times or so, one of them markedly unsuccessful in my view even though it sold. (Yes, yes, yes – moan :-p – I actually will publish these ahem works eventually, probably as their own collection with all sorts of warnings on the cover. Well, the works I can, since most of them were work for hire. Which means I need to beef up (eh) the rest before I can publish a collection. It will happen. It’s just not urgent, so you can stop shouting now, now, now, now!) But erotica is its own thing, and the levels of description you’ll engage in for it are completely different.

First of all, as in real life, before you do something you’ll regret, ask yourself: do you need sex?

I mean do you need it right here, in this story or book?

There are several reasons to write sex into a work, and some are good: sex is expected in this type of genre. For instance Paranormal Romance, and even to an extent urban fantasy; or your publisher wants this book/story to have sex (I’ve been forced to write explicit sex into one book because of this); or, and to me this is the best, and sometimes the only legitimate reason: the book won’t work if there is no sex.

For whatever reason, at whatever level, your character needs sex to come to full character arc. So. You have to include sex.

At this point, and before regret sets in, you should ask yourself: what level of sex do I need.

The first one, which a lot of you worry about and mark your books as adult because of, is not really sex. This is the level of sex in most science fiction books. She takes off her clothes, he takes off his clothes, cut to the afterglow. Or a level beyond that, what Heinlein sometimes did, have a couple of lines of dialogue during sex enough you get what they’re doing.

Then there is a level beyond that, where you hear enough to know darn well what they’re up to, sometimes with details.

So, if you forgive me, an example of this from Soul of Fire:

A louder sigh broke the silence, and Miss Waringtons voice said, Why, Lord St…. Peter! I thought you didnt eat people.”

“For you, my dear, I will make an exception.”


Is this how its normally done?” in Miss Warington’s voice.

I dont know. I never… You see, I was afraid I would change and incinerate my lover.

Oh, milord, youre not that hot.

A gurgle of laughter from St. Maur. Shut up, baggage. Im trying to romance you.”

This is all from the POV of a listener, and I want to make it clear that in most other genres this doesn’t even count as sex. In fantasy and science fiction, though, it can be enough.

Okay, so you need more than that. (Stop shouting more, more, more, it’s distracting.)

Then you are faced with several problems, like for instance, making sure that your characters need this too. (No, their shouting “give it to me baby” doesn’t count) and that you’ve developed them and their relationship to a point it’s logical to do this, and also that you keep the readers with you all the way (all the way, baby!)

At this point there are several things to keep in mind:

  • If your character/relationship is ready and this is necessary for the plot, there are a whole lot of emotional things that need to be there along with the in and out, and out and in. That is, don’t forget you’re doing this for reasons of character development (it’s what she said! Shut up wretch.) and keep that character development going along with the physical actions.
  • You know how porn movies (I hear. I’m not visual) airbrush things and shoot things from angles? Yeah. You need to do that too, to make it alluring. Be in the moment, think of what your character is seeing/feeling and see it and feel it through his senses. You might not be into blondes, but he is and he’ll go on about her pale skin with a pink blush or whatever. Be there. Feel and see what he feels and sees.
  • Let the tension rise. Make it gradual. Make the reader stay with you till the consummation. In writing as in real life, slam bam thank you ma’am is a bore.
  • Use all five senses (that’s what she said! Shut up wretch!) It’s okay to have similes to get this. Stuff like “She felt warm, like warm bread on a cold day” gives you taste without getting too specific.
  • Use images. This is the equivalent of focusing on the fireplace while they’re having sex, but done right it works. Let us face it, the act of copulation is unaesthetic and unless you’re involved in it, (and sometimes when you are) its rewards aren’t purely physical. What I mean is, it’s not tab a and slot b, but what the character is feeling, which could very well be pleasant, like she relaxes, or odd, like he feels as though he’s been struck by lightening.
  • Naughty words. No, I don’t mean the ones your characters shout, though they can, if that’s what they’re into. I mean the ones you use to describe what’s going on.

In modern romance you’re encouraged to use clinical terms because it’s less silly than “his throbbing lightening rod.” To an extent I’ve found they’re right. The clinical terms are largely invisible. The exception is when writing historical. Clinical terms can seem totally out of place there, but you’ll have to figure out what to do. (In vampire musketeers I settled for “member”.)

Over and done. If your book is not erotica, make sure the sex doesn’t take a disproportionate amount of book time. If you like what you’re writing you might weigh it too heavily. (It’s easy to think it’s interesting to others if it’s interesting to us.) Or if you’re embarrassed by what you’re writing, you might rush your fences and write too short, though the scene is a pivotal one.

The only way to make sure you did it right is to get a trusted second reader. And in this case, no, your mom REALLY isn’t appropriate.

And that’s about all the help I can give you. Remember to write sex in private and wash your hands when you’re done.

54 thoughts on “Steam The Windows, Lock The Door

  1. Awesome post. I don’t write sex beyond the ‘behind closed doors’ – hint at it, lead up to it, cut to later and back to the plot. I so rarely read books where I can’t flip past the sex scenes and still maintain the thread that I’m not inclined to write those scenes into my own books.

  2. I’m in two minds about writing sex scenes – and in all of my books there are only two very explicit intervals. I kind of wish that I hadn’t been quite so explicit in the first, because it put the book a little beyond young teenage readers. But still – married sex and it all coming as a bit of a surprise to the heroine…
    The second episode was necessary for plot and character, as in readers were wondering why the heroine wound up falling heavily for a nerdy, absent-minded doctor. Why – besides the fact that he adored her – he was also quite the well-equipped man and fantastic in the sack, but I had to work out ways to say that in Victorian terms. My editor loved that scene, BTW, so yes, it worked out very well.

  3. Twice so far, my characters have had sex during the course of their stories. In both cases, the sex wasn’t important, the change in their relationship was. So I showed that, not the sex.

    1. Oh, wait, three times. But that character was loathsome. He actually hated sex in all forms, but used it to gain a woman’s confidence.

  4. “Remember to write sex in private and wash your hands when you’re done.” Unless I’m mistaken didn’t Robert recommend that practice for all writing?

  5. 1. “You know how porn movies (I hear. I’m not visual) airbrush things and shoot things from angles? Yeah. You need to do that too, to make it alluring.” But how do I insert the saxophone music overlay?

    2. In modern romance you’re encouraged to use clinical terms because it’s less silly than “his throbbing lightening rod.” I write military science fiction. It’s all about the pulser.

    3. Frankly – and yes, I know I’m old-fashioned – I find the genre of erotica as a whole to be morally wrong, from the perspective of my beliefs and values. I have no objection to including sex in a book or a scene as an element thereof, particularly when it’s a normal, natural part of a relationship. I’ve done this myself, and expect to continue to do so. However, I have deep-seated objections from both a spiritual and a humanist perspective to making sex more than it should be. Most erotica focuses on sex to the exclusion of other aspects of character and personality that make someone human (or not).

    I’m afraid I believe that erotica as a primary focus and as a genre is fundamentally beyond the moral pale. Yes, I know that viewpoint will make erotica authors howl with annoyance. Sorry, folks. I am who I am, and I believe what I believe. You don’t have to buy my books, just as I won’t buy yours. (My wife, BTW, disagrees with me – and I respect her right to do so.)

    1. … and then, when I finally took her, that damn neighbor decided once more to practice his saxophone far to late at night.
      But for once, I wasn’t complaining, the mellow, moody tones, seemed to fit.

      How about that? 😉

    2. Yeah.
      Except for The Song of Solomon, which is so well written that you can utterly miss the point, if you want to.

    3. Well, I won’t comment on the *morality* of (most) erotica – but it exhibits serious problems (usually) with the *writing*. When the only motivation of the primary character is sex, they are one dimensional and very uninteresting to the vast majority of readers. Same with *any* singular motivation – whether it is an addiction to kumquats or killing the man that killed your father… (yes, there is a *lot* more to the character of Inigo).

      Now, a writer can have secondary characters that are that one-dimensional, if they “set up” things for the primary ones. I know several good books where the primary interacts with satyrs or nymphos (or both), and it moves the book along the desired path.

  6. I was involved recently in a discussion about the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton. Consensus was that the series started out as very well written urban fantasy adventure then LKH decided, or more likely was pressured by her publisher, to spice things up to appeal more to the romance crowd and their deep pockets. The angst over who does what to who became a significant and IMHO distracting subplot. She does seem to be moving away from that in her last few in the series. Good news to me as I was getting tired of paying book prices for a novelette padded out to book size with smut. Not that I have anything against smut, but I find the switch from it to monster killing and back repeatedly in a single chapter somewhat offputting.
    Long time ago I helped a fellow Barfly sanitize a copy of John Ringo’s Ghost into a format he could give to his teenage nephew. With John’s permission I hasten to add. The sex in Ghost, particularly the BDSM with the two boat bunnies, is entertaining, amusing, and adds depth to the persona of the main character, but is not all that necessary to the primary plot. That said, were I faced with a similar project today I would strongly urge to just wait a couple of years and give the boy the full unexpurgated text. The sex was not unnecessary or gratuitous, rather it led the reader to a greater appreciation of the tortured and conflicted nature of the primary character.

    1. Yup. That is one series where (having read it once), I simply skip over the major part of the explicit scenes to get back to the action. (So my actual (re)reading is “boat bunnies show up, Ghost is having a very pleasant time with two beautiful women out on the yacht, when he gets a call about a wayward nuke… Dammit!).

  7. I have been amazed at how many reviewers comment favorably on the lack of explicit sex in my books. Mostly I have fade-to-black scenes, I don’t know if this is a reaction to the overuse of anatomical reference texts in a lot of legacy publishing fiction, or if it’s just my readers 😉 A plus is most of my books can be read by younger readers that way. Only one, The Last Mage Guardian has a mature situation that is part of the plot of the book and isn’t quite suitable for the young ones.

      1. Thinking, here… Dang, they don’t. You do it so well that I fill whatever in.

        No, I am not going to detail what the filler is, lest carp…

    1. I would be one who would comment favorably on the lack of explicit sex in a book. (A little kissing is fine!) I have read a lot of romance novels, mainly because when I’m tired or not feeling well, they are easy reading — also I like that they always have a happy ending! But I get so sick and tired of smut. Even when the scene is pertinent to the story, and necessary, it could usually be handled without explicit details. And too often it seems out of historical character — maybe even out of modern character — for women to be hopping into the sack with someone they barely know, or where there is no commitment. Georgette Heyer never did that with her characters, and she’s probably the most highly regarded Regency writer I know of — and quite possibly one of the best romance writers I know of. And of course there’s the whole thing about mistaking sex for love….I really think that modern romance novels are doing a serious disservice to both men and women in our culture.

  8. I think I got a lot of it out of my system by writing PNR, (under a pen name), and I would suggest others might wish to try that a few times. Experience writing over the top, and the occasionally outright lewd, scenes does help with learning how to write more tasteful and minimalistic scenes that let the user’s mind do most of the work. (And boy do they, I have a work with NO on camera sex, and a few implied sex scenes and one reviewer called it -I kid you not- a XXX rated work that is completely obscene!)

    But the main point is, write a few books with a lot of sex in them, and you will get very tired of writing about sex. Try writing about changing a tire on a car a hundred times, while trying to be different each time. You’ll get sick of it soon enough…

  9. ” Or a level beyond that, what Heinlein sometimes did, have a couple of lines of dialogue during sex enough you get what they’re doing.”

    So that’s what was going on. No one tells me anything.

      1. I re-read If This Goes On– last year and had an epiphany about what was going on on the other side of the lake. Although, you know, in his middle books, as Alexei Panshin pointed out IIRC, his main characters spent a lot of time and energy not doing it.

        1. This is certain to get me some odd looks, but – IIRC, when I first read that, I was not even *close* to the YA demographic, but I knew exactly what was happening on the opposite shore (and what was about to happen on the near one, for that matter). Not in detail, mind you…

          I don’t think I would have had a chance of understanding John Lyle at all without the sexual references – think of how it starts, for Ghu’s sake!

          1. Sure, sure. But I was quite young when I first read it, and attending a missionary school in northern Thailand. I really didn’t totally get the beginning. To me it was pretty obvious one wouldn’t want to hang with the old creep, but other dangers were not so evident.

  10. I haven’t completely read the post yet but wanted to drop this in to tag for comments.

    I have written exactly one sex scene and then promptly took it out, not from any prudishness but because I looked again and it just wasn’t appropriate for those two characters to have sex at that point.

    Everything else I’ve elided over–one very clear rape in The Spaewife, several cases where I suggest that the characters are thinking in that direction before cutting away.

    I don’t writer erotica or porn. Or, perhaps better to say I haven’t and don’t have any particular intentions of doing so. I’ve got some ideas kicking around in the back of my head that will probably fall into genres where sex is expected but even the fantasy romance that’s one of my current projects is working out to not have any overt sex.

    I have argued in the past (and have a blog post on it) that sex, like anything else, can be an appropriate venue of showing character. But people who won’t balk at showing a murder in all its grisly detail either to advance plot or reveal character do balk at showing two people sharing each other’s bodies. One thing, though, is that sex is that there is a danger in using sex that way that you end up with a “sex story” and not “a story that has sex.” It can tend to overwhelm the rest of the story.

    One example of where I think it was done well was Jeff and Gretchen’s wedding knight in Eric Flint’s 1632. That’s the only case I can remember where the sex is “on stage” and relatively explicit (not porn level explicit, but explicit enough). Even Mike and Rebecca’s first time is elided over. But in this case the actual act itself is important. It’s a major turning point for Gretchen’s character. Before that she was just tieing herself to someone who could, as she saw it, protect her family. Afterwards she was pretty clearly “in love” as we tend to think of it. The time where the actual sex act mattered to the character as it affected the story it’s shown. Other times, where you need no more than “yeah, they had sex but the details don’t really matter here” it’s elided over.

      1. Perfectly understandable. It was the night with the knight – which, yes, was *essential* to the character. Just imagine a Gretchen without that epiphany, and with the power she developed. Shudder… “Feminazi” would not *begin* to describe it.

  11. I tried writing erotica once or twice, partly as an exercise to see if I could do it. Ah, let’s just say I’m going to stick with panning to the ceiling at those moments in the story.

  12. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I were to ever write explicit sex it would fail on numerous levels, mainly because my reaction to explicit sex in print falls somewhere in between boredom and baffled amusement (because it’s so often very. very silly.) Bujold is about the only author I’ve read who has sexual themes in some of her works that didn’t strike me as silly or ridiculous.

    OTOH, I have a friend who writes fantasy romance, and if she ever asks for my advice about such scenes, I can give it to her (“less ‘she felt drawn to him’ and more descriptions of him as though he were a favorite food.”) What does that say that I think I could edit such scenes, but not create them myself?

    1. I can do it in short doses. I mean part of the reason I no longer write for Bantam is that when more than a half page of sex was demanded I suggested the editor might want to write it herself.

  13. Even though one of the main characters in “Necessary Evil” is a Succubus, she’s not going to be getting any over the course of the book.

  14. It occurred to me after a scan of the blog and comments that gratuitous sex in writing is nothing more or less than a form of message fiction. See there, I can too write smut and use dirty words so there!
    And like any other message, it only works when it’s an integral part of the story. Try to shoehorn it in where it’s not needed and all you do is pop the reader out of the concentration they need to follow along.

    1. There can also be the message of ‘this is normal/plausible/expected/consequence free’. Which is kinda the thread that ties together what you say, with what freeholder45 and Pete Grant say.

      Is it a good idea for people to form all or most of their sexual mores from pornography?

      What audience are you writing for? What do you feel comfortable saying?

      I, for reasons of personal baggage, am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging someone to commit suicide, even where appropriate. I try very hard to avoid doing so.

      1. “I, for reasons of personal baggage, am deeply uncomfortable with the idea of encouraging someone to commit suicide, even where appropriate.”

        I read The Sorrows of Young Werther in college (for a history class, no less.) It got me interested in the concept of despair as a fad or fashion statement—”melancholia” and the Romantic Age and so forth. I ended up writing a song about suicide for a particular story because I needed that type of theme—and I have head canon to go with it. The musician who wrote that song did so for a patron of the overly sentimental type, received a huge amount of money for it, and coasted the rest of his long and storied life doing variations on the same theme. ‘Cause really, I can’t get behind doing that sort of thing seriously.

    2. One of the writers that I “study” is Ringo. He is quite capable of going both ways (I recommend Lava Soap for those who just went THERE…)

      He can write something like the Ghost episodes – and then write other things like Wands, or Troy Rising… and do both explicit and just barely implied well.

      1. Ah, but John cheats. See, he has this pet muse that only comes out in cold weather, but when she does she dictates entire books to him over night. He just writes them down and sends them off to Toni.

      2. Ghost was basically three connected short stories or novellas under a common cover. The middle part with the girls really doesn’t fit with the other two parts very well… but the yeah-whatever-sex-stuff is completely overhwelmed by being one of the funniest things I read in years. I had occasional bouts of chuckling for a full day afterward… granted, a humorous interlude doesn’t fit well sandwiched between two action-adventure shorts either, but you take your yucks where you find them.

  15. You know how porn movies (I hear. I’m not visual) airbrush things and shoot things from angles? Yeah. You need to do that too,

    Okay, so I describe a colorful mosaic where appropriate. 🙂

    On the other hand, I’ve long been inclined towards thinking I don’t need to be writing that stuff, and maybe even that I owe the characters privacy.

    On the gripping hand, even if it is somehow important to the plot and characterization, how do I get a 1580’s English privateer, a 1870’s Texas panhandle rancher, and a 1920’s Long Island detective to 1980’s or 1990’s Japan with a camera and a bunch of money?

    Grins, Ducks, and Runs Away.

    1. You do know that “timeslip” movies and TV shows are popular right now here in Japan? One of them had a ninja-trained young woman escaping into the present, where an older woman takes her in hand… and occasionally unleashes her to deal justice to a wife-beater, a thief, and various others. So the start of your story might very well be having the privateer, rancher, and detective walking into a Ginza bar… if not your story, it certainly sounds like a great setup for a joke. Now work on the punchline, okay?

  16. My view on writing erotic scenes in a book is possibly a variant of Sarah’s. If it’s functional — i.e., serves a specific purpose in the plotline — , I don’t care how graphic it is — as far as I am concerned, sex is a part of life and not ‘dirty’ in and of itself. (There are, however, different ways to be explicit — a scene can be obviously loving or it can be just plain gross.)
    If, however, the sex is there primarily for titillation, then consider if it needs to be there at all. Or just have the beitzim to admit you’re writing erotica. (And yes, I do believe erotica and pornography are different things.)
    While writing my first-ever romance I ran into this issue. When the protagonists finally consummate their relationship, the woman has a lot of baggage in this area and I deliberately wrote a couples-friendly scene in some detail to show how a considerate, loving partner might handle this.
    Once it’s established that the pair have successfully negotiated this hurdle, further encounters are only hinted at, not described.

    As for Ringo: he’s clearly skillful at this, but I find BDSM stuff so viscerally repulsive that I actually found myself flipping pages past them. Which is a pity because I really enjoy Ringo’s writing, generally.

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