How to actually write a sex scene
If there is but one literary sin, it would be sexual prose where the author is clearly blushing. You know what I mean. Where they use very strange words for genitals, talk about ‘the deed’ or use a bizarre range of metaphors that add absolutely nothing apart from ‘ahem, they uh, did it.’
We’ve all been there. It has been a pretty good novella so far. Sarah and Dave have been exploring their loveless marriages through subtle scenery and small intimacies, and now they are finally joined in the adulterous showdown of lust over a dead daughter’s bed. Or whatever. The scene has so much potential, darkness and subtlety set up for action, but it falls flat. Sarah, um, cups his…lips. Dave roughly…takes her? With his…heaving torso? Um yes. That. That just happened. Anyway, back to the story.
I’m cringing, the author is cringing, and the whole thing is just a hot mess. Never write anything you don’t understand enough to feel. Something you can grasp the next action of your character in, the way it looks, reads, feels, is. And God forbid you use the word ‘part’. Part of what? The IKEA cabinet he never set up after his wife got post-natal depression?
I’m not saying you need to commit adultery, become a pornstar or time travel to write good sex scenes. But you do need to have some empathy and imagination that isn’t based off a rather blushing memory of the sex scene in Titanic. I can’t even read Catherine Cookson’s work without dreading the inevitable ‘rough paws of his burgeoning lust tearing through to her milk white breast’. Urgh. Sex doesn’t have to be sexy. Unless you are writing it for Mills and Boon’s latest Sexy Bodice Adventures, relax. Make it fit with your work.
So how to improve, beloved middle aged virgin cat people, who I imagine write most of this scarily bad sex? Read more sex. I know, awkward. Scary to request in Waterstones. But as with anything, the more you learn the more you can do. Strings to your bow, or lipstick to his neck. Whatever.
Here are my good sex scene recommendations:
- Half A Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (check out her biography, she’s a legend). The jealousy, realism and sometimes raw portrayal of the intimate relations between characters reveals a lot more than underwear. You see the loneliness, daydreaming, bitterness and female sexuality shine through all of this book, at different parts of the protagonist’s life. Honesty makes this incredibly powerful. And there are no ‘strong paws’, so there is that too.
- Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s no secret that I love Japanese short fiction, but this short collection is something incredibly potent. The sex isn’t the usual bed+boy+girl, but the intimacy, small romances and attractions are both eerie and oddly absurdist. How that can come out as more realistic I can’t really explain, but it does. Pick it up and have a flick through, anyway.
- By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, by Elizabeth Smart. This is a sort of true, if manic, story. She writes in extremely poetic, spiritual, obsessive mania, straddling war, depression, law and philosophy while explaining how obsessed she is with her married (jerk) lover. It is intense, at times suicidal, and incredibly potent. At one point they end up in prison. She didn’t get the man, which is probably a good thing, because he was something that rhymes with ducking banker.
And, more deliciously perhaps, my worst sex recommendations:
- Fifty Shades of Grey (trilogy), by E. L James. Do I need to explain this one? Well, before you get too excited, I’m setting this as homework. Tally down every time she uses a terrible metaphor, a clumsy phrase or the words ‘dark’ ‘murmur’ ‘dirtily’. You’re welcome. This is educational.
- ANY Mills and Boon title, by various. Whether it is blushing virgin nurses, plain sisters or inhibited wives, this will be the most appallingly sexist, bafflingly implausable at 2D thing you’ll ever read. I recommend anything circa 1980 for full cheese value. Spoiler: He touches her part with his strong paws.
- List of the Lost, Morrissey. I mean, no one is surprised that he’s on this list. You are probably more surprised that I read it. I’ll admit to being curious after a screeching phone call from a friend about how impressively bad it was. Anyway. Think giggling. Think dribbling. Think incredibly pompous symbolism that is shoved down your throat with an impressive level of confidence for such an inconsiquential novel. See what I did there? Subtle, huh?
And thus, kiddo, concludes the lecture. Have fun scribbling, I promise to be as brutal as I am brunette.