81. Writing sex


This post is based on an exercise I did for my writers’ group.

Writing sex, like writing fight scenes, is difficult. Both involve altered mental states, and physical arousal. Yet the action repertoire is very limited. If you can’t make it fresh and an integral part of the plot, tell the reader it happened, rather than showing it.

Eight top tips.

The sex should

  • Advance the story. What is different for the characters between the beginning and end of the scene? If the answer is nothing, skip the scene
  • Show character in action. Different characters respond in different ways. Make the scene the physical embodiment of this.
  • Be a dialogue. Sex is a dialogue between two (or more) minds and bodies. It should be as unique as the other dialogues between the characters.
  • Maintain the spirit of the story. For example, if it’s a humorous story, make the sex humorous

The writing

  • Should be fresh and different for each sex scene. What is going on for the characters at time?
  • Less may be more. It doesn’t need to describe everything. Let the readers choreograph the action in their own heads.
  • Avoid too much plumbing, and too much purple prose. Avoid excessive “naming of the parts”.
  • What’s most sexually charged is often not the sex itself. The main sexual organ, the brain, is where the eroticism is. Look at the first Ernest Hemingway quote for an example of this


Examples of different ways to write sex

Humour – Jilly Cooper, Pandora

“You on the pill?” he asked Sophy as, in between kisses, he unbuttoned her shirt.

“Good, I am now going to shag the arse off you.”

Sophy was seriously big…As they carried on, Trafford, frantic to distinguish some of the magnificent heaving flesh, switched on his torch…The ensuing romp so excited Trafford he nearly fell out of the wardrobe, knocking over a canvas. Furiously Jonathan kicked the door shut. But by this time Sophy was too excited to notice. Later, as she ecstatically cradled a snoring Jonathan to her breasts, she wondered if she’d dreamt it, or had a man really slithered out across the floorboards.

Showing character – Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

She said, ‘Very well, you may kiss my vibrato.’

He took her left hand and sucked the ends of her fingers in turn, and put his tongue on the violin player’s calluses there. They kissed, and it was in this moment of relative optimism for Florence that she felt his arms tense, and suddenly, in one deft athletic move, he had rolled on top of her, and though his weight was mostly through his elbows and forearms planted on either side of her head, she was pinned down and helpless, and a little breathless beneath his bulk. She felt disappointment that he had not lingered to stroke her pubic area again and set off that strange and spreading thrill. But her immediate preoccupation – an improvement on revulsion or fear – was to keep up appearances, not to let him down or humiliate herself, or seem a poor choice among all the women he had known. She was going to get through this. She would never let him know what a struggle it was, what it cost her, to appear calm. She was without any other desire but to please him and make this night a success, and without any other sensation beyond an awareness of the end of his penis, strangely cool, repeatedly jabbing and bumping into and around her urethra. Her panic and disgust, she thought, were under control, she loved Edward, and all her thoughts were on helping him have what he so dearly wanted and to make him love her all the more. It was in this spirit that she slid her right hand down between his groin and hers. He lifted a little to let her through. She was pleased with herself for remembering that the red manual advised that it was perfectly acceptable for the bride to ‘guide the man in’.

Fresh use of metaphor – Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

She arches her body like a cat on a stretch. She nuzzles her cunt into my face like a filly at the gate. She smells of the sea. She smells of rockpools when I was a child. She keeps a starfish in there. I crouch down to taste the salt, to run my fingers around the rim. She opens and shuts like a sea anemone. She’s refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.

Perhaps the best sex scene ever written – Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Then they were together so that the hand on the watch moved, unseen now, they knew that nothing could ever happen to the one that did not happen to the other, that no other thing could happen more than this; this this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is the prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now, and where are you and where am I and where is the other one, and not why, not ever why, only this now; and on and always please then always now, always now, for now always one now; one only one, there is no other one but one now, one, going now, rising now, sailing now, leaving now, wheeling now, soaring now, away now, all the way now, all of all the way now; one and one is one softly, is one longingly, is one kindly, is one happily, is one in goodness, is one to cherish, is one now on earth with elbows against the cut and slept on branches of the pine tree with the smell of the pine boughs and the night; to earth conclusively now, and with the morning of the day to come. Then he said, for the other was only in his head and he had said nothing, ‘Oh, Maria, I love thee and I thank thee for this.’

 Where “the earth moved” comes from – Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them