As I’ve been reading submissions for my school’s literary magazine, I’ve been noticing that people like to write about sex. A lot. If I were to completely fabricate a statistic, I would say that 95% of the submissions I’ve read recently had a sex scene. And of those 95%, only 1% got it right. The other 94% usually get very (euphemism ahead)… technical in their word choices. Which, let’s be honest, is not necessary. We are all adults, and we all know which body parts are involved in sex.
This leads me to my hypothesis: most bad sex scenes have one thing in common, and it’s lack of subtlety. Like with all things writing-related (dialogue tags, use of adverbs and adjectives, sex) less is more. Really.
I recently read an interview with Joan Wickersham, author of the brilliant short story collection The News From Spain (all the short stories are called “The News from Spain” and they are all astonishing) and she said this about writing: “You rarely get it right in the first draft; once in a while you do, but most of the time, at least in my experience, you have to fumble around and get it wrong for a while.”
Wickersham wasn’t writing about sex, but the same advice applies. Sometimes you have to write a very bad scene before you realize it’s not working. What’s more awkward than writing a sex scene? Having someone else read your sex scene. And critique it. Because no one wants to read your work and point out why a sex scene didn’t work. Why are there so many nipples in this scene? is not what you want to hear from your dear, trusted readers. But if they are dear, trusted readers they will ask you this. And you should listen and institute a nipple moratorium in your work.
So here are a few examples from literary fiction of how a sex scene doesn’t need to read either like a knock off of 50 Shades of Gray or like an uncomfortable gynecological exam. By no means is this a comprehensive list, so don’t get your panties in a twist if I’ve left off your favorite.
• From The Dive From Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer
This is the story of Carrie, a Midwestern girl whose high school sweetheart and fiancée Mike is paralyzed after a diving accident. Their relationship had been strained prior to the accident, and a few months after Mike is paralyzed, Carrie leaves Wisconsin (and Mike) and moves to New York City where she begins a relationship with an older man, Kilroy.
His mouth there. His tongue reading me like Braille, like he didn’t want to miss a word. Mike—well, he’d been reluctant. On my birthday, maybe after we’d fought. For a special occasion, a contribution to an annual fund—there’s money in the bank. But not because he wanted to.
Kilroy wanted to. The first time I tensed up, guarded, thinking Don’t, wanting to say he didn’t have to, but one hand stroked my thigh reassuringly while his tongue lazed along, and I let go of the clenched muscles and turned inward, and something that was half scream and half moan came together and started toward my vocal cords, but so slowly the wait itself was worth a scream… (Packer 160-1)
I think the power in the scene is in the juxtaposition of Carrie’s past relationship with Mike and her new relationship with Kilroy. “But not because he wanted to” seems indicative of Mike and Carrie, not just their sex life but their relationship in general. Because the next paragraph, “Kilroy wanted to” is powerful in what it tells us about Carrie’s new relationship. Also notice the lack of technical terms. Some writers write a sex scene as if it’s a play that needs stage directions so the reader is told what everyone is doing and saying every second. This can make the scenes go on so long that the reader is either squirming in discomfort or laughing. Instead, try thinking of these scenes the same way you think of dialogue tags—you don’t need unnecessary descriptors.
• From The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve
This is a love story that spans several decades. Linda and Thomas meet as teens and then are separated by a car accident. When they meet again in their twenties, they are both married and begin a disastrous affair. This scene is from that time:
Either he was crying or she was—it was to be expected—and he was astounded at how profound was his sense of relief. He thought the words drinking her in even as he was, his mouth so thirsty, so greedy, he could not even take the time to speak to her. There would be hours later when they could talk, he thought, but for now it was simply skin and breasts and long limbs and the awkwardness of needing to pull back to lift a dress overhead or to unbuckle a belt. And it was as though they were teenagers inside a Buick Skylark convertible. Not needing to be anywhere else. Unable even to conceive of being elsewhere. (Shreve 192)
Shreve treads lightly here, and this lightness is a great juxtaposition of the passion Thomas is feeling after being reunited with Linda after more than a decade apart. There is the shared memory of their past, the reference to feeling like teenagers again, when they first fell in love. Also the phrase “drinking her in” is powerfully intimate; it conjures images without being explicitly graphic.
• From The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
In this novel, Macon is a reclusive, grieving dad who has recently lost his twelve year old son. His wife leaves him and he’s left with his son’s dog, who barks and bites and generally misbehaves. Enter Muriel, an obedience dog trainer who is Macon’s complete opposite. She is impulsive and reckless; she feels everything in life in exaggerated fashion. This passage is from the first time they sleep together:
Then she came over to the bed and lifted the quilt and slid under it. He wasn’t surprised when she pressed against him. “I just want to sleep,” he told her. But there were those folds of silk. He felt how cool and fluid the silk was. He put a hand on her hip and felt the two layers of her, cool over warm. He said, “Will you take this off?”
She shook her head. “I’m bashful,” she whispered, but immediately afterward, as if to deny that, she put her mouth on his mouth and wound herself around him. (Tyler 183-4)
Notice that the sensory details do the heavy lifting for us, the “fluid silk” which is cool on top of her warmer skin. Macon was a reclusive man before his son’s death; this is the first woman other than his ex-wife that he’s slept with in decades. His hesitation and eventual interest feel natural and organic. Also there’s something interesting about all the contradictions in this piece. Macon tells Muriel he just wants to sleep—but then he lays a hand on her hip. Muriel tells Macon she’s shy—but then she kisses him and “winds herself around him.”
• From The News From Spain by Joan Wickersham
The passage below is from the first short story in Wickersham’s collection, and it’s the story of married couple Suzanne and John who attend the wedding of an old college friend. It is the first time the couple has gone away together since Suzanne learned that John slept with someone else two years ago.
For the first time in all those months, she took him in her mouth. She heard him crying; and then realized he wasn’t crying. Then he tried to reciprocate, and she said, sharply, “No!” and they both froze, she because she was wondering, again, what exactly had gone on in that bed in Chicago, and he because he knew what had gone on—and now, suddenly, feeling him tense, so did she. There was a long, still, dangerous moment, but she pulled his mouth to hers, and got her hips against his, and things went on with a roughness that was only partly fueled by rage and sorrow. (Wickersham 20)
Why does this small scene work so well? I think it’s mostly structural. The first sentence is direct and to the point; it tells us what is happening. The second sentence heightens the tension. (It even has a semi-colon! As Rick and David’s posts pointed out, semi-colons can be powerful punctuation marks indeed.) But the last two sentences are masterful. They grow more complex as Suzanne’s emotions about having sex with John grow more complex. The punctuation of the sentence—the exclamation mark, the em-dash and the commas—start and stop the action, which mirrors what is happening in Suzanne’s mind. She wants to make love to her husband, but she can’t stop thinking about what he did with that other woman. And if you are ever tempted to over-write a scene, remember the subtlety of this last line: “things went on with a roughness that was only partly fueled by rage and sorrow.”
Packer, Ann. The Dive from Clausen’s Pier. New York: Vintage Books-Random House, 2002.
Shreve, Anita. The Last Time They Met. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.
Tyler, Anne. The Accidental Tourist. New York: Random House, 1985.
Wickersham, Joan. The News From Spain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.