Sex on the Page: Instructions Not Included

We’ve all read sex scenes that read like an instruction manual, right? In my experience, there are a couple main reasons this happens:

– The author isn’t comfortable writing sex scenes

– The sex scene doesn’t really belong at that spot in the story

In both cases, it’s a problem of obligation. Just as sex works better when it happens organically off the page, so it is on the page. If you try to force it, or put it where it doesn’t belong, it just doesn’t work. It generally ends up being cold and unsatisfying, and won’t meet the goal of moving the story along, deepening relationships, creating conflict, etc. It’s also a good way to get your book tossed against a wall (though with ereaders, that doesn’t seem to happen quite as often). My advice on this is, if you feel obligated to write a sex scene, don’t. Better not to include sex at all, than to give your readers an unsatisfying experience with it.

If you do truly feel that a sex scene is called for, and fits at that particular point in the story, the next step is to really get comfortable in your character’s heads. Part of avoiding the instruction manual is baring our characters just as much emotionally as physically (sometimes more). You can’t keep that emotion to yourself – you have to lay it out on the page for the reader. Without emotions of some sort, you just have a series of stage directions.

How do we avoid writing sex that is little more than “put tab A into slot B”? For me, it’s all about emotions and sensory information. We all know how sex works. A good sex scene gives just enough detail to keep the reader oriented in the action, but focuses mainly on how the characters are feeling. What they’re sensing. And if we do that well enough, we evoke similar emotions in our reader (or a strong emotion of some sort, anyways).

I’m sure you’re aware by now that I prefer it on the hotter side, though I consider my scenes pretty tame in the grand scheme of things. I use graphic, frank words – no flowery euphemisms for naming body parts, and I don’t typically do metaphors either. My goal is to put my reader right there in the scene, but deeper than that. I want my reader right under the character’s skin, feeling what she (or he) feels, experiencing the same emotions.

To that end, I focus on the major senses – touch, smell, taste, sound, sight. My hero might kiss my heroine’s neck…but that only matters if the warmth of his lips sends a thrill through her skin, maybe makes her shiver. My heroine might run her hands over the hero’s chest, but what matters isn’t the action itself, it’s how her nails tickle as they move, and the way she looks at him while she’s doing it makes him hard. Makes him feel things that maybe he shouldn’t. Or doesn’t want to. Or finally can.

The actions in a sex scene should be a tool to reveal the connection between the senses and emotions. If the actual actions don’t evoke some sort of sensory or emotional response in the character, there has to be a good reason for it (and I dare say, one that needs fixing during the course of the story). When you’re writing sex, the best way to avoid writing an instruction manual is to make sure that every action reveals a feeling, either sensory or emotional. If it doesn’t, that’s an action that could probably be cut, in my opinion.

On Tuesday, Carol posted some great guidelines for authors who prefer not to include graphic details. For authors not comfortable writing graphic sex, that is a great way to start if it fits with your voice.

How well do you know your characters? Well enough to share a sexual experience with them?

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5 comments on “Sex on the Page: Instructions Not Included

  1. Amy Rose Davis

    Great advice, Jamie. I was thinking as I read this that I’ve read some graphic scenes that evoked no response from me whatsoever because they were too mechanical, too forced into the story, or too unemotional. And I’ve read scenes of sexual tension between two fully clothed characters who aren’t even touching that made my heart race because of the dialogue or emotion or POV or some other thing. I think the key is to realize that it’s not the *sex* that drives the story–it’s the story and characters that drive the sex.


  2. Carol Buchanan

    What a thoughtful and knowledgeable explanation of this subject, Jamie! You have obviously given it a great deal of thought, and as your books show, you know exactly what you’re doing and how to write for a genre more explicit than mine. I’m learning a lot from you, and so is anyone who reads your posts.


  3. Jamie DeBree

    Exactly, Amy. 🙂

  4. Jamie DeBree

    Thanks Carol…your posts have been very helpful as well, in broadening my own resources to draw from. It’s always a good idea to have more than one method for crafting at hand…never know what’s going to fit where (ironically, in light of this post…LOL). 😉

  5. Tiffany

    Your series on sex is extremely helpful, definitely since I’m certain, for plot purposes, that there will be at least two sex scenes. However, I don’t want it to be too hot and steamy because Rhemalda Publishing, who I really hope I get signed with, isn’t really for sex scenes. However, the emotions and conversation and expressions brought forth in the scene will be too important for me to pull a “Breaking Dawn” and just fade to black.

    Plus, have I mentioned that I am an 18-year-old virgin? lol.

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