Monday, July 27, 2009

Writing a Sex Scene

“If the sex scene doesn't make you want to do it - whatever it is they're doing - it hasn't been written right.” - Sloan Wilson

I decided, after posting the “Bad Sex in Fiction Awards,” I wasn’t the only one who found writing sex scenes difficult. C. Margery Kempe is quite accomplished in this area, so I asked if she’d consider doing a guest blog to give us all some pointers. I’m excited to say she agreed. Even if you are not a writer, I think you’ll find the information interesting.

C. Margery Kempe is the author of the erotic thriller Chastity Flame and a bunch of short stories. Coffee Time Romance has called her novel “…one thrill ride after another” and Wetwork author Philip Nutman says, " I wish I'd created this character… Erotic and witty, this is a page-turner."

I’ll turn the blog over to Ms. Kempe without further ado.

Thanks, Jane, for inviting me along to your blog! I offered to share my experience for writing a sex scene that won't make your readers cringe. It is a difficult thing to do, as the very existence of the Bad Sex Awards demonstrate. I think in large part this comes from the very writerly habit of going to metaphor when covering sensitive subjects. For a good sex scene, that often invites hyperbole if not outright guffaws. I'm going to show this while keeping everything PG-13, too, as Jane requested. Writing can be hot without being explicit.

The real key to a good sex scene is sensuality. This might seem obvious, but it's also something that our rather Puritanical society shies away from. Yes, I know we're bombarded with sexualized images constantly in the media, but they're teasing and usually rather sterile ones, too. Airbrushed and posed perfections stimulate without satisfaction.

When you start thinking about a sex scene, think about the set up. With characters who engage us, we're already interested in who they are, so we want to feel the attraction that draws them together. A sex scene isn't just a physical encounter: it's part of your character building. Don't concentrate simply on the mechanics or you'll have an awkward "tab A in slot B" scene that will make readers collapse with laughter. Consider how your characters would act at a moment like this. How do they make their first moves and what does it reveal? Does she go for an immediate, deep and lingering kiss? Or does he want to bury his hands in her hair first and nuzzle her cheek. Every move should add to the picture we've been building all along.

In chapter 3 of Chastity Flame, our heroine has an encounter on a train which tells us a lot about her life, her job and her attitudes toward sexual opportunities. When an older man offers to buy her a coffee on the Eurostar, it immediately turns into an opportunity for flirting:

Her gallant returned with coffee and all the accoutrements and she gratefully added a helping of cream to the rich black brew.

"Simon Chalk," he said by way of introduction, offering her a smartly manicured and surprisingly large hand to shake.

"Masie Diamond," Chastity offered, picking one of her stock names at random and reminding herself to keep to it. It was not, however, the name on her passport.

"Do you make this trip often? Or is that far too dull of a question?"

"How about 'what did you want to be when you grew up?'" Chastity asked with a smile. It was always one of her favourites.

As expected, he laughed and blinked a little at her. "I wanted to be a milkman," he said, his grin betraying a good bit of embarrassment at his sudden revelation. Chastity was sure he had expected to be the one leading the conversation.
From this exchange we find out that Chastity has done this many times, uses many aliases, and that she reads people quickly. As the conversation continues, they each reveal personal information that allows for the introduction of more overtly sexual innuendo:

"I wanted to be a circus performer," Chastity said, no longer sure if it was a lie or the truth. "I wanted to ride bareback on a horse and do pirouettes and stand on one leg."

Simon smiled at her. Unlike his initial predatory grin, there was a genuine warmth to it. "I can see you doing that. On a white horse with bells and shiny silver buckles on its bridle."

Chastity sipped her coffee and regarded him closely. "Maybe that's why I like leather… and straps and buckles."

His intake of breath was audible.
She's thrown out a nakedly sexual remark in order to gauge his interest and it has surprised him. Will he be intimidated by this or intrigued? Chastity watches him closely to see. Of course, he can't resist, but they’re on a train with other people, so at this point they can only talk about what they might do together. Simon knows that he has to prove himself to her and labours to do so, trying to prove what kind of lover he would be:

"I would start with the toes, yes, I'm sure of that," he said, his eyes caressing what his hands were denied. His voice lowered in both tone and register. "I would start with your toes in my mouth, happy to suck each one and enjoy the salty savour of them. And then I would run each fingertip along the muscles of your calf, needing to feel the interplay of the flexing tendons. I would caress your knees until I was sure I had memorized their shape. Only then would I consider your thighs. All right so far?"
Not surprisingly, Chastity is impressed. Why? Attention to detail, the kind of thing that makes a sex scene work, too. Simon concentrates on the sensations -- his and hers -- as he envisions the scene. He creates both a sense of urgency and a leisurely appreciation of their encounter. Arousal makes his voice change. We see what he's concentrating on, too. As the scene goes along, we see, hear, and feel Chastity's warm response to him.

Too often people pull back from a sex scene and then it feels impersonal. Picture every step, imagine every sensation: what does a kiss really feel like? Don't think of the ways you've read it described. Close your eyes and remember a really good one. Write it exactly as it was. Consider the rest of your body: What are the sensitive parts of your skin? What gets you going? If you feel embarrassed because writing a sex scene turns you on, DON'T. It probably means it's going well, because I can assure you, if you're not excited by your description, no one else will be either. That's the real secret!

Thank you C. Margery Kempe. I not only learned from this post, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. You make writing these scenes seem so easy with the wonderful examples from Chastity Flame. I have a feeling it may take some practice on my part to progress from “an awkward "tab A in slot B" scene” to “embarrassed because writing a sex scene turns you on,” but I’m looking forward to trying.

Please feel free to leave questions and/or comments for Ms. Kempe. Also be sure to visit her website.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Sloan Wilson, Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, C. Margery Kempe,how to write a sex scene


joe doaks-Author said...

I like the idea of what I’ll call nuance a lot. No need for, uh…anything more explicit. Emphasize the sensuality aspect…the reader figures out the sexuality. Good points…now, to revise what passes as pretty bad SS in my novel.

Best Regards, Galen

Imagineering Fiction Blog

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points....I know a bad scene when I read one, for sure. I close the door on sex in my books (due to my audience and genre), but these tips are good to know.

Mystery Writing is Murder

C. Margery Kempe said...

Jane, thanks again for inviting me here!

Galen, explicit works, too; you just have to lead your reader up to it.

Elizabeth, I don't know why a bad sex scene is so much more painful -- perhaps it evokes bad memories for so many of us!

(for some reason Blogger is not letting me use my open id).

Kathy said...

Great information! Margery's comment about not being embarrassed if your scene turns you on is a twist on Robert Frost's "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" maxim.

Thank you Jane and Margery.

Dana Fredsti said...

Sensuality is the key for me as both a reader and a writer of sex scenes. I can't stand scenes where I feel like I'm peeping at someone's gyno appointment!

Isabel Roman said...

I swear I left a comment...which isn't here. I'm beginning to think blogger has it in for me. My comment went something along the lines of: Great blog! And yes, sensuality is key. The use of all 5 senses is what really makes a sex scene.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Like Elizabeth, I don't have anything overtly sexual going on in my amateur sleuth mysteries. The only sex scene I've tried to write so far (in an unpublished manuscript of romantic suspense) was more humorous than romantic. Certainly wasn't sexy.

Bob Sanchez said...

Thanks for the post, Jane and Margery. I'm in the middle of proofing a ms. that has lots of Tab A/Slot B stuff, and it's boring. There is no mystery, no anticipation, and certainly no romance. In your examples, I like "his eyes caressing what his hands were denied." We know where his eyes were!

Good work. I've gotta say, though, the name "Chastity" sounds like a possible oxymoron.

Bob Sanchez

C. Margery Kempe said...

Thanks everyone for dropping by and leaving such interesting comments. This was fun!

C. Margery Kempe said...

Oh and Bob,yes, there's a good bit if irony in Chastity's name!

Helen said...

Very interesting. I've not had reason to write a sex scene, but I see what she means here. The lead up, the foreplay, is very important.

Straight From Hel

Anonymous said...

“If the sex scene doesn't make you want to do it - whatever it is they're doing - it hasn't been written right.”

Classic quote and great opening for your blog. Can't count the sex scenes I fast-forwarded through, both books and TV. Lots of bad ones out there.

Perhaps this would be a good time for authors to "outsource" a particular chapter.

Stephen Tremp

Marvin D Wilson said...

Great post, with lots of useful tips and points. Got it bookmarked for reference. Thanks both of you for this!

The Old Silly

Jane's Ride - Novelist Jane Kennedy Sutton's journey through the ups and downs of the writing, publishing and marketing world