I mentioned on Friday that I don’t do Romance—the storytelling genre, I’m quite the romantic in other areas—but that one thing I do know how to handle is intense emotional scenes. And if there is one romance-related scene that is very easy to get wrong it’s intimate ones aka sex scenes.
Sex scenes are very difficult to get right because there is a very fine line between classy and raunchy and between subtle and purple prose. In order to avoid being too descriptive, often authors fall into the trap of making their prose as flowery and would-be-poetic as humanly possible. This is Purple Prose, where eyes become visual organs, and genitals become things no genital should ever become. The result is a weary and often confused reader, who doesn’t know why you’ve suddenly started going on about the girth of magical beanstalks—I wish I was kidding on this particular and very specific example, but the world is a scary place. George R. R. Martin has never learned this lesson and that’s why his descriptions of genitalia are freakishly specific and downright weird sometimes.
That is purple prose but raunchiness is another pitfall. There is such a thing as too much information when it comes to sex scenes and too many details and filthy language can put off many a reader. Just ask Laurell K. Hamilton on how many people turned on her when her sex scenes in the Anita Blake series became, perhaps, too explicit. The problem with raunchiness is that for one thing, it can sound disgusting and not exciting, and secondly, it can devolve into what the lovely people at TV Tropes like to call “Ikea Erotica,” where the descriptions are all about inserting Pin A into Slot B, over and over and you never want your sex scene to sound like a Swedish instruction manual.
I’m no expert on Sex Scenes, though I have done a few that toe the line of classiness. I won’t have any samples this time around as I want to keep it safe for work. Having said so, some time ago I published a Bad Blood chapter with a few borderline NSFW descriptions. The scenes is not exactly intimate and is a bit rape-y, but it is subtle in its descriptions. Click here for the chapter.
“Less is More” is sometimes the right approach to intimate scenes, with your narrative only describing the beginning, hinting at where things are headed and then fading to black. This keeps you clean and classy but it runs the risk of being anti-climactic, particularly if it’s a moment of passion that’s been building for a long time. Readers want to be excited and even aroused in that moment, and the fade-to-black and lack of details will not give them that and will frustrate them instead.
So what is the answer? How do you keep the scenes classy yet sexy, intense yet engaging? Being vague always helps. Focus more on the characters’ feelings, on what they think and experience, of the emotional and physical pleasure. Mention “her touch” and “his caress” but let the readers’ mind do the rest. Trust me, your readers will picture things infinitely more intense and sexy—and sometimes even kinky—than you ever could without crossing a few lines.
If you need to do descriptions, do them early in the intimacy. From the moment they embrace to when they’re both naked on a bed—or the floor of the mountain cabin with the crackling fireplace—get your details in right then, describing touches, caresses, kisses and a few licks here and there if you like. If you do it right, it’ll be sexy and you’ll hook the audience in, so that when you go into the emotional intensity and the vagueness in description, they’ll fill in the blanks. As I said, your audience will come up with stuff that would make a pornstar say “Dude, a bit much!”
You also have to accept, before you write the first word of the scene, that we all have different perceptions of what is sexy, of what is raunchy. Your hardcore “pounding it” scene, which you thought so intense you needed a shower after you were done, could be quite lame and puritan for others.
A good baseline, though, is this: Does it sound straight out of Fifty Shades of Grey? Then you need to dial it down and pedal it back a few notches. Does it sound like Victorian Era erotica? Depending on which one you’re thinking of, you might need to dial it way down. We like to think of the Victorians as repressed but sheesh, they could get nasty. If it sounds too bird & the bees thing, then you’re on the opposite end.
As with every form of fiction, it takes practice and many mistakes to get the formula for the intimate scene right, and this is where your editors and proofreaders—my friends proofread my stuff, because I need people who won’t give a damn about my feelings and strangers might just do that—will help you out. You’ll gauge their response and learn.
On a last note, I’ll say this: Before you even write the intimate scene ask yourself: is this scene necessary? If it’s purely gratuitous then you’re just padding the page and word count and it’ll be worthless no matter how well written it is.