Sex Scenes in Novels

05/18/2010 10:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I tried to think of sexier title for this post, but they all sounded icky and the last thing you want when writing about sex is an ick factor. Writing about icky sex: terrific. Writing icky about sex: terrible.

I've thought about this ever since Pia Lindstrom, from Sirius Radio, shocked me out of my I-can-handle-any-question hubris by asking something to the effect of, "I was surprised by how much sex is in your book. You did it well. People say it's hard to write about sex. How'd you do it?"

Um. Um. Now there was a question I hadn't been asked before. Sex is included in my work. (Ask my mother-in-law. When she read one of my earlier works -- an in-the-drawer-book -- she told my husband that I wrote sex novels,) but before running to the bookstore in hopes of getting a fun sex novel, save your money. Enjoy something by Jackie Collins. I wanted to convey the gritty emotional side of the bedroom; the stuff we hate to admit is true.

I had to answer Pia (and fast.) How did I write about sex?

- By praying no one would ask me about it.
- By telling myself that my husband knows I'm not writing about him (except for the good parts, of course.)
- By remembering that writing about sex isn't about insert Tab A into Slot B -- it's about the emotion behind the writhing.
- By remembering what Elizabeth Benedict said in her wonderful book, The Joy of Writing Sex: "A good sex scene is not always about good sex, but it is always an example of good writing."

Actually, it's easier to write well about ghastly sex -- when the character is damaging herself through the act, or using sex as panacea or cover-up -- than it is to write about good sex. Perhaps it's a variation on Tolstoy's aphorism about happy families vs. unhappy families. Fantastic sex is remarkably similar in how it lights up the brain, but I-gotta-get-through-this-somehow sex is a textured way to reveal the problems in a relationship.

When writing about my main characters, sisters Lulu and Merry, I wanted to show them reacting in wildly divergent ways to the same trauma (the murder of their mother by their father.) Naturally, their experiences of sexuality were defined by that horrendous act. If I wanted to reveal the ways they were affected by witnessing their mother's death, I needed to go into their bedrooms, and not in a polite manner.

Readers know when a writer has stepped away from the character and inserted a boilerplate-sex moment. It's easy to understand why a writer might avoid writing honestly about sex. Nobody's comfortable with the idea that readers might think they are reading a page from the writer's life. Which means, if you want to be true to your reader, you have two choices. 1) Suck it up, take the readers off your shoulder, and be willing to go all the way (sorry about that -- couldn't resist) in revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly, or, 2) Skip the sex and use the f a d e - o u t.

Finally, skip the dirty words and the 'proper' ones unless they fly naturally out of your characters. When reading, I hope writers will capture the character's true inner monologue, leaving only the tiniest space between character and reader. Clinical terms leap out from a page as though the writer is shouting. What goes on in a character's mind as Tab A meets Slot B? Does their inner dialog describe their lover's body parts? Really? Do they use words, God forbid, like 'glisten.' Is that what you do?

Writing great sex is sort of like having great sex -- you must lose yourself in the truth of the moment, but it's better than real life. Because afterward you can go back and edit until the moments are just exactly what you want.

Try doing that in bed.