With the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey (full disclosure: I’ve never read it, nor seen the movie, but I have seen the trailer) currently dominating the box-office despite being widely panned by critics, one thing seems as true as ever, sex sells. Most of us however are not writing romance or erotica, so what place do such scenes have in other genres, and how to manage them if, like me, you’d rather have all your fingers broken than have to type up a steamy scene?
1. Are they necessary?
Sometimes. We’ve all heard actors say things along the lines of, ‘I only do nudity when it’s integral to the plot,’ and then we all roll our eyes, knowing integral to the plot is Hollywood speak for will make the producers more money. Books can easily suffer from the same gratuitous and superfluous addition of sex scenes as movies are known for, but the difference is you the author can save us! (And yourself) from the awkwardness of an unnecessary sex scene.
Look at your story, and at your own motivations. Are you letting yourself feel pressure from society because other books you’re reading included such scenes? Well, don’t. Instead, focus on your characters and your story.
Your characters: They may very well be having sex, they also go to the bathroom, but it doesn’t mean such actions need to make it into the novel. I like to view sex scenes like bathroom breaks, you’re only going to include a bathroom break if something truly important to the plot happens during it. Such as if your character gets eaten by a T-Rex while on the toilet, à la Jurassic Park. Which brings us to point two.
2. Sex scenes are not about the sex.
If the scene is necessary to the plot it means there is a whole lot more going on than just the sex. This is the thing that got me through the most recent steamy scene I’ve written, realizing that while yes the characters are physically getting intimate the scene is not about the physical mechanics of what they are doing, which I feel so uncomfortable writing, but about the subtext of what’s going on with the characters, which is way more within my wheelhouse.
In my case the love scene I was dreading is about a burn victim who hasn’t let anyone actually see her in years finally overcoming her own shame at her disfigurement. When I was thinking of it as just the scene where Helen and Chase have sex I was terrified to write it. I left it out entirely in the first draft, and it proved to be a vast gaping hole in the plot, so I had to address it. Once I started viewing it instead as the scene where Helen goes from letting fear of her disfigurement dictate all her choices, and works through those challenges and overcomes them finally making the choice she wants not what her fear requires the scene practically wrote itself.
You may not know anything about writing a sex scene, but you know your characters and the subtext the scene is really about, so let them guide you, and it will be so much easier.
3. Fade to black.
I always use this. It may be a cop out, but it’s one that works. If you write way past the point you feel comfortable it will probably result in writing that your audience is going to feel uncomfortable reading. No one wants to end up winning Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award. Sure, some authors get graphic, but you don’t have to. I am a firm believer that implied sex is the best kind. Readers have a great imagination, they can totally pick up in their minds where you left off if they are so inclined. Plus, if someone really wants there to be more sex in your book they will write up some fan fiction.
4. Have someone who is less of a prude beta read it for you.
It’s always a good idea to have a variety of critique partners and beta readers for many reasons, but especially for areas that you feel are not your strong suit, or are not as comfortable with, the input of someone who is can be priceless.