2 Feb 2011

Let's Talk About Sex Baby....Word of The Week

Well yeah, as the song goes really, let's talk about sex. Let's just get right down to the nitty gritty. How does one write the perfect sex scene? Neither too smutty/pornographic nor too fluffy and schmaltzy. What words do you use to describe parts of the anatomy? Do you make it funny? What if everyone who reads the scene assumes you've written it based on your sex life + the person you're sleeping with? What if what if what if................

In case you're new to the blog and am wondering WTF is this crazy person going on about, every week I do Word of the Week (WoTW). I pick a word and talk about it in relation to writing. The last few weeks' words have been quite intense - and provoked a lot of discussion - so I thought I'd do something a little more light-hearted this week and talk about sex.

This whole post was inspired by one of my status updates during Nanowrimo, when I was struggling with writing the sex scenes in my book. Seeing as one of my main characters is a sex slave, I couldn't really avoid writing about it, but god it was hard . My status update read:

"lots of people have asked to read my nano book but I'm very sorry I can't show it to any of you. It has sex in it and then you'll know far too much about what I think about sex and it's just all too wahhhhhhhhhh I bet Jilly Cooper doesn't have this problem she just gets on with it. Help! "

This status provoked 21 comments as to what makes a good sex scene and whether people can still look you in the eye after you've described anal sex (not that I have, just a for example).

So - is there an art to writing a good literary sex scene? And what do I even mean by good - everyone has different ideas of what makes a good sex scene right?! And clearly none of this applies if you're writing erotica/bonkbusters/posh porn etc.

My best example of this is the library sex scene in atonement. It's simple but obvious and leaves your imagination to fill in the blanks (blanks that were hugely helped by the divine James McAvoy playing Robbie in the film). I think Ian McEwan should also win an award for excellent, if not the definitive use, of the word cunt.

Therefore, for the purposes of this post, I shall define a good literary sex scene as one in which you know exactly what is happening without it being described in TMI detail. Equally it should still be titillating - I want my readers' pulses to speed up a little, I want their pupils to be a touch dilated  - but I don't want them frantically dashing home for a quick one! It is the fine art of brushing the canvas without painting in the detail. 

It is also quite hard to write a sex scene that doesn't end up being comically amusing - mainly due to issues with what words to use for the various parts of the anatomy. If I list some examples here:

Male: penis, cock, willy, member, rod, erect, erection, hard on, stiffy, tumescent, spunk, come, cum, semen, sperm
Female: Clunge, gash, cunt, vagina, vadge, clit, flaps, pussy, quim, minge, lady garden, hairy mound, mons venus

I could go on - I did considerable research on twitter for this, which resulted in much tea being snorted out of my nose onto my laptop and general hilarity at our inability to find attractive names with which to label our body parts. I must also pay brief homage to Judy Blume here who surely must win an award for best name for penis ever - the hysterically named 'Ralph' in the book Forever - followed by the immortal line "I have an uncle Ralph". Loving how this does not in any way, diminish teenage ardour.

There was also much revulsion at any of the common metaphors used in books including things like "his eager fingers caressed her wetness" - for a start, how can fingers be eager? They're just fingers - are they possessed? Let's not even go near the wetness side of things. This is what I mean by TMI - we know what you're doing, either use the proper words (it's a clit, folks, every lady has one) or just don't bother at all. As for descriptions of orgasm - where everyone comes together naturellement, all the talk of waves crashing and reaching peaks and riding it out sometimes makes me wonder if the characters are fucking or on some sort of outward bound course.

Which brings me onto the verb one uses for sex scenes. Do they fuck? Do they make love ? Do they shag? Do they 'do it'? Do they screw? Is he giving her one? Shafting her? The list is endless. I know that there are different types of sex - fucking is different to having sex IMO - but really, lets call a spade a spade people. They're having sex. End of.

My final issue with writing about sex is actually fear of how it reveals what your own attitude to sex is. My book involves several different types of sexual relations - infidelity shags, loving sex and paid for fucks. All of which have to be described differently + provoke different reactions in the reader. It doesn't mean that this is the type of sex I have myself, but when you've had the same partner for many years does that mean your readers think you're drawing on experience. Ultimately my characters define the sex they have - not me - I'm just their conduit and I certainly haven't experienced (sadly?) some of the situations I describe.

I guess the main conclusion I can draw about writing a sex scene is that - much like the act itself, and like writing - everyone does it differently. You have to write a sex scene that stays true to your book, its voice and its characters and screw everyone else (bad choice of words, slaps self). Surely, much like sexual partners - for every sex scene, there is the perfect reader? You just have to work out which buttons to press.

Thanks for listening - and for the very entertaining contributions to this from the tweeties! As ever, please let me know your thoughts. Am hoping to be back tomorrow night with a photo essay and then interview day on friday. Sunday is going to be my Top 10 Poems!

Thank you and goodnight

Stupidgirl has left the building


  1. fair point - well made (even that sounds filthy now) much fun

  2. I think I've been a bit of a Lady Garden with the sex scenes in my memoir. Considering they're MY sex scenes. Maybe I should grow a pair...

  3. You have to establish your voice -- the character's lexicon -- before you write the sex. If you do that properly, you can get away with all sorts of things.

  4. You don't always have to go right to the central control room. Describe other body parts. Tell about the surroundings, the quiet sounds leaking in from outside., tactile sensations and the rest. you know, be a little Marcel Proust about it (may help in certain instances?)or perhaps 'artists and models' paint the entire scene, not just the clinical parts

  5. Also...I think you have to be brazen and unafraid. Who cares if people think you're writing from experience? That's actually quite hot! There's anal sex and there's "anal" sex...

  6. I know how you feel but I agree with 'me again' you have to ignore it. Although after I wrote a story about an older woman discovering sex my sister-in-law (who'd been staying with us) commented 'I know all about hearing sex from another room' *blush*

  7. I think you have to approach writing about sex with abandon. Think too much about it and it becomes clinical and not realistic. I also find that sometimes you're simply not in the mood to write a sex scene - and that's fine too. You need to establish what makes it comfortable for you.

    The terminology is a difficult one but as long as it works with your characters' personalities I think its fine. The Marquis de Sade got an awful long way with "venus mounds" ;p

  8. Rhiannon - exactly whatyou say is right actually - whatever fits with your character's voice. Writing it has not been so much of a problem as thinking about other people reading the sex scenes.

    Rachel - I like the idea of writing with abandon, and (not sure what this says about me) but I actually wrote a lot of my sex scenes first for nanowrimo and then er, filled in the gaps as it were.

    I actually think this post needs a follow up around emotions - as the key thing for a good sex scene IMO is conveying desire TBH. and you can do that without explaining the nuts and bolts of the situation - it's about witholding details + what you don't see that is titillating IMO.

    Siren - that's too funny wahhhh!

    Will - I love Artists + models

    Chrystal - maybe just be true to your character/your voice. Then it'll be right.

    Thanks for reading + commenting all

    SG x

  9. This made me laugh out loud: "how can fingers be eager? They're just fingers - are they possessed?"

    You make very good points in your post, but this one probably sums it up for me:

    "You have to write a sex scene that stays true to your book, its voice and its characters and screw everyone else."

    I would add you have to write a scene that's true to you. If it's launguage with which YOU are uncomfortable, the reader is NOT going to enjoy it, either.

    Even if his or her fingers are eager...

  10. You could also employ these 2 for the male member: John Thomas (or Johnson if in the US) and The Bishop.

    I like to view sex in literature as key to understanding the relative status/power of the participants in the relationship. You can also write about the before (obviously) and the after (less frequently done it seems). I wrote & videod a scene from my novel which is all about the post-coital, the two never touch one another, but it is (hopefully) crackling & fizzing with sex (and power). Sadly my video editor is still pouring over it a year after the filming... Can't get the staff - which reminds me of another word for the male member...

    :-) Marc Nash

  11. My fingers are always eager. And willing. They are much smarter than me, too. So there.

  12. Marc - sorry I just saw this comment. Stupid blogger! I think the before + after are key as well. As for staff wahahahah Not heard the bishop before though

    John - BEHAVE! Are you the first man in history with possessed fingers?! LOL