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Sex in Fiction—Do They or Don’t They?

March 3, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 10, 2011

Do your fictional characters have sex? And if they do, how do you present it?

I know, quite a personal question. But the topic of sex in fiction is important for writers.

Do they or don’t they? Will they or won’t they?

Are the acts explicit or implied? Do they happen off the page, behind closed doors? How often do characters indulge? Is a character’s personal life integral to the story or merely part of the background?

How can you write sex into your stories in a way that fits character, story, and reader expectation?

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Choosing to include the sexual activities of characters is a significant decision for writers. And once that decision is made, writers are faced with dozens of related decisions.

So . . . Where does the writer start the decision-making process? I’d normally suggest going with what the story demands, but the writer thinking about putting sex in fiction should really consider something else first, something before plot or story.

I’m talking genre.

The story might demand a particular style of sex scene, but if the genre you’re aiming for has different expectations, you need to consider that as soon as possible in the writing process.

Yes, of course you could pursue a different genre, but if you know the market you’re after, why not start as you mean to continue?

So, genre. Where to start? What should writers consider?

What are the

  • Expectations
  • Requirements
  • Limitations
  • Prohibitions

No, these aren’t all the same question. What do the readers expect from a novel in the genre? Are sex scenes necessary, a requirement, or can a good book get by without them? What about the length of scenes? How much do readers expect to see? How much detail do they want? What is the publisher looking for?

What words are called for? Do you go with solid and basic Anglo-Saxon choices or choose euphemisms?

Are there limitations? How far is too far with sexual practices? How do you know if you’ve included the right number of scenes with the right degree of detail?

Does the genre prohibit sex ? Certain acts? Certain combinations of characters performing those acts? Or does the genre say anything goes?

Consider the romance genre. On one end of the spectrum are the inspirationals. Explicit sex? Not likely. Maybe not even an allusion to lovemaking. Some novels, however, have pushed the limits because of the needs of the story. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers covered incest, rape, and prostitution as well as loving sex between committed couples. The story was eventually about redemption, but the sex was clear and graphic. This book would be considered an inspirational romance by most, but it differs from mainstream inspirationals in its frank portrayal of sexual issues and explicit sex scenes.

I once read an inspirational in which the hero and heroine didn’t have sex together, but because the characters were indeed humans with healthy bodies, they took care of their own needs. A heroine with a drawer filled with sex toys probably wouldn’t be accepted in an inspirational romance. But masturbation has been done.

On the opposite end of the romance spectrum from inspirationals is erotica. Books in this sub-genre might include a higher number of sex scenes than what’s found in traditional romances, and the type of sex is typically both more adventurous and graphic.

Scenes in erotica might include bondage, dominance and submission, both heterosexual and homosexual sex, and multiple partners.

Other sub-genres of romance typically fall between the no sex of inspirationals and the abundant sex of erotica.

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Writers have to know what’s required and what’s prohibited, either before they begin their stories or before they submit them to an agent or publisher. The writer would be wise to know the expectations and the limitations—the limitations on both ends of the scale.

What about mystery or suspense? Does the lead character, male or female, take time for sex? Does the pace of the story allow for it? That is, would it make sense for the amateur detective to pause for a quickie if the story’s timeline covers only two and a half days?

Perhaps (James Bond never let the fate of the world stop him). But perhaps the lead has time for nothing beyond following clues and solving the mystery or finding and defeating the antagonist. The writer must decide whether the story will contain sex and then plan accordingly.

If sex is necessary for revelation of character, a mystery could open with the main character having sex, having just had sex, or being interrupted just before sex by the incident that begins the story.

Sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, adventure, literary novels and YA may or may not include mentions of sex. Again, the plot’s timeline is key here. If the lead characters are under tight time constraints, they’re not likely going to spend an hour having sex. If they imagine they face the end of the world, however, all bets are off.

If sex can reveal character and/or advance plot and/or increase tension, and if the genre allows or encourages or permits sex, then the writer should think about including sex in his novel.

Elements to Consider

Once you’ve learned that the genre either allows for or encourages sex and you’ve decided your characters will indulge, what’s the next step? Do you just drop your characters in a location and have them go at it?

Yes. You could do that. A sex scene is just another action/event in the life of the characters. You need to give it the same considerations you would any action scene—buildup, tease, a balanced length, a resolution, and consequences.

But it’s also not simple. You’ve got choices. Lots of choices. You’ve got to know your characters, how they’d behave. Ever wondered how someone else has sex, what they think about, what their purpose for sex is? Maybe you haven’t for someone in your real world, but you’ve got to think about these things for your characters. Their motivations for sex—as for each of their actions—have to be consistent for the characters. The acts themselves need to fit the character or the person the character imagines himself to be or the person the character wants to be.

The character’s thoughts about sex and his/her partner need to be true to that character and they need to reveal something about the character.

Character consistency is only one issue. What other considerations are there?

I briefly mentioned many of these at the top of the article. Let’s look a bit closer at some of them.

Length of scenes
Sometimes sex in a story is simply a mention, part of the exposition. There may be no scene at all.

~  Max dropped his business card on the nightstand, kissed the lady goodbye, and strapped on his Glock as he headed out the door.

~  “You were great last night, lover,” Amber said. “Much more of that and I’d’ve slept through the alarm clock.”

~  Annie didn’t have time to make the bed. She gave the rumpled sheets one last glance before she ran out the door, smiling like a loon.

Or, love scenes could run for an entire chapter and detail every move made by the lovers.

They can include dialogue, thoughts, and actions. They may include a play-by-play or the events may skip forward. They can begin in one location and end in another.

They may be ultra-short or run for a few lines or paragraphs, a few pages, or the length of a chapter.

A mix of scene lengths would bring variety to a book, keep the reader from predicting what will happen in each scene, keep the reader from being bored.

Number of scenes
Genre may dictate the number of scenes. If you don’t know what’s expected or required for your genre, read more books in the genre or ask about the requirements.

If you get to decide on what’s appropriate, decide. Don’t just fall into a love scene now and then. Use your scenes to create tension, reveal character, and advance plot. (Yes, I’ll say that often. Every scene should accomplish at least one and preferably two of these goals.)

Don’t be skimpy—but it’s good to leave your readers wanting more.

Don’t go overboard just to include more sex. The scenes need to fit the story.

First Scene
How soon into the story is appropriate for the first sex scene? That depends on the purpose of the scene—are you showing how much of a Lothario a character is? Does the scene bring the characters closer? Does it drive them apart? Is sex the inciting incident?

What do you intend to accomplish with the first sex scene? Find the best place to do that.

Some romance sub-genres don’t permit intercourse between hero and heroine until after the mid-point of the story. Again, know your genre.

Locations for sex
The choices are nearly limitless here. Consider writing against expectation and put young adults in a place other than a car. There’s nothing wrong with a floor, the back yard, up against the wall. Then again, beds work pretty well too.

Choose locations that fit the characters. Are they adventurous or timid? Do they find themselves at the beach a lot? Is one an exhibitionist?

Do they ever get interrupted because of the location they choose?

Humor and sex
We all know sex and humor can go hand in hand. Don’t be shy about mixing humor into your sex scenes. Don’t be hesitant about adding remorse, fear, hope, giddiness, or any other emotion either.

Sex can be emotional. Let your characters show their emotions. Or let the lack or hiding of emotions become a point of contention between characters.

Mixing it up
Give thought to variety. I’m not only talking position and location but about the act itself. Is sex always gentle? Is it always rough? Is it slow and languid or often over in a moment? Does one character always initiate intimacy? Does it become ho-hum for the characters and for the readers?

Mix it up.

Character Attitudes
Is sex a commonplace event for your characters, akin to brushing teeth and grabbing a meal, or does it mean something special? Be sure to include character reactions to sex. Character action and reaction clue in the reader to what’s important for the character. 

Do they enjoy it, regret it, want more, want less? Do they seek adventure in sex and thus look for a new partner, raising tension and creating all sorts of conflict? Do they crave passion or physical release or emotional bonding?

Whatever their feelings about sex, even if a character is apparently uninterested, make sure the reader picks up on those feelings. Allow the character’s feelings to influence the story.

Dialogue and other actions during sex
Make sure characters do only what humans can do while they’re having sex. If you’re writing a paranormal, yes, you have some leeway. But human men, especially those well beyond the age of 19, need recovery time between orgasms. And not all women are multi-orgasmic.

Can your characters form coherent thoughts during sex? Could they expound on their pet theories while in the throes of passion? We are talking fiction, but don’t turn the reader off by asking your characters to do the impossible.

Laughing during sex can be uncomfortable; make sure it’s possible if you combine humor and sex.

Some positions are awkward or painful. Show the discomfort. Write it into your story.

And some sexual positions are going to make your readers laugh. Expect it. Direct the readers’ responses.

Sex talk
Sex talk can be romantic, erotic, humorous. What’s the aim of the scene? How can dialogue before, during, and after sex affect the characters and the plot?

Keep in mind that characters may be tired after sex. How will this affect their dialogue? How can the differences between males and females affect their pre- and post-sex dialogue?

Audience/reader expectation
Are your readers primarily women who want longer, more detailed sex scenes, or do you write for men, men who don’t care for details but want to know the main character has a healthy (or successful) sex life?

Know your audience and what they want. Give them what they want and give it to them with a twist so they can’t predict what you’ll do in the next scene. Satisfy the reader but go beyond his expectations.

Orgasm
How do you portray orgasm? Is it explicitly described? Do both partners climax? (And how real is that?) If both partners do, is it every time? Do they offer to forego climax for some reason?

What about clean up? How real do you make the conditions? Do you mention the wet spot or do you focus on romance and emotion instead?

These are all valid considerations for the writer. The writer must decide what works for this story with these characters in this genre.

Safe Sex
Do the characters care about disease or pregnancy? Should you include dialogue about condoms? Again, start first with genre since there may be guidelines there. Keep in mind that some characters, no matter the genre, wouldn’t care about protection.

Contraceptive use—and contraceptive products—would be different for stories set in the past as well as for stories of the future.

After sex
How do you work the scene once the sex is over or write the scene that follows? Is the couple brought closer together? Does what they’ve done increase their conflict? Do they even refer to their encounter? That is, does it mean anything to them? If not, why include it? If sex is a requirement of the genre, find a way for it to be meaningful. Not meaningful as in momentous, but meaningful as in consequential.

Remember character reaction. If a character has a thought or reaction to what he’s done or what’s been done to him, the reader needs to know about it.

Number of partners
Maybe you write love stories between one man and one woman and you’ve never considered the possible number of partners one character could have. But not every story is about a couple always true to one another. Even if they get together in the end, couples might spend time with other partners during the story.

Is the number of sex partners critical for your story? Could that number be different for the secondary character than for the lead character? Do some genres permit the main character to have multiple partners per book? Do some discourage that practice?

You know my advice—check genre requirements. Beyond that, write what works for the story.

Language
Since this is an article for all writers, I’m not going to spell out the more graphic words here, but you need to consider word choice. What words do your characters use for sex? Are they having sex or making love or f—ing? Do they score? Get their rocks off? Sleep together, fool around, lose themselves in the ecstasy of their passion?

What words do they use for body parts? Do you use euphemisms or do you use clinical terms or do you use the words your older brother taught you when he was twelve?

Decide who your characters are and use the words they would use. This isn’t a time to worry about your Aunt Bessie, who you’re convinced will wash out your mouth with soap. Be true to your characters—give them words that fit them and their story.

Don’t elicit ill-timed laughter from your reader by having a character use a word he or she wouldn’t. Fit language to character.

If your characters are crude, put crude words into their mouths. If they’re classy, give them words of refinement and class.

If they’re upset, let word choice reflect their agitation, even if it’s the only time they cuss.

Details
Details can make or break your scenes. How explicit should you be? That depends on what you hope to accomplish, the tone you intend to set.

You could tell where body parts are at each moment or you could take a more general approach. You could drape a hazy veil over the scene and limit details to character feelings and impressions.

If you do describe all the actions and body movements and body parts, what do you say? Beside motion, what else should you consider? Think about sounds and scents.  Touch. The rhythm and speed of each character’s movement. The way one character reacts to or leads another character.

Decide what to include and then decide how to portray the details and movements. Do you make them humorous, make them realistic? Think of the intensity level you want for the scene, taking into account where it falls in the storyline and knowing you may have to increase intensity for the next sex scene.

What effect is created if the sense elements are ignored?  What does including them do for the scene, for the character, for the plot?

Do you include details of certain sex acts and not others? What about masturbation?

Try scenes with fewer details and then try the same scene with full details. Decide which version works for the scene and the story. You may have to make the same determination with every sex scene, playing with details and elements to create that just-right balance.

Viewpoint character
Decide whose eyes the reader should look through for each scene. Then imagine how the story would be different if you changed the viewpoint character. Which viewpoint character works best for the scene?

Consider alternating viewpoint character with each scene to give the reader insight into multiple characters. Or, if you want the reader to know how only one character feels about the sex, restrict the point of view.

Character dynamics
The relationship between characters is important for good fiction whether or not a story includes sex scenes. But these scenes may resonate for readers in a stronger way when characters fit one other.

Are your partners compatible? Are they in a relationship? Do they need to be? Again, these questions may go back to expectations of the genre.  But they also delve into character personality and character goals and motivations.

Is the attraction between characters realistic? Has it been demonstrated or merely stated? If there is a relationship and/or characters are attracted to one another, be sure the reader can feel the attraction. Simply telling the reader that a couple love each other is not sufficient. Convince the reader, with your writing skills, that the attraction or love is genuine.

Show how the characters are affected by the sex. How does it change them, advance the plot, create conflict?

Remember that characters need to be changed or affected by the acts, words, and thoughts of others and by what happens in story. Show your characters’ reactions to one another, especially for something as intimate as sex.

Or, if a character is not touched or changed, show that he isn’t and show why.

*******

Wow. This one is book length.

Did you know that simple sex had so much power over your characters and over you as the one who decides what happens as well as where and when it happens?

I’ve covered a lot of options, a lot of the possibilities for sex scenes in novels and the elements you should be aware of as you write. You’ll probably come up with considerations we didn’t even look at. But now you can approach your manuscripts with specifics.

You know the questions to ask and the options available for writing sex scenes that fit genre, story, character, and audience. You know what to include in sex scenes that will satisfy your audience and convince them that the fiction is real, scenes that fit and make sense and work for your story.

You know how to write good sex.

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Tags: , ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, How to

31 Responses to “Sex in Fiction—Do They or Don’t They?”

  1. Wendy C says:

    Yup, I think you covered everything, or would that be uncovered?

  2. I think uncovered suits, Wendy.

  3. Kat Sheridan says:

    You’ve written a fabulous primer here! I’m making notes like crazy. And it’s definitely a good idea to check a particular publisher’s/imprint’s heat index by reading a few in the targeted line.

  4. John Philipp says:

    Wow, Beth. So complete and perfect timing as I am just about to deal with a sex scene in my WIP.

    Thanks.

  5. Vivian A says:

    This is a fantastic outline of the process, Beth. It’s all things I think about while writing, but the methodical layout is brilliant. My mind is a much more cluttered place with things stacked on top of each other, so a resource that realigns and categorizes all that data is fabulous.

    Most importantly the only perfect sex scene is the one that tells us about the characters, regardless of the execution of the act. Excellent reminder.

  6. Lisa says:

    This:

    If sex can reveal character and/or advance plot and/or increase tension, and if the genre allows or encourages or permits sex, then the writer should think about including sex in his novel.

    Really covers a lot of ground for me! I mean, it really is like any other scene in a book — does the scene reveal character, and/or advance plot and/or increase tension? I get very annoyed with sex scenes in say a suspense book that are really examples of what you mention about — “dudes, do you REALLY have time for this right now?”

  7. Lisa, I really wonder about stories in which the leads don’t have time to eat or sleep or shower or change their clothes but do have time for sex. Sex, like every other action, must fit the story in every way, as you said.

    Kat, I’m glad this is note worthy. (FYI—The article is print ready.)

    John, I’m happy that this is timely for you. If you come across something I didn’t cover as you’re writing, feel free to let us all know.

    Vivian, I’m laughing at how the article came about. I’d think of one point which would lead to another and then to another. It didn’t seem very methodical in the writing stage. I’m also tickled at how deliberate the writing of sex is when the act itself can be so spontaneous and messy.

    Thanks to you all for commenting.

  8. You know I love this topic. Great article, Beth.

  9. You do it well, Olivia, writing sex into your fiction.

  10. Hi Beth. Great article. I’ve run into these kinds of questions in both my novels and in one of my short stories. Lots of food for thought here. I’ll definitely keep this article for reference as I consider how much, why and how detailed the sex should be in my ongoing projects.

  11. James, I’m glad you found the info helpful.

  12. Mark York says:

    Why, yes they do have sex. Better than most in every way including description and internal thought. And in a thriller, mind you. Most writers run from it or do it badly.

  13. Mark, glad to hear you write good sex scenes for your characters. You’re right in saying that some writers don’t have a handle on how it’s done.

  14. Dean says:

    Thanks for the insight.. I have been struggling with weather or not to include sex in my novel, and this gave me a pretty good idea. I was also struggling with how to write it so it is classy and won’t turn the reader off. appreciate the post =)

  15. Dean, there are so, so many options when it comes to sex in fiction. I’m glad you found something here to help.

  16. Beth I have a couple questions. I am working on a fiction novel here. Now I am not exactly sure what the criteria are when dealing with sex in a fantasy fiction. In most of the books I have read sex is not even mentioned. I want my book to have a sex scene however I am still not sure as to how to go about producing one in a book that follows the guidlines of J.R.R. Tolkien. From what I have read and worked on myself the story has no room for sex. How do you make room for something that has no place?

  17. I’ve seen what you’ve seen, Daneil, that some fantasy novels don’t have sex. That may simply be because the emphasis and focus is on something completely different. Also, writers might not include sex because they know a lot of kids will be reading their stories. Or maybe kids read the stories because there’s little to no sex.

    Why do you want a sex scene in your story? You’ve said there’s no place for it, so what would be its purpose? Adding any element just to have it in there won’t be good for the story.

    Actions and scenes and events should have meaning. They should propel the story forward and reveal characters. In the best stories, each event affects multiple areas of the story—a character or two, other events, conflict, the story’s tone and so forth.

    If you want a sex scene to draw characters together before they face a tough challenge, then you’ve got a reason for the sex. If you want characters to have sex to show that they’re human and have needs, you can report that they had sex—and what it meant to them—without having to go into a scene in depth. But you’ve still given us a reason for the sex.

    If there’s little physical contact in your fantasy world and your characters want to remember who they are as humans, that’s a reason for a sex scene.

    If characters think they’re going to die on their journey in your fantasy world, that’s a reason to have sex one last time with a loved one.

    If characters are caught up in a moment with an unexpected or forbidden lover and they know they only have one chance for sex, that’s a reason.

    There are dozens of reasons for characters to have sex, but there are also reasons to refrain. If you’re going against standards of the genre, make sure your reasons are compelling and that they have an impact on the story. You can do almost anything in a novel, but in order for the story to be strong and cohesive, characters must have reasons for what they do, events must be connected, and actions must have consequences.

    For your fantasy story, consider just reporting that someone had sex—He woke refreshed, ready to face the challenge that the Gofferd King had laid before him. He sat up, but reached a hand back to Palin’s shoulder. She’d been generous throughout the night, giving of herself, making him feel like . . . He smiled. Simply making him feel again. He left her bed, strapped on his weapons, and left without looking back.

    Or, you can indicate that sex will happen and just let the reader use his imagination—

    Maxx placed his hand on Palin’s lower back, guiding her to his pallet.

    “Wish I had a woman close by tonight,” Hearn called out, laughing.

    “We all wish you had a woman tonight,” Maxx said. “Then maybe you’d be less like a beast in the morning.”

    Hearn laughed again. “Nobody can be as sweet as you, Maxx.”

    Maxx caught the look Palin cast him from her hypnotic eyes. No, unless a man shared his bed with someone like Palin, he could never feel as satisfied as Maxx did.

    Just some ideas to get you going. Keep in mind that characters act because of motivations and react because of what happens around them. Give your characters sufficient reasons for what they do.

    I hope this helps.

  18. Katey W. says:

    I’ve been debating how I’m going to handle the sex scenes in my book for quite some time. In fact, I think I’ve put too much thought into it; stressed myself out quite a bit.

    This is by far the most helpful site I’ve found and the great news is that based on the Editor’s comments and suggestions, I seem to be heading down the right path.

    Thanks so much!!

  19. Katey, heading down the right path sounds perfect. I hope you find that’s the way it goes with everything you write. And I’m glad you’ve found the site helpful.

  20. Shelagh says:

    Beth, great article distilling the important things for authors to consider when approaching sex scenes.

    I have been trying to figure out how to fit my characters’ sex scene (important to both the plot and their development) and I realise that I have been thinking about how I am worrying about writing this scene properly, as opposed to what it will mean to them.

    Excellent article. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

  21. Shelagh, sometimes we need the action and sometimes we need the reaction. I hope to have gotten you thinking along the right track.

  22. Arianna says:

    This helped me so much! I need a really tender, passionate, romantic love making scene, and this helped me so much!

  23. Arianna, I’m glad you found what you needed. I hope your love scene is everything it needs to be.

  24. Fubsy says:

    I have just finished my first novel which has some very explicit sex scenes. The whole writing process had been very organic — it just flowed through me, and the sec scenes seemed to fall into place. My editor asked me some questions about the fact that the sex was so explicit and sent me to your post. It’s a wonderful exploration of why and how to use sex scenes. In answering the questions you have posed, I have come to a clarity which I did not have before. The sexual bond between the characters is an important piece of the flavour of the novel. In my review of the sex scenes I will be asking myself the questions you have posed. Your blog both confirmed my decision to have explicit sex and has also made me go back and check why each scene has been written. Thank you so very much for making your thoughts available. Great job.

  25. Fubsy, I’m glad the article was helpful. Sex scenes can add conflict, action, and emotion to fiction, but it’s easy to hit a wrong tone with them too. I hope yours do exactly what they need to do to move your story and characters along. Good luck with your writing.

  26. Heather says:

    Thank you this article was very helpful. I am a woman and I still have no idea how to write a sex scene from either a man or a woman’s POV. Haha that is how clueless i am.
    When I first attempted an erotica scene, while writing it, I thought ibwas doing pretty good. But after waiting a few days and re-reading it with fresher eyes, I was horrified at the image this painted in my head.
    Instead of a steamy sex scene, I got a bunch of farm animals wrestling around. Lordy, how happy I am to have fixed it before sending it to a publisher

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