How to write a crowd pleasing sex scene in your novel

Now I could have said, “how to write a steamy sex scene” or possibly a, “lust inducing, erotic scene of sensual proportions,” but that’s not what we are going for right now. The truth is that not everyone wants to read a graphic sex scene, and frankly many writers don’t want to write one. It can be just as uncomfortable to write one as it can be to read one–especially when poorly written. And yet if you plan to write adult romance, there is an expectation that your book will include at least one steamy scene.

So what’s a starry-eyed romance writer to do?

First things first, intimacy is sooooooo subjective. What is hot to one person is downright cringy to another. While one person might be down for a graphic erotica scene, another person might not. Therefore, it is important to prioritize mass appeal when writing a sex scene.

Writing a love/intimacy scene is a fine line between cringey and swoon-worthy, and so easy to get wrong. A writer can best tow this line by showing restraint. Writing with restraint means stopping just when things are getting spicy, not over writing a scene, and instead teasing your audience.

And remember less is always more. Sometimes ending the scene right when things are about to get really steamy is much sexier than giving us every sordid detail. Trust your reader to fill in the gaps of what happened between when they go to bed and when they awake the next morning.

So how can a writer broaden the mass appeal of their sex scenes while still keeping things sexy?

1.Fade to black is your friend

Fade to black refers to when a writer ends the scene just before things get too hot and heavy and we re-emerge after the sex has taken place. Fade to black is a great technique to leave us wanting more. There is something deeply sexy about not *really* knowing what happened, and relying on our imagination to fill in those gaps for us.

2. Avoid using anatomical terminology/ weird euphemisms

Anyone who writes romance knows that this is a delicate balance to strike. How do you refer to character’s genitalia and private parts? Do you go with correct medical terminology such as penis and vagina? Or do you spice it up with colorful euphanisms such as “his member” and “her slit.” *Ok ew I just cringed typing that, and if that’s any indication you should know what I am about to say*

As a rule of thumb, please avoid using anatomical terminology and overwrought euphemisms, and instead use what I call “dance around terms” in which you don’t say it, but we know what you are insinuating. When done well this can really up the steaminess factor without making your audience cringe and hope their mother doesn’t see what they are reading. Give us hints, allude to what you mean, but don’t actually say it. Trust your reader to get your meaning.

An example “she felt his hardness” or “he put his head between her legs and kissed her”

Given the context, we know what you mean and you didn’t have to use any cringe-inducing terms to help us get there!

3. Limit your use of vulgarities

Alright I have a rule. If you use the word c***k more than once you are writing erotica. The same is true for p***y and f**k (when used as a verb to mean intercourse). This isn’t to say that you can’t use these words, but please use them sparingly. If used too often they lose meaning and we get the sense that what you are writing is just vulgar rather than sensual.

4. Keep it vanilla

There are a lot of kinks out there, but to pretend we all share the same sexual fantasies would be silly. So you have two choices. You can either go all in and explore your kinkiest fantasies and risk alienating members of your audience, or you can keep it vanilla and broaden your mass appeal.

Therefore, when in doubt vanilla sex is the way to go when writing for a commercial market. It’s okay to dabble into a few kinky moments here and there, but remember what might be super hot to you, might be traumatizing, gross or weird to someone else and totally take them out of the moment.

5. Give us beats of action mixed with emotion

This is just a general writing rule, but I think it especially applies to sex scenes. Don’t just get caught up in the action, and who did what and where, but make sure you sprinkle it with internal dialogue and narration. How does this person feel and why? What does it feel like? Your sex scene shouldn’t read like IKEA instructions for how to assemble a desk.

This is a great moment to remind folks that good sex scenes do not require wild, hyperbolic metaphors to be emotionally engaging. I don’t need a paragraph about how her orgasm felt like a volcano, or how his kiss sucked the life out of her or whatever. A few metaphors are nice, but don’t get carried away.

6. Stick to foreplay

Just because it is a sex scene doesn’t mean there needs to be any actual sex. AKA penetration or assumed penetration doesn’t need to occur–and actually I would rather that it didn’t.

My preference for a great sex scene is to stick to foreplay and fade to black before any actual intercourse occurs. If any “thrusting” is happening, you have gone too far, do not pass go, do not collect $200. My opinion on the matter is that you want to keep your audience on the edge of your seat and often times showing the actual act diminishes your best bargaining chip.

Writing about foreplay should be exactly like real foreplay, a teaser session, something to wet our appetities. Your audience should be begging for more. And although you might want to give it to them, less is more.

7. There is nothing wrong with a chaste romance*

Just because we live in a sex obsessed world, doesn’t mean your characters need to get it on. In fact a “love scene” can be as simple as a scene of physical intimacy. Hand holding can be super hot. A single, lingering glance can often be just as a sexy as a romp in the sheets. Moreover, even if they get it on, that doesn’t mean we need to see it. it’s perfectly fine for us to hear about it after the fact.

Likewise, there is nothing wrong with a “clean” romance where no one has sex. This is not old-fashioned or boring, this depends entirely upon the story you want to tell and what best serves your plot and character arcs.

*This is especially true for YA in which characters are underage.

As somesome who adores the romance genre, intimacy and steamy scenes are a pretty integral part of the genre. A sex scene is often the climax (in more ways that one)of the romance arc. It’s therefore a pivotal moment to get right and one that if done well can really make your story sizzle.

The best advice on creating a truly great sex/intimacy scene is “less is more.” I don’t need every graphic detail. In fact I don’t want every graphic detail. A truly great scene will have a few good lines and end right when things are really heating up.

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Heather McBreen

Heather McBreen

Reading is how we explore our world and writing is how we inhabit it. On a journey to becoming a published novelist. Women’s fiction, rom coms, historical fic.