Novelist, story writer & critic explores the art of writing good sex scenes
Nice piece, Lev. I wonder how much the "show, don't tell" admonition overly influences writers in sex scenes. Or that writers "raised by workshop" were never encouraged to or felt too constrained to take such scenes for a spin, so to speak. I agree with others who have commented here that longer works of fiction seem like a better place. Love those bad examples! Please tell me you've got a whole file of them collected over the years. (There used to be a lit mag called "Burlap Sheets" that only took such things, but they've disappeared.)
Thank you for this perceptive essay. Two things occurred to me. One is James Salter, who writes about sex not as something separate that his characters do--but as who they are. (I'm sure there are others, but I've always felt he is one of the best.)
The other thing I remembered was a friend (RIP Jane) who in the 1980s read the slush pile for Candlelight Ecstasy Romance books and one season (probably because of a made-for-TV movie that people watched that year used the idea) there were multiple manuscripts that used a case of hypothermia to initiate a sex scene...like someone falls in a river, is rescued by the romantic interest. He gets her to the shore, strips off her clothes. Strips of HIS OWN clothes, and then they both get into a sleeping bag, skin on skin for warmth and (as Virgil wrote when Dido lures the reluctant Aeneas into a cave in the forest after being caught in a rain storm) ". . ."
Lev, I love this essay and that you had the cojones to write it! I frankly think that a lot of bad sex scenes or written (or not written at all) because the writers themselves are conflicted about the topic or have vanilla experience with the act of sex. Sex is the motor of so much that happens in the world, I mean the sex we have or don't have in our heads, our relationships, good or bad, with our own bodies, our views of ourselves as bodies in the world. I translate a writer, Mónica Lavín (México) whose writing on desire is the most convincing and artful I've ever read. I look forward to publishing a "bouquet" of her flash pieces soon and I'll reach out to you to see what you think!
Lev, great essay!
I thought your comments about timing and perspective were discerning and thought provoking.
I recently read People Collide, which like a 5 act structure with an epilogue, and the blow out sex scene happens at the end of act three, is perfectly fitting. The first person narrator maintains their voice and perspective- maybe it’s easier in that PoV?
Your comments about beginning a novel made me think of Nevada, which stars with a well written scene about bad sex and launches the first person narrator across the country, eventually.
I agree with some of the other comments that it’s hard to do a sex scene in a short story. But would like to read more. One of the guests posts on here, Katherine E. Standefer, linked to her personal essay In Praise of Contempt, which was worth a second, or third, read.
Thanks for these insightful comments about writing sex scenes. It's very helpful to think of aiming for a portrayal that is not about the action or the body parts but is about the person(s), solidly and totally.
This helps us understand that, craft-wise, it's difficult to write a sex scene that works and also advances the story. Because of space constraints, it also seems harder to fit into a short story submitted to a litmag than a novel unless the story is primarily about the sexual event.
Thank you, Lev, for this very thoughtful essay. You reinforce that everything in a story—especially sex—should serve a purpose to either move the underlying theme forward, the story beneath the story. This was very helpful!
Such an intelligent article. Full of insights to guide the writer into actually writing sex scenes that enrich and enlighten rather than irritate and distract.
Thanks so much, Lev, for your insight. I tried a sex scene in a short story I read for a writers' group in Ludington with the late, great, George Dila a number of years ago. His only comment -- "it's hard to write a sex scene". I got the impression my scene wasn't that great!
Wonderful essay with excellent examples to help illustrate your points to us.
Great post, as usual, Lev! I have yet to write a sex scene in a short story (I need more room!) except for a funny ending where the PI who was trying to catch a woman cheating on her husband put his own body on the line (or the mattress), and complained that his partner barged in with the camera too soon. And to top it all, the partner (a woman) burst out laughing. I think that said something about the characters :)
Thanks! I enjoyed that. I used to write a lot of sex scenes from protagonist POV. Half of my readers were engaged. The other half were deeply uncomfortable. Thinking of writing more stories with sex in it to see how they fly with lit mags.
Hi Lev, thanks for an interesting and informative column. I'm not sure that I'm up to writing sex scenes though, hehehe.
I love this discussion. Sex is in the head but it seems authors' first intuition is to be more graphic. It's very possible that by trying to be brave and adhering to 'show don't tell,' writers persistently forget the rules of point of view.
I hate to think of that fish collapsing on top of that guy.