A Reader's Advice on writing good sex.
Originally posted Jan. 30, 2004:
This post owes a great deal to spare_change
(Slytherlynx), who really helped me streamline and articulate my main points, and shared some excellent points of her own to add. <3
What with one thing and another lately I have been thinking about the way people write sex scenes in their stories, and I have decided to talk about it. I think that even if we don't necessarily seek out the smuttiest fics around, we all want to read good writing, and we all know how to appreciate a really good sex scene as an audience. It's from this perspective that I'm approaching the subject. Just for the sake of comparision, before I go any further, I want to talk just a bit about my personal, all-time favorite NC-17 rated fanfics, because they exemplify the standards by which I judge writing about sex. astolat's "Weather of the Heart". As many of you know this is not just my favorite smutfic but my favorite fanfic series, ever. For structural and stylistic reasons, namely the fact that it's dialogue only, it falls into a category all by itself--but what it sets out to do it does amazingly well. It combines graphic sex and emotion, largely by letting your imagination do all the work. I cannot think of a better argument, incidentally, for the writing mantra, "less is more."
wankersore's Quicksilver and hackthis's Entwined. These are two totally different fics, but they both illustrate the raw emotional power that sex can have, and the way that personality can not only be reflected in a sex scene, but can really just carry the sex scene, without a lot of additional trappings. These two fics are sort of a yin/yang approach to my personal OTP--they are both two wonderful and exciting examples of two very different extremes. They both work, they both feel real to me, because not only are they well-written, but the writers are in such control of the characters and their dynamic that every little shift in emotion carries the scene even further and gives it meaning, makes it real.
Keeping that in mind, what follows is a checkpoint list of strong choices to make when you are writing about sex.
PWP should never be written as porn without plot
I think there are two common misconceptions people make about writing sex scenes. The first is that in the PWP, sex is the entire point and reason for the fic; that beyond, "they have sex," there is no other plot. This is incorrect, and I will tell you why. The second is that any time you're writing a sex scene into a larger work, or one where the sex isn't the entire obvious and immediate focus of the whole story, you're not obliged to pay as much attention to the details or to provide as much actual physical realism into the sex scene that you're writing, because that kind of thing is reserved for the PWP. This is also incorrect.
Whether or not you are dealing with fic content that most people would describe as "smutty," all sex scenes have, or at the very least should strive to have, a commonality. Whether you're writing a fic about sex or a fic with sex, ultimately you aren't writing about sex at all. Ultimately you are writing about an emotional dynamic between two specific characters with two distinct personalities This should not change no matter what kind of scene you're writing--whether it's a sex scene, a fight scene, or any other kind of scene. To quote Slytherlynx, who puts it perfectly: "There is absolutely no excuse to write sex mechanically, because everything your characters do should reflect their personality in some way ... in bed just as much as anywhere else."
Go for the why over the what
The dynamics of a good smutfic are at their most basic level about the why of sex, not the what. As a reader, when I read smut, Iím looking for the things that lead me to the why of whatís happening. If you just give me a list of body parts, I will get bored. If you just show me a bunch of really graphic intercourse with lots of cursing and panting, then I'll get the idea that, yeah, the characters think they're having very hot sex--but I won't necessarily be taken in by it emotionally.
Say you have a paragraph that looks like this:
Harry ran his hand down Draco's thigh, and Draco sighed and pressed his erection into Harry's. Harry shifted closer and reached behind Draco to cup his ass. Draco moaned and ran his fingers through Harry's hair, his other hand running over Harry's chest.You have just told me everything that they're doing, but nothing about what they're feeling. Sure, you're doing a decent job describing what's happening, but I know nothing about what's going on in their heads, whether they're afraid or nervous or just eager to fucking get it on already.
Choose emotion over mechanics.
It's okay to say you want to focus on the why, but how do you get there? By finding the emotional center of every scene, and drawing it out. Always, always, always.
By focusing on the emotional content of a scene rather than just on who is doing what to whom, you get a vivid and more interesting description of what's happening, and you open your story up to even more possibilities, just by working with the dynamics between your characters. That's the kind of thing that makes a sexual scene interesting for me as a reader.
To see an example of the sheer raw power that writing with regard to the emotional underpinnings of a scene, and not just for the sake of smut alone, can have on that scene, check out this excerpt from addictedkitten's Control:
And Harry reached in, tugging Draco's trousers past his hips, grasping his erection, and then, oh, lowering his head. Draco watched, he couldn't not watch as Harry's lips slid over the head of his cock, swallowing it slowly, carefully. It disappeared into his mouth inch by inch, sending Draco's hands scrabbling uselessly at stone, coming up to card through Harry's hair as Harry moved up and down on his cock. He longed to close his eyes, throw his head back and rest it against the wall, but he couldn't stop watching. Still couldn't quite believe this was happening, Harry Potter was sucking his cock and he didn't think he'd ever felt this good. This alive. Sara has done everything right that she needs to do mechanically: she's described exactly what's happening, she's encompassed all the action and all the movement. But what strikes us more about this as we read is how heady and out of control Draco feels, and how vivid and sharp his emotional responses are. Everything in this story revolves around the shifting emotions of these two characters, and how they play off of each other at various times to lead them to the story's final tableau. Without concentrating on the emotion over the action, this story would have none of its depth and certainly none of its intensity. Control is an excellent example of what can happen when you choose emotion over mechanics.
Be true to character experience and POV.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to keep your characters in-character. It's okay to idealize sex, to make it romantic and earth-shatteringly good, etc, as long as you do it in-character. And by "in-character" all that really means is that you write with your eye on, at all times, how the person whose point of view you're writing from would experience, would think and feel about and react to, what's happening. If you're writing a sex scene between Lucius Malfoy and Severus Snape, for example, two people who have been represented to us in canon as cold, bitter, and heartlessly cruel, it's highly unlikely that they're going to experience the act of having sex as something that's sunny, light, and tender. By the same token, if you're writing a scene wherein Draco has the upper hand over Harry, things are going to be much different from his point of view than they are from Harry's. How often have you heard somebody say "You could change the names of the characters and it wouldn't make a difference" about some sex scene where the characters were just too bodies writhing around on a bed? You want your characters to be identifiable because of more than just their names. You want their personalities to show in everything they do and even in everything that they feel and perceive about what's happening to them.
Avoid anatomy lessons
You don't need to explain what sorts of body parts are involved in your sex scene. Most of your readers already know the basics of anatomy (if they don't then they're probably too young to be reading your fic anyway). You can write really good sex scenes without using words like "perineum" and "pelvis"--you can also write really good sex scenes by focusing less on where so-and-so's hands are traveling, and more on what their partner is feeling and how what they're doing is affecting them. Nobody ever thinks in real life, "ooh, i bet if i bite his nipple his cock will harden." People just don't experience sex that way. Why should they experience it that way in a fanfic?
Look at how amanuensis1 structures her description of Harry's anatomy in this example from "A Spell To Turn Tigers to Butter."
It had not seemed that I had left any space between the clamps running down his torso, but the surgical pinwheel proved that wrong. Enough of a highly sensitized pathway of flesh existed between each clamp and its neighbor to make the boy spasm as I ran its small spikes over his skin. I let it cover most of his torso and then continued down to his thighs; I'm sure he expected to feel it torture his cock as well, but I skipped that in favor of something more insidiously cruel: he was completely unprepared for the way that small instrument could have him whimpering as the sharp spikes traversed delicately over the soles of his feet. Here he could not be still, though he found, through experience, that moving only caused the spikes to dig in deeper with the unpredictability of his movements. In this situation what Lucius is doing to Harry and where he's putting the clamps is extremely important, but you also are probably more excited and intrigued as you read by how chilling the description is--by how scientific and clinical Lucius is being, by how he is choosing to be insidiously cruel. It's the cruelty-as-motivation effect that's really satisfying our kink here--not what's happening to Harry anatomically. Let your anatomical inventory be subsidiary when it has to appear; don't let it take over your description.
The next item from the box was something that rarely saw use, since I thought it rather too gentle for my tastes, but with the painfully heightened sensitivity of the boy's soles after the pinwheel, the contrast of running the plume end of a feather over his feet and then changing to the quill point, again and again, had him quite on edge. The clamp on his tongue was obstructing him from closing his mouth, and he was beginning to drool. I liked watching that loss of dignity in addition to all the rest.
But know your anatomy, and your sexual mechanics.
If you aren't familiar with the, erm, ins-and-outs of gay male sex, there's no better place to become acquainted than the Minotaur slash database, which covers the basics of slash writing for straight girls. Also, check out our very own gay_sex_tips. It's not only a fun and amusing advice forum, but it's really informative. Where else can you find a bunch of gay men talking about what it's like to have an ass full of come? You can also try the Gay Sex Guide, among many other places.
Sex is sticky, unglamorous, often awkward and sloppy, and it makes a terrible mess of the bedsheets. It's okay to have some of the imperfection of sex show up in your writing--in fact, it's preferable. To quote S here again, "The characters of HP are messy, teenaged, and imperfect (or messy, adult, and imperfect) and the sex should be, too. Idealize it, sure. But just don't make it perfect, because perfect is boring." For a perfect example of this you really can't beat dahlia777s Silver Chain series.
Don't write with a particular kink as your goal.
Sure, you can say, "I want to write Bottom!Draco and Virginal!Harry!" Go for it, by all means. But as you keep that in mind, don't let that determine the direction of your fic. When you make a certain aspect of a fic a goal of that particular fic, you can easily lose momentum, especially because a lot of times a fic will want to head in a completely different direction than you intend it to. To be so focused on that particular aspect of your fic that you refuse to let it go where it wants to is to limit both the possibilities of your fic and yourself as a writer. (A non-smut example of this: I set out specifically wanting to write a parody fic starring Mariachi Pants!Draco. I wound up with "The Reader." I'm dead serious.) You have to learn not to corral your fic, or else you may never find out what kind of fic it wants to become.
When I see somebody squealing about how they're writing Top!Harry or Top!Draco, I, as a reader, often feel as if they're so focused on who they want to have in the submissive and dominant positions that they miss out on all the subtle emotional interplays and shifts in dynamic that occur in a scene. If you don't understand what I mean, reread Quicksilver. Take note of how many times Aspen shifts the control in that scene, and what effect it has on the drama and the emotional impact of the ending. Then think about how a declaration from wankersore before she started writing it that she wanted to write Bottom!Harry, or Top!Draco, would have altered the focus and the overall effect of the story.
A good writer doesn't need validation from knowing that they wrote a certain reader kink into their fic. If they're following the direction of the story, then they're going to be just fine no matter what. If you write a good story, with a strong emotional focus, then it's not going to matter to your readers ultimately who's on top or who gets to come and who doesn't. Think about your own sex life. How often does it matter to you which position you're in, or if you get to come all the time every time, so long as the sex is great? I'm guessing that when the sex is great, it's great, period, and those kinds of things don't really signify during each individual sexual encounter you have. So when you're unsure about the direction of a story, think about your own individual encounters, and ask yourself how truthful what you're writing is to what you yourself have experienced.
Use your setting.
In any given smut fic, what is going to motivate the characters ultimately is their *desire* for one another. If they're really really hot for each other, then chances are their ultimate and most immediate goal is going to want to be to have sex as easily and as conveniently as possible. This does not, however, mean that you need to write them getting off in five minutes by fucking against a wall. Yes, *they* want to get off as quickly as possible; *we* as readers want to see them do it in creative and interesting ways, ways that appeal to our sense of escapism and our imaginations.
Say I'm having a really hot Weasleycest tryst that's set in, oh, their house. Their house is always full of people--it's never going to be the right time for them to start counting how many licks it would take to get to the center, if you know what I mean. Also, these are two characters who grew up in a really big and really nosy family. They're probably not going to be screaming at the top of their lungs or doing anything too graphic or attention-getting. They're not doing anything special because they don't have enough privacy or enough time--and they're probably not even going to do anything hot like moan one another's names. So, how can you make this scene really interesting and engaging for a reader?
Sometimes he takes her in her room, though, and he likes to watch in her vanity mirror, watch his hands disappear underneath her blouse, watch her try not to watch as he fumbles with a zipper, watches her blush in embarrassment when she makes little noises. He likes to see her be dirty in her own surroundings, likes to watch her slide off her yellow knickers from beneath her skirt using her thumbs, likes to watch her hands scrabble at stuffed animals and lacy pillows when he lays her back against her duvet and nudges his nose under her clothes. "Strings of Pearls and Copper Curls" is a fabulously rich example of a writer using setting to enhance what could have been an otherwise simple story with a non-spicy description of sexual exploration. Really, nobody does this better than Aspen.
They almost never undress completely, because his locking spells are faulty and the twins forget to knock; their hands will slide under clothing instead of removing it, will unbutton halfway instead of peel off.
Oh, yes. Her bed squeaks.
So does she.
Find the shift in every scene.
I think Michael Shurtleff's book Audition! is one of a writer's best guidebooks. Everything that you learn as an actor or an actress about how to properly connect to a character within the space of an audition are things that every writer should also keep in mind as they write individual scenes. One of the most powerful things you learn as an actor is that something has to shift in every scene--whether it's a monumental change such as discovering that someone is in love with you, or a tiny tiny change such as realising that maybe you have a bit more in common with somebody than you thought you did. A good actor finds such moments and makes them leap onto the stage. When you write, it's your turn to find such moments and make them leap onto the page.
Without the Shift, you don't have a complete story--you just have a description of actions and reactions without an overarching meaning. Something must happen in your story--something must change through the course of the action involved in it. It's your job to find that change and work with it through what you write, always. Without it we as readers will feel cheated and unsatisfied.
Moreover, and here I will quote spare_change in entirety:
If you are writing a fic in which the sex scene is the centerpiece of the story (rather than merely something that just happens along the way to the "real: point of the story), then you should try as much as possible to make the sexual climax coincide with the emotional and narrative climax of the story. This is something that trips up a lot of otherwise good writers, and is something that the best writers seem to just do effortlessly. maeglinyedi's Sirius/Snape is a perfect example of this. Anyway, there are plenty of other uses of sex in a story, but I'm just saying that if the writer is already unconsciously working in this mode anyway, then she should really try to align these as much as possible, because it just punches the reader more effectively in the gut, so to speak. It's not necessary to write an orgasm as a symbol of a deep internal catharsis, but if you are writing your characters so that everything they do and react to stems from internal motivation, then more often than not, it's only natural that your sexual climax will coincide with the shift happening in a character's head, whatever that shift may be.
The bottom line: feed their desire, feed ours
I'm going to close with an excerpt which I think encompasses everything I have just talked about above. It's hot, it's interesting, it draws in the setting superbly, plays on the character dynamics, and never lets the physical description of what's happening get in the way of the emotional momentum.
"Oh, god," groans Malfoy, almost exactly like he did when he was reading aloud. Harry kicks the stall door closed with his foot but it slams against the frame, bouncing immediately back just as Harry slips his other hand into his shorts. The fabric rubbing against him is growing damper, but he has already decided that he draws the line at taking his shorts off in front of Malfoy. His fingers are slick when he moves them over his cock, and the noises would be embarrassing if not for the fact that Malfoy is grunting helplessly a few feet away. Harry switches hands and moves frantically, his cock aching against the restrain of his shorts. This particular fic, "Four Letter Words" by weatherby, is a perfect example of all the things that I have mentioned above. It's a perfect example in another way, as well-- in that it's not an out-and-out PWP. It doesn't consciously attempt to be hot. It is certainly not a plot-what-plot in that it doesn't follow the typical PWP structure. It's a humor fic with an important sex scene in it, and the sex itself, though well-written, is deliberately written as fumbling and awkward and unstructured.
Malfoy whimpers and there is a weird thump. Harry moans quietly, and doesn't have time to be embarrassed when he realises Malfoy is moaning, too. The muscles in his thighs clench just as Malfoy mumbles, "Oh my god, I'm -" and breaks off with a series of raw moans and gasps and Harry can't help but open his eyes. He has never seen anyone else come.
So what makes this scene so hot? Throughout the description of sex in this story there is a constrained emotional undercurrent, something earthquake1906 once called a thrumming of desire. It's an awareness of the fact that even when these two characters are only touching themselves, what they really want to be doing is touching one another. That emotional pull drives this particular story, and indeed every good story, from start to finish, even through the sections that are solely non-smutty. It is that emotional pull that turns a story into something real for the reader. Without it, even if you write the best smutty descriptions in the world, you'll still be dealing with writing that lacks its heart. And writing that lacks heart isn't going to touch anyone, on any level, even the physical.
Good sex in a story must be a reflection of character. It must also be a reflection of the dynamic between two characters (or three, if you're writing a threesome). If possible it should be a reflection of change occurring between those two characters as a result of what's going on. And it should always be a reflection of desire.
Whenever you write anything, and especially when you write smut, find the emotional center of the moment you're describing, and draw it out through the setting and through the character's actions and responses to what's happening. Doing that will win your readers over nine times out of ten. Because you'll be writing about a physical attraction, sure, and about physical responses--but we, as your readers, will be able to feel it too. Because it's ultimately our emotions that are being engaged as well as the characters.' And that, as we say in show biz, is where the money is.