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Writing sex scenes: How to heat up romance

Writing good, believable and interesting sex scenes isn’t as hard as it sounds. Read our tips for how to craft them

The writing of sex scenes has been turned on its head by the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy written by E.L. James.  The sex in her books though, as unconventional as it is, is the premise of the entire plot.  While this hasn’t detracted from it becoming a bestseller (quite the contrary!) it has been clearly defined as ‘erotic literature’.  If your novel’s narrative requires sex as a means to further develop the characters and or the storyline, but you would prefer that it isn’t shelved under this genre, then try the ‘less is more’ approach.

Roni Loren, romance writer and expert in the art of creating characters who get it on without getting it wrong, has helpful advice for avoiding the cringe factor when introducing the act into your novel’s storyline: ‘If all we have is a description of the physical and not what’s going on in their heads and hearts.  This can turn a great sensual scene into gratuitous (and boring) porn.’

Emotional intimacy is not too difficult if you have allowed your characters to create enough sexual tension to get to this point, which according to Roni is ‘beyond vital’.  Without it, the scene will have no meaning, and the influence it has on the characters and ultimately the story will be less believable. However, avoid cheesy euphemisms, she says, you don’t have to use the clinical or crude terms, but if you do, use ones that don’t make your readers laugh or roll their eyes.

Writing sex scenes can be hard. There are some incredibly awful sex scenes in fiction, and you’ve no doubt read many. But done well, writing about sex can add meaning and depth to your story. There are also books that require sex scenes, a romance book without a few sex scenes is pretty chaste and old-fashioned. Modern day romance readers expect it.

Similarly, a sex scene or two in a crime novel serves to slow the pace and show the investigator’s love interest (and there is sometimes a love interest). Your novel might require that your characters have sex as part of character development or to advance the plot. Don’t shy away from including them just because it’s easy to write bad sex scenes. Rather practice and get good at writing them.

Naomi D. Nakashima on pacing when writing sex scenes

Here are some tips:

Set the scene

Consider the context: the scene should fit naturally within the story. Ensure that the timing and location make sense and contribute to the overall narrative. A sex scene shouldn’t just be ‘plonked’ in to spice things up, it should make sense within the overall story. Otherwise you risk just having a sex scene in it that makes no sense. A real turn off for readers!

Ensure that the scene doesn’t disrupt the pacing of the story. It should feel like a natural progression rather than a forced interlude.

Writer Naomi D. Nakashima talks about pacing on her blog:

Pacing is important. A sensual scene should build gradually and steadily, creating tension and anticipation until the final climax (pun intended). A good sensual scene should be inclusive of all kinds of bodies and desires.

Atmosphere: Create a believable setting. Pay attention to details like the environment, time of day, and mood to make the scene feel real and immersive. Focus on a languid sex scene that takes place on a Sunday afternoon, or after midnight with the only light being a gas heater flickering blue flames, or at 5am while it’s storming outside and you can see flashes of lightening on the glass skylight.

Focus on sensory details. Use the five senses, engage the reader’s senses. Describe not just what the characters see, but also what they feel, hear, smell, and taste. Perhaps their kisses taste like the hot chocolate they have just drunk, or they are passing a piece of white chocolate between their mouths using only their tongues. Perhaps the room smells of sandalwood incense, or the smells of a burning scented candle. Include these rich details in your writing. What music is playing? All of this adds to the mood and atmosphere of the scene. The only sound might be the hissing of a gas heater in the corner, or the soft beats of oboe music in the background.

Physicality: be mindful of the physical sensations and movements. What clothes are they wearing? How are the clothes taken off? Flung off in the heat of the moment? What colour bra is a woman wearing? Describe these details. Describe the actions in a way that feels authentic and natural. Describe the characters’ physical looks in a way that shows the attraction between them: a lock of chestnut hair falling over his high forehead, the way her eyes keep darting at his locks, or the way she looks at her lover’s small breasts.

Show the aftermath and emotional impact of the scene. This can be as important as the scene itself, providing insight into the characters and advancing the plot.

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Develop your characters

Of course, even before you hit play, you need to understand your character(s), which means delving deep into character development. You need to know your characters well. Understand their personalities, desires, fears, and boundaries. How they approach intimacy should be consistent with their overall character arc. Sex doesn’t usually happen in a vacuum. This goes without saying. Even if your character is having a one-night stand, there is a reason that they are in that situation: perhaps they are getting over a breakup and feel this is the way to do it. Perhaps they are experimenting, and this is the way they are doing so. There is always some character motivation behind the impulse.

Remember to establish an emotional connection between the characters. Whether it’s love, lust, tension, or conflict, the emotions driving the scene should be clear and compelling. There is a reason that these two (or three or four …) characters are together. Let the reader know what these characters mean to each other.

Include the characters’ inner thoughts and emotions. This adds layers to the scene and helps the reader understand the significance of the moment. One character might be hesitant about it, but excited at the same time. What does this say about them? Is one distracted, thinking of a work hearing that is coming up on Monday morning? That all adds to the story, and advances the plot. Read our blog post on interiority and how to include it.

Another point to consider: what are their attitudes towards sex, and how does this relate to the story?

Do they have a conversation after sex? Perhaps that further deepens what we know about the characters, or it’s a chance to reveal more about the characters, about what they see for the future, or their beliefs and dreams. Dialogue, while not typically used while characters are having sex, is still a handy tool to use to show who your characters are. Such communication can add depth and realism to the scene.

Blog quote Jacqueline Silvester on which POV to write in

Point of view

If you’re writing in the first-person point of view, it’s easy, you know that you’re writing from the point of view character.

If you are writing from third person, some people advise to write only from the one POV character, or it could end up being confusing. Not undo-able by any means, but it is something to watch out for.

Here’s what Nakashima has to say about point of view:

I’ve read plenty of books that like to go head-hopping. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. However, during sex scenes — it doesn’t work.

Pronouns and hands start getting mixed up, thoughts and emotions get tangled and messy. It goes from being a sexy scene into a scene filled with eight legs and four arms all clutching and clenching and clamping on body parts in ways that seem humanly impossible.

This post from NY Book Editors further amplifies the need to write from one POV:

Even if you’re writing your story from third-person omniscient, it’s essential that you stick with one perspective in the sex scene. This cuts down on confusion (for your reader), helps with characterization, and provides for a more captivating reading experience.

The reader needs to be a part of the scene, not some awkward observer in the corner of the room (that’s your job). Here’s how you do it: Assign an imaginary camera to one character so that the reader can see exactly what this character sees.

Meanwhile, Jacqueline Silvester, from Jericho Writers has a different take:

If your novel is dual POV, try describing the sex from both perspectives and treat it as a way of extending the reader’s understanding of the character – including mannerisms and deep characterisation.

For more on point of view read our detailed guide to this important element.

Let your characters laugh though. Kissing or getting naked with someone can be awkward and a little humour can help ease nerves and bring the characters closer together. And if humour doesn’t work, maybe they turn to substances, illegal or legal (weed, alcohol, etc.).

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Do your research

Finally, don’t be shy to do your research. Speak to friends who won’t giggle excessively and who will give a good opinion! EL James has admitted to phoning her Audi dealership and asking them if it was possible to have sex in the back of an Audi R8.  They said no, so she went down there herself, sat in one and thought that it would be!

If necessary, also research anatomy and sexual dynamics to ensure that what you are describing and imagining is accurate and do-able.

Don’t forget that reading other sex scenes is also part of research. You need to know how others have written sex. Read a variety of sex scenes from different authors and genres to understand what works and what doesn’t, and why.

Most importantly you need to ask yourself: does the description of the act fit the personality of the characters, the story and readers expectations?

For help with writing sex and other scenes, join our Group Coaching program and get the support of a coach within a group.

How do you feel about writing sex scenes? Let us know in the comments below!

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By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

5 replies on “Writing sex scenes: How to heat up romance”

Thank you for this advice, I am posting my paranormal romance about a ghost girl in love with a living man in my blog ( but am dreading the sexy time which is fast approaching! plus my dad has started reading it now, so the ’50 shades’ route might get me disowned! lol thank you again!

I have minimal sex scenes in my novels. In my fantasy series, currently up to book 4, there is one sex act that the reader doesn’t see. We see the build up (the participants have drunk rather a lot) and then the following morning and their reaction to realising what happened.
In my historical novels of which there are only 2 currently, I again only have one. A little more graphic, I suppose. It’s a young Viking girl having sex for the first time.
In fact, I find it embarrassing to write sex scenes. I think that often they aren’t needed in the detail they are portrayed.

Thanks for your comments, VM Sang. There are ways to portray love and all its vagaries without writing sex scenes. And so many sex scenes can be gratuitous or badly done. As you say, sometimes all the details aren’t quite needed. There’s also quite an art to writing good sex scenes, which not all writers master when they attempt them!

I don’t know why writing a sex scene would be so hard?(Question?) Haven’t people (man/woman) ever made love before? Haven’t you ever had someone take you to a place you’ve never been before? Well just sitting here thinking about it and talking about it makes me hot,you know where.? When my better half is gone I sit and fantasize about how he makes me feel.!!!!!! And yes I could write our Love scene so passionately,that you wouldn’t want to set the book down.Real Love is the best way to experience a Love scene.

Thanks for reading the blog Tonette. Yes, I agree, having experience is the best way to know how to describe a credible sex scene. There are also so many ways to write these kinds of scenes. It’s definitely worth attempting. depending on the kind of book or story you’re writing.

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