The Cringe Factor. You don’t want it. You don’t need it. Pay attention. Writing Intimate Sex Scenes (without Squirming!)

Writing sex is difficult enough – not least because it’s intimate, but intimacy is just one hurdle. The emotion and mechanics are tricky enough at the best of times. You not only have to describe the scene well, you have to keep it on the page! Okay, so forget your own emotions getting in the way. Forget the cold showers, the mind-blowing, eye-crossing sweaty thoughts and your inability to type coherently. What really bites is the knowledge that however the description ends up, EVERYONE will be able to see it once it’s out there.

Your sex scenes have to be good. You cannot, as a writer, afford to be clumsy in this (if the scene is meant to be clumsy, it still has to be expertly written. You still have to get it right). You are, after all, exposing yourself in a very unique way. Here, you are vulnerable, not only as a writer but as a person. This is too close.

Composing your words and putting a description out there for people to look at and pick over, has many drawbacks. It’s like public speaking. No, it’s worse than that because it’s intimate on so many levels. What if it’s wrong? What if it’s stupid? What if people laugh and it’s not a comedy? What if you haven’t caught your readers so they just don’t connect with what you have put on the page and it all becomes so very clinical? There’s a myriad of things that can go wrong.

*

I’ve read some embarrassing sex scenes. I think we all have. Sex is one of the hardest things to write. You can see the author has gone sweaty and cross-eyed, but you can also see where the words have failed because they can’t quite bring themselves to get properly intimate. They fudge it. They imply it. They get jittery, or embarrassed, and it shows. Or – worse – they get turned on and away they go, somewhere where there is a conclusion, but they’re in their imagination again, seeing in their mind what they think the reader sees. Of course, the reader can’t see what’s in the author’s mind. All they have is the author’s words. That’s where the description needs to be.

To win through, an author has to stay grounded. There’s a balancing act that has to go on, where they have to feel the pull, certainly, but not be affected to the point of not seeing what’s actually on the page. Not just deeds, but thinking and feeling, too.

That’s just one problem.

Another is achieving a different kind of balance. The balance of perspective. Personally, I think this one is difficult simply because a lot of people don’t take it into account. They don’t think of it. They write what turns them on, and that’s fine, but what about the other side of the equation? What does their partner want?

Let’s get basic, here, men and women see sex differently. It’s wired into the genes, it’s nature. This varies with each individual, but for the sake of simplicity, think of a scale with the physical description of sex at one end and the emotion of sex at the other. Each person balances out somewhere along that scale between the two. You get the gist.

The point is, a lot of men are turned on by physical description, which is why pornography is largely read my men. A lot of women are turned on by feelings, which is why a lot of women read love stories. Inside this, of course, comes variation, as I said. Neither is wrong, neither is right, both are explorations of the same thing. Sex from different perspectives. That makes both perspectives IMPORTANT.

If you’re writing purely for the masculine, think physical description. If you’re writing purely for the feminine, think romance and emotion.

If you’re writing for both and want the entire spectrum of readers – like I do – write BOTH.

Here’s how I go about it – I literally take weeks to write a sex scene, and not because I stay there! Quite the opposite. I take even longer if there is more going on than just the sex (such as the 30-page romp I had somewhere in the middle of The Khekarian Threat, book one in the series. Yes, you know the one I mean).

My first pass through is purely physical. I get the “who, what and how” dance sorted. How do they manoeuver? How do they come together? What is the attitude to it all? Is it good, bad, nice, nasty, routine or spontaneous? Why is the scene there?

I rough it out, I string it all together and I’m not worried at this stage whether it’s any good. I know it will be rewritten and polished up. Or dumped. That decision isn’t made yet.

Then I leave it. I write onward from that point for several days, getting deep into what goes beyond. In other words, I let it go. If I do a read back over the chapters leading up to that and over that, and if it’s too early, I’ll skip reading that scene altogether. I don’t want to see it. At that point I know it won’t be right yet and I know I won’t be happy with it and that will influence how I feel about the rest of my read through.

Quite simply, I don’t touch it, I forget about it.

On the second pass through, days later or a week later, I’m looking at how it stands up with those basics. Because I’ve left it for a time, I can see straight away what’s working and what isn’t. If the cringe factor is there, it’ll scream. Seriously, you can’t miss it. Don’t get upset by that, though, it tells you it needs work, which is a good thing to know before you publish. Delve into those areas that make you cringe.

I’ll rewrite it as I read, tweaking it, doing what is immediately obvious to do. There’ll be a better description for that, a better idea here, and maybe that bit over there can go in the bin. Dialogue comes in at this point, and so do emotions. So I’m writing in layers.

When I’ve done what I can, I leave it again. This process is repeated as many times as it needs to be. I can’t push it, I do what I can, but I can only do so much. I might know I’m not happy with it, but it’s improving with every sweep through, so I’ll go over it again and again.

At any time in the process, if I find I’m getting too drawn into the scene, I leave it. It has to move me, of course it does, it’s meant to grab the emotions, but if the scene shifts away from the written word because I’m romping around in my head too much, I know I am making assumptions and assumptions means I don’t have control over what’s on the screen. What’s in my head isn’t important, what’s on screen is, the written word is what readers will be presented with, so that’s where my attention has to be. So, if I get caught up in it emotionally and only think it’s saying what I want it to, I need to go away again. I have to know it’s saying what I want it to. Meanwhile, I move on, I carry on working.

Eventually, I’ll read the scene through in conjunction with the surrounding chapters. That gives me a better feel for how it sits. Eventually, I’ll read the scene without cringing. It may take quite a while, but it will never get released until I’ve dealt with that cringe factor.

For me then, one of the most important things about writing sex is not to rush it.

Think of it this way – It would be very easy to feel embarrassed at an early work through, then close your eyes and just let it out there, trying not to think about it ever again, but seriously, that would be a mistake. You want to be able to feel good about your sex scenes, just as you do for any other aspect of your work. More importantly, you want your readers to feel and understand the scene you’re showing them, you want them drawn in and be attracted, turned on – or repelled, or shocked, or affronted – as and how the scene was meant to be.

Bottom line is, you want them coming back. Bottom line is, if you can’t look at your sex scenes without squirming, how can you expect your readers to?

Happy writing, everyone.

Cheers! 🙂

Allyson

8 thoughts on “The Cringe Factor. You don’t want it. You don’t need it. Pay attention. Writing Intimate Sex Scenes (without Squirming!)

  1. Rob

    Gotta love this conundrum…. and I completely agree, I was told years ago (in reference to the male/female perspective), “a woman needs a reason to make love, a man just needs a place to make love!”.

    And if a work is successful, the reader fails to see the effort made by the author BECAUSE of the effort made by the author…in my opinion…

    Great work Mrs Everard!

    Reply
    1. A.D. Everard Post author

      Thank you, Rob, that’s exactly the way I see it.

      The one I heard about perspective was that a woman needs to be loved in order to have sex, and a man needs sex in order to give love. 🙂

      Hey, and what’s with the “Mrs Everard”? Allyson to you. Cheers! 🙂 🙂 🙂

      Reply
  2. Uzoma

    Ha! You said it all, Allyson. I think writing a sex scene is about the most challenging thing. Get it right or don’t even think about adding it to a story that doesn’t strictly fall under the romance/erotica genre.

    I do agree with you and your first commenter about what turns both men and women on. I’m fortunate your link has led me to you. You have another ardent reader now.

    Reply
    1. A.D. Everard Post author

      Hi Uzoma, 🙂

      Thank you. Yes. Get it right or don’t even think about adding it. It’s one of those make-or-break subjects. A new author especially can’t afford to get it wrong because they need the readership to build a career.

      Another big thank you for finding me and joining in. I can say the same back at you – your site packs a punch and you will see me in there regularly.

      Cheers! 🙂

      Reply
  3. theparasiteguy

    Interesting write-up. I’ve never really considered what makes a good sex scene, but I reckon you’re absolutely right about male and female readers being largely focussed on different aspects. If/when I ever try to write a “proper” sex scene, I’ll do my best to remember that.

    I do have a scene in my current WIP intended to vaguely resemble a sex scene, incidentally. There, I stick mostly to characters’ feelings, if only since dwelling on physical descriptions would dial up the wince-factor way too high (granted, said wince-factor is largely the point of the scene, but still).

    Reply

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