Writing a sex scene is a lot like falling in love: it’s 30% exhilarating and 70% humiliating.
Whenever I say this, I think people hear, ‘I’m embarrassed that I write romance.’ But that’s not what I mean at all.
I love being a romance writer, nearly as much as I love being a romance reader. (A lot.) But the thing I love about writing this genre isn’t just the chance to banter with myself via two imaginary people, or immerse myself in idyllic settings.
It’s that, to write romance, as to read it, you have to be willing to part with your cynicism for a bit. You have to push past the cringe and face a healthy dose of earnest emotion.
It’s embarrassing to read romance because it’s embarrassing to experience romance.
All those uncertain firsts. The ill-timed jokes. The little slip-ups that, with a person you already know, might feel like no big deal, but, with someone new and shiny, are soul-destroyingly mortifying.
The accidents. The mistakes. The fear of sending that text straight to him instead of your girls group chat. The constant flip-flopping on how close to hold your cards to your chest, and the ricocheting conviction that every little gesture means absolutely everything or definitely nothing.
By reading romance, you’re intentionally engaging with a vulnerability that feels almost nonsensical.
From a biological perspective, while falling for a person, you might find yourself wondering why evolution has determined that your body should be in a constant state of fight or flight. Is this really such a dangerous situation? When the most likely risk you’re facing is just that of showing another person your truest self and having them say, eh, no, thank you.
It’s not a matter of life or death. But it is important. Love, connection, intimacy —the things that make life worth living — are worthy pursuits. And the only chance we have at getting them is cracking ourselves open and spilling our most fragile thoughts and gooey feelings out in front of another person.
Let your characters fall
Writing and reading about people who are flirting, fighting, and falling in love requires a certain amount of unguardedness.
You have to stop worrying about how the characters (and thus your own writing) are coming across, if what they’re saying and doing is embarrassing, and let them truly fall. Let go.
Writing sex scenes is that experience, ratcheted up to eleven. Your characters have to lose themselves, give themselves over to the moment, and for that to happen, you have to resist the temptation to judge them.
This, in my opinion, is key. It’s the advice I give every time I’m asked about this part in my writing process: Pretend no one is going to read it, and then write very quickly.
Don’t give yourself a chance to judge your characters. Don’t let your own embarrassment keep them from saying the things you know they would say, or doing the things you’d expect them to do.
Let them, for all intents and purposes, be truly alone in their moment. (Or not, if that’s your thing! Again: No judgment!)
Sure, there will be time down the road for you to go back and forth with various edits, resolving queries like ‘Weren’t his pants already off?’ and ‘When did she have time to get on top of him?’ or ‘No condom? Does that fit with their personalities?’
At some point, it’ll likely feel like you and your editor (and copyeditor and proofreader, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera) are standing in a room with these made-up people, holding up scorecards as they try to get it on.
But that’s future you’s problem.
It makes me think of the old Hemingway adage, ‘Write drunk, edit sober.’ Only a quick Google search tells me he never said this, and he didn’t do this, either. Which makes sense, because if ever you’re going to need a little liquid courage, it’s probably when reading a Word doc whose editorial comments include, ‘how is he both behind and on top of her?’
Which brings me to my next little bit of wisdom, the part that comes after the ‘leave your body and write like lightning’ bit.
The second draft
If you’re writing a sex scene, in the context of a romance novel, then there’s a very good chance this scene is part of an emotional arc. It’s significant. It’s doing similar work to a conversation. It likely even includes some conversation.
The uninitiated romance reader might incorrectly assume that romance novels work sort of like musicals, subbing the songs for sex acts. That everyone’s just going about their day, and then the lights change, the cast bursts into Sex.
But romance is as wide and varied a genre as science fiction, or horror, or anything else.
The love story is what’s essential here, and different stories and characters require a different approach to sex, just like they require a different approach to dialogue.
When tracking two characters’ arc, the emotional and physical have to be considered together. That doesn’t mean they have to be in alignment. Two characters might jump into bed before there’s any emotional connection, or they might not sleep together until they’re well and truly besotted.
What’s important is that you understand them well enough to know why they finally get together. Why this moment, rather than any other? Where are they emotionally at the start of the scene, and where will they be at the end?
The scene has to change things. Because every scene has to change things.
And that’s it. As close as I think I could get teaching someone to write (or rewrite) a sex scene. You have to treat it like any other scene, because that’s what it is.
It has to move the story. It has to shift the emotional landscape. It doesn’t have to be universally deemed sexy (it can’t; people like different things) and it doesn’t have to avoid the territory of cringe (it won’t, for the aforementioned reason). It simply has to be true to the story.
As a writer, I find a lot of peace in that, in knowing that one book can’t possibly please everyone, just as one person’s dating app reject is another’s soul mate.
The point is, we can spend all of our lives worrying about how we’re being perceived, whether the things that bring us joy and pleasure make us look good or not.
But every second we spend on that kind of forceful self-projection is one when we’re not fully present in the feeling itself.
Joy, pleasure, hope — these are the things the genre was built on. It’s what we read these books for, and it’s why we write them.
The more I think about it, the more I think we should revise the saying to, ‘write sober; edit sober.’
Because as 70% embarrassing as vulnerability can be, it’s worth it for that magical 30%. You really don’t want to miss any of it.
The library scene in Book Lovers, by Emily Henry
We can’t do this in a library,” I hiss into his mouth, though my hands are still moving, skimming up his back beneath his shirt, nails scraping his skin and leaving goose bumps.
He murmurs, tone chiding, “I thought you didn’t want to worry about the rules.” “When it comes to public indecency, it’s less of a rule and more of a federal law,” I whisper. His lips move down my throat, one hand sliding under me to tilt my hips against his, positioning his length against me. Oh, god. “That only counts,” he says, “if we take our clothes off.”
The sound I make couldn’t be much less sexy or more dying-feral animal. “And to be clear,” I get out, “you’re okay with the fact that we’re working together?”
He kisses along my collarbone, his voice all gravel. “We both know you won’t go easier on me for it.” “And what about you?” It’s completely absurd that I’m keeping up the charade of having a totally normal conversation while my palms are flattening on the table behind me and my body is lifting unsubtly, making it easier for his mouth to brush under the collar of my shirt.
“I have no interest in going easy on you, Nora,” he says. My fingers snake into his hair, drag down his neck, his pulse humming under my touch. My mind feels like it went straight through a shredder and into a kaleidoscope. His fingers skim up the inside of my thigh until they can go no higher, his eyes watching the progress with an almost drunken sheen. My knees fall open for him. His jaw tightens as he runs his hand over me, featherlight at first and then with more pressure. His fingers slip under the lace, my hips lifting into the motion, no sound in the room but our ragged breath when his thumb starts to turn circles against me.
“You have the red splotches, Nora,” he teases, drawing his lips over my throat. “Are you mad at me?” “Furious,” I pant as his mouth drags lower, one of his hands working the top buttons of my blouse loose. He tugs my bra down until the cool air meets my skin. “Tell me how I can make it up to you,” he says, his tongue circling my nipple. I arch back to give him more of me. “That’s a start.”
Emily’s new book Happy Place is out now
Happy Place by Emily Henry, £12.99
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