Sex and Setting

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Set a story or poem in the town you’re in right now.
  2. Set a story or a poem in a real place you’ve spent a week or less visiting.
  3. Vanessa Blakeslee said that she doesn’t do a lot of backstory or biography for characters in her short fiction. Start writing the story of a character named Lee who is riding public transportation or driving a car. You know nothing about Lee. Just write and see where you both go.
  4. In a few days, go back to Lee and fill in any necessary biographical information you created while working. How does it change your story, if at all?
  5. Vanessa said that the absence of love and sex in fiction is “as noticeable as an elephant in the room.” Go back to a stalled or abandoned story or poem and add a previous or current sexual relationship or encounter to the action. How does it change the story? How does it change your characters? As an extra challenge, push your scene or backstory out of your character’s (or your) personal comfort level.

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Write Smut

Absolute Blank

By Ana George (Broker)

Writers’ block is a fact of life. There are a great many reasons for it, and the remedies are as varied as the causes. Stay tuned for some words about a remedy that often works for me: Smutwriting.

Now sex is a part of life for real people. It informs who they are in subtle ways. On the other hand, many fictional characters are flat, cardboard creations, caricatures of people, who appear, play their role, and disappear without a further thought from reader or writer.

In a novel with many incidental characters, most of them might be forgettable. But as Michael Cunningham once remarked at a reading, each of those people is the main character in his or her own novel. He also said that his fiction is autobiographical in the sense that he tries to be true to each character, her own needs, and fictional life course, even if he only tells a small part of the story of that character.

And sex is a part of that, for many people. And not, for others, but that’s also taleworthy. Perhaps even more so.

Let me be clear: I’m not (or at least not necessarily) saying all writing should be smutty or even contain romance or overt sexuality. Backstory, what happens to the characters off stage, the part of the story you don’t put in the book, is also important. It helps the author get to know the characters, so they behave more like real people, so you as the writer are not surprised by their motivations. Hemingway pointed this out in his Iceberg Theory.

So you’re stuck, trying to figure out where the story should go from wherever you left it. You have an idea for another plot element, but getting from there to there is not something you can see from where you’re standing.

Background Image: Carl Harper/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Follow the characters home. Write everyday details of their lives. She comes home, wonders why her partner’s car in the driveway inspires such dread. She fixes supper, but one of the kids won’t eat it. Familiar, well-worn arguments, advanced incrementally, because, after all, you’re only writing one Tuesday night. And maybe she’s randy come bedtime and he’s not. Next morning when she reports to work in your novel, she’s grumpy and tired but for no reason she’s going to tell you, because it might end up in the book.

Or there was this guy she saw on her lunch break that had that certain dreamy hurt puppy look in his eyes that always made her knees weak, but that she’s ignored for years in an effort to keep her life together. Does she miss the feeling? Or is she grateful for being delivered from the need to pay attention to it?

In a way it’s like writing fan fiction (or even slash fiction) about your own universe. I suppose fan fiction is an examination of (usually someone else’s) a canonical text, asking what-if questions, what happened before this, what happens next. These two characters are so luscious, I want them together, dammit, and I’ll write the story myself if I have to. The resulting stories are in no way part of the canon: the actual story that’s in the book, on the screen, whatever. And yet, for the fanficcer, the existence of these backstories (erotic or otherwise) enriches the experience of the canonical story.

Sex is also a way people in real life express rebelliousness. It might be a way for fictional characters to do that, as well. You have this nice life all plotted out for them, a nice plot arc, and then in chapter twelve, they break the fourth wall, walk out of the book and into the writer’s studio, sit down, and say, “No, I’m not doing that for those reasons.” Is that rebellion because of some facet of their lives you haven’t written (or even thought) about? What would a teenager do in this situation? For another take on this, see Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of the Carnival and grotesque realism.

It is perhaps a truism that disappointment and regret are great sources of story ideas. If nobody does anything regrettable or disappointing, the story is the poorer for the lack. And, for many people, sexuality is rife with disappointments and regrets. Again, it’s not necessarily the case that you need to write about it explicitly (or if you do, to include it in the book) to reflect on the lifelong regret caused by an off-stage broken romance.

I recall being told as a young writer that sex scenes in stories must always advance the action, and significantly change a character. I set out to break this rule, if only because it’s not true of real-life people. Why is sex different from other biological needs and wants, such as eating or sleeping? Sex is something people do, some of them fairly often, and having life-changing experiences every time is just not in the cards. It may be true that the reader only wants to be in the bedroom on those rare occasions when something like that does happen, but the characters are there whether it does or not. Perhaps it’s our job as writers to convey this aspect of our characters’ personalities. For example, their familiarity (or lack thereof) with each other could convey a lot of information to the reader. I’m not convinced I’ve written a sexy scene that’s not transformative that is also worth keeping. So maybe the rule is a good one, but it’s a boundary and writers exist to push at the boundaries.

This past year has been a difficult one for me, largely because of events in my personal life. Sometimes I feel like writing, and sometimes I really don’t. Sometimes writing is therapeutic, or cathartic, and sometimes it’s just fingers moving, putting symbols in little rows on a computer screen.

Recently I found an erotic picture on the internet that was very engaging, for a variety of reasons. Certainly one of those was that the woman in the picture was strongly reminiscent of the way I imagine one of the characters in an ongoing saga-in-progress. Her body was mostly hidden behind her partner’s, and it was clear she was taking charge of the encounter.

And I found I had to write the story of a time my character did just that with her partner, whatever the larger context might have been. How did she feel about it beforehand? Was the experience memorable enough that she thought about it the next day? Was it wonderful? A disappointment? Forgettable? What about his feelings? Are they the same as hers (surely not entirely?) and if different, are the differences important? And which two scenes should I set this encounter between? How does it fit into their lives as they move through the story?

And so now it makes sense that she snaps at another character the next morning, that she seems distracted, that her eyes keep straying to her cell phone, wondering if she should wait for a call, or call her partner, and wondering what she’d say if they did talk. I’m sorry, what was that you said?

Backstory is important, and people’s (and characters’) sex lives are part of the backstory that forms their personalities. Characters will ring true if their authors think about who they are, beyond what appears in the story. When in doubt, write smut!

Final Poll Results

Making Smiles: Writing sex scenes outside the erotica and romance genres

Absolute Blank

By Trina Talma (Banker)

“One thing you can be sure of: antiques and sex are scary,” muses Jonathan Gash’s womanizing antiques dealer, Lovejoy. “Which one’s more frightening than the other, I don’t really know, but they run it close.”

For many writers, of course, the answer is easy: sex is scarier. At least, writing about it is. For romance and erotica writers, the sex scene is usually a requirement for the story. Sex can be an important part of stories in other genres as well, and learning to write about it can be an important part of your writing education. But before your characters start “making smiles” (my favorite Lovejoy euphemism), there are a few things to consider.

Making Smiles


As George Michael once put it, “Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” But this doesn’t always hold true for your characters. The most important thing to ask yourself when you consider writing a sex scene is, “Is this necessary for my story?” Does it advance the plot? Does it help develop the characters? If your answer to these questions is “no,” skip it. Don’t throw sex into the plot out of a desire to make the story “more interesting” to your readers, or in an attempt to make the story more saleable. Discerning readers will recognize gratuitous sex for what it is, and will be less likely to respect your work.

Think about sex scenes in your favorite books or movies. Can you as reader or viewer recognize the reason(s) why they were included? When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know whether they should “get together”—or why they shouldn’t. Although we’re concentrating mainly on writing novels or short stories here, it can be instructive to look at movies as an example. A lot of beginning writers these days unfortunately seem to get their ideas about storytelling from movies and TV rather than from books. For example, you can hardly watch an action movie these days without being presented with at least one gratuitous sex scene. Some of them are well done, certainly (though I’m having a hard time bringing one to mind), but do they need to be there? Except in the sense that they give us a little breather from flying bullets and car chases, the answer is usually no.

Fortunately there are fewer examples of gratuitous sex scenes in literature, probably thanks mainly to editors who can spot the problem and get rid of it. It’s too bad Clive Cussler didn’t have one when he wrote about the encounter between his manly action hero, Dirk Pitt, and lovely scientist Dana Seagram in his book Raise the Titanic! The scene mainly seems there to prove that every married woman (represented by Dana) secretly longs to have an affair with another man; true or not, that has little to do with the rest of the book. Cussler should be especially ashamed of the way he begins the scene: “‘Dirk, Dirk!’ she whispered urgently. ‘Nothing makes any sense any more. I want you. I want you now, and I don’t really know why.'” The movie version of the book is even worse: Dana simply says, “Take me now!” While that sort of dialogue may be appropriate for a romance novel, it doesn’t belong in the action-adventure genre. And as the sex itself has little impact on either character (see the section “Did the Earth Move?” below), the scene comes off as pointless.

In the Mood

The most memorable sex scenes are those that create a suitable mood for the scene. In the movies this can be done with lighting and music, but in writing you don’t have those options. You can set the tone for a sex scene the same way you can for any other scene: the characters’ surroundings, the weather, the time of day, etc. All of these contribute to the mood, whether it be serious, comic, or somewhere in between. Setting the right mood can help define your characters and their relationships to one another, serve as symbolism, and even foreshadow future events.

We’re all familiar, from movies and TV, with the “angry sex” scenes: the hero and heroine have utterly loathed each other through the entire story, then suddenly, in the middle of a heated argument, they start tearing each others’ clothes off and rolling around on the floor. Events taking place before the sex can be as important in setting the mood as those taking place during it. Again, this will depend largely on the characters’ relationship with each other. If they’ve never seen eye to eye, having them argue before sex is just part of the whole experience. They may argue afterward too, which would probably be more realistic than having them suddenly agree on everything because they’ve had sex. I’ve never written an “angry sex” scene myself, simply because I find them clichéd and unrealistic in movies and TV shows, but that’s not to say they can’t work given the right combination of characters and circumstances.

In The Doomfarers of Coramonde, author Brian Daley sets a mood of love in wartime, in a scene between Vietnam veteran Gil MacDonald, who has been transported from our world to another, and the Lady Duskwind. In her bedroom they are interrupted by an alarm announcing a sighting of the evil sorcerer Yardiff Bey and Gil, ever the soldier, forgets seduction to deal with the threat:

“I have to go,” he said. “This changes things. We’ll be awfully busy before long.” His thoughts were already on how they might counteract this disadvantage, make it work for them.

He moved to the door, and she felt a chill breeze that didn’t come of night airs …She didn’t want him to go out just now, to order the affairs of battle and let warm possibilities become cool.

Duskwind quickly changes Gil’s mind:

…Her skin was amazingly warm and the scents of her, the perfume at her throat and the exotic, unnameable aroma of her hair, made blood beat at his temples.

He kissed her harshly even as her fingers found the buckle at his waist. But she pulled her head back.

“Softly, my friend,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m no rough soldier’s woman. The night stretches ahead; shall we squander it in impatience and haste?”

The two find not only love, but also a respite from the terrors and exhaustion of war.

The fun part about setting a mood is that the details can vary as much as characters themselves do. In Jonathan Gash’s book, The Grace In Older Women, from which the quote at the beginning of this article is taken, we first discover our hero Lovejoy in the middle of a hurried sexual encounter in the woods, with a woman he’s hoping to seduce out of some valuable antiques. Readers familiar with the character will recognize this as typical behavior. Later in the book, Lovejoy is summoned to the bedroom of a wealthy client, where he watches her eating pastries in her bed. The always-starving Lovejoy can’t decide which is more seductive: the lady or the food:

God, but the grub was tantalizing. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Roberta cut herself a slice of some chocolate-covered thing …I heard myself moan with lust. Roberta, I noticed, as she started on the new slice, was slowly shedding her nightdress …Her breast appeared. She ate on, baring her shoulders …Her eyes closed, ecstatic at the taste. Her tongue flicked her lips …It was marvelous to watch her eat, except the word eat sounds too indelicate for the way which the morsels were chosen, inspected, and elegantly assimilated into that beautiful mouth. To think it actually became part of her, a total act of union. Like watching osmosis to music …It was beautiful to watch the selfish bitch eat while I starved to frigging death. Then the covers parted slowly to admit me.

There wasn’t a single crumb in the bed!

At last, he chooses the lady: “I abandoned all other appetites in appeasement of the great human hunger.”

The Not-So-Dirty Details

When it comes to the sex scene itself, you have two choices: close the (literal or figurative) door and let the characters have their privacy, or stay and find out what happens. If you’re writing a short work with a word limit, you’ll probably want to skip to the aftermath to save some literary time. If your sex scene is part of a novel, you may want to take the time to explore things more fully.

To a large degree your choice may come down to your comfort level. A fellow writer confesses to having written sex scenes in coffeehouses—although she says she writes “really small.” Other people prefer to be behind closed doors, while still others cringe and blush at the very idea of writing about sex. If you find yourself in the latter category, yet still think your characters should have sex, your best option is probably to leave your characters alone in the bedroom. Time and practice may change your mind; you might try taking a plunge and reading some erotica for a look at how other writers deal with sex scenes.

Before I wrote my first sex scene, I was definitely in the cringe-and-blush category. This was partly due to my own inexperience with writing about sex, and partly due to the question, “What will people think of me when they read this?” But I struggled through, wrote it, and revised it several times until it said what I wanted it to say. Meanwhile I read sex scenes that other authors had written, both in erotica and in other genres. I still prefer privacy when I write about my characters having sex, although I write anything better when I’m left alone. These days, though, I no longer worry about what readers will think of me when they read my sex scenes—unless they’re thinking I’m a bad writer!

Speaking of bad writing, it seems that the area of sex leaves itself wider open for language pitfalls than almost any other subject. Your choice of language will depend on your genre and writing style, and hopefully will continue in the tone that you began to set before the sex scene. It will also depend on your level of comfort with the subject; it’s fairly easy to tell when a writer at any level of expertise is embarrassed to be writing about sex. One writer I know did a very good job of setting up her sex scene, but the act itself was described as “engaging in the exercise of love.” (Unique euphemism, but it sounds like they’re having sex at the gym.) Fortunately there is a wide area to tread between clinical descriptions of genitalia on the one side, and the purple prose of heaving bosoms and throbbing “manly organs” on the other. Many writers outside the erotica and romance genres choose to let their readers know what’s going on by implication rather than direct description, but avoid awkward euphemisms that can spoil the mood. In The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence details the marriage consummation of Tom Brangwen and his bride, Lydia:

…She was soothed by the stress of his embrace, and remained quite still, relaxed against him, mingling in to him. And he let himself go from past and future, was reduced to the moment with her. In which he took her and was with her and there was nothing beyond, they were together in an elemental embrace beyond their superficial foreignness.

Others choose to be more explicit, like V.C. Andrews in Petals on the Wind:

…He was slippery and wet with sweat. My legs were raised and clutched about his waist and I could feel the terrible effort of his restraint …Then he groaned and gave up.

Hot juices spurted forth to warm up my insides pleasantly five or six times, and then it was over, all over, and he was pulling out. And I hadn’t reached any mountain high, or heard bells ringing, or felt myself exploding—not as he had. It was all over his face, relaxed and at peace now …How easy for men, I thought, while I still wanted more.

For your own work, it’s your choice.

Consistency of tone and style with the rest of your story or novel is an important consideration. A thriller, for example, should not suddenly turn into a rapturous exploration of the wonders of love. Your hard-boiled-detective narrator should not start spouting Shakespearean sonnets to his one-night stand (unless he’s not really as hard-boiled as he seems). The better you know your characters and the more you develop your own style, the easier this will become.

Did the Earth Move?

What comes after sex can be more important than what comes before. This is a good place to further explore the relationship between your characters, especially if they’re having sex for the first time. In the movie When Harry Met Sally …, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters rush off soon after sex to share their guilty feelings with their best friends. In the example from V.C. Andrews above, the narrator is clearly left disappointed by the sex. F. Paul Wilson, in The Keep, presents the thoughts of both Magda Cuza and her new love, whom she knows as Glenn, after their first sexual encounter. First we see Glenn’s point of view:

…it was wrong to let her care when he didn’t even know if he would be walking away from here, Perhaps that was why he had been driven to be with her …He couldn’t afford to care now. Caring could distract him …And yet if he did manage to survive, would Magda want anything to do with him when she knew the truth about him? …He did not want to lose her. If there were any way to keep her after all this was over, he would do everything he could to find it.

While Glenn worries about the future, Magda’s emotional response is more immediate:


That’s what it was. Magda had never imagined how wonderful it could be to awaken in the morning and find herself wrapped in the arms of someone she loved. Such a peaceful feeling, a safe feeling. It made the prospect of the coming day so much brighter to know that there would be Glenn to share it with.

In most cases your characters’ lives will have to go on after they have sex, and it is up to you to decide how much of an impact their liaison will have on the rest of the story.

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique opportunity in exploring the impact of sex on their characters. In invented worlds, the characters having sex may not be men and women; they could be elves, ghosts, alien species, even machines. Characters of different species may find themselves in an uphill battle when contemplating—or committing to—having sex with each other. Fans of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will be familiar with Buffy’s travails in her relationships with vampires Angel and Spike. In Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, the life of the narrator, Jane, is changed forever when she falls in love with, and loses her virginity to, a “better-than-human” robot named Silver. Kati, the heroine of James Glass’s Shanji, finds that she can’t overcome the bigotry of a man who discovers her true nature during sex:

…His hands pushed against her shoulders as she reached climax; she lost his mouth at that instant, and what came from her was not a woman’s cry of pleasure, but a deep, rumbling growl that went on and on.

She opened her eyes as the growl subsided, and Lui-Pang was still straddling her, eyes wide and staring …his chin was covered with blood from a wound in his lip.

“What have I done?” he said, looking terrified. “What was I thinking of? I should have known, I should have—oh, I can’t! I just can’t do this! We are not—alike!”

Non-human characters are bound to have different morals and sexual habits than humans. They may even have more than two genders. Exploring what happens when they have sex with each other—or with humans—presents a challenge for fantasy or sci-fi writers, one that they have met in many different ways.

Afterglow— er, —word

Like any other part of your writing education, learning to write about sex is best accomplished in two ways: read what others have written, and keep revising your own writing (with the help of other writers’ critiques) until you feel you’ve done the best you can. Sex scenes provide some interesting challenges for a writer, and they can also bring the rewards of adding depth and dimension to your characters and plot. It’s up to you to decide how far you and your characters will go, but getting there can be fun.

Final Poll Results