Storytelling

How to Fix a Boring Sex Scene

Red paper hearts spread over an open book
So that moment you’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the book has finally arrived. After 200,000 words, many epic battles, a few hilarious misunderstandings, and several tedious subplots, the two main characters have finally confessed their love for each other. They mutually consent, toss their cares and clothes to the winds, and make wild, passionate love.

And they spend paragraph after paragraph after paragraph making wild, passionate love. You start skimming. Three pages later, you’re just looking for the scene to end. Finally, after seven pages, they climax. To you, however, this feels anticlimactic.

What went wrong?

The problem is that a sex scene is just like any other scene. It needs to hold your interest. And a description of two (or more) people having sex isn’t in and of itself always enough.

Content Notice: This post discusses sex and sexual situations, but probably not in as much detail as you might hope.

Why So Many Sex Scenes Are Boring

Typically, the problem is a lack of conflict. Consider what typical conflicts look like.

Example

Dan and Merlina fight. Dan wants to hurt Merlina, and he wants to avoid getting hurt. Merlina wants to hurt Dan, and she wants to avoid getting hurt.

Example

Dan and Merlina argue. Dan wants to lead a suicide mission. Merlina doesn’t want Dan to die.

You can have innumerable variations, of course. You might have a one-sided conflict, where one person doesn’t even realize a conflict is taking place. Your conflicts might also be person against nature, person against society, etc.

However, people having sex is usually different.

Example

Dan and Merlina make love. Dan wants to be satisfied, and he wants to satisfy Merlina. And Merlina wants to be satisfied, and she wants to satisfy Dan.

That is wonderfully satisfying for them, but not so satisfying for us.

Generally, all participants in a sex scene have the same goal: pleasure for everyone involved. This is, by definition, a lack of conflict. And since there is no conflict, we tend to have less interest in the goings-on, regardless of how sexy they may be.

How to Put Conflict in a Sex Scene

First, a clarification: We are discussing completely consensual sex. While sexual assault and rape can indeed provide conflict, Mythcreants recommends against including them unless your story is specifically about sexual assault. See Six Rape Tropes and How to Replace Them.

Even with consensual sex, you add conflict the same way you add conflict to any other scene: at least one character must want something, and the audience doesn’t know if they’ll get it. There are many ways to do this. Here are a few.

Barely Concealed Secrets

The secret should be one that conceivably could come out during sex. Important: the secret, while significant enough that the character wants to maintain it, should not be that they’re pretending to be a different person or any other information their partner would reasonably expect to know before having sex.

Example

Aruke the Wizard Grey has summoned a demon. Again. Even though he’d promised his lover, Sir Roland, that he’d cut down on that sort of thing. Meanwhile, Sir Roland is paying a surprise visit. Aruke is confident his bindings on the demon will hold; however, the demon will probably scream and shout. When Sir Roland indicates that he wishes to stay with Aruke and make love, Aruke has one option: be as loud as possible, so that Sir Roland either doesn’t hear the demon or attributes the noise to Aruke. And he needs to do it for two hours, because only then will the summoning spell fade and the demon disappear.

Fear of Discovery

You have to provide adequate reason for why they must have sex here and now, instead of moving to a more private spot.

Example

Staivi is about to head off to fight the Albon. Since the battle is more than one hundred light-years away, even with modern FTL she won’t return to Earth until her two-year deployment is over, assuming she even survives. While her ship is being prepped, her girlfriend, Gwill, has snuck into her cabin for one last fling. They can’t be noisy; the walls are thin. And they must finish before anyone checks in on Staivi. Or worse, before the ship takes off!

Guilt

One of the people feels bad, because he’s cheating on his husband, or because she thinks sex is sinful, or so on. The trick here will be maintaining audience sympathy.

Example

Allen had been taught all his life to hate and fear zombies. However, while in college he met some zombies and learned that the stereotypes just weren’t true. He even started dating Lisa, a zombie woman. The two of them became quite close, and now they are about to make love for the first time. But Allen’s ingrained prejudices bubble just below the surface. He needs to keep these prejudices at bay the whole time. Which is not as easy as he would like.

Basically, anything that adds tension and conflict will liven the scene up.

Ways to Make Sex Scenes Interesting Without Conflict

Conflict may not always be appropriate for the scene. For example, if this is the last scene and all conflicts have been resolved, you’ll need to rely on other techniques.

  • Novelty. For instance, you might have a sex scene in zero gravity or with a shape-shifter. But to maintain novelty, you will need to describe in detail how the gravity or shape-shifting affects the sex throughout the scene. Furthermore, if audiences are unfamiliar with the scene, the character’s ability, or whatever novel element you have, you may need to provide exposition, interrupting what is supposed to be a fun moment.
  • Humor. If you can write a sex scene as funny as the one in The Tall Guy, A Fish Called Wanda, or The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!, then it’s almost certainly worth keeping. But humor is subjective, of course, and something that is hilarious in a movie may not translate onto the written page.
  • Character and Relationship Development. Just like any other scene, we can learn more about characters, and characters themselves can grow and develop during these moments. Furthermore, the relationship between the characters can change as a result, for better or worse.
  • Eroticism. If the primary purpose of the scene is to arouse your readers, then you’d better be able to arouse them. A non-sexy sex scene is a slog. You’ll want to ask your beta readers, but finding a beta reader who will admit “this turned me on” can be tricky in and of itself.

In short, a sex scene is like every other scene in your story. It must pull its weight. It must maintain the audience’s interest. Just because your characters are getting busy, that doesn’t mean you can slack off.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    If you’re writing erotica, it’s a given you will have sex scenes – people expect them. They buy the story for those. Yet, there’s a lot of erotica (not only the self-published variety) that isn’t very good. The problem with those stories is usually that they don’t give a reason for the sex scene. It’s what the fan-fiction community calls PWP – porn without plot.

    Of course, you plot an erotic story around sex scenes. You set yourself an amount of scenes you want to do (or your publisher does) and you write the story so that you can fit the scenes in. Yet, there still should be a reason for those two (or more, not judging) people being involved in sex in that scene. There’s more than just ‘he was horny, she was horny, so they had sex’ (or the same with two men or two women). That’s for porn, not for erotica. Luckily, there are actually a lot of reasons to have a sex scene in the story. You already mentioned some (I love that demon idea … really gives the sex scene additional spice). Other possibilities might include ritualistic sex, seducing someone to get at information (should still be consentual from both sides, but who says that spy can’t have another reason for seducing someone?), or very happy ‘good to have you back’ sex at the end of the story.

    When it comes to the actual scene, my first suggestion is that you don’t have to make it too long. Yes, sex can be long and amazing, but there’s a natural limit to it. Go into the scene and keep things going. Keep the order of actions (instinct, feeling, thought, deed) and keep things happening. You should be done in a page or two or three. Then put in something else and return to another sex scene of two or three pages. There’s no need to pull out one sex scene to eternity. It’ll be more fun for everyone involved when there’s several shorter scenes they really enjoy (and for those who are not into the scenes, it will be much easier to skip a shorter scene, too – win-win).

    Personally, I write the sex scenes out when I’m writing erotica (mostly for myself, but I think I’ll publish at least some eventually), but I just hint at them in my normal stories. Jane Browne, my longest-lasting series MC, loves having sex and since book four has a boyfriend who also loves it, yet I hint at the scenes, I don’t write them. I let them tease each other about it as a first ‘foreplay’ and when it’s time for the deed, I fade out and fade in at a latter point. She’s a spy and that’s what the stories are about, they’re not about her erotic conquests (although I could absolutely do that).

    • Dave L

      Excellent advice

      >There’s no need to pull out one sex scene to eternity. It’ll be more fun for everyone involved when there’s several shorter scenes they really enjoy (and for those who are not into the scenes, it will be much easier to skip a shorter scene, too – win-win).

      Totally agree!

  2. silverware

    When it comes to the sex scenes, i like emotional ones better i think. I like to read about desires, fears, vulnerability and tenderness, i like to know what the characters are feeling and why this scene is important to them. I also like when something happens because of the sex, or sex happens because of something – the good old cause and effect thing.

    The mechanical “put stick A into slot B” kind, even written in flowery language, makes me highly uncomfortable. Too direct and exposed, yuck!

    • Dave L

      Makes sense

      That’s true of any scene. really

  3. Cip

    The fan fiction community is an excellent place to start if people aren’t confident writing sex scenes. A large proportion of fanfiction involves sex scenes and it is a good place to sound out how your writing is perceived. It’s also exactly the right place to find a beta reader who will happily tell you if your writing has turned them on.

    • Dave L

      Good suggestion!

    • Kat

      This! I’ve read some terrible sex scenes, usually in novels where the series didn’t have any previously, and it feels a lot like the author has never written one before. By contrast, while there are some humdingers in fanfic, there are also some excellent examples – and readers are much more forgiving there, and provide constructive feedback if requested

  4. Joseph

    “A sex scene that is only half right is like half a kitten- it is not half as cute as a full kitten, it is a bloody godawful mess’. I have heard this re-quoted in so many locations that I have no idea where it came from, but it is very apt here.

    If you are squeamish about sexuality, or, even worse, have no idea what you are talking about, then it will be painfully obvious. If it is not absolutely necessary to the plot or characterization, then a sex scene is one of the plot elements that can be cut while losing the least.

    Having a fight take place mostly off-screen is a cop-out. Having conversations or major character developments happen off-screen and summarized afterward is rightly condemned as lazy. A fade to black instead of an explicit sex scene is so expected that, if you scrap a planned scene and go this route instead, no-one will think twice about it.

    • A Perspiring Writer

      I’m pretty sure that the quote is originally from “How NOT to Write a Novel*” (emphasis theirs). At least, that’s the only place I’ve heard it.

      *The book is pretty self-explanatory, it’s basically lessons on how to write well, interspersed with deliberately poorly-written snippets from fake books to show the point.

  5. Dave L

    > A fade to black instead of an explicit sex scene is so expected that, if you scrap a planned scene and go this route instead, no-one will think twice about it.

    True. And some will even prefer it

  6. Jenn H

    It is not uncommon for sex scenes to feel completely disconnected from the plot. Sometimes it is so the author can easily censor out the scene later if need be, and other authors can sometimes copy this style without thinking about why.

  7. Darian

    Great advice Dave, and Cay as well. I wish more people would write sex scenes that are interesting and/or short. I’m asexual and I almost never find a sex scene erotic, but I quite like to read them if they have conflict, character development, novelty, humor, and/or plot relevance. And, while I may not be the best judge of eroticism, I can say that some of the ones I do find hot are very short, but also very intense or evocative, communicating the significance of the event without boring me with over-description of tedious physical actions that I have read thousands of times and that are not unique to the participants or their situation. (In other words, it is possible to write a sex scene that contains only the interesting parts; if I get to the end too quickly, I can easily read it again.)

    KJ Charles has a great post on her blog about consent in sex scenes. It might be a nice companion to this one. She discusses the portrayal of active consent in ways that serve character and relationship development while making scenes more interesting (with explicit examples).

    kjcharleswriter.com/2020/05/20/yes-and-no-consent-in-sex-scenes/

    • Silverware

      Oh hey! KJ Charles is the only author whose erotica I can read and feel something. I didn’t know she had a blog, thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • Cay Reet

      I do also like a few other authors, but I enjoy KJ Charles’ historical erotica a lot. Probably because it’s never only about the sex, there’s also more story there.

      Yes, thanks for the link, I wasn’t aware she had a blog and it looks very interesting!

  8. Tony

    It’s also worth considering whether the sex scene is specifically geared to appeal to one subset of the audience while ignoring what other people might want. One common example of this is sex scenes that play mainly to the male gaze while offering little for audience members who aren’t straight men.

  9. GeniusLemur

    Another reason sex scenes are boring so often is because they don’t actually belong there. How many sex scenes actually reveal character, further an arc, or serve the plot?

    • Beth

      Right? It’s just poor storytelling to have a scene that can be neatly excised with no damage to the surrounds. If an irrelevant sex scene’s already written, it’s most likely going to be clunky and weird to try and jam some plot relevance/character arc in there if you didn’t initially plan for any to go there. And there’s tons of people who don’t want to read a sex scene in otherwise non-erotic genre fiction – it’s really not conducive to their reading experience to put a key moment of the story in there. The safest option with that is just to remove the sex from plot-relevant sex scenes and replace it with some other activity. Like in the example in the article, with Aruke – that could very easily be turned into a shared dinner, which would keep the tension exactly as high while becoming more accessible.

    • Cay Reet

      That’s why I don’t put them in my stories normally, even though I know how to write a good sex scene. It’s nice for people to know, I assume, that Jane and her boyfriend have fun in bed, because it’s part of their relationship, but it’s not something they need to watch.

      As mentioned, in erotica, people expect sex scenes and want them. Outside that genre (and, to a lesser degree, romance), I don’t really see why a sex scene would really be needed.

      • Beth

        Yeah, erotica’s a whole different kettle of fish. I can see why romance might feature some sex scenes as well, but they’ve more responsibility to clearly signpost their presence since they aren’t necessarily expected. As a kid, I checked out what was advertised as a ‘magical realism’ romance novel from the library, and two-thirds in, after otherwise being completely PG-13 (no swearing, even), it… er, revealed some of the gaps in my sex education. (And created some new ones, because wow, was it inaccurate.) But aside from the tonal whiplash, the sex scene was completely superfluous. Had it been a cut-to-black, the story would be unchanged, and it’d be fine for a nine or ten-year-old.

        • Cay Reet

          Most stories profit more from a fade-to-black decision than from a written sex scene in my experience. Unless it’s necessary for character development (which I’ve yet to see), it’s usually not necessary.

  10. Ace of Hearts

    I’m asexual, so my reaction to sex scenes in any medium is almost always like “huh, okay, boobs are a thing. Can we get back to the plot please?”

    I’m not sending this as a reply to anyone specific cause many commenters pointed it out, but sex scenes very rarely serve the plot. When they do, they can very well be worth reading, but otherwise I just skim through them.

    Though it is quite funny to go through all the failed sex scenes on r/menwritingwomen and r/badwomensanatomy.

  11. Erynus

    The two sex scenes in my book act as bookends of their own arc, the first and last time my characters get laid mean that there is still chemistry among them despite all that happened in between (betrayal, rage and international blowing ups).
    I think that despite the obvious affair, i added a layer of background and character to their intercourse, as one is kinda parallel of the other.
    Also, as i depict the inherent violence of the spy/ mercenary world, i would like to depict sex in as much detail (not more, not less) to avoid the usual trope of being ok to decapitate someone in technicolor but then censor a penis or even a male butt.

    • Cay Reet

      It might still be hard to make the scenes work. It’s easy to invoke feelings with intense violence and gore – humans are hard-wired to react to that. Sex (like humour) is a very personal thing and what turns on person A won’t get any reaction from person B. You can’t really expect everyone to react to a sex scene the way they react to an intense fight or gory kill.

      When I started my espionage stories (and Jane is an accomplished assassin who killed for the first time when she was thirteen, so there is violence and death), I considered writing sex scenes, especially as Jane started out as some sort of female James Bond and we know that guy can’t and won’t keep it in his pants. Yet, I decided against it in the end, because the sex as a such served no real purpose. In a visual form, it might have done some titillation, but written down with the reader having the pictures in their head, it just wasn’t going to do anything for the story.

      If you feel you need to do the sex scenes, make sure beforehand you know what you’ll focus on: the physical aspect (which brings it closer to porn) or the emotional aspect (which brings it closer to erotica). Are you showing that sex is worthless, just something you do for other reasons? Then stay on the physical side. Are you showing some inherent relationship between the characters that way? Then focus more on the emotions. If both scenes are supposed to mirror each other, the focus must be the same in both as well.

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