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.
ExampleDan 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.
ExampleDan 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.
ExampleDan 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.
ExampleAruke 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.
ExampleStaivi 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!
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.
ExampleAllen 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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