The Mini-Guide To Writing Sex For Your Genre

There are approximately a zillion questions to consider when it comes to the craft of sex in fiction. One of the most important being: Does your genre's intended audience expect, crave, or even allow sex? Will your intended audience flee the minute the forecast leans toward a slight chance of penetration, or will they be pissed at you if there's not enough? Whether sex plays a main role, a side character, or is simply an off-the-page thought only mentioned in passing, chances are, the topic’s going to pop up. Incorporating sex into your fiction can be a tricky endeavor. While some authors dig into it for all it’s worth, others feel a bit more vulnerable when it comes to writing effective sex scenes, or, depending on your goals, effectively writing around sex scenes.

It takes a certain artistic talent to write sex. As a developmental editor, I’ve worked with authors whose love scenes shine while other important plot points need tremendous work. Some authors pen brilliant plot twists and complex character development, yet write clunky or ineffective sex. The following is a mini-guide of what to consider when writing sex, according to genre. 

Genre Conventions: Do you want to cater to your audience, or push them (possibly far, far) away? 

Does your genre's intended audience expect, crave, or even allow sex?

While you want the story and characters to be fresh and unique, there is something to be said for following the conventions of your genre, especially when it comes to sex. Every genre has its own conventions, which exist because they are considered to be not only what the reader expects, but what the reader demands. If your aim is to shock and push against the limitations of the same old, same old, then there better be a damn good reason why, one that develops the plot and characters in a significant way. Is your heroine’s particular fantasy to make love to a man decked out in full glitter beard? If so, why is that important to the story, and what does that say about the psychology of her character?

Heat Levels

No matter the genre, sex can be categorized by how explicit and graphic it is. Will the act of sex be described using poetic devices and sweet, euphemistic phrasing? Do you aim to tease the audience but leave them wanting more? Will it be downright dirty and chock-full of anatomically correct vocab? Is it something relevant to the story that is merely mentioned as a side note, or will it be a vigorous, in-your-face, chapter-long marathon fuck? Study your genre’s conventions and decide how far you want to push, or plow through (pun intended) the typical rules. Does your audience respond better to the no-frills cock and clit vernacular? Or is it a bit more subdued?

Romance/Erotica

The number of sub-genres in romantic fiction are too numerous to count. But romance is one genre where sex is most likely to be an important part of the plot’s equation, whether it’s explicit or flowery, or even non-existent due to unrequited love. Are you writing for an audience who loves Hallmark films and Nicholas Sparks? The S&M crowd? Bisexual menage? As is the case with real sex, there is such a broad range of preferences. One thing is certain—even if you are going for the simple goal of getting your reader’s libido going, badly written sex is never a turn-on.

Consider the guidelines at the Harlequin Submissions Page, for example. (Which accepts unsolicited submissions, by the way.)

  • The new Sexy Contemporary Series, launching in 2017: The heat level is explicit and graphic. The hero and heroine have a powerful sexual and emotional connection. We’re looking for authors who have a distinct, memorable voice and write stories with a high level of sexual tension as well as graphic sex.
  • Harlequin Heartwarming: Physical interactions (i.e. kissing/hugging) should emphasize emotional tenderness rather than sexual desire or sensuality: low level of sexual tension; characters should not make love unless they are married.

These are just a few examples of several categories Harlequin seeks to publish. There is romantic, erotic, and explicit. Consider the heat level from: Delta of Venus by Anaïs Nin:

His sex was quivering, and he was tormented with desire… Marianne grew desperate. She pushed his hand away, took his sex into her mouth again, and with her two hands she encircled his sexual parts, caressed him and absorbed him until he came.

Literary

Literary fiction is so cool because it can encompass such a wide range of sex, from very little or non-existent, to the dirtiest and most sexually depraved characters around. Literary fiction can focus on passion, or the detachment a character has with sex and the world. Is the sex empty for your character? Euphoric? If you are going for passionate sex, don't forget about literary foreplay. It may be effective to dive right into hot and heavy in the first sentence of the scene once, but it'll get old real quick if you don't build some sexual tension. When I read and write literary fiction, I tend to like action that is a bit more straightforward and to the point. No one needs to "quiver with anticipation" so long as someone's getting fucked the way they want to get fucked. In many cases, the most explicit isn't always the hottest. Sometimes, quite the opposite can be true. There is something to be said for leaving a bit to the imagination. Such is the case for one of my favorite books ever, High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby:

And then I go to the bathroom, and clean my teeth; and then I come back; and then we make love; and then we talk for a bit; and then we turn the lights out, and that’s it. I’m not going into all that other stuff, the who-did-what-to-who stuff. You know “Behind Closed Doors” by Charlie Rich? That’s one of my favourite songs. You’re entitled to know some things, I suppose. You’re entitled to know that I didn’t let myself down, that none of the major problems afflicted me, that I didn’t deliver the goods but Marie said she had a nice time anyway, and I believed her…

Fantasy and Sci-fi

Again, think of the intended audience and the themes that make up the substance of your story. Would sex propel the plot? Perhaps sex is an essential theme, as it is in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where the point of sex is a means of release and entertainment, but no longer necessary for procreation. The intricacies of sex in genre fiction are something of a wild card. Consider sex with vampires, aliens, robots, or elves. Think about new sexual technology or asexual beings. Wouldn't it be unrealistic if none of the crew on a space mission felt any sort of sexual tension? If you are writing fantasy, is there also a love story? But sex doesn't always have to be sexy. Sometimes it serves a different purpose, like in Beautiful You by Chuck Palahiniuk:

Without missing a thrust, he lifted the pen and scribbled a note in his book. He petted her inner thighs and clitoris. With his hips, he made infinitesimal adjustments in the angle and speed of his stroke. Addressing the recorder, he said, “The test subject’s pelvic floor has relaxed in extremis.

Dark Fiction

Lovers of horror, noir, thriller, and dark literary fiction can typically stomach more. You don’t have to be euphemistic or even pretty when describing sex, but as always, you need to be creative and interesting. This genre is typically about pushing boundaries, not catering to preferred flavors. Sex may be necessary to the development of the story (a self-destructive sex addict who is being haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife) or a one-time thing (a young woman who covers up the murder of her abusive husband has a drunken tumble with the detective assigned to her case). Whatever you do, make sure it fits in with the tone of the story. If your aim is to truly horrify, and sex is involved, well then, by golly, grab the bull by the horns. 

YA

Young adult fiction can be one of the trickiest areas. More than other genres, you have to be especially careful about word choice if you are trying to get your manuscript past the almighty gate-keepers of traditional publication. I once spoke with an author who went through several rounds of editing with Penguin Books. He had to replace one specific word, "thrust," even though it did not appear in a scene with actual sex. There was sex that took place in a different scene nearby, and the appearance of "thrust" before said scene was too close for comfort. It's not that there should never be sex in YA (it would be unrealistic if that teenage boy character goes through the entire summer without ever...you know), but there are a lot more rules in place regarding what is acceptable in the language and execution of sex in teen fiction. Consider this excerpt from Teach Me, by R.A. Nelson:

Now I’m tugging at his pants and then at mine. He’s kissing me everywhere, squeezing me, running his fingers over places no one else has touched. It’s too much; it’s frying my wiring. I close my eyes. The same thin blue light starts up again, just like when he kissed me. It starts as a line behind my eyelids. The blue line grows, becomes an arc, then a circle. I’m suddenly aware of the miracle of my bare skin against his bare skin. Just as the blue circle behind my eyes is completing itself, he—

Now there is not thought. It’s not possible anymore.

Sexual Healing With the Right Word Choice

One subtle aspect of editing is guiding writers in word choice. Editors should never change the voice or style of the writer, but if a certain word or phrase is inconsistent or problematic to the story, a good editor will point out why and provide fitting suggestions. If your audience loves and craves a more explicit experience, then “he tenderly caressed the heart of her femininity” just won’t cut it when what you mean is “he started stroking her clit with fierce determination.” I like to Google "erotic descriptives" and see what I can find. You can even craft your own list or chart of sexy words so you always have new ideas on hand, like the Kama Sutra for vocabulary. Here's one I wrote for myself.

Verbs bite, come (not cum!), cram, enter, fill, flick, fuck, impale, insert, kiss, lick, lave, tongue, massage, pound, quiver, ram, rub, squeeze, squirt, stroke, suck, tremble, twitch...
Adjectives (don't overindulge) engorged, erect, hard, rigid, silky, slippery, smooth, soft, swollen, tight, velvety, warm, wet...
Naughty Nouns (His & Hers): ass, bud, buttocks, center, clit, clitorous, cock, column, core, cunt, cunt lips, dick, erection, groin, hard-on, head, juices, labia, manhood, nether lips, pussy, seed, semen, sex, sweet spot, tip...

This reminds me of a game me and some close friends used to play in high school. We'd take turns naming the parts of the male and female anatomy with whatever clever terms we could come up with. The person who couldn't think of something first lost. Never thought that would be useful for my career. My chart barely touches the tip of the iceberg, but you get the idea. There is all sorts of colorful language you could come up with, but don't force it. Use what is natural for your characters' voices, and use what fits your audience. If you are writing for teens, even something as tame as "rigid column" won't get past the gate-keepers, I assure you.  

Whether Your Characters Are Getting Laid or Not:

Even if your story is not sex-centric, human nature is naturally a sexual nature. Even if there is no sex scene in your story, ask yourself whether it’s realistic that your detective never has one sexual thought throughout the course of an entire novel. Consider whether it’s reasonable that your male teenage character never considers the topic of sex or masturbation over the course of a story that spans a year. Even if you keep it “behind closed doors,” remember to consider the psychological development of your characters as they evolve throughout the story, and don’t let them fall flat for fear of being too naughty. 

Image of High Fidelity
Author: Nick Hornby
Price: $6.95
Publisher: Riverhead Books (1996)
Binding: Paperback, 352 pages
Image of Beautiful You
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Price: $11.05
Publisher: Anchor (2015)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
Holly Kothe

Column by Holly Kothe

Holly Kothe is a freelance editor and writer. She slowly built her business at espressoeditor.com until that glorious day she was able to quit her regular job and venture into the world of full-time freelancing. She loves to tell you everything that’s wrong with your book, but she’s super-duper nice about it. Holly holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Southern New Hampshire University and has been editing and writing for ten years. Her short story collection, Sweet Violent Femmes, is a display of bizarre erotic horror with a feminist bent. Holly lives in Cincinnati with her filmmaker fiancé and her talented theater-performing son.

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Comments

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami October 20, 2016 - 10:13pm

I also tend to write execution erotica in my spare time (not anything I plan to publish outside of specific circles), but even then I find I prefer the execution--like sex, to be more sexually understated personally.

Like building up an entire character, making me like that girl, particularly making the murderess sympathetic, and slowly building up to the hanging/beheading is almost more important than the actual execution of the event.

Like I was reading erchkmann-chatrain, and then there is no sex, the way it was written building up to this poor painter's execution by hanging was ... extremely sensual. It makes me wonder how contraversial it was in 19th century Alsace, France.

France is kind of a funny place it seems, very conservative in terms of capital punishment and education (it was Catholic a long time), yet over time more sexually free than say .. Great Britain. A land of paradoxes it seems. Though mainly after the 19th century oddly enough.

And yet, Vicci.

However during the early to mid eighteen hundreds Alsace-Lorraine? Not a chance there would be sex in a work of fiction. I mean keep in mind circumstances that can get a minor acquitted to keep her from getting her head chopped off is taboo, I can't imagine going into her (rather than tragic) backstory.

Sorry, slight historical derail, I'd like to be a historical detective. Though unsure what sex would be like in that context.

smithreynolds's picture
smithreynolds from Spokane, WA USA is reading The writing on the wall. October 21, 2016 - 9:34am

Your column caught my eye because I have been thinking about sex for a long time. Go ahead. Laugh.

Sexual politics have long been fuel for my pages, but actual sex, not so much. I think I have written two blatantly sexual scenes, ever. Lately I am thinking about doing it again, doing the dirty again, in my stories. My approach is way different than it was when I was a kid...kid being forty-five or so. The two sex scenes I have written have been in the last twelve months, so I guess you could say it is a recent preoccupation, though the sex of the pocketbook, how female prostitutes have sex has always fascinated me, sex for business, sex for coin, sex for power, sex for survival, as we all are at times, sexual merchants. I say female prostitutes, simply because I had no insight into male or gender flexible prostitution. That is changing in our information age.

So, thank you for the article. It was interesting and dabbled in the inner conversations that I have on the matter.

I cannot as a student of human behavior, continue writing from the view through a rather opaque lens when it comes to the sexual being of my characters. Nor am I particularly interested in having someone jack off while reading my work. It seems the only way to overcome pussy footing around is to go straight to the meat of the matter and find a direct and personal language that expresses my particular view of our biology. 

I am thinking about it, as we speak, frightful as that might be. Sex muse, come see me, I'll buy you a plane ticket. We'll talk. gsr