Behind Closed Doors: Writing Intimacy

Empty Hotel Bed

I don’t know about you, but I find scenes of intimacy (read: sex) pretty hard to write. In life, I don’t have much problem talking about sex, sexual issues, sexuality, etc. My kids know I’m a safe person to talk to about such things, and I’ve been known to make (age-appropriate) comments during films or even conversations that lead to serious discussions, and sometimes giggles and eye-rolls.

But for me, writing about physical intimacy doesn’t come any more naturally than writing dialogue that sounds natural. No one wants to read a physical catalogue of the act. Neither should a scene be so swathed in innuendo that it has to be read twice for the reader to understand what’s going on. And such scenes can’t just be dropped, cold, into the middle of a book, a result of a, “Oh, readers will probably expect them to have sex, now,” decision. Like well-described action of any sort, it’s way more art than science.

I bet you’re expecting some sage writing advice about now. That’s what folks come here for, yes? Here’s a secret: even though there are plenty of steamy (and sometimes rough) sex scenes in my novels, the truth is that I’m on a quest to make the next ones I write better, more authentic, and—when appropriate–sexier.

I’ve picked up a couple of books on the subject because that’s one of the primary ways I learn new things. (Though I confess I don’t advertise the fact that I’m reading these books to my seventeen-year-old son. Having me as a parent means he’s already embarrassed plenty.)

The book I definitely don’t read at the doctor’s office or in the carpool line is the plainly titled How to Write a Dirty Story: Reading, Writing, and Publishing Erotica, by Susie Bright. While I’m not looking to write erotica specifically, she spends the first third of the book talking about the history of writing sex in America, as well as the subject of literary intimacy in general. It came out in 2002—definitely pre-Fifty Shades of Gray days.

I’ve just had Diana Gabaldon’s recent Kindle Single, “I Give You My Body…”: How I Write Sex Scenes, recommended to me. Diana Gabaldon is renowned for her intense, frank, and occasionally humorous sex scenes (seriously, I blush!), and I’m very curious about her willingness to, ahem, go there.

The third book is by literary writer and educator, Elizabeth Benedict. The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers has the most academic approach of the three, with excerpts from the likes of John Updike, Russell Banks, and Dorothy Allison.

But now I’d like to hear from you.

Who are some examples of writers who write terrific sex scenes?

How do you approach writing an intimate scene? Do you dive right in, or does it take you a while?

Bonus question: What was the first book you ever read that had a sex scene in it?

 

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Hearta dark suspense thriller. Learn more about her at laurabenedict.com.

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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

32 thoughts on “Behind Closed Doors: Writing Intimacy

  1. I don’t read erotica, although the few I’ve read–usually as freebies–tend to get boring because it’s the sex that carries the book. Most of the ones I’ve read go farther than I care to read — too much “ick” factor for me.Some descriptions make me think the woman needs to see her gyn.

    Nora Roberts’ sex scenes (although I read her as JD Robb for the most part) are intimate and sensual. Suzanne Brockmann writes more explicit ones but she gets into the characters’ heads very well, and it’s about the emotion, not the “act” that’s important.

    I learned that mystery readers don’t want to see any sex on the page (In fact, I reissued my first mystery recently deleting the 350 words of foreplay because readers complained. For the record, my audiobook narrator was disappointed!)

    For my romantic suspense books, the characters let me know when they’re ready. Those get tricky, because nobody wants to stop the mystery/suspense action for the “obligatory” sex scene (although a best-selling romance author managed to sneak in a sex scene while h/h were on a camel fleeing bad guys), so they tend to come later in my books. (My early readings in the historical romance genre all seemed to have the sex scene on page 191.)

    And lastly, the first sex scene I read (or remember reading). My parents had a friend who wrote porn under a pseudonym, and they’d buy his books to support him. They left one lying around when I was in my early teens, and I read it. The other early sex scene heavy book I read was “Candy”, another my folks left lying around. I’m not even going into whether they left them for me to find or just assumed I’d leave them alone.

  2. I’m with you, Terry. Erotica is not my favorite, especially if it is only about the sex.
    How fascinating about mystery readers. I’ve never thought about that. Though anecdotally I can’t think of much sex in traditional mysteries I’ve read–unless they’re seriously character-driven.

    Your parents sound like wonderful, generous people. And if they were like mine, they may have believed that any knowledge is good knowledge!

  3. The first sex scene I ever read was in a romance novel on the family bookshelf in the hallway. (I’m assuming it was my mother’s; it could have been my sister’s.) I was in junior high and read it in secret. At the time, I thought it was pretty racy. Looking back, not so much.

    The first time I wrote a sex scene, it took me forever to get the words on the page, and once I did, it was laughable. There’s a definite nuance to it. Not too much, not too little. Word choice is critical. I’m comfortable writing them now, and they don’t take me long to compose. But it took me a while to get to that point.

    Nora Roberts, Catherine Anderson, J.R. Ward, Tina Folsom, Liliana Hart… they all have a different heat and detail level, but they are some of the best I’ve read.

    • That’s a great story, Staci. Reading in secret is delicious, isn’t it? I went back and looked at a Harold Robbins novel I peeked at in junior high, and also discovered it wasn’t as racy as I remembered. As I read about how difficult it was for you (as it was for most of us!) to write that first sex scene, it occurred to me that it might be a little like the experience of having actual sex for the first time–clumsy and laughable. Takes practice to get it right and, um, maybe now is over quickly. ; )

      (If I’m not here in two Wednesdays, it’s because I’ve been fired!)

  4. Why do we even have to go behind closed doors? Seems to me the more unique approach these days would be something other than the “body parts” method.

    Mrs. B and I recently watched a middling Kevin Costner thriller, 3 Days to Kill. There was a point when Kevin and his estranged wife look at each other with rekindled passion. I said, “Here comes the obligatory sex scene.”

    But they didn’t go there….they cut to the next morning. And we both thought that was refreshing.

  5. I am the worst at writing “hot” scenes, particularly because I always interrupt the “action” with something goofy. Total mood-killers! 😉

    • But that can work, too, yes? A little break in tension, then ramp it up. Next time maybe let them laugh and be goofy, then continue the action. Laughter creates intimacy!

  6. I have the impression that more and more readers today are not terribly interested in the explicit sex scene unless the book is on the order of ’50 Shades’. Even in romance novels the emphasis is on the emotion rather than the body parts.
    I can’t remember the first one I read; it was either Candy or Lady Chatterley, both of which were being passed around behind the gym. Very little of what I read now has any explicit sex so I’m not up to speed with any current writers who do it exceptionally well.
    I want my own readers to know that the hero and heroine are going to get it on, but I only suggest, then cut to the next morning/scene/event.

    • It’s interesting that genres have so solidified that their formats are very predictable, Stephen. I think it’s no accident that romance novels emphasize the emotion–describing sex without emotion is simply pornography, which looks to titillate and elicit physical rather than emotional responses.

      You’re the second person to mention CANDY, which I’ve never seen. Obviously my education was too limited.

  7. As a published romance author, I’d say that erotica isn’t a “go to” for how to write a sex scene because of the very specific audience it reaches. Any decent romance author would be a better choice. As someone said, Nora Roberts/JD Robb would be a good choice although she head hops which is a no-no for anyone who isn’t NR.

    The main tricks to writing a romantic or sex scene is to place yourself firmly into the head of your viewpoint character. Concentrate on all the senses and include them. Decide whether you are writing a love scene or a sex scene and use your character’s emotions accordingly.

    If the love/sex scene changes nothing between the characters, then it’s okay to close the door. If the love/sex scene changes something between the characters, then the door should be open although the details needn’t be graphic.

    • “If the love/sex scene changes nothing between the characters, then it’s okay to close the door. If the love/sex scene changes something between the characters, then the door should be open although the details needn’t be graphic.”

      What a great delineation. If the scene isn’t meant to change anything, then it is gratuitous or even prurient. And love/sex scenes need not be simply consummations or mutual satisfaction fests, but power struggles, relationship-enders, acts of revenge…the possibilities are endless.

      Noting the difference between a love scene and a sex scene is something that doesn’t immediately occur to me–but of course, they can be very different. Terrific insights, Marilynn.

  8. I am unpublished and so not speaking from a professional standpoint, but the book I’ve written does not have any sex scenes based on the time period mores, a character point of view I wanted to establish and a very definite plot point that depended on the love interests not completing the act. I also didn’t want my children (who are adults, but besides the point) to see that I’d written a sex scene which is not a good excuse I know, but it pushed my story in a direction that I was very happy with. It could have gone the other way, and some of my genre definitely have. I do have a short scene of one character bathing the other but it’s because the one character is injured and unable to help herself. It isn’t done in a sexual way because it would have looked gratuitous if it had been, but I think it showed a degree of love in that he helps her without lusting after her. I think love can be shown in your story in ways other than graphic sex. It’s almost becoming expected now and I think that cheapens it in a way. I would also love to see my story published someday with a cover I could be proud of. My genre is historical fiction and my fear is a cover with a half naked man with bulging muscles and a half naked woman clawing at him based on the fact that there is a sex scene in the book. I’m not sure there is a way to avoid that other than if you are lucky enough to get an offer to publish, you stand your ground.

    • It’s true, Barbara, that marketing departments often have very different ideas from the author about how a book should be presented to readers. Lucky is the author who has 100% control over her cover. That’s one of the beauties of self-publishing–there’s no one to argue with you!

      Once a book leaves a writers’ hands, she loses all control, all ability to influence a reader. A story is not really complete until a reader brings their own interpretations and ideas to it. We can’t stand over readers’ shoulders and tell them what we intended. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

  9. Something I neglected to mention (because heck, my original comment rivaled the blog post in length) is the importance of building up to the sex scene. Linda Howard adapted Desmond Morris’ book, “Intimate Behavior” and most romance writers are familiar with Howard’s 12 Steps to Intimacy. By following these steps, by the time the sex/love scene is on the page, it’s believable. Of course, *writing* it still poses a challenge, but it should feel out of place to the reader.

  10. My editor asked for more sex — in my books. Whenever I write sex scenes, Sister Mary Chandelier rises out of her grave to tell me I’m going to hell. Lord knows I’ve ignored most of her other furious warnings, but I can’t get my inner Catholic school girl to go away entirely.

    • I grew up in the church, too, and sometimes I feel like it delivered a pretty big dose of shame. Also, I didn’t know I could have a favorite nun’s name, but now I know it’s Sister Mary Chandelier.

    • I tried writing my last book with the “cut to the morning after” part instead of the down and dirty, and my editor sent it back to me. “I want this on the page.” And so it is, but it is delicately handled. Especially in romance, readers expect that, although I can’t say I’m disappointed if it fades to black. I’ve read too many books with an “obligatory” sex scene that could just as easily have been left out (and often would have been better left out).

  11. All I can say, ladies, is get a copy of “Suddenly You” by Lisa Kleypas. It’s an historical romance about an unmarried, almost 30 novelist who didn’t want to turn thirty without making love to a man. She decides to hire a man for a night of passion on her thirtieth birthday. Of course, the man who shows up at her door that night isn’t who she thinks he is. Enjoy, and tell me what you think!

    As for writing romance, I think a great writer can make a kiss almost seem orgasmic if the characters have to go through a lot to make it happen. Readers have different preferences when it comes to heat level, and it’s important to know your target audience. “The Bridges of Madison County” has wide appeal, and book never deteriorates into anything that I couldn’t discuss with my grandmother. Of course, there is definitely a market for steamier books these days, but I don’t think a writer needs to go out of his/her comfort zone.

    • Well said, Gentle Reader. Sensuality in writing can be so satisfying and very effective.

      It’s true that writers have every degree of “heat” available to them to use, and can certainly find an audience that will identify with their comfort level. That said, we often do our best work getting out of our comfort zones.

      • I agree that sometimes it’s good to push the limits a little bit. We might surprise ourselves. Btw, Laura, I took a peek at your “Charlotte’s Story” at Amazon last night, and now I’m going to have to read it. I loved your intro – I was totally hooked!

  12. I don’t feel like the actual “deed” is needed in any scene, ie, the penetration of the heroine’s love canal, fleshy mound, or any other form of genital euphemisms by his pocket rocket or man shaft. HOWEVER, I think a sex scene would fall flat if there’s no emotional tension or conflict. It’s the underlying currents that make a sex scene pretty steamy to me. Also, there are many words that can be used leading up to sexual tension without putting the reader on guard that something sexual is about to go down.

    • Don’t you just love the euphemisms? I think writers need to be careful not to make readers laugh. It might be fun to do a collection of love scenes that don’t work.

  13. One trick I’ve seen in Diana Gabaldon, Ken Follett and others is to have the seduction–or even sex–scene going on during a necessary but otherwise long and boring political discussion. Works well.

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