Shipping and Handling, Pt III: How to Write Sex Scenes (By Writing Fight Scenes)

“You know why your books don’t sell?” asked my Laddie, scrolling idly through the Kindle sale page. Suggestive covers whizzed by on the computer screen. “No sex scenes.”

I wrinkled my nose. “The protagonists in my last series were fifteen.”

“Teenagers have sex.”

“Not when they’re preoccupied with survival.”

While adolescent sexual experiences may be appropriate in coming-of-age novels, they haven’t fit in the YA sci-fi stories I’ve written to date. It’s not that I’m prudish: I just like streamlined writing and refuse to litter my books with scenes that don’t contribute to the narrative, especially just for the sake of titillation.

My novel-in-progress, however, posed a different case. In addition to being geared toward adult readers, the heroine’s physicality plays a key role in the story, so sex scenes could provide an instrument for exploring character and advancing plot. Except that hadn’t written one since my smutty fanfic stage as a teen (and having more experience, paradoxically, inclines me to restraint rather than lavish detail). I avoided the first scene for a bit, focusing instead on action sequences in the preceding chapters. When I arrived at the saucy part, my writerbrain was still in fight scene mode…

…And the lovin’ laid down on the page as swiftly and smoothly as a well-placed uppercut. Like a couple with opposite personalities, sex scenes and fight scenes seem different on the surface, but actually have a lot in common: physical engagement, chemicals running high, chapters (or entire books) worth of tension finally reaching a climax. Why not approach writing them in a similar way?

1. Condense choreography. 

It can be tempting to include every beat of an action scene. But attempting to describe every move risks a tedious catalogue of meat mechanics:

Boring: She kissed him. He kissed her back. She kissed him again, more deeply, and drew him over the threshold. He surrendered. They took a few steps backward, lips still pressed together.

Distill those parts to their essence to improve the tempo and the tension.

Better: Trading kisses, they shuffled languidly toward the sofa.

Whether it’s kicks or kisses, they all look similar after a while. Instead of the play-by-play, give readers the highlight reel. How do you identify the most significant moments? Start with those that are not generic interactions, but particular to your story.

2. Create context. 

Every barroom brawl or hotel hook-up involves the same basic behaviors; it’s the surroundings, environmental and emotional, that make it distinct. Pull back from the physical action and weave in details unique to your story. External details—the feel of a particular surface, ambient sounds, elements discovered or re-discovered about a partner’s body—immerse the reader in a sensory experience.

Depending on your narrative perspective, internal details may also be key. How do the characters feel about what’s happening, psychologically? How does the event affect the story they’re living?

3. Set Stakes.

What makes a fight scene exciting? It’s not the violence itself, but the reason behind it: there are consequences if the protagonist does not triumph. Sex scenes might not be zero-sum, but there are still things to be won or lost for the characters involved. For example, the first sex scene in Binary Chop reveals the heroine’s involvement in an illicit relationship, the discovery of which would compromise her investigation (narrative stakes). But she’s hardly risking it all for love. For her, it’s mostly a distraction from mental trauma, and she fears reigniting old pain if it becomes more emotionally intimate than a periodic tryst (character stakes). That’s the key to elevating sex scenes from arbitrary interludes to passionate plot points.

Caveating that these tactics may not apply for romance or erotic novels, which have their own conventions, authors seeking a little sizzle in other genres can use these principles to write more impactful sex scenes that seduce the storyline.

Check out the first two installments of the Shipping and Handling series: How to Write Romantic Subplots and The Partner-Lover Tango.

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