Here’s a little ponder about the craft of writing sex scenes. It could just as accurately be titled Writing Poetic Sex.
Once upon a time, I guess like a lot of writers, I found writing sex scenes embarrassing. Writing and critiquing erotica broke me of that squeamishness. Now, if I write a sex scene or erotic scene, I tend to write it in a fairly frank manner, but recently, I’ve become intrigued by sex scenes that are less literal. I’ve come across a few that caught my attention, whilst reading, that are much more metaphorical, figurative, poetic. Sometimes, they can feel distant and floaty—maybe (especially in YA) the writer wants to focus more on emotions and less on the physical aspects. Other times, the metaphors and figurative language end up being just as smutty and visceral as a more physical account would have been. I’ve found a couple of examples from books I’ve read recently, to illustrate what I mean. They fit broadly into these two camps.
This scene, in Tanith Lee’s The Book of the Damned, caught my eye. The style of this collection of novellas is quite overwrought and gothic (in a good way), with supernatural elements. The way she uses language in this scene suits the style of the work and the intangible, changing nature of the characters. The erotic charge is there, but the physical aspects are intertwined with figurative language.
Ecstasy was always near, it came and went, swelling, singing, widening, never finished, never begun. Her coldness was warm now, like the snow. Her lips which had come to my throat so quietly, had begun to burn. Her lips were fire. She threw me down and down, into the caverns of the night, where sometimes, far away, I heard myself groan, or her murmuring voice like a feather drifting….
Tanith Lee (1990), The Book of the Damn, p.37, The Overlook Press: Woodstock, NY
This second scene is from When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore. This is a YA novel and I’ve found it’s not unusual to focus on thoughts and emotions in YA, but the writing style is particularly poetic in this one.
She was shutting every window in this house and scaring them off with the light from Sam’s moons. It was just him, and her, his fingers flicking against her like the hot light of falling stars, her touching him in the best way she knew to remind him there was no distance, no contradiction between the body he had and a boy called Samir.
Anna-Marie McLemore (2016), When the Moon Was Ours, p.183, Thomas Dunne Books: New York, NY
Within a story, a sex scene can be important for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes it suits the style of the story to aim for something less literal. Sometimes it suits the emotional or narrative purpose better. Sometimes it’s fun to add a little variety. It’s a more emotionally engaging approach than fading to black, if a writer doesn’t want to have a graphic scene but still wants sex to feature in the story. Even if there are physical aspects, as well, it’s useful to broaden the possibilities for approaching these scenes, which can run the risk of being samey.
Thinking about this, I realise that, even though I tend to write my sex scenes in a literal way, I just wrote a vampire novella with a bunch of trippy blood drinking sessions, full of symbolic fragments of the characters’ subconscious. Blood drinking often takes the place of sex in vampire fiction (you could say the whole of gothic fiction is a pile of symbolic fears and desires); it fills a few different functions in mine. So, I guess I’ve already been writing symbolic sex, to an extent, but it’s useful to reflect on the technique, in a more conscious way, and think about the possibilities across a variety of genres.