The Poetics of Sex

If you’re a writer chronicling romantic human behavior, chances are you’ve had to deal with this very tricky question – how do you write a sex scene convincingly? The short answer’s that there’s no specific answer because literature is a mercurial art, but that’d be a short post. The long answer is that there are principles I’ve employed in my own writing that, while no guarantee of success, will at least make you more aware of the choices you have to make when writing about the most intimate of moments.

The first thing is that sex should be treated like any other element in the story—write as many details as are necessary, but not one detail more. How many details are necessary depends on the story you’re trying to tell. If you’re aiming for erotica, than the overall count of sex scenes, as well as sensory detail, should not only be higher but of a more graphic nature than if you’re trying to write a James Patterson thriller. That’s why little of 50 Shades of Grey feels redundant, because sexuality lies at the foundation of the novel’s conflict. For books that do not feature sex as a main element of its story, than the details are best kept minimal if not cut entirely from the narrative, depending on the importance of romance to the characters and overall story.

Character and/or voice is equally important, for these elements can solely determine whether or not the reader is convinced by a sex scene, and by association, the entire book. If the characters have not been previously defined as sexual beings of some capacity, then the sudden reveal of this aspect of their nature could be viewed as anachronistic and disengage the reader. How does sex figure into the character’s life, and what do they hope to gain (even more importantly, what can they lose) by having it? Working these answers into the story beforehand will set the scene to ensure the reader smoothly follows along and regards the scene as vital to the character’s development. This is important with narration too, especially first person, as the character’s voice during a sex scene MUST be consistent with their voice in the rest of the book or else the scene will fall flat. In other words…if the character is not a sensual person, it doesn’t make sense for them to describe the situation sensually with overblown adjectives and awful prose peppered with too many gerunds (unless the scene does indeed change the character’s disposition, which if so, must be accounted for in the writing both during and after.)

Another element that must be taken into consideration is where the scene(s) occur in the narrative. If love comes before play, then the sex scene’s placement towards the end of the book is a given. If the characters fall in love after they have sex, then the scene should happen no later than the middle of the plot, preferably earlier if there are multiple sex scenes. This allows each scene to progress towards a goal the characters share (such as but not limited to falling in love) giving these scenes dramatic unity which will reduce the likelihood of these scenes being viewed as gratuitous. And if one partner is crazy a la Fatal Attraction? Make one of the very first scenes in the book a sex scene for one partner and a love scene for the other, then let the plot unfold.

Finally, think about the intended audience for the work when determining what sexual elements to include and how much will be left to the imagination. A Christian romance won’t play very well for its intended crowd if it’s loaded with wall-to-wall sex scenes (I’d read it, but only because the juxtaposition intrigues me.) Likewise, readers looking for erotica will expect to be aroused and will be unforgiving of a book with tepidly written sex scenes. There are always exceptions to audience expectations of genre which is what makes literature an art, but I firmly believe that one must know the rules before they can be broken effectively. So too should writers know their audience before they can begin playing with their expectations.

There are no moments in a story that a reader is more likely to say “Was that really necessary?” than a sex scene. Maybe its due to years of socialization that sex shouldn’t be discussed; maybe it’s because so many storytellers merely include sex because they think it’s expected, yet sex is guaranteed to elicit some kind of reaction from virtually every reader. Hopefully a few of these strategies will get the reaction that you, the artist, is aiming for.

cover1000 (1)Leila Sepehri, an ambitious and brilliant student determined to cure cancer, is murdered during her final semester at college, yet discovers she’s been reborn as a spirit, resigned to haunt a school that can no longer see or hear her. The following semester, incoming freshman Alejandro Velásquez arrives on campus, eager to reinvent himself after eighteen years of awkwardness, as well as a devastating family tragedy, shake his sense of worth and faith to their cores.  

The two lonely souls meet under the auspice of moonlit rain, and soon find themselves passionately, irrevocably attracted to each other. Leila discovers her spiritual body reawakening with sensations that make her feel alive once again, and Alejandro discovers a kindred spirit who understands his pain like no one else. The fast friends become intense lovers, and become determined to find a way to hold onto their own private miracle forever.  

Yet troublesome questions linger. How can Alejandro possibly explain to skeptical friends and family that his soul-mate is a ghost? Why does Leila get the nagging suspicion that their relationship might hold the key to understanding her existence as a spirit? Intoxicated with each other, Leila and Alejandro evade these questions, only to have them explode once an act of evil causes both of them to clearly see the true meaning of their destiny together. Will their love give them the courage to accept a destiny that surpasses time and perhaps even God, or is their love destined to die loud and young?

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Michael HaleyMichael Haley was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and cultivated in its neighboring vicinities. He graduated with a degree in Psychology from Iowa State University, and now lives with his wife and little-dude-to-be in Bloomington, Illinois. When not writing, he loves indulging and dissecting books, film, and pop art from all canons and genres. Lost on the Edge of Forever is his first novel.

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