If you choose to go all the way in your novel, you had better have a good reason for it. A well-crafted sex scene is not just about sex, unless you’re writing pornography—and even then who wants to read about body parts poking body parts without any genuine emotion involved?
1. A memorable sex scene should tell us something about the characters.
We should care about the people in your story, and any character worth writing about has motivation for her behavior. Is the protagonist eager to be deflowered because she’s 29 and tired of being a virgin? Is the encounter somehow forbidden? It could be a young man with an older woman as in the movie, “The Graduate,” or an older man with a sexually precocious twelve-year-old girl as in Lolita. A physical relationship between a white woman and a black man in the 1800s would be more about the era’s social mores than about sex.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence’s graphic 1928 novel about an adulterous relationship between an aristocratic woman and a gamekeeper on the Chatterley estate was originally banned in several countries but later considered “a study of integrity and wholeness” and a “contrast between mind and body.”
There are countless novels that have intensely erotic scenes that aren’t really about sex but have everything to do with insecurity, fear, anger, curiosity, anguish, jealousy or (believe it or not) love. Without emotion, sex is just pornography.
2. You don’t need a sex scene in your novel.
If it makes you uncomfortable, it will likely sound false. You can eliminate sex altogether or you can dwell on foreplay and have your characters close the bedroom door when things start to get steamy and sticky.
One of my favorite passionate scenes in which the characters never touch occurs in the movie, "Witness." John Book, a police officer played by Harrison Ford, is attracted to a young Amish woman, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), who lives in an extremely conservative culture. In a dimly lit scene, she bathes before him, half-naked and unashamed. Their desire is palpable, but he walks away without a word. P.S. We assume he'll pursue her later.
3. You are not writing a sex manual so avoid anatomical references.
Genitals as in penis and vagina don't sound particularly lyrical and you don’t really need them. If you say your male protagonist is hard, we’ll know which appendage you’re talking about.
4. Desire can be just as titillating as doing it.
In his newest novel, The Companion, Lloyd Meeker has the protagonist and his potential lover ask each other questions over dinner. They discuss their previous love affairs, their families, their feelings on long-term relationships and their fears. They talk about their deepest feelings and about sex, foreshadowing a serious but also a hot and playful love affair. Not only do the characters learn about each other, the readers do too.
Another example of sizzling sexual foreplay is the juicy eating scene in the movie, “Tom Jones”, based on Henry Fielding’s novel. As saliva and food drip from the characters’ mouths, they literally drool over each other, lust crackling between them. In a more sedate movie, Madge (Kim Novak) and Hal (William Holden) slowly dance in “Picnic,” their movements as erotic as those in any sex scene.
5. As with any other scene in your book, you should use the five senses.
Sight, sound, taste, touch and smell recreate the experience, but if the characters are actually making love, leave out the, um, sweaty armpits, dirty bits, references to battering rams, horses, dogs and dead fish (as in “Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea” from an actual book or “His throbbing member pierced me like a lance.”) and dialogue like “Give it to me, baby” or “Do you think it will fit, big boy?“ Also, do not use the following words in sex scenes: panting, heaving, kneading, rubbing, flicking, biting, burrowing, plunging, thrusting, bucking, shuddering, swelling and convulsing.
6. In case you need more bad examples, check out these God’s-honest-truth passages from published books:
“So magnified and so keen were her feelings that her inner nerves could even feel the bumps, the ridges, the pimples, the few stray hairs along the shaft of his male rod.”
— House of Earth by Woody Guthrie
“I closed my eyes as well and moved inside her, imagining the ribbed flesh, the supple rings of muscle. Mauve and yellow flowers filled the blank screen of my eyelids, the petals loosening and drifting downwards on to smooth grey stone. I kissed the soft bristles in the hollow of her armpit, then I kissed the smaller hollow of her clavicle.”
— Secrecy by Rupert Thompson
“In my mouth her nipple turned from strawberry to deep raspberry but the taste I wanted was missing. I had sweat and what had to be soap from washing her dress or herself. Reaching behind me, I found the Brie and broke off a fragment, sucking her nipple through it.”
— The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood
(Even the novel’s title is a hoot.)
7. Most important of all, the sex scene should advance your plot.
Every scene should advance your plot and change your protagonist. Need I say more?
Go forth and write—until you reach the climax. When you’ve finished, slowly withdraw your pen and lay it aside.