(Note: All of these topics will be covered more throughout—well, except adverbs. This is just a bit of a language-specific overview.)
A while ago I saw a piece of writing advice concerning adverbs and sex scenes that I didn’t really agree with. The advice was to use as many adverbs as you like, that a sex scene was one place where you don’t need to look for other words or be careful about their use (and no, I don’t think you should never ever use adverbs, but you do want to be careful. Why? Because adverbs are telling, nine times out of ten. Anyway.)
No, you shouldn’t pepper your sex scene liberally with adverbs and pull every purple word you own out of the box. But you may find yourself using adverbs in sex scenes more often than in regular prose, and that’s okay.
There are, quite simply, some words that need modification in a sex scene. When you say the hero pinches or rolls the heroine’s nipples, the reader can be imagining all sorts of things—the kinds of things that may pull them out of the scene—unless you add that “gently”. Or you may need to add “tenderly” to a look or a touch. Someone’s eyes may close involuntarily; someone might suck greedily; or—one of my favorites, I admit—someone might do something desperately.
Not to mention, you may have already used all the straight action verbs you have, and so need to resort to modifying less intense verbs.
You also might find that an adverb fits the rhythm of your scene. Rhythm is very important in sex (heh heh) and so it’s very important when writing a sex scene. I think rhythm is one of those things that can’t really be taught—you pick it up as you go—but to fill that rhythm out, to make your sentences flow, sometimes you need longer words. The point is, use whatever word you need, but don’t feel like you have to modify every noun or verb, because you don’t. You’ll feel when you get it right, if not in the actual writing, than in the editing.
Now. Just as there are specific words for body parts, and hot-button words to evoke reactions, so there are words we use specifically for action. Some of them are on the hot-button list, some aren’t. But one thing you’re doing with those words is capturing a specific mood, whether it’s romantic or passionate (not that you can’t have both together of course) or angry or whatever. For example, if your characters are having a huge argument that explodes into passion—as Gruffydd and Isabelle do in my non-erotic medieval romance Black Dragon—you wouldn’t use words like “eased” or adverbs like “gently”. Instead you have something like this (I’m editing some stuff out so it may read a bit choppy—just focus on the active verbs here [we’re going to look at part of this scene again later]):
But he pulled her closer, making escape from the heat of his skin and the strength of his hands impossible…his mouth fell on hers, devouring her lips as his grip threatened to squeeze the life from her body.
Instantly she was alight with desire, her breath coming in gasps as she clutched him.
His body was hot and slick with sweat and it felt better than anything she had ever experienced as she ran her hands feverishly across the hard muscles of his back and twisted his hair between her fingers.
With a growl, he swung her around and together they tumbled onto the thin straw mat. His hands ran up her legs, pushing the fabric of her dress up to her waist, caressing her thighs and delving into the most secret parts of her body.
She writhed against his questing fingers. She was faint; the air seemed to have left her lungs as she yanked at the cords that held up his clothing. He swatted her clumsy hands out of the way and undid them himself, his lips hot and demanding as he freed his turgid cock and drove it into her without elegance, his hands gripping her hips as if his life depended on keeping her steady for him.
Again and again he pounded into her while his fingers dug into her skin and her legs wrapped around his waist and squeezed. Their eyes locked, held, the anger on their faces turning into feverish need without losing intensity. Again they kissed, their mouths wrestling for dominance.
He bit her throat, her shoulders, holding her in place while she bucked and moaned beneath him. He punished her with his body and she retaliated with hers and he had no idea which of them would win or if there was even victory to be had as they battled with each other, locked together in terrible pleasure on the mat.
He felt her start to lose control, but did not let up his feverish pace. His ears were filled with the roaring of his blood. Dimly he heard her screaming his name, felt the exquisite pain of her fingernails slicing into his back as she arched herself almost off the mat, her body throbbing around his.
And then he exploded, his body shaking with madness and ecstasy and he threw his head back and howled his pain and pleasure into the air, knowing that he was lost.
So, just like in a regular action scene, we’re using very active words: writhed, gripping, roaring, yanked, bucked, punished, battled.
Now let’s look at a romantic scene from the same book (again, edited so we can focus on language):
His tongue was a weapon of pleasure in her mouth as she spread her legs to accommodate him, already desperate to feel their bodies become one. She cradled his body over hers, his lean hips between her thighs. The hair on his legs was both strange and familiar to her, the scent of his skin overwhelming. She could drown in him, sink into him, and she lifted her hips, encouraging him to take her. To make their union complete.
He slid into her, agonizingly slowly so she could feel every inch of him. Her muscles tightened, gripping him, urging him deeper.
He lifted his hands to the sides of her face, gently forcing her to look him in the eyes, forcing her to give him this last piece of herself. She did, and was rewarded with his secrets, with his soul. There would be no more hiding between them, not any more.
The movements of his body grew more urgent. He swelled inside her, stretching her walls, the heat and friction of their bodies together building to heights she’d never experienced before. The play of his muscles beneath her hands was precious, beautiful. The look in his eyes was even more so. She wrapped her legs around his thighs, moving with him, their breaths mingling. His right hand found her left and clasped it, pressing it into the soft whiteness of the bed, their fingers interlocked as their bodies entwined.
He spoke softly, words of love in French and Welsh, his voice adding another layer of sweetness to what was already perfect, and as they moved together and neared the pinnacle of pleasure, he claimed her mouth again in a final searing kiss.
She exploded beneath him, her body arching upwards, her free hand clutching at his back, pulling his hair, her legs squeezing him as she gasped his name, barely hearing hers on his lips as they both burst apart with terrifying, glorious intensity.
He was hers and that was all that mattered now.
Now, that’s not my favorite sex scene I’ve ever written, and it’s not particularly explicit, but do you see the differences? The rhythm itself is different; the second scene uses more flowing sentences, more commas, instead of the breathlessness of the first. And we’re still using some of the same words, but the feeling isn't at all the same. We have Gruffydd “gently forcing” her to look into his eyes. In the first scene he drove himself into her; in this one he slides, slowly. She encourages him; she urges him deeper. They clasp hands. She drowns in him (although be careful of water imagery as it can be very cliché; we’re going to do that later too.)
(There’s another big difference between those two scenes, and it will be the subject of its own post at some point in the next two weeks. Does anyone know what it is? [It's not the POV switch, although we'll do that too.])
So apologies for this post being a little weaker than the others. But I think it’s a good overview, some things to keep in mind as we move on. Rhythm, for example, probably won’t get its own post as it’s both too intrinsic and not complex enough for a long discussion. But now that you have examples in front of you it’s something you can keep in mind and look for in later posts and in your own work.
So that’s your little weekend exercises for those who are playing along. You can do all or none or a combination:
Write two sex scenes using the same basic action words, but varying the rhythm and length of the sentences. See how that changes the mood.
Take one of your current scenes. Combine two sentences into one throughout. Or divide longer sentences. See what that does.
Replace action verbs with basic verbs and adverbs. Is that stronger or weaker?