Not very. Really. Obviously I think the more graphic the better, but…
As we saw in the last post, the key to a hot sex scene isn’t so much what the characters are doing. It’s what they’re feeling.
I’m going to share with you a scene from a book I didn’t write. This is from Sharon Kay Penman’s second medieval mystery (and a fantastic book—I’ve blogged before about how much I love her work and how I think the hero of the mysteries, Justin de Quincy, is hot as hell. Funnily enough, this book is the first of the Justin books I read, and it’s this scene which took him from attractive and appealing to totally, completely HOT for me. This is from Cruel As the Grave, used with permission:
The lovemaking that followed was unlike anything Justin had experienced before. There was more than lust in their eager, out-of-control coupling. He’d brought anger into the bed, too, a stifled rage that found expression now in the urgency of his demands. He was not gentle, not tender, afire with his need for release, for redemption, for oblivion. Claudine was soon caught up in his incendiary passion, burning with the same frenzied fever, and for a brief time, there were no secrets between them, no betrayals, nothing but sweat and scratches and muffled cries and pleasure so intense it was almost akin to pain.
When it was over, Justin was exhausted, drenched in perspiration, and shaken, both by the reckless abandon of their lovemaking and that it had happened at all.
See? Now look at that scene again. There is not one graphic word or line in it; no erections, no cocks, no pussies or “entrances” or “tunnels” or anything of the sort. There’s not even an “he entered her” or “he shoved himself inside her”. The most graphic words in it, in fact, are “lovemaking” and “coupling”.
But it’s still hot. It’s still a satisfying scene. I would have liked it to be more graphic, sure, because of my freakishly obsessive love for Justin. But this was fine with me, especially as Cruel as the Grave is not a romance; it’s a mystery. While the Justin/Claudine relationship is an important subplot, I don’t expect the same level of explicitness from other genres; while I expect the sex scene in a romance or erotic romance and, to a lesser degree, urban fantasy, to be arousing, I don’t expect the same from other genres (although obviously I’m happiest if they are.)
When this scene is done, even though it’s only one paragraph plus a few sentences long, we feel like we have read an entire sex scene. By amping up the language as she goes (see how the first few sentences are matter-of-fact statements, and as the scene goes on we see more commas, more words upon words, until finally we have the last phrase of the actual scene, with no commas at all, so the sentence is read in one breathless gulp) Penman makes us see the scene. We see candlelight flickering off those bodies; we hear the sounds they make; we see the sheets crumple and twist beneath them. And most importantly, we see the depth of Justin’s feelings, which you guys don’t know about, because you haven’t read the book (which is why you need to go buy it right now; well, first buy the first book The Queen’s Man, then this one. Buy them together so you can go right from one to the other). But I bet all of you can give an educated guess as to why Justin is so angry in this scene, and what went wrong between him and Claudine.
Now, again, if I’ve done my job, the frenzied lust in this scene and the frenzied lust in Monday’s Blood Will Tell scene are on a par with each other—by which I mean you felt it in both scenes. But my scene is extremely graphic, and this one isn’t, and that’s why I chose both of these as examples.
How graphic the language is, is entirely up to you. Obviously I am a fan of the graphic scene, because I have a dirty mind. You may not like it or be comfortable with it, and in those cases, this is perhaps the type of scene you could be going for (and, again, FOREPLAY. Very important. You can get away with only a few lines of actual sex if you’ve done a good job with foreplay. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.)
I got a question that made me realize I’d forgotten something important when we discussed language, so this seems like a good place to fit it in. The question related to finding appropriate language for the audience and scene, and the use of graphic terms in romantic scenes.
Here’s what I do. The more romantic the scene, the more euphemistic the language. I don’t mean I start pulling out the purple prose, just that words like “cunt”, which I’m perfectly comfortable tossing around in other scenes, do not feel to me as if they belong in a very romantic scene—a “consummation” scene, as opposed to a sex scene. In my romances there is almost always a “we love each other” sex scene, when all questions have been answered and our characters have admitted their feelings and, naturally, the intensity of their feelings makes them want to physically express them. So they do.
I never use “cunt” in those scenes. In fact, I rarely use any graphic language at all (cock is still in there, of course, because as we all know, cock is always appropriate and is always welcome, like French fries or a cold drink. Cock is the anti-drug. I could come up with these all day, people, seriously.) But beyond that, those scenes are heavily emotional. They should still be arousing, but think about it. When you had sex with your partner, or your past partner, or whatever, for the first time when you knew you were really in love, were you competing in the Kama Sutra Olympics or were you really, deeply, feeling instead of acting? (If you care to answer that anonymously [or as yourself, of course], btw, I'd be very interested in the replies, to see if I'm right about that or not.)
That doesn’t mean those scenes can’t be wild, if that’s the sort of couple you’re writing. It just means that those scenes must above all focus on sex as the culmination of and expression of love. It can still be arousing, it can still be hot, it can be however you want it to be—but I personally believe graphic language of the highest level doesn’t belong in those scenes, because it spoils the mood.
You do not need graphic language or description to write a hot sex scene. What you do need is evocative language and a strong grasp of your characters and what emotions the scene is supposed to convey.
Every word you use in a sex scene must add to the mood, remember? Don’t pass up the chance to use it as effectively as possible, and don’t feel you have to go beyond your comfort zone to turn people on. That Cruel as the Grave scene made my heart pound, I can promise you. You can have the same effect on your readers simply by writing about passion and emotion; you don’t need to write about physical actions if you don’t want.
But you have to give them something.
So, here’s an assignment. Remember the scenes you wrote on Monday, with just pure physical emotion? Pull that out again (heh heh, see, I plan ahead!) Does it really need the physical stuff?
Find a book with a not-so-graphic scene that turns you on or you particularly like. What about it gets you? Is that something you feel you can bring in to your work?
Write a very graphic scene, with dialogue, graphic language, whatever you like. Now try rewriting it using the cleanest—but still evocative—language you can. Does the scene still work?