Just as we describe every movement in a sex scene—or almost every movement—and just as every movement has its purpose, so does setting. Your characters aren’t just interacting with each other; they’re interacting with what’s around them, even if they’re not actively doing so.
For example, in a bed, sheets may be soft or rough. They may float on top of the mattress or sink into the featherbed. They may fist the sheets, push them out of the way, burrow under them.
All those are pretty elementary, really, because let’s face it. No matter how adventurous we may be, I think it’s a safe bet that the majority of our sexual encounters take place in bed. We’re all familiar with how pillows can be used to prop up bodyparts or bitten to muffle sounds. But what about other places? What do you grab when you’re in a car, say, or up against a wall in an alley?
In Day of the Dead, Santos and Yelina have sex for the first time in a cemetery—on a bench beside his dead love’s mausoleum, to be precise. And there were a few reasons why I chose this setting.
One, because the story is set on the eve of Dia de los Muertos, so I wanted to get as much graveyard imagery in as I could. Two, because by having Santos break his seventy-two years of celibacy by his love’s grave, I could add some guilt and thus emotional intensity and complication to the plot. Three, because I could use it symbolically; death of the old love and birth of a new one (this worked especially well—not to toot my own horn—because I left some ambiguous little hints there that Yelina might be the reincarnation of Esperanza. Just hints, and you can form your own opinion, but I liked that ambiguity and liked the extra depth it added to the story). Four, because it gave me a chance to introduce grave-robbing, and who doesn’t want grave-robbing in their erotic romance? Five, because given the plot and general setting, it was a good place for the characters to run into each other—Santos would naturally go to Esperanza’s grave on such an important holiday, and Yelina might reasonably choose to visit her father’s grave on that night as well. And six, because who doesn’t want to write public sex in a cemetery at night? Seriously, that’s hot.
But the point is, it wouldn’t have been as hot if I’d just stuck Santos and Yelina in a graveyard for no reason. Just like you can’t just stick your characters places for no reason.
We all know agents and editors dislike static settings. Why have endless pages of people sitting around in a living room or kitchen, drinking tea and chatting? (Yes, I know I’m guilty of overusing this in Personal Demons. Shut up.) Why not have that conversation on a rooftop (everything is better on a rooftop, trust me)? Or on a bridge? Or in a speeding car, on a beach, in an opium den, underground, in a dark alley, on a rusty fire escape?
You can’t always do that, of course. In the middle of the night, when the characters are home, it makes no sense that after someone tries to break into their house and they defeat them, that they would then get dressed and put on coats to go find a rainy, rat-filled alley in which to discuss the break-in. But try to find more active settings, and that goes for sex as well.
Off the top of my head, here is a partial list of places where my characters, in all of my books, have had sex. I’m not putting bed in here, but pretty much all of them have had sex in bed at least once. Often more than once, but in different positions etc. So:
Hotel room floor
Up against a lightpost on the street
In a public park, hidden behind pine trees
Hot, dusty attic
On a desk in an office
On rocks by a waterfall
Up against a tree
On the beach
In a field
On a front lawn
Poolside chaise lounge
Up against a wall in an alley
Up against a wall in a living room
In a museum
I might very well have missed some, but those are the ones I remember. Now look at that list. Think about it. How do you imagine the sex up against the lightpost, on the public street, was different from a scene in bed? How might the hot, dusty attic be different from the forest clearing? The museum from the field? Picture those scenes as you imagine them. What are the difference?
See what I mean? Setting feeds action, and action feeds setting. When you’re planning for your characters to fight and have angry sex, what setting would be best for that? You can have them fight anywhere, right? You don’t have to start a fight in a bedroom just because there’s a bed handy there. How much better to have them fight in a nightclub, which is already hot and too-close in atmosphere, and get so overwrought they end up in the hall, not caring who sees, Maybe they can even get busted for it, and add a huge complication.
Maybe you want them to be tender and romantic. Bed is a good setting for that, but how about the public park? How about putting the tender scene in the nightclub—how will you use the atmosphere differently then? Rather than being so angry they don’t care who sees, they’re so wrapped up in each other it’s like no one else even exists. See?
You don’t need to veer into cliché here. You don’t want to do that. You don’t want all your tender scenes to happen in the forest while the little bunnies watch and the little birdies chirp sweetly, or on a wrought-iron four-poster bed with flowy white sheets and sunshine pouring in. You don’t want angry scenes to always take place during thunderstorms on fire escapes against rusty bars. But you can try those. Even better, mix them up, and let the reader feel the incongruity between action and setting.
And don’t just put them in a setting and forget about it. Just like you feel the bed beneath you or the wall cold against your back, so do they. You don’t want to go overboard with it, of course—the focus needs to be on the sex—but interacting with the setting adds depth and reality to the scene.
For example, from Day of the Dead:
“Yelenita,” he whispered, rolling her clit between his index finger and thumb until she wanted to sob out loud. “Yelenita, mi amor.”
The stone of the bench scraped against her back, but she didn’t care. Didn’t care at all, because her thighs rested in his iron grip and his mouth descended on her pussy. A low, gasping groan escaped his lips, vibrating against her as he sucked her clit into his mouth.
“Santos, oh God, Santos…” The tree branches above her swayed dizzily in the breeze, the night air cooling her fevered skin as she trembled under his talented onslaught. He pulled back, teasing her with his tongue, then slipped one thick finger inside her, twisting it easily in her soaking channel.
So here we have the bench and the trees. I don’t mention the setting again for a page or so, when we’re back in Santos’s POV and he’s looking at Yelina:
And here she was, her smooth curves gleaming in the dappled moonlight coming through the trees above, her body warm and alive and full of promise in his arms, and he trembled as he took off his trousers and cool air swirled around his swollen cock.
But the setting is there; it adds a little flavor to the scene, it grounds the scene in its setting, so Santos and Yelina are people having sex in a place and not bodies floating somewhere. The setting becomes part of the scene, albeit a very small part, and that’s what you want.
Your setting should be part of the scene; it should add to the emotion, heat, and intensity of the scene just like the words your characters say or the way they touch each other. It is a third, minor character in the scene. Don't neglect it.
I was going to do POV as well but this ended up being longer than I expected. So, here’s the assignment. Take one of your sex scenes and move it to a different setting. It doesn’t have to be sensible; this is just an exercise. But take the scene and remove all references to setting, adding a new one. This time, put the scene in any of the places I listed above.
How does the scene change? Does it at all? How does it feel working that new setting into the scene, does it gain or lose something? Is it more interesting or less?
Make your own list of places you’d like to write sex scenes, and keep it somewhere you’ll be able to find it. Go through some of your unpublished work; how many scenes take place in a bed? How many of those can you change? Even changing the weather outside can make a difference; is it hot and sunny so the sun makes bright golden rectangles on the sheets and caresses their skin like a warm hand? Rainy, so they need to light up the room on their own? Snowy? Does the wind whistle around the corners of the building? Do they hear it over the roaring of blood in their ears or their own gasps and moans?
Think of a setting you’ve seen used particularly well, or not well. What was done right or wrong? What would you do differently?