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HOW TO WRITE SEX SCENES

HOW TO WRITE SEX SCENES
Copyright © 2012 Diana Gabaldon

[This is a short piece that I wrote on request for a Canadian magazine called Chatelaine, earlier this year. I have the reprint rights back, though, and since a Twitter acquaintance recently expressed a desire to “write smut”—I thought I’d at least provide him with the basics.]

Where most beginning writers screw up (you should pardon the expression) is in thinking that sex scenes are about sex. A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids. That being so, it can encompass any emotion whatever, from rage or desolation to exultation, tenderness, or surprise.

Lust is not an emotion; it’s a one-dimensional hormonal response. Ergo, while you can mention lust in a sex-scene, describing it at any great length is like going on about the pattern of the wall-paper in the bedroom. Worth a quick glance, maybe, but essentially boring.

So how do you show the exchange of emotions? Dialogue, expression, or action—that’s about the limit of your choices, and of those, dialogue is by far the most flexible and powerful tool a writer has. What people say reveals the essence of their character.

Example:

"I know once is enough to make it legal, but…" He paused shyly.

"You want to do it again?"

"Would ye mind verra much?"

I didn’t laugh this time, either, but I felt my ribs creak under the strain.

"No," I said gravely. "I wouldn’t mind."

Now, you do, of course, want to make the scene vivid and three-dimensional. You have an important advantage when dealing with sex, insofar as you can reasonably expect that most of your audience knows how it’s done. Ergo, you can rely on this commonality of experience, and don’t need more than brief references to create a mental picture.

You want to anchor the scene with physical details, but by and large, it’s better to use sensual details, rather than overtly sexual ones. (Just read any scene that involves a man licking a woman’s nipples and you’ll see what I mean. Either the writer goes into ghastly contortions to avoid using the word "nipples"—"tender pink crests" comes vividly to mind—or does it in blunt and hideous detail, so that you can all but hear the slurping. This is Distracting. Don’t Do That.)

So how _do_ you make a scene vivid, but not revoltingly so? There’s a little trick called the Rule of Three: if you use any three of the five senses, it will make the scene immediately three-dimensional. (Many people use only sight and sound. Include smell, taste, touch, and you’re in business.)

Example:

The road was narrow, and they jostled against one another now and then, blinded between the dark wood and the brilliance of the rising moon. He could hear Jamie’s breath, or thought he could—it seemed part of the soft wind that touched his face. He could smell Jamie, smell the musk of his body, the dried sweat and dust in his clothes, and felt suddenly wolf-like and feral, longing changed to outright hunger.

He wanted.

In essence, a good sex scene is usually a dialogue scene with physical details.

Example:

"I’ll give it to ye," he murmured, and his hand moved lightly. A touch. Another. "But ye’ll take it from me tenderly, a nighean donn.”

"I don’t want tenderness, damn you!"

"I ken that well enough," he said, with a hint of grimness. "But it’s what ye’ll have, like it or not."

He laid me down on his kilt, and came back into me, strongly enough that I gave a small, high-pitched cry of relief.

"Ask me to your bed," he said. "I shall come to ye. For that matter—I shall come, whether ye ask it or no. But I am your man; I serve ye as I will."

And finally, you can use metaphor and lyricism to address the emotional atmosphere of an encounter directly. This is kind of advanced stuff, though.

Example:

He’d meant to be gentle. Very gentle. Had planned it with care, worrying each step of the long way home. She was broken; he must go canny, take his time. Be careful in gluing back her shattered bits.

And then he came to her and discovered that she wished no part of gentleness, of courting. She wished directness. Brevity and violence. If she was broken, she would slash him with her jagged edges, reckless as a drunkard with a shattered bottle.

She raked his back; he felt the scrape of broken nails, and thought dimly that was good—she’d fought. That was the last of his thought; his own fury took him then, rage and a lust that came on him like black thunder on a mountain, a cloud that hid all from him and him from all, so that kind familiarity was lost and he was alone, strange in darkness.

Like that.

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79 Responses »

  1. After reading your books with the detail in every paragraph, especially the sex scenes, I read other authors and wonder why they wrote it the way they did. Thanks for showing me the difference.

  2. My daughter is an aspiring writer. She’s in YA mode right now, but I will insist she read your post. It is the most amazing description of the right way to write sex scenes. Admittedly, at 18, she has read many different types of books, but both she and I love your Jaime and Claire books. Your sex scenes are never grotesque nor vulgar. I adore your books and can’t wait for MOBY! Thank you for many hours of great reading.

  3. Funny that you mention smut… I once had a friend ask about the sex scenes and I started off by rushing into “OMG! She writes the most A-MAZE-ING sex scenes! They’re so intense, yet VERY different than typical smut stories.” and I paused and tried to figure out HOW they were different and said “Actually, she manages to write the most enthralling smut… with virtually no smut. Huh. Now THAT’S talent!” Lol

  4. No matter how many times I read your books, they always sweep me into another world. I ask myself how you do it, and now you’ve explained it to me. I thought that Sara Donati was great, but you’re beyond amazing. I hope I can one day write as well as you.

  5. Great advice. You’ve put vague awareness that I had floating around when I write sex scenes into much clearer focus. Emotion not lust. Dialogue and a vivid sensory detail. Everyone knows how it’s done–a very little goes a long way. Thanks! Great advice from a pro.

  6. Now, teach us how to write a character such as Jamie who can’t keep his nose out of trouble, is always too knee-deep in a crisis of his own making that he’s almost never there to help Claire when she becomes knee-deep in the turmoil he created, and 90% of the time he doesn’t even have a pot to pi$$ in and yet we all WANT him. We love him. We’re sypathetic even though most of his suffering he brought on himself. His behavior would never fly with us in reality and still we find him dreamy. THAT is excellent writing too.

  7. Well, now I have to buy and read your books because that last passage was freakin’ amazing!
    Thanks for the great post, it was so great to read an instructional piece where the author really knows her stuff!

  8. I have read and reread all the Jamie/Claire books and anxiously await each new one. It’s so refreshing to get to a sex scene and not automatically feel like I will being paging ahead to see where it ends so I can get on with the story. In your book they are not just having sex, they are truly making love and you purvey all of that in a very few perfect sentences. Please write many, many more.

  9. Dear Diana,

    I first read you in German, Now I am reading and rereading in its original language. There are only very few authors that are/were as gifted as you are: Colleen McCullouch ( in the Marius-Sulla-Ceasar series), Mary Renault, Dorothy Dunnett. What strikes me most in your “sex scenes” is how they fit in the flow of the story. If I ever have to decide if I buy your newest book or go out eat I’ll have dry toast and buy the book!!!!!
    Very often in other books it feels like the editor (or whoever else) decided: we need a sex scene on page 27, 71 and 109 to appeal to more readers, and the author complies, and HOW is very often not very tasteful.

    PLEASE tell us more about Jamie and Claire, Brianna, Roger, William, JEMMY

  10. Diana
    Do you know about Job’s. Daughters? The girls orgnization?

    S

  11. I have read all your books and always appreciated especially this – that your sex scenes have never left me feeling uncomfortable or distracted. With that kind of advice, I might even try to add one to one of my books some day, and that is something I never thought I would try!

    Thanks os much.

  12. Quick question. during a sex scene do you want it to be in third or first person? what would be better to draw the reader in? to really catch their fancy?

  13. Oh my gosh… I love you’re books, best ones ever! I almost have all of them but my favorite one is Harden!
    - May I ask a questions:
    when writing sex scenes, would it be good to describe the sounds they make. Not the usual “She moaned loudly as I…” maybe like the actual sound…

    • Dear Layla–

      Kinda depends on the effect you want to create. [g] Some sounds, like “Mmf!” or “Grgh!” are effective, but usually more so if comedy is what you have in mind. I’d be darn careful doing that if you’re going for drama or tenderness, I tell you.

      –Diana

  14. Thanks. This was the most enlightening of all the articles I’ve read about sex scenes… and I’ve read many. I feel better now.

  15. Dear Ms. Gabaldon,

    First, I should say that I have very much enjoyed your series, and for whatever reason, at 1:24 am, have only just realized that it is the only one which comes remotely close to mine in approach – the time traveling historical fiction that two hours ago I was thinking that I would have to justify suddenly has a spectacular precedent. For this I am immeasurably grateful.

    That having been said,I completely understand your probable mail situation, and will be so very thankful should you get the opportunity to write back. I’m in a bit of a weird writing situation, and I’m looking for an experienced writer who can answer a question for me – I’ve looked through FAQ’s, but can’t find the precise answer, and as you’ll understand in a second, internet searches are leading me to places that aren’t exactly… either appropriate or helpful. Your blog comes the closest, and I am so happy that I’ve found it, but I’d like to clarify a point.

    I am an older pediatric resident physician with an odd set of credentials – degrees in history, biology, psychology, education, blah, blah, blah. All very interesting, but only relevant in that it explains a bit about my background. While I love medicine and working with ill children, I have found most of the physicians with whom I work to be arrogant boors, and I myself have become ill working with them. I love writing and (as you may have guessed) also love learning and reading, and have begun the long journey into what I hope will become a lifelong career in fiction (historical fantasy) writing.

    So now we get to my question. At what point – and I mean this for adult audiences – do you stop describing the romance scene and “page break”, starting the next paragraph with something cheery like, “The next morning, …”? I take your point on lust (and physiology), and had arrived at that conclusion myself, and I certainly don’t want to reduce readers to running to the nearest vomitorium.

    The novel on which I am working is… complicated (aren’t they all?), and involves three love stories; it is not *about* three love stories, but they are rather critical. I’d like to describe these romantically, and clearly, I’d like the books to sell. Never having actually made any money doing this, however, I don’t know wherein lies the proverbial “line in the sand”, and I don’t want to cross it; it needn’t be said that I don’t have an agent yet. I understand the points you have made about senses and descriptors; for my characters, much (most?) of it is psychological in any case, although having said that, it probably is for everyone. I simply don’t want either to lose the rest of the story to the sex or to lose the sex because nobody in the US can deal with it.

    Thanks very much for any assistance you can give,
    Yours sincerely,
    Julia Hoover, MD, EdM (I put those in there because I belong to the Society of Arrogant Doctors, hoping to escape both it and the Secret Society of Arrogance)

    Julia Hoover, MD, EdM
    Glen Mills, PA
    19342

    • Dear Julia–

      First off, congratulations on writing a book and pursuing your dreams! [smile]

      A brief answer to your question: any scene has a purpose; something that happens. Ergo, a good sex scene is one in which something happens _beyond the fact that the characters are having sex_. If a situation or conversation leads up to them having sex, but nothing happens in the course of the sex, then you stop with the indication that they are in fact about to/are having sex, but you don’t go with them while they do–that would just be prurient. [g]

      But if something occurs between them in the course of having sex, or _because_ they had sex–then you show that. For instance, in the “I mean to own ye” scene in OUTLANDER–what’s going on between Claire and Jamie _while_ they have sex there is very important; we need to see that, all the way to Jamie’s post-sexual realization (“Seem I canna possess your soul without losing my own.”) and Claire’s response to that (“Frank never did realize that.”).

      Whereas in a later book (I think it’s A BREATH OF SNOW AND ASHES), after a conversation about something, Jamie rises up and tells Claire, “On your knees, _a nighean_. Now.” The fact that they’re going to have sex is merely punctuating the conversation and indicating their closeness, but the sex isn’t continuing the conversation and nothing is going to happen during it to alter their relationship in any way–so we don’t need to see it, and thus leave the reader with just enough of a mental image that he/she can easily visualize the physical encounter if they want to. But later, after Claire’s rescue from Hodgepile and his men, it’s clear that the sex she and Jamie are about to have is _very_ important and emotionally fraught. We need to see it–but since it _is_ the emotion that’s so important here, I chose to show their sexual encounter mostly in the metaphorical/emotional way, rather than as a chiefly physical description. You do get small physical details–her torn nails as she rakes his back, the clouded honey of her eyes–but what’s _happening_ there has all to do with his emotions, so that’s what we see.

      Hope that helps!

      –Diana

      • It does, and I am so very grateful. Thank you. Enjoy the autumn!

        Back to the Welsh caves… or not… since it is too bloody late at night.

        Thank you again.
        -J

      • I would like you to know that I have now written several… steamy bits. I have to do it when the kids are asleep, but Arwein is getting much more action than I thought I would be able to write for him, simply because I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

        Well…

        I do.

        And apparently, people seem to like it, so that is also a good thing.

        Thank you, thank you, thank you, and I CANNOT BELIEVE I missed you in New York this weekend, if I had known you were going to be there, I would have told my family that, as my time traveling snarky neuropsychologist said, I was suffering “not from a bad [time traveling experience], but from Snakebite. Typhus. Plane Crash.” And I would have gone.

        Ah, well. Just as well… I got a stupid 80 page irritating bridge written that needed to be done, and just… Thank you. One more step out the door from Medicine towards the door to Writing… which is what my English and History professors told me to do years ago. And I ignored them. Idiot.

        Julie Hoover

  16. Er… Hi, again.

    I’m the crazy pediatric resident who just wrote about how not to cross the proverbial line in the sand about the steamy bits, and now it’s 3 am and I really ought to go to bed, but I just realized… Good Lord, I write the same way (or, perhaps I ought rather to say, using the same method) that you do!

    I’m not sure whether to be thrilled (I think this is it) or whether to feel rather cheated (probably not) that I’m not as singularly crazy to be writing the way that I do or not… time traveling Welsh scientific… well… anyway… putting pieces together in a thoroughly non-linear fashion and then having them line up just fine in the end.

    Well.

    I had to say something.

    The only part is that I’m hopping about from so many different blasted parts and times of the UK to the other that I just don’t think I can do vernacular for all of it. But I have a workaround.

    Cheers.
    Julie Hoover, diploma, diploma, yada, yada

  17. I so wish I had read your works when I was young; 40 years ago. My writings greatly resemble other great authors. I really believe that you will live in American history as one of its greatest writers.

  18. Diana: Thank you Diana for the enlightenment. Can’t wait to utilize what I’ve learned here.

    Some Others: I believe some of us of the male species are striving to connect to the female and male side of sensuality, emotions, carnal knowledge, passion, possession, intensity etc. Hopefully my writing hit’s the mark.

    Sincerely,

    Brad Jensen
    http://bradjensen.jimdo.com/
    http://authorbradjensen.tumblr.com/

  19. Hi there! I realize this is kind of off-topic but I had
    to ask. Does managing a well-established website like yours take a lot of work?

    I’m brand new to running a blog but I do write in my diary on a daily basis.

    I’d like to start a blog so I can share my personal experience and feelings online.
    Please let me know if you have any kind of ideas or tips for brand new
    aspiring bloggers. Appreciate it!

  20. Diana, I have fallen in love with not only the characters in your Outlander story, but also with your writing. I’ve been writing my own personal erotic stories for years just to satisfy my own desire to create different passionate exchanges between lovers – I was so pleased to read your brief “How To” as I agree with everything you say a good sex scene is – and isn’t. I also think this is exactly why I can “scarcely breathe” when I watch the sex scenes between Jaime and Claire in the series on Stars. I love that even though I don’t know you, I get you!

  21. Dear mereader–

    Excellent blog! [g]

    –Diana

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