Writing about sex is something most writers find challenging. Yet it cannot be avoided. Sex is a part of our daily lives, and so if a novel is to reflect the human condition, the need to write about sex must be acknowledged.
Often my approach to writing sex scenes is to employ the use of metaphor. Metaphors enrich a novel, providing a poetic dimension and emphasising the transformative function writing can have on the reader. It helps take them out of the perimeters of the plot, into the interior world of the characters and themselves.
Everyone can identify with the act of sex (unless we are still pure!), yet at the same time sex is an intensely private part of each of us, a different experience for each individual. This ultimate act of intimacy can be experienced on many different levels, and to write convincingly about sex in your novel it is necessary for the author to be brave and willing to share a little of their own private selves with the reader. This does not mean that you catalogue your own sex life. In no way am I suggesting that each sex scene you write should be preceded by personal research (!), but you have to be able to take your imagination into your characters’ realms of fantasy, desire and love.
I think the more literary you can go when writing your sex scenes the more erotic they become. It’s a thin line though and it is hard to find the perfect balance. Too much sex in a book and it becomes gratuitous, too little and the book shies away from the inner emotions of its characters. If the scenes are overly descriptive the sex appears contrived – it is hard to put into too many words such very personal sensations – yet if the scene is too sparse it feels cold to the reader, unfinished and unsatisfied. An overly – explicit sex scene is far from erotic. It is crude and vulgar, even repulsive. On the other hand a sex scene which is too timid, can be boring and frustrating to the reader. So how do you achieve a happy medium? How do you keep your reader engaged, and seduced by your sexy sex scene?
My solution is often the use of metaphor. I provide a visual scene, like a painting almost, so that the reader can see it before them, and through that suggestion conjure the other senses as well. Be very careful about describing too heavily taste and smell when writing about sex, the merest suggestion is enough to infuse your reader’s imagination. If your characters are authentic then you will know automatically how they will behave in bed and this will show the reader how they are feeling emotionally rather than having to state the fact.
One of my favourite passages in my last book, “The Adulteress”, was a sex scene with a very obvious use of metaphor. In this scene the male lover is an artist. He makes his lover close her eyes, and with a paintbrush he slowly begins to paint her naked flesh. The scene builds up slowly to the following passage:
She trembles. He is painting her inner thighs now. Up from her knee, he trails the brush across her skin, until the watery paint mixes with her juice, creating oily curls around her pelvis. The soft tip of the brush teases her, sliding up and down her slit so that she groans and opens her legs wider. He paints an oval, round and round, until the brush comes to one spot, and suddenly it is a brush no more, but his tongue licking her in adoration. She says his name, tells him she loves him. He raises himself up, and then puts his lips to hers, lowering his body onto her, pressing into her.
I am making a print, he whispers. You are the art, and I am an edition of you.
She opens her eyes as he sits back on his heels and she sees her colours on his skin. She looks down at herself. He has made her an ocean. Her chest is painted Aegean blue, and jade seaweed swirls up her legs, so that when he finally pushes into her, he is at the bottom of the sea, and so is she, drowning.
The two dominant metaphors of this passage are the idea that he is a part of her, in the same way as a print of a painting is an edition of it, and that he has turned her into the sea, where she is lost “drowning” in her emotions. Although this is an erotic scene, through metaphor you get a sense of the world of the characters’ emotions: the male lover’s devotion to her, and her fear of losing herself in the abandon of passion.
Writing style is crucial in a sex scene. You can seduce the reader through language. Once you have written your scene, read it out aloud, and see how it sounds. It will give you an idea if you have gone over the top or not!
In addition to metaphor I also like to use symbols in my sex scenes. In my next book I employ the contrasting imagery of ice and fire in the sex scenes, which also acts as a metaphor for the Arctic landscape within which the book is set.
Odd could drift forever in dark waters, an iceberg shaped like a duck’s tail, illuminated by the Northern Lights. A girl might want to reach out because just a tiny part of his whole is revealed, enticing her to stretch and stretch. And yet this sensation to touch is fleeting for he is so cold he burns. Sometimes the skin of his lovers stick to him like fingers stuck to ice cubes, and the girl cries out in surprise, prises herself away from him, sits back on her heels and looks at him with questioning eyes. This is always when he goes down on his knees and drinks her in, so that she will forget he is ice, and just feel the water flowing between them, so cool but not frozen, not yet. It is strange how the opposite happens to him. She freezes, while he burns.