“I’m really enjoying your book,” my mother told me recently, adding, “You dirty thing.” I sort of chuckled, not quite knowing what she was talking about. Nothing new there. Then I realized, oh, yes. There is that little blip of a sex scene early on in Finder. Dirty? Hardly. Apparently, it made her blush.
Sex scenes often tweak writers out. There is so much pressure to do it right! How much is too much? Not enough? Hot and sweaty, or romantic and sweaty? Cold? Rough? Tender? That all depends upon your story, upon you as a writer, and on your audience; and is something only you can decide.
A sex scene is, after all the hype, just another scene. It is there to establish a character trait, or set a plot point. It can’t simply exist for itself any more than an infodump can. As with any scene in a story, if it’s not furthering the plot in some way, Trebuchet!
Let’s take it for granted that the sex scene is necessary to establish some plot point, or a character trait. Now what? In Finder, this particular sex scene is, on the surface, there to establish my male protagonist’s character. He’s twenty. Breasts turn his brain to mush. He’s not overly particular. And he’s not opposed to skipping out afterward. Scoundrelity established. There was no reason or wish to go into erotic details. For me, whether reading or writing, I find that less is better. Unless there is a point to be made in the nitty-gritty of it, I prefer a set up, and a fade to black.
In Beyond the Gate, a scene required a bit more detail to seed the horror, to make reactions later on believable, and to establish a character's character. Fade to black would not have worked. The story called for the grimy details, and the reactions to them on the part of four characters.
Whether we’re comfortable with sex scenes or not, they can be a powerful tool. Human beings are wired for sex. These scenes are often the ones your readers will remember. (More pressure!) If you have occasion to use a sex scene, make it do double duty. This doesn’t mean over-do the nitty-grittiness of it; what it means is give it more to do than titillate a reader into that character trait or plot point. For example, in Finder, that minor sex scene became a pivotal point in the story. Because it initially appeared to be more about character development than plot point, neither the reader nor the character knows until later in the book that there was actually a purpose to it. It sprouts fully even later on, becoming part of the climax. (Ha! No pun intended. I wish it had been! I’m not that witty.) In fact, from that sex scene came the plotline for A Time Never Lived.
Sex scenes, whether we love them or hate them, are rarely easy to write. The only way you can become comfortable writing them is to practice—just like every other aspect of writing. Approaching it as a scene rather than a sex scene makes it much less daunting.