Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Sex Scenes (Part 1)

Many new writers (and even some published authors) have a difficult time writing sex scenes. They worry about how their friends and family will deal with idea that their son/brother/daughter/mother knows about sex. They worry about when and where to insert a sex scene, and they worry about how graphic to get. One thing writers don’t seem to worry about is the purpose of their sex scene, and that is something they should worry about.

Some romance genres require a lot of hot sex, other genres, like science fiction, don’t put much emphasis on sex, so be sure to find out the expectations of your genre. Even when titillation is the goal, the scene should also fulfill a story need, should respond to the demands of the story.

An effective scene—sex or not—serves multiple objectives. Scenes advance the story, show us more about the characters, show us how the action changed the hero or show a change in the relationship between the participants. Scenes are always about change, about action and about reaction.

Once you know the objective, you can write a fitting action/reaction sequence (which is the basic building block of a scene). If comfort is the objective, you can show the couple together at the beginning, close the door during the action, and show them cuddling afterward. If tenderness is the objective, you can show a bit of the action in addition to the before and after. And of course, if their desperation for each other is the objective, you will need to leave the door open during the scene.

As with all resonating scenes, when it is over there must be some reaction, some change to the character or the direction of the story. And the objective dictates that reaction. If the scene is about bringing comfort to the characters, we need to know whether they found comfort or failed to find it, and we need to know the characters’ emotiosex scenenal response to the success or failure of that objective. This reaction, in turn will help set up the next scene.

A good use of a sex scene would be to show the ebb and flow of human connection. For example, you could have three scenes spread throughout the story. In the first scene, perhaps, the man climaxes, feeling connected to the woman. When he immediately goes to sleep, she feels disconnected. In the second scene, he can’t get it up, leaving him feeling disconnected, but since he tries to make it up to her by cuddling her, she feels connected. In the third scene, they climax together, perhaps cuddle afterward, so they both feel connected.

In addition to the sex, then, you show a pattern of connection and disconnection between the couple (in other words, conflict), you show a new perspective of the characters, and you show a change in their relationship. You also end up with a subplot that adds to the overall richness of the story. In other words, you end up with a series of sex scenes, not just sex scenes.

Scenes help show who the characters are, and where better to do this than when the characters are at their most vulnerable. One of my favorite scenes in A Spark of Heavenly Fire is when Jeremy King, a world famous actor, has sex with Pippi O’Brien, a woman he just met in a bar.

The sound of weeping woke Jeremy. He turned his head toward his companion and saw one trembling shoulder and a tangle of gleaming hair.

He stretched luxuriously. The red hair hadn’t lied. The girl had been all fire, kindling a passion in him he hadn’t felt in years. The memory of it made him hard.

He reached over and pulled the girl into his arms. He smoothed back her hair and kissed away her tears, murmuring, “Honey,” and “Sweetheart,” and “Dear.”

“I’m such a terrible person,” she said, sobbing.

“Shh. Shh,” he whispered between tiny kisses.

Her arms stole around his neck, and her lips sought his. In a surprisingly short time she bucked beneath him, calling out his name.

You’ve still got it, King, he thought exultantly. Then, after one final thrust, he tumbled into oblivion.

That scene might not be very graphic, but it did what I wanted it to—define the characters, Jeremy especially. Pippi called out his name, but he didn’t care enough about her to think of her by name. He cared only about himself and his performance. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that, during other times of vulnerability in the story, he also thought only of himself.

A sex scene is a good time to show a character confronting her essence, to play on her self-concept (the treasured idea the character has of herself). What if a character were making love to a person other than a spouse? Would this lovemaking enhance his or her self-concept, or would it go against it? If the scene enhanced the character’s self-concept, we would learn much about the character. Perhaps she sees herself as a great lover, in which case nothing mattered except the lovemaking—not her marriage vows, not her husband, not her children—and so we would learn kind of character she is. If the scene went against the character’s self-concept, then we have a character with inner conflicts. Perhaps the character sees herself as a faithful, till-death-do-us-part wife. In which case, no matter how exciting or tender the scene, it leaves her in turmoil.

In the previously quoted scene from A Spark of Heavenly Fire, Pippi is obviously experiencing turmoil. She had been in the bar to meet her boyfriend, Greg Pullman, to accept his marriage proposal, and instead she ran off with Jeremy. She’d been dazzled by the actor’s star power and hadn’t given poor Greg a single thought, but in the night, after her passion diminished, she confronted her truth.


This article is anthologized in the Second Wind Publishing book: NOVEL WRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES FROM AUTHORS OF SECOND WIND PUBLISHING, which was the 100th book released by Second Wind.

“As someone who constantly evaluates novels for publication, I was astonished at the breadth and clarity of the wonderful advice contained in this handbook. It addresses concerns as grand as plot development and as simple but essential as formatting your submission. It offers crucial advice on literary topics ranging from character development to the description of action. Virtually every subject that is of great concern to publishers — and therefore to authors — is covered in this clear, humorous and enormously useful guide.” –Mike Simpson, Chief Editor of Second Wind Publishing


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

3 Responses to “Creating Incredible but Credible Characters: Sex Scenes (Part 1)”

  1. derekalanwilkinson Says:

    I’ve also heard, somewhere, that it helps to stick with one POV at a time. Of course, if done masterfully, a switching from one person’s sexual experience to the other in the middle of one sex “scene” could be done. I’ve just heard that, for each “scene,” the best communicated set of ideas will come through the perspective of one PERSON. Maybe switching POVs between scenes in some stories might be beneficial. And that’s just a rule of thumb I’ve read in researching erotica–not a creed or anything.

    And then, there’s the kind of writing that goes after the OPPOSITE of what you’re after; I write horror. I don’t like rape tales, and I haven’t written one to date. I have, however, written about a number of terribly uncomfortable sexual encounters. The same rules seem to apply.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Good point — one POV at a time. If you do switch to another POV in the middle of a sex scene or any scene, it’s a good idea to let the reader know with a space, a new chapter, or some other indication of pause before the change.

  2. rami ungar the writer Says:

    Thanks Pat. I’ll keep this in mind for my next sex scene…whenever that is.

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