I’ve been debating exactly where the series should go next. On the one hand I think perhaps we should get right into heavy examples and illustrations of how to bring more heat, emotion, character, etc. into your sex scenes. On the other…you have to learn to walk first, right?
All of you write. I’m sure most of you are excellent writers. I know several of you reading this series are writers whose books I’ve read, and been completely blown away by them, which makes me feel a little silly even doing this at all.
But as I mentioned before, we’ll start heavy work next week (I think) so I decided this was as good a time as any.
Sex scenes have a rhythm and mood all their own, and as we all know, the way to create rhythm and mood is through word choices. The way to make your sex scene both fit into the rest of the book and stand out from it is through word choice.
Sexy scenes should use sexy words.
How sexy they are—how graphic they are—is entirely up to you, because you’re the one writing the book. But they must fit the rest of the story. There’s nothing more jarring than reading a book where the most offensive word used is “ass” and then coming to the sex scene to discover cunts and cocks flying everywhere. It doesn’t fit; it feels like the sex scene has been imported from an issue of Penthouse.
This doesn’t mean you have to go the other direction, though, and start in with the overwrought euphemisms. Nobody needs to read about purple-headed warriors and oleaginous tunnels of love. (Which, ew.) So here is a list, by level of graphic-ness (and there’s some overlap there, so I’m starting with the most and working down to the least; your opinion may vary by a few places one way or the other):
Female Body Parts:
Cunt clit tits slit pussy tunnel channel cleft sex nipples breasts peaks mounds mound (not breasty mounds; the Mounds of Venus) crevice secret place secret folds secret flesh loins entrance treasure “between her legs/thighs” “bundle of nerves” (for clitoris; I also use “her most sensitive spot” on occasion and feel just fine about it) (I deliberately left out “vulva” because I think it is one of the least sexy words ever.)
We also have some historical variations, like cunny, quim, slash, that sort of thing. And of course the more vulgar euphemisms like “hair pie” or “fish taco” or something, which, if you want to use phrases like those in your sex scenes you’re reading the wrong series.
Male Body Parts:
Prick balls dick shaft sac penis stalk column sex thickness erection hardness hard length manhood “himself” (as in “he worked himself” or “he shoved himself into her”) “between his legs/thighs” ”sword” (can be used in a historical, but only in dialogue, I think)
In a class of its own:
I’m sure there are more; leave whatever you’ve got in the comments. But these are the ones I use most often, the ones I’m most comfortable with and the ones I think most readers will be the same with.
There’s a reason why I put “cock” in a class of its own; once a no-no, it’s become commonplace enough, I think, that it can be used in almost any sex scene, from the brief and euphemistic to the intense, long, and graphic. Cock doesn’t surprise me anywhere I see it; much like a black v-necked top, cock seems to work anywhere. Cock is the new black.
But the thing is, all those Body Part Words, while fun (and while I knew if I didn’t list them y’all would be sorely disappointed in me) are only a small part of the scene, and only a very small part of the language choices you’ll make.
I call the words I tend to use in sex scenes “trigger” words. While obviously every word we use in writing is carefully chosen and designed to mean exactly what it must and add to mood and feeling etc. etc., in a sex scene you want visceral words. You want words that evoke…well, that evoke SEX.
Words like desperate. Aching. Need. Thrust. Caught. Throb. Trembling. Eased. Stroke. Forceful. Powerful. Burn. Fill. Radiated. Pooled. Grip. Bite. Rammed. Velvet. Iron. Tease. Taste. Slip. Flesh. Slid. Ruthless. Bathed. Wet. Slick. Exposed. Glistening. Enflamed. Delicate. Rough. Turgid. Swollen. Feast. Suck. Hard. Swirl. Curve. Round. Engulfed. Exploded. Hungry. Starved. Dancing. Shaking. Thundered. Raw. Pounding. Bruising. Gasping. Tumescent. Friction. Quivering. Penetrate.
Let’s make up an example (actually, you could look at my potato peeler or couch bits from Wednesday—did you see the evocative words? Flesh. Exposed. Ridged. Etc.) This is a deliberately bland and lame example, but we’re just illustrating one point with it:
Bob set Jane onto the bed and lay down on top of her. Without a word he put his cock into her.
Yuck, right? It sounds like…well, I don’t even know what’s that bad. But let’s take exactly the same lines, without changing anything more than a few words (we’re not adding the important emotional physical etc. stuff yet) and read it again:
Bob threw Jane onto the bed and lunged on top of her. Without a word he thrust his aching cock into her.
It’s still not great, of course, because it was awful to begin with. I’m particularly bothered by the way both sentences end with “her”. I itch to fix it, and to add some sense stuff so the action doesn’t exist in such a terrible vacuum. But you see here how the use of trigger words changes this from really bland and awful to something with at least a frisson of heat. Thanks to “threw” and “lunged” Bob doesn’t seem like some sort of drunken rutting asshole but instead is perhaps more of a desperate Alpha. He’s not “putting” his cock into her, like a peg into a board under the watchful eyes of a dozen clipboard-wielding scientists; he’s thrusting into her, thrusting with his aching, needy cock. (Yeah, I didn’t add needy before, because I think aching makes it obvious there, or would in the context of an entire scene.)
None of this is new to you, because you’re writers. So you’re familiar with the need for active verbs and forceful words. But where a regular scene might be able to get away with the occasional bland or basic sentence, every word in a sex scene must contribute to the eroticism of the scene. Use the sexiest words you can.
The thing is, in any other part of your book, embellishment is frowned on. You don’t need two or three adjectives to describe, say, somebody’s cell phone, or their hands or their eyes. You don’t need several adjectives to describe someone aiming their gun or pulling the trigger, or running. It would sound overwritten and a bit silly to string words upon words in a regular action scene.
But a sex scene isn’t just any action scene. Your words need to evoke a physical and emotional reaction in the reader; it’s less about what the characters are doing than about making your reader FEEL what they’re doing.
As this week goes on we’ll cover adverbs and keeping scenes in tone with the rest of the story, and a little about what to call the, ah, products of orgasm and arousal. Next week I think we’ll start adding emotion etc., including dialogue. The week after will be foreplay, and the last week of the month we’ll do the scene critiques. In there we’ll also have Emily’s post on submissive men and one or two other bits, here and there.
So your assignment now, should you choose to accept it, is to make a list of, or at least think about, your own trigger words. What words feel/sound sexy to you? What words do you like to use for body parts? What words evoke certain emotions or feelings appropriate for some sex scenes but not others, and what words work in regular action scenes but wouldn’t work in a sex scene (I can think of one off the top of my head: clipped)? Put them in the comments, or write them down at home, or whatever.
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BE A SEX-WRITING STRUMPET