Intimacy can be intimidating, and there are few instances that make that statement more true than in writing.
One question writers might face is whether or not to include a sex scene in their work. For some, it is an easy yes or no question. Others might need some time to weigh the pros and cons of including this kind of scene and how to go about it.
There are several factors to take into consideration when including a sex scene. In this article, I’ll be sharing some of them.
Reader discretion is advised.
If you’re familiar with this blog, then you know I primarily write romance novels. A cornerstone of the genre is the bodice ripper novel. These are infamous for details sex scenes.
Even though I write romance, that does not demand I include sex scenes. I’ve read plenty of romance novels that do not include them or just gloss over the details. They got down and dirty, you get the point, let’s move on with the story.
Genre can be one of the determining factors in this deliberation. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, really all genres can include sex scenes. It’s just more common in some than most.
A sex scene in a mystery novel might be more unexpected and catch readers off guard compared to a romance, a genre notorious for these kinds of scenes.
The only stories I would say absolutely must include a sex scene are works of erotica because it is a convention within the genre and one of the things that draw readers to those specific books.
Point of View
Another factor to take note of in determining whether or not to include a sex scene in your story is the point of view you’re using to tell it.
If you’re writing from a third-person POV, that means you’re telling it from the perspective of an outside narrator. Depending on if you are using a Limited or Omniscient POV, you have control over how involved you get as a narrator and the glimpses your reader is allowed. An Omniscient narrator has the ability to peek into the characters’ thoughts and describe the sensation of the moment. Third-person POVs can have varying limits on how far is too far.
If you’re like me and find yourself taking on an observer’s role in narrating the story, then you have the option of sitting back and describing the action alone without getting too involved. One of the benefits I’ve found in writing in a third-person POV is being able to separate myself from the action.
In First-Person POVs, the story is told by one of the characters, either as it is happening or as they reflect on it. Because of this, the reader feels more present in the action.
As the writer, you still have control over where to yell “Cut!” and end the scene, so you are never required to write sex scenes, but be aware that if you do choose to it will be written in a format like “He touched my thigh” or “My heart is pounding against my ribs,” making you more involved in the action.
The First-Person POV sex scene can be a draw to some readers, as there are a lot of erotic novels told using this style including the Fifty Shades of Grey series. However, most of the romance novels I have read are written in Third-Person.
I did a series of posts last year regarding the different points of view found in fiction, so you can refer to those links throughout this section if you are interested in learning more about these POVs.
Among things authors are advised to consider is their book’s target audience. Who is your book geared towards? When you envision your ideal reader, who are they?
If they are mature readers, then mature content is typically okay. However, if your intended readers are on the younger side, it might be better to skip the sex.
Young adult fiction can kind of tiptoe around the inclusion of sex scenes and allude to it but, in most instances, it’s better to leave things in that regard ambiguous. In the instances that come to mind, these might reference the characters kissing and maybe insinuate what is going to happen before the scene ends.
Understanding your audience, what they might expect and what they might even want to see can help you decide if including a sex scene makes sense.
This is why I made the decision to remove the sex scene that was previously found in Guises to Keep. As mentioned in this post, I consider Guises to Keep a separate entity from my other novels to the point I’m intending to publish it under an entirely different pen name. This standalone work is also one of literary fiction, which I imagine drawing in a different readership.
Although the central couple has sex, this happens between chapters and off-screen for lack of a better term. We see them making out, his shirt comes off, and the chapter ends; the next opens with them lying together the following morning.
Now that we’ve discussed the comfort zones of potential readers, it’s time to branch out and discuss those of your characters and yourself.
As the author, you have control over your story’s direction and can decide how far you take things.
Only write what you are comfortable with. If you’re uncomfortable with writing a sex scene but are trying to force yourself to do it because you think that’s what your readers want, that will become apparent pretty quickly.
That said, it’s also important to consider your characters’ comfort levels. Does a sex scene feel like something they would enter into without you prodding them into it? How far is too far for them?
Your boundaries and those of your characters is important to keep in mind.
If the scene feels forced, don’t try to make it fit into the story.
Does the story call for it?
This is what I would say is the most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to include a sex scene.
My biggest advice for approaching sex scenes is the same I have for any other scene: does it matter to the plot?
Asking yourself this question can be the difference between a gratuitous sex scene and one that advances the plot and/or affects the relationship between the characters moving forwards. It has to serve a purpose to the story.
For example, in Bound to the Heart, the sex scene with Zach and Eve accomplishes a few things. For Eve, it’s a means of rebelling against her overbearing mother who at that point has barred Zach from proposing to her.
Zach choosing to remain at his place with Eve in that chapter instead of joining his younger brother at White’s heightens the tension in their relationship because it’s not the first time he’s prioritized his romantic pursuits. Additionally, Zach not going with Henry leaves the latter left to his own devices and keeps him from being able to prevent the fight Henry gets into upon finding out their sister is up to her own schemes.
On the whole, that one scene propels the story forwards and complicates nearly all of Zach’s relationships, romantic and familial.
Even if you don’t show the sex scene, there needs to be a reason for it taking place.
This is one of the things that had me going back and forth so much with the sex scene in Guises to Keep. When I initially wrote it, it was with the purpose of taking the relationship to the next level and showing individual changes in the characters involved. This remains true even though the scene itself fades to black.
Regardless of if you go all the way with your characters or take a step back and let them do their thing beyond the purview of your pen, the key is to make sure there is a purpose for going there.
As with any other kind of scenes, sex scenes have their own merit for inclusion, but the subject can be a little touchy (no pun intended) depending on what you’re writing. Whether or not you include them in your writing is up to you.
Next week, I’ll be breaking down the different levels of sex scenes and how to determine which is best for you and your story.