How to avoid writing bad sex scenes in fiction, by Ewan Morrison
'Avoid using medical words to describe genitalia'
I’ve written quite a few sex scenes over the years – orgies, first gay experiences, ménage a trois’, etc – but they’re not really titillating, erotic or a great deal of fun for the characters, who are battling with problems like mid-life crises, divorce, impotence, and sex addiction. As a reader once pointed out, they bought my novel Swung as an aid to self-pleasure and then ended up crying instead. This is probably because I find writing or reading about great wholesome sex a bit like being woken by neighbours screwing loudly – sex is something I’d much rather be doing than have to witness second-hand. Furthermore, why invent characters that can have better sex than me, isn’t that admitting my own inadequacy?
I have therefore worked out five dos and don’ts for writing about sex, so that it can be at least bearable. There are five awful mistakes that I’ve made and everyone should avoid:
1. Using a thesaurus.
All ‘good writing’ manuals and classes tell you to use adjectives and vary them with synonyms. Take the example of ‘her bouncing breasts’. Thesaurus synonyms for bouncing are ‘active’, ‘vigorous’, ‘brisk’ and ‘full of life’. Changing words for the sake of it is like showing off, and sex is really repetitive anyway – when it’s good.
2. Using medical words to describe genitalia.
Would you do this in your own sex talk? ‘Oh, baby, lick my testicles!’ This will not do it for anyone, or win the Booker.
3. At the other extreme, replacing genital words with poeticisms.
For example, ‘She mounted his manhood’. To roughly paraphrase Don DeLillo, ‘Let’s not have any more people “entering” each other – “he entered her slowly”; “he entered her with urgency” – women are not elevators!’
4. Don’t get caught up worrying about whether you are writing ‘erotica’ or ‘porn’.
When the Marquis de Sade depicted murderous orgies and Jean Genet eloquently evoked the beauty of felatio they weren’t worried by such trivial middle-class distinctions.
5. Abandon the concept of ‘good literary sex’
This is a lot like the candy-coloured idea that we can only have great sex with someone we love. The self-appointed guardians of high literature expound the doctrine that any description of sex must be channelled through the unique personality of the protagonist, be meaningful and further the plot, otherwise it will be ‘gratuitous’. What garbage. Surely the best sex of all is that which is utterly meaningless and allows you to lose the plot completely. Sex itself is gratuitous, and although it has a beginning a middle and end, it has no story.
In fact, now that you’ve read the above tips, forget them. People that take tips and rules into the bedroom, tend to be dull between the covers (of both beds and paperbacks).