How do we write about sex?

It happens most at friendly times of year like this. And when the Literary Review magazine holds its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award honouring the writer who has described sex in the most dreadful way. Somebody in my writing groups will ask how to write about sex.


Above is Tracey Emin’s bed, currently in the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, with a seascape in similar hues by JMW Turner in the background. It’s a masterpiece of show-not-tell, letting stories tell themselves.

Here are some thoughts worth bearing in mind before you step into this minefield:

  • Write through your character, through that particular person’s thoughts, feelings, sensations as closely as you can. That’s all there is to it really; anything else is erotica.
  • That means being aware of that person’s mood. If your character is nervous, angry, sad or jubilant, does that change as the scene develops?
  • What is high in your character’s worry list? What other things are going on in their lives that might affect this scene? In other words, what is their ‘context’?
  • Your character will want something – several things – deeply, beyond what’s happening in the scene. That influences what is said, done and thought.
  • Remember how vulnerable we all feel from time to time. Bring that to your reader. And how much we can surprise ourselves.
  • Memories, hopes, dreams, dreads from the past and future keep flickering across our minds all the time.
  • Bring all this together and, no matter how carefully you or a character may have thought the scenario out, it may not go to plan.
  • Leave the clichés (situations as well as words and phrases) to other writers – you can do better. Try not to be obvious. Less is often more.
  • Always keep the plot moving
  • and the stakes rising.
  • A single point of view (staying with one character at a time) will make the reader’s experience more powerful. We’re so used to cinema and television drama that it feels right to observe several characters in the action from afar. But fiction has an extra talent that television, cinema and theatre can only envy, that of allowing us to experience the depths of the story from inside the hearts and thoughts of each character. Nothing can beat it.
  • Watch your tense. Have you written in the past tense so far? ‘He had loved her for years but this time was going to be different.’ Some people naturally slip into the historic present when telling or remembering a big story: ‘We were in the same pub, the one we met in, and somehow, I don’t know, he’s having the exact same effect on me as if he never went away, he’s pulling me close.’ Moving into the present tense could feel right but be aware when and how you bring us back to the past tense again.
  • You can be stylised in your writing. For example, you (or your character) can describe a fight as a dance, or sex as a cross-Channel swim.
  • Remember the power of what is thought, imagined or known but not said (subtext).

ducks near Dome

EXERCISE – 5 minutes

Describe your first happy kiss. Go back in time to that place, remember how warm or cold you were, what you wore, what you’d eaten or drunk, who was with you, what your circumstances were at the time, how you felt in your skin, how it felt having that other person close to you. What happened. How it felt. What happened next. Why you remember it.

Describe the last kiss you saw in a film.

How do the two compare?

Our job as writers is to be real. Let your characters be as imperfect as we all are.


Next Sunday is Christmas Eve so I’m afraid I’ll be away with Santa and his elves. This blog starts again on Sunday 7 January 2018. If you are enjoying the holidays, your characters might have a tendency to head off into the wilds without you and it can be tricky to coax them back to your desk. You can keep them close by refreshing their timelines or dipping back into my character questionnaire.

I wish you and yours a very happy break and, if you get the chance, happy writing!