Ask A Writer: Sex and Writing

30 Aug

How much sex (and details) should a writer include in his book?

To be honest, this is very much a subjective question and answer. I can only speak for myself.

As far as I am concerned, you can – for the purpose of this question – divide books into two categories: Erotic Fiction and Everything Else. In the case of the former, they are effectively books about romance and sex, either in terms of a wider story (boy meets girl, etc) or a very short erotic encounter. I don’t write them so my opinions are probably valueless.

For everything else, the answer is a little more complex.

In my opinion, sex in books exists to either drive the plot or showcase character development. I don’t go into great detail – most of the time – because I don’t see it as necessary. I don’t write erotic fiction and many a great series has been derailed because the author decided it would be better to write more erotic sections than action and plot. Obviously, different people will have different ideas of what actually derails the story. I have a habit of simply flipping through the sex scenes in a number of otherwise good series I like to read.

A major consideration here is just what the audience expects. They didn’t pick up the book to read erotic fiction. (Unless they did, in which case they probably knew what they were getting <grin>). I once downgraded an otherwise excellent book because the author included a scene I could best describe as ‘tentacle sex.’ People who want an SF or fantasy book probably don’t want elaborate zero-g or hot vampire sex.

Beyond that, there’s also the question of age. A book written for children or teenagers should probably contain less detail – Harry Potter never went further than a few kisses, Hood’s Army had the hero and heroine sharing a bedroom, but no actual details. The more detail you have, the greater the possibility of putting someone off. Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss sex and sexuality in books aimed at children. Even with books aimed at older readers, it’s possible to give false impressions or unfortunate implications – Edward of Twilight is a stalker, not a ‘one true love.’

But like I said, this is a subjective topic. What do my readers think?

27 Responses to “Ask A Writer: Sex and Writing”

  1. Daniel August 30, 2017 at 1:58 pm #

    As a reader. Sex need to be written well or not be there. Sarah Hoyt is an example of writing well. Anne mccaffrey not great but she knew it and left it out mostly.

  2. robinsaw August 30, 2017 at 2:39 pm #

    I do not find that sex shouldnt be part of a book, as I find that it makes the characters seem more relateable and human. But its somthing that needs to be written well for it to seem appopiate.

    Trudi Canavan in the Age of The Five series handled this well i feel. Where intimate scenes showed how the character had grown and changed throughout the book.

  3. Billy August 30, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

    Sex and Writing is about Desire.

    Every male has a high desire for females, most females have about 10 percent of
    that desire back towards the males. (Or so it seems to us males)

    Having the females in a book be written has having a high desire for the male hero.
    (The male hero who the male reader sees as themselves)

    Makes us males at least feel powerful/desired/ what have you , as we read the book.

    That is even with out even having sex in the book.

    That is my 2 cents

  4. Matthew Stienberg August 30, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

    Sex and writing is, tricky. Too explicit and people can swear off, but without it you are missing a fundamental part of human motivation and thinking. I’ve always agreed with GRRM on the matter that you shouldn’t shy away from sex, as its much like violence. But how much you show can depend on what type of audience you have. You wouldn’t put a graphic torture scene in a story unless it served a point, similarly you wouldn’t put a graphic sex scene in a story unless you thought it had a point.

    Opinions on that may vary, but if you think it serves a purpose you should include it.

    • dichroic August 31, 2017 at 8:39 pm #

      Too bad there’s no “like” button here – I’d like to second this!

  5. Stuart the Viking August 30, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

    A series I recently read had some pretty graphic sex scenes in something like book 4 or 5 of the series (can’t remember for sure which, not germane to the comment). I found it rather off-putting. Mostly because the previous books had very little other than some vague comments about characters owning sex toys (but no scenes involving the actual use of said).

  6. Jared August 30, 2017 at 5:46 pm #

    I agree. It’s annoying when I’m reading a great story and then have to flip through four or five pages to get through a sex scene. Honestly, a lot of the SF/fantasy genre is young adult age range. And I think these scenes give unhealthy and unrealistic views about relationships in general.

  7. Chuck August 30, 2017 at 6:16 pm #

    I too tend to flip through detailed descriptions of sexual encounters, especially when they seem irrelevant to the plot. But more than that, I don’t find them sexy. Suggestion, emotion, desire, they can all be sexy, but making the mechanics of sex sexy is difficult. When you come right down to it, there isn’t that much difference between two people screwing and two dogs doing the same, except the dogs are stuck with the aftermath. Now, watching the reaction of dogs in the neighborhood to a bitch in heat, that’s interesting. And I would say the same about humans.

    In short, making explicit sex sexy requires a talent that few writers possess. I’d say the same about humor.,

    • Jared August 30, 2017 at 7:20 pm #

      That was well said!

      • Jared August 30, 2017 at 7:20 pm #


  8. Pyo August 30, 2017 at 8:27 pm #

    If I listed the 50 greatest books I’ve read that none of them would include graphic sex, I suspect.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with whether graphic sex is a good idea or not, merely that a certain type of writers doesn’t seem to like using it.

    But I feel that in “modern” novels there is little reason not to include it, if it’s in some way significant. Except that most of the time of course it isn’t – it’s just sex. Saying that that’s what they’re doing is enough for the average couple, no different from characters having a meal or washing their clothes or whatever. It’s just daily life background stuff that usually needs no mentioning.

    Unfortunately, as most romances in novels suck, authors have a tendency to use it an excuse to show of how “truly in love” the characters in question are. Sex is nearly always perfectly awesome, no matter how inexperienced the characters are. This supposedly “demonstrates” the depth of their feelings, as if lust and love and skill in bed were all one thing …

    Sometimes, of course, it’s handled well and has some relevance to the plot, and then it makes sense to provide more details. But it’s rare. For me, for example, since vampires are mentioned – vampires I like tend to include sex and blood and violence. Being very squeamish there will make them feel bland (or just plain stupid), and including the violence but shying away from the sex (if it’s part of “the lore”) can be downright hypocritical.

    • halycon August 31, 2017 at 4:34 pm #

      I would including books that have sex in some of the modern greats. John Irving wanted to write a book about abortion, adoption, orphanages, and the choices adults make which require they exist.

      When a major plot point is the incorrect use of a condom leading to an unwanted pregnancy… it kinda has to go into how the condom was used incorrectly. At least it does if the reader wants to know the mindset that caused those two characters to make that bad choice, and it was a lapsed choice in judgement, not a they didn’t know any better moment.

      In Cider House Rules sex isn’t just plot relevant. Sex and its aftermath are the entire point of the book.

  9. Esb August 30, 2017 at 9:00 pm #

    I tend to agree with your earliest sentence. It needs to further the plot. Up until recently I had thought that was writing till you got to the point that you know it happens and then kinda “… ” I have maybe changed some of my opinions or let it become more of a grey area after reading A Court of Rose and Thorns series by Sarah Maas. There was definitely more detail, but I have difficulty calling it erotica fiction. As it did serve to further the story. The story was largely based around emotions beyond just love so it was an important part. Now other readers may have there own opinions on this, but it definitely leads to making the picture not quite so clear.

  10. David Graf August 31, 2017 at 1:41 pm #

    I think it’s almost a waste of time anymore writing about sex in books. Thanks to cable tv and the internet, you don’t need to get your “fix” by imagining it through reading. You can see it for yourself and if the porn VR industry ever takes off – you’ll be able to experience it as well with all your senses. Being a super square, though, might be biasing my thoughts.

    • Pyo August 31, 2017 at 3:00 pm #

      Thing about written porn is simply that you can do whatever the heck you want and the reader can imagine whatever they heck they want. It can be all fantasy, or whichever fantasy you like, and as amazing as you can describe it.

      That’s not really a thing for real porn ^^

  11. Sean August 31, 2017 at 4:31 pm #

    I think sex and writing is tricky. I do not usually read anything related to romance however there is one series I read that I think handles the sex well. It gives bare minimum details as to what is happening and I think the most time spent on it was 2 paragraphs and it does actually fit into the plot to drive it forward. I couldn’t see, for instance, Emily and Freida suddenly having a very detailed fling (though Freida would probably like that) it just doesn’t fit the series.

  12. Vapori August 31, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

    Of all my favorite series only one included graphic sex that was in there for the sex part. In a few other series it was in there but more for humor or character development.

    Written sex and erotic fiction is specially about the unrealistic stuff, or stuff people wouldn’t dare to do even if they could.

    • Vapori August 31, 2017 at 4:46 pm #

      In that sense it would be kinda likely, that the nameless world or the one of the bookworm series has some well tested bedrrom spells. for mages. anything else would surprise me given human nature and the level of control spellwork in your books allows. Still writing about that can be fairly tricky.

  13. Dxx August 31, 2017 at 6:20 pm #

    If sex is relevant to the story, than you can include it. George R. R. Martin has a talent for it. People die while having sex, people get betrayed while having sex, people fuck each other that really shouldn’t, complete new character traits are being shown, it is something important, like the first time, people get broken by rape; all that makes his sex scenes interesting. It is politics in bed. Not a break from the story, but an extension of the story.

  14. Kell Harris September 1, 2017 at 6:35 am #

    I’m Female. I remember reading from this one author. She was writing a young adult series. She also wrote an adult series. In the young adult one more emphasis was placed on the emotion and love. There wasn’t much detail. No anatomy lessons. It was super hot. The build up for it, the words. I was happy.

    In the other book it was more focused on the mechanics the nitty gritty. There was an absence of deep feelings and the whole thing bored me and made me not that interested in the male character. It felt like she was just being used and not making love or even having a satisfying one night stand. I really came to dislike the main male character. I couldn’t really feel that he actually cared about the main character.

    It was sad that the young adult book scene was more romantic with the lack of detail and emotion then the explicit lusty time the other was.
    I think the moments leading up to the sex and after are more important cause they establish how the characters felt. Leaving the rest to the imagination is good.

    • Veraenderer September 1, 2017 at 3:52 pm #

      I’m male and I fell exactly the other way around. I read so many books where the plot was destroyed by an author (quite often female) tried to work with emotions and love and it was off putting since it need skill (and the right readers) to achieve this.

      At the other hand one of the best book series of all time in my eyes (Daniel Black) had about 1/4 of the books full of erotic scenes but they were used to further the plot, build character and build emotions between the characters.

      Other books with bad sex scenes tend to be written the way that you can skip the scenes but novels where the author tries to put an emphasis on emotions and fails with it will normaly ruin the whole book.

      • Kell Harris September 2, 2017 at 7:51 am #

        I suppose it depends on how you do it. There was great build up to the scenes. It was a pivotal moment. That’s why the feelings that it covered didn’t fall flat. And you can say there might be a difference in what a man might consider a well written sex scene and a woman. HMM That should be it’s own topic of discussion. Of course I do believe that both men and woman can write good sex scenes. My favorite though was written by a wife and husband author team. They had a great balance of feelings and erotic elements. The sex moved the plot rather then taking up space.

      • Veraenderer September 2, 2017 at 9:35 am #

        I did actually meant emotional build up can be different between man and woman. For example if a book is written out of the perspectiv of a female character which falls in love with a male character will probably be less likely to understand why she fell in love with the male character or even be able to fell attached to the male character which can make the main characters annoying especialy if you read the book not because you want to read a romance but because you want to read about the world ending conflict about which the book said it would be.

        And the moment you find a main character annoying any emotional build up will fail.

  15. Bob G September 1, 2017 at 10:10 am #

    Still waiting for the Stellar Star series. Harry Flashman meets Moll Flanders.

  16. georgephillies September 2, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    Tend to avoid the issue.
    In some order: Nothing in This Shining Sea

    Implied off-screen for a secondary character in Mistress of the Waves; several families.
    Several friends who marry.

    The One World has implied off-screen arrangements for some characters, as well as the two lead characters in a stable monogamous heterosexual relationship for the purpose of having children, this being (for reasons not explained in the novel) in a society with a ten-to-one female:male ratio viewed as a perversion (but this is never stated explicitly)..

    Minutegirls has several off-screen events that on screen get as far as someone taking off a coat; two of the lead characters have a multi-year long distance romance that in the last scene reached a kiss (and there was nothing before that and a marriage proposal, accepted, and the high admiral of one side having affairs entirely off screen with several colleagues and his immediate subordinate.

    These titles are mostly all on Smashwords, Amazon, and Third Millennium.

  17. georgephillies September 3, 2017 at 4:10 am #

    On the other hand, the second edition of Minutegirls is available for pre-order as of now on Kindle and Smashwords, with the Createspace volume available soon. There is a glorious cover by Cedar Sanderson. However, all of the places I am publishing have rules about suitability for under-18s. On one hand, many school districts in the US teach abstinence. I am old enough to remember when school sex education was well known to be a communist plot. On the other hand, i am reminded of an undergraduate at a different school from mine remarking that her middle school had had Jean Auel’s Cave volumes, with paperclips marking the interesting pages. Are there opinions here?

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