In essence, fiction is about the human condition, and sex is an important part of being human. Novels from all genres include sex, but physical intimacy is an area where romance authors excel.
Sex scenes vary widely in romance. Not all romance novels have sex scenes; Amish romance, a popular sub-genre, as a rule has no sex, as you can probably imagine. Some books feature closed-door sex scenes, where we follow the couple right until they enter the bedroom and then pick up the story after sex. In other books, the bedroom door is open. I write for Harlequin’s Dare line, where the bedroom door is wide open…to the tune of three to four longer sex scenes per book. I have to work hard to make each one unique, interesting, and important to the story.
Below you’ll find the three guiding principles I use when writing sex. Whether your characters have casual or committed relationships and whether you write long or short sexual encounters with an open or a closed door, these three tips can help to make the most of these scenes in your novel.
Tip #1: Start with other types of intimacy
When sex scenes feel abrupt, clinical, and gratuitous, it’s usually because the foundation leading up to the sex scene needs more work. We readers need hints that physical intimacy is coming before a couple takes off their clothes, and these hints can be sprinkled throughout the book so we are anticipating how this might happen as we read. In other words, you want us to be guessing the way sex might play out between your couple before the scene starts. This guessing creates story tension.
There are many ways to hint at the kinds of intimacy that might lead to sex, and the details you choose indicate the kind of sexy you’re building up to. In what’s called “sweet” romance, sex never takes place within the timeline of the story; it’s implied that sex takes place after the couple’s “happily ever after.” Perhaps counterintuitively, sweet romance is a great place to learn about other kinds of intimacy that can lead to a less explicit sex scene because the book relies on them entirely. For a practical guide, Stacey Donovan, Director of Hallmark Publishing, wrote this list of low-heat, intimacy-building gestures.
To build up to higher-heat sex scenes, the intimacy almost always involves clear sexual awareness, and sometimes it’s unwanted. My book Playing with Fire leans heavily on the enemies-to-lovers trope, so when teenage sweethearts Simon and Mariana see each other again, I describe their mutual physical awareness. Each character notices how the other has physically matured, and these observations bring back memories of their past encounters. But on both sides, the renewed spark of attraction is met with reluctance.
In short, make sure you’re setting up readers’ expectations for the tone and heat level of your sex scenes from the beginning.
Tip #2: Explore vulnerabilities during sex
Sex is not just about pleasure; vulnerability is another important part of the experience. Engaging sex scenes explore both the physical pleasure and the emotional vulnerabilities this intimacy evokes. Meaningful sex has a tendency to bring out our both our fears and our deepest needs. Conversely, when characters have sex that is meant to be less meaningful, they often take pains to guard these vulnerabilities.
Whether the sex you write is casual or leading to a deeper connection, touching on your characters’ deepest fears and deepest wants can take your sex scene to the next level. In Playing with Fire, my teenage sweethearts were both devastated by their break-up for different reasons. When they meet again, many years later, they already know the other’s vulnerabilities. They work hard to guard themselves around each other, but during sex, their guards inevitably come down. This set-up creates tension in their vulnerabilities: Will they use these vulnerabilities against each other, or will they let themselves grow closer again?
Tip #3: Use sex as a plot point
If we want our audience to be interested in our sex scene, it has to matter. In other words, the sex scene should be an event that affects the plot, not just a reward for a certain level of intimacy. Sex can affect both internal and external conflicts, and this is most effectively done when there are meaningful road blocks in the way of their relationship.
For example, internal conflict can be created by establishing a distance between what a character expects from sex and the actual experience. Most often in a romance, this means that the sex is more satisfying than both characters expected…which makes them want more, against their better judgment. The experience shakes up the ways they have compartmentalized the sexual encounter and the limits they’ve put on their relationship. This discomfort triggers reactions that affect the story.
Sex can also affect the external conflict when some of the barriers to the relationship are external. For example, if two characters work together (office romance) or perhaps one character is employed to protect the other character (bodyguard romance), the forbidden elements of the romance affect how they act around each other. When the characters finally give in to their desires, the results can be messy: guilt, confusion, and distress (internal conflict). But if the encounter has real-world consequences, in a workplace, for example, they also might need to hide what they’ve done from others. Or an antagonist could discover and use this moment of vulnerability against them both.
In both internal and external conflicts, potential consequences create a shift in how the characters act after they have sex, which makes the encounter relevant and meaningful to the plot.
Rebecca Hunter is the award-winning author of sensual, emotional adventures of the heart…which usually means romance novels with a side of wanderlust. Her book Best Laid Plans won the 2019 NERFA and the 2019 HOLT Medallion contest and earned a starred review from Library Journal. She’s currently writing more super-sexy books for the Harlequin Dare