Avoiding the “Ick” Factor: How to Write Sex Scenes that Draw the Reader in and Add to Your Plot

This is from our Advice from the Archives, and the perfect follow-up for Valentine’s Day….

Do you like the steamy bits best? Sex is an important part of relationships and many romance novels. But writing compelling sex scenes that move the plot forward is not as easy as it seems.

Sex scenes can include some of the most poignant, meaningful moments in a story, or they can make us shudder…and not in a good way. As editors, this is an issue we’ve contemplated often over the years. So what is it that makes a great sex scene and how can writers achieve this?

At Harlequin we have many different series lines with varying levels of sensuality. Some, such as Heartwarming and Love Inspired have no sex scenes at all, while others, such as Dare and Desire can have several, and these scenes can be fairly descriptive and sensual.

If you’re targeting a certain line, it will serve you well to check out that line’s sensuality level at https://harlequin.submittable.com/submit. It’s also helpful to read as many of the books in that line as you can manage, to get a feel for what they want. Even in Dare, the hottest series, there is a range of heat levels from author to author. Each author’s voice and style is unique, and it’s important to find your own voice and figure out what works for you rather than emulating others. If you try to write a sex scene that doesn’t feel natural to you, it will feel very unnatural to the reader.

The “ick” factor comes from a few different things. One of the most common issues is that the sex scene may occur before the reader has really connected with the characters. In this case, we feel as if we’re watching the sex scene rather than experiencing it through the characters. So make sure you give us a good feel for who your characters are, let us fall in love with them a little, before you throw in a sex scene. And if your sex scene has to happen really early on in the story, focus at least as much on the emotional connection as the physical.

Another thing that can lead to the “ick” factor is a sex scene with a lot of description of what’s happening, but not enough sensory information. So, again, the reader gets a solely visual experience. Pulling in other senses—sound, touch, scent and taste—can bring the scene to life and allow us to feel what’s happening rather than just seeing it.

But, don’t stop at telling the reader that the hero can smell the heroine’s spicy perfume, or the scent of the coffee brewing in the kitchen. We want to experience the scene through the characters, and in order to do that we need to know how it feels to them. What sensations are they experiencing and how does this affect them physically and emotionally? And remember, this is a love story, so an important function of the sex scene is to bring the characters together emotionally, not just physically. Sometimes the connection is so powerful it can even scare one or both of the characters, and that can be an interesting plotting element, as well.

Of course, the people who best know how to write compelling sex scenes are our fabulous authors. So we asked some veterans of the steamy read to share their wisdom. As always, they were clever and insightful…and sometimes hilarious! We hope you will find their tips both helpful and entertaining.

Authors’ Top Tips for Writing Great Sex Scenes

I love to add naughty thoughts that crop up unbidden in a character’s mind. Whether they are thinking about what will happen at the end of the night, extrapolating what the firm grip of the hero’s hand might mean in the bedroom, or maybe having flashes of dirty thoughts while doing something completely mundane, I think it creates wonderful sexual tension before the actual sexy-time starts! —Daire St. Denis

Write like no one you know (or are related to) is reading. —Taryn Leigh Taylor

Use ALL the senses. Most of us remember to use sight and touch, but what about taste, scent and sound? Does your hero smell the faded perfume on the heroine’s clothing? Does your heroine taste the salty tang of sweat on the hero’s skin? Immerse your reader in the sensory details to really bring a sex scene to life. —Stefanie London

My favorite thing to remember when writing a love scene is that it’s all about these two characters. About what flips their switch (not mine) so I’m able to really focus on their personalities, their issues and their pleasures while they are getting hot and wild together. Not only does that help make the scene very personal to the story, it also makes it a lot easier for me to write! —Tawny Weber

Sex scenes are like fight scenes: there’s a reason for it to happen and every action is followed by a reaction. Your characters need to be different people emotionally when they get out of the bed (or off the table, out of the pool, away from the wall) than when they got into it. It’s their reaction that really grabs the reader and illustrates the emotional change that happens when your hero and heroine connect intimately. —Anne Marsh

Wow, it’s getting hot in here! With all those fantastic tips I’m sure we’ll be seeing some exciting sex scenes in our submissions. Which of these tips speak to you? Will you think about sex scenes differently? Do you have any tips of your own to share? Please leave a comment and let us know.