Today Rekka is speaking with fantasy author Freya Marske, who has gently coached many of her author friends through writing effective and satisfying sex scenes.
She jokes that her mission in life is to improve the quantity and quality of sex scenes in genre fiction.
Freya believes we should lift joyful romance and healthy, fun romances in genre fiction to leave the reader a warbling ball of happy feelings.
Question 1 A: Do you need a sex scene?
Does it serve the story? Not every book needs them. Handholding and snuggling may be the culmination of your relationship arc. Fade-to-black is also acceptable.
Also, consider if you enjoy writing them. If not, you can write up to the point you enjoy and go no further. But, if you like reading them, and they spark joy, then let’s get to the good stuff!
Please reconsider your scene if it is meant for shock value and you have no joyful, healthy sex (communicating that all sex is dark and abusive).
Romance/sexual arcs are powerful tools to fuse your reader to your characters’ story.
Question 1 B: Does the sex scene belong *here*?
Narratively cock-block your characters to ramp up tension throughout the story. Freya recommends you save the scene for the moment the reader is screaming, “Just kiss already!” but before the reader’s head explodes.
You can dial in the tension by allowing a kiss to happen, or interrupting a near-kiss.
There’s a lot of mileage to be had from the characters fantasizing about what might happen.
Sexual frustration or new-relationship emotions can also drive the character to make plot-useful decisions that their normal competence would avoid. “Pants Feelings” is the official term.
Releasing sexual tension will deflate the tension in your book, which can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where it goes (thus this half of the question).
Sometimes releasing sexual tension can increase other plot tension depending on the outside pressures related to the characters’ romance.
Question 2: What purpose does it serve?
Freya believes you should make sure your sex scene cannot be extracted from the story without endangering the overall story. It should be illustrating a point or developing/complicating the plot.
You can use the sex scenes as a mirror to another issue in the book. You do need your sex scene in a non-Romance/Erotica book, something needs to shift in the scene before you move on with the rest of the story.
Freya uses the example of her book with two “sex chapters” in which the first sex scene happens halfway through the book, which provides relief to the sexual tension but complicates the plot and increases the need to resolve other plot situations. In the second scene, the romantic storyline is resolved and this scene “rewards” the reader and provides a joyful pause before diving into the main plot climax.
In the musical example, this is the “Reprise” where the melody is familiar but the lyrics indicate that the characters have completed their emotional arc(s).
In a genre book, the broader plot gets resolved after the romance plot is resolved.
Some Romance writers write the sex scenes all at once to make sure the arc of the romance is managed intentionally. Freya sees the use of this but prefers to pace herself on writing all the ‘fun ones.’ She likes to see a sex scene on the horizon as she writes (she’s also waiting for the bass to drop).
Dialog inside the sex scene can be part of the effect the event has on the plot. It can also create/break moods.
Be aware of how your sex scenes make or break promises to the reader (beta readers can yell LOUDLY and let you know). If you are going to ‘spoil’ the satisfaction of a sex scene, you might add it a little early and put the ‘proper’ sex scene at the right moment.
Question 3: How do you write it?
Logistics! Choreography! Language! Oh, myyyyyyyy!
Just as you shouldn’t be able to remove the scene, you need to be sure you can’t do a search-and-replace to replace the names with other characters’ names.
Work out which POV gets this scene (or break it into two segments if, like Freya, you want to show both POVs).
Do the research to know what you enjoy in sex scenes. There is no such thing as a ‘universally arousing sex scene’ and the more you try to cater to everyone, the less effective it will be. Freya particularly enjoys when she can sense the writer’s joy and exuberance.
The scene should be as enjoyable for you as you want it to be for your readers (don’t follow trends you don’t enjoy).
Freya believes ‘specifics are best’ when it comes to building the scene.
Freya writes from macro to micro. The big picture begins with blocking – much like a fight scene. Block areas for actions, dialogue, moving around a setting.
Keep track of any details for realism (injuries, where clothing comes off, positions, how bodies move). Check that angles you describe are humanly possible.
A sex scene with more than two people is ‘playing on hard mode’ and blocking will definitely be helpful.
Purple Prose Euphemisms?
This is what stopped Rekka from reading Romance because of the whole “write a sex scene grandma can enjoy” linguistic gymnastics. A certain level of explicitness moves your novel into a higher heat scale and increases the ‘raciness.’
Freya recommends using plain genital nouns and making the sexiness come from the way things are happening and the way the tension is built. If your nineteen year-old blushing virgin has been brought up with euphemisms, that might work. Literature euphemisms are often and terribly uncomfortable and slightly baffling. Originality in your metaphors in a sex scene should not be your primary goal.
You should be quite deep in the character’s POV, and use the language that is consistent with the language used for their world view and psyche throughout the rest of the book. Use the word-choices your character would use. Your basic prose style should be the same, using the same prose techniques you would use for any action beat.
Freya uses two halves of a sex chapter to show both POVs reacting in their own way, in the immediate moment, so they don’t have to have a ‘do nothing’ scene where all they do is reflect on what happened.
In queries, current advice is to open with the stakes for the character, and the sexual encounters should be framed the same way. Make the stakes feel real and the characters relatable.
Media we reference during the episode:
Find Freya Marske online:
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