What makes a good sex scene in fiction?

Otherwise, this article could be titled, ‘how to avoid your book’s only award being for Worst Sex Scene’. This actually happened to a particular Nicholas Royle, lecturer of Creative Writing at Manchester Met. Hilariously, every time my own Sussex lecturer, another Nicholas Royle, introduced himself in class, he made the distinction between the two Nicks. I’d love to include an extract from the scene in here, but I feel it will have an adverse effect on amateur writers, who absorb everything – the bad and the good – and it will worsen their writing. Read it if you dare…

But if that’s bad, what’s good? After trawling the Internet for how-to articles, books, and asking around, it seems that most people generally know the difference between a good sex scene and a bad one. They just can’t put their finger on what essential qualities make the former so much more readable (and less cringey). Some voted, for example, for one book in particular. Here is an excerpt from Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doors:

‘I couldn’t get enough of him. I was tired and sore but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted the ache. I wanted him in me, all the time. His weight on top of me. I wanted to squeeze him in further. I wanted to watch his face. I wanted his sweat to drop onto me. I wanted to drop mine on him. I got on top of him. I’d never done it before. I couldn’t really believe it; I was doing this. I was inventing something. I held him and put him in. He felt deeper in me. I’ll never forget it. I was in charge and he liked it. I held his hands down. He pretended he was trying to break free. I let my tits touch his face. He went mad. He split me in two. I pushed down. I couldn’t believe it. One of his fingers flicked over my bum. I did it to him. He lifted and heaved. I couldn’t believe it. There was no end to it, no end to the new things. He did something. I copied him. I did something. He did it back. He took me from behind. I pushed back, forced more of him into me. I sucked him. He licked me. I made him come on my stomach.’

Here we have all the things that make up sex as we might (or might not) know it. An innate power dynamic; a struggle between the two participants (with one of them playfully pretending to free themselves); themes of restraint and self-possession, or even the possession and devouring of another; the give-and-take and the push-and-pull, the balancing act that makes passionate, casual sex so great. If Helene Cixous, the French philosopher, wrote that we are at our most intimate when we give something of ourselves in love (knowing that someone could easily keep, or kill, that part of us), then the teasing of the narrator with her sex partner’s most intimate self could hint that we both like it when that lover’s vulnerability is made clear. It’s a game. Isn’t a lot of good sex made up of rules, compromises and dare-yous (that sometimes get rearranged, depending on that particular dynamic)? How much of it is about a setting that is made up of breaking rules? Next is a scene from Aimee Bender’s Quiet Please, which takes place in a library:

Inside the back room, the woman has crawled out from underneath the man. Now fuck me like a dog, she tells him. She grips a pillow in her fists and he breathes behind her, hot air down her back which is starting to sweat and slip on his stomach. She doesn’t want him to see her face because it is blowing up inside, red and furious, and she’s grimacing at the pale white wall which is cool when she puts her hand on it to help her push back into him, get his dick to fill up her body until there’s nothing left of her inside: just dick.

What I like about it is that it’s so ferociously, unapologetically, written by a woman who knows the sensation of dick filling her, and doesn’t try to over-describe it. That’s all she feels, senses, thinks about, in that moment; perhaps too breathless to become verbose about it. And as she writes it, she knows that you know too. Her wording is economical, in minimalist snippets because it’s so easy to imagine. Everyone knows that self-consciousness (which ebbs away through familiarity and trust); the relief of turning away, a controlled peek-a-boo with your partner. Some people I spoke to (who wish, for whatever reason, to remain anonymous on my over-sharing, highly inappropriate blog) prefer animalistic, passionate sex, so I didn’t think they’d conjure visuals from anything lyrically written. Still, one adored this particular scene, on the grounds that they could super-impose their own selves onto it; and I saw, from their perspective, that actually, its literary height lay in a sparseness, too. Less is more, seems to be the general idea. We fill in the gaps with our imagination, in Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion:

‘They were sitting on the floor leaning into the corner of the room, her mouth on his nipple, her hand moving his dick slowly. An intricate science, his whole body imprisoned, a ship in a bottle. I’m going to come. Come in my mouth. Moving forward, his fingers pulling back her hair like torn silk, he ejaculated, disappearing into her. She crooked her finger, and he bent down and put his mouth on hers. He took it, the white character, and they passed it back and forth between them till it no longer existed, till they didn’t know who had him like a lost planet somewhere in the body.’

Then, we have the awkward fumblings, tongue-in-cheek romanticised. These scenes are better written by writers who understand what they are: the ‘Before’s, the as-we-got-to-know-one-anothers, the space in between our late adolescence and our mid twenties, the stage of exploration (although some people’s ‘phase’ lasts forever, and who’s to judge their freedom?). In Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex, for example:

‘So that was our love affair. Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing. There were reasons on my side for this as well. Whatever it was that I was was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that’s the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. Think back to your backseats, your pup tents, your beach bonfire parties. Did you ever find yourself, without admitting it, tangled up with your best friend? Or in a dorm room bed with two people instead of one, while Bach played on the chintzy stereo, orchestrating the fugue? It’s a kind of fugue state, anyway, early sex. Before the routine sets in, or the love. Back when the groping is largely anonymous. Sandbox sex. It starts in the teens and lasts until twenty or twenty-one. It’s all about learning to share.

Personally, I’d rather read that, than a badly-written paragraph about sex that ‘blows the mind’. Here we have a clear paragraph outlining drunken debauchery, decadent one-night-stands and casual sex – stages that most people go through at some time or another in their lives, not quite understanding the rhythms of their own body, let alone someone else’s. Then there’s the anonymous sex, the phenomenon that even though you know someone so well, you’re not really as connected as you once were, and it’s a ‘Good to see you again’ shared smile, in Don de Lillo’s Underworld:

‘He whispered, “Let’s make this one last happy farewell fuck.”

She started to tell him something but then thought no. They fell together, folded toward each other, and then she leaned back, arching, shored on her back-braced arms, and she let him pace the occasion. At some point she opened her eyes and saw him watching her, measuring her progress, and he looked a little isolated and wan and she pulled his head down to her and sucked salt from his tongue and heard the sort of breast-slap, the splash of upper bodies and the banging bed. Then it was a matter of close concentration. She listened for something inside the bloodrush and she spun his hips and felt electric and desperate and finally home free and she looked at his eyes stung shut and his mouth stretched so tight it seemed taped at the corners, upper lip pressed white against his teeth, and she felt a kind of hanged man’s coming when he came, the jumped body and stiffened limbs, and she ran a hand through his hair—be nicer if we did it more often.

Readers, I hope you enjoyed my new sex-positive column.
And, writers (of bad sex scenes), I hope it, er, cleared some things up for you.

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