If there is a portion of literature that has been more roundly and soundly mocked than sex scenes out of romance books, I don’t know what it is. There’s even a bad sex writing prize given out every year. It is tremendously easy to do badly.
And the reason I haven’t really addressed this yet, is, I confess, is I haven’t been entirely sure what separates a good description of the body from a bad one. But I think I’ve come up with a few ideas, or at least approaches.
First, to describe bodies, and sex, well, you need to read about them and it. Seriously. Find books that have the level of heat close to what you want to write about, and read them, both good ones and bad ones. Discover what you like and what you don’t. Get analytical. Look at the pacing. Look at the writing. Look at the adjectives and focus. Look at the lead up to the scene and the exit from the scene. If an author is going to write well about bodies, it is necessary to be conversant and comfortable with how it’s done within their chosen genre.
Now, let’s talk body types. The human body really is an amazing thing. It is strong, graceful, agile, complex, and beautiful. That beauty and strength manifest in all sorts of forms. And body-types vary depending on the primary activity the person engages in. Now, staring at people on the street while thinking about how they might look in bed is probably not the best way to get a handle on what you yourself consider beautiful, feminine or manly. Fortunately, there are other possibilities. Here’s a really interesting website set up for artists, showing various high-level athletes. It definitely provides food for descriptive thought. You’ll notice, for instance, that very few athletic activities aside from deliberate body-building, give a guy “six pack” abs. Another place I like to go for looking at bodies with an eye to the beauty of the human form is an old-fashioned one. I go to the art museum, and not just for the greek marbles. The marbles and bronzes are are fine as far as they go, but I like the portraits. I look at the faces, the poses, the hands, what is the artist seeing in this person? What are they telling us about them?
Because one of the major problems of the bad sex scene is the concentration on the private parts and the setting aside of not just the rest of the character, but the rest of the body. Hands, feet, faces, the tiny, individual details of the person, are as important here as they are in any other scene. The sex scene does not take the character out of themselves, it moves them more firmly into themselves.
First: Less is More. Which is going to sound strange from somebody who writes erotica, but stick with me here. One of the most problematic aspects of the sex scene is the flowery description of, well, the private parts. Now, I admit describing a portion of the anatomy we can’t even talk about in polite company is a problem. Let’s face it, using the proper anatomical terms is, well, unromantic. Also, if you’re going to have more than one scene in the book, you’re going to have the same parts doing more or less the same things and it’s really tempting to head to the Thesauraus to ramp up the tension. But honestly, You don’t need a wide variety of adjectives to describe genitalia. After all, we call hands “hands” and fingers “fingers.” A few words that work with the character and that the author is comfortable with will do just fine. After that, it’s all character and emotion. How are their feelings and actions changing them? How is the emotion of this scene different from the emotion of the last one?
Second: Size matters, but not that much. I’d really rather not have to bring this up, but it is out there. Unless somebody’s got out a ruler, nobody knows to the exact inch just how big any portion of the male anatomy is. If the guy himself has measured it in the past…well, that’s a character issue. If the woman involved has such experience that she can eyeball it that accurately, well that’s a character issue. But failing that, there’s no reason to introduce measurements into the moment, okay? Okay. We do not need to speak of this again.
Third: Mind the superlatives. Yes, they’re beautiful to each other. Yes, ultimately, this is the love of the character’s life. Yes, they’re impressed, indeed, swept away by this moment, this experience, this sensation. But, again, the greatest underlying weakness of any sex scene is when it becomes detached from the rest of book. The romance progresses, the sex progresses. If everything is the most magnificently wonderful the first time, there’s nowhere for the sensations or the characters to go. If all secrets of the body are revealed in their absolute perfection the first time, there’s also nowhere to go. Be measured in your descriptions, your adjectives, your character’s delight in each other. It’s got to last you through the whole book.
Fourth: Ringing in the changes. Bodies are not static things. They change depending on what the person living in the body has been going through. Responses change, appearance changes, temperature changes, scent changes. A good description of the body takes into account not only what the body generally does, but what it has been doing recently, if not immediately before the intimacy starts.
Finally; Emotion, emotion, emotion. The response of the body during intimate moments is driven by emotion. This cannot be said too many times. Grace or awkwardness, boldness or bashfulness, joy or anger or a combination of all of them, they are going to be reflected in the action, in the body. This basic truth can be used to elevate the physical description, infuse it with the character description that helps tie the sex into the rest of the book.