On writing sizzling sex scenes
Of all the writing workshops I’ve had the chance to attend, Beth Miller’s “Writing Sizzling Sex Scenes” was surely the most tempting.
I wanted to be late, just so I could say that I’d been doing some research. In fact I was trawling my memory bank. I had to go way back, because at my age the short term memory suffers. I think I’ve had lots of sex recently – I hope I have – but I can’t actually remember it.
Beth ran the workshop at the recent Hastings Literary Festival. She told us that she wouldn’t ask us to read out our writing, and everything said would be confidential (so strictly speaking I shouldn’t be writing this at all). She also reassured us that she was unembarrassable, and there would inevitably be lots of double-entendres. How good of her to ease us in that way.
She then asked us to name either a sexy place we’d been, or a book with a memorable sex scene. Not wanting to admit that the first was my family living room when Diana Rigg was Emma Peel, I plumped for the second, from around the same stage of my life: a scene from When The Lion Feeds by Wilbur Smith. I came across it on my reading journey between the flaccid thrillers of Alistair McLean and the more robust James Bonk, sorry, Bond books.
The core of the workshop was an analysis of recent Bad Sex Awards. The first winning passage was from a recent book by… Wilbur Smith. Oops. The following year was won by some cringeworthy awfulness by Morrissey. Bulbous salutation? Oh dear.
Sex is difficult to write. It’s personal, embarrassing, taboo, and makes us forget we are writers and craftspeople. We fear our readers will forget too that this is fiction and artifice, not confession. We have a desperate urge to hide our discomfort behind fizzing verbiage and rococo similes. It’s not the sex we write that’s masturbatory, it’s the language, but we can’t pull it off.
You’ll doubtless want to know the positive takeaway of what makes for a great sex scene (not “sizzling” – that was Beth’s ad copy). Put simply, it arises (oo-er missus) through good writing: like any scene, it should reveal character and move the story forward. It needs drama, or at least subtext, so what is actually going on is more than what appears to be going on. Characters and relationships should be different to what they were before and what they would have been without the sex.
Mentions were made of good sex served up by several women writers: Monique Roffey, Louise Doughty, Sally Rooney and more. I should have thrown Ian McEwan into the orgy.
Me, I’m writing a historical adventure. It has sex, and it has fighting. The Saxons did both like there was no tomorrow, up until 1066 when there wasn’t. I thought, change the terminology, and Beth’s teachings can be applied equally to conflict. She gave two workshops for the price of one.
Beth Miller is author of five novels and two non fiction books (one on Shakespeare, the other on The Archers). She says that some of her books are quite sexy. I hope these don’t include the Archers one. She is a very funny writer, and I’m sure that does include the Archers one. www.bethmiller.co.uk.