How to Write About Sex

by Sarah Creech

Good sex in fiction relies on powerful description skills, but what makes it “good” has much more to do with character and conflict than the sensory experience of sex on the page as mere titillation. Sex is always a power dynamic in story with various parties claiming power by different methods and for different reasons. Good sex functions as character development and deepens a character’s psychological richness on the page. Good sex creates subtext and interiority in a story.

Bad sex in fiction ignores all of these important elements of craft and instead focuses on description for description’s sake. Often that description is overwrought or straining for the visual as a stand-in for real yearning and complex desire. Each year, the Literary Review announces its Bad Sex in Fiction award to draw attention to the cliché ways sex is sometimes presented in story. More specifically, “The purpose of the prize is to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.” (Check out some recent award winners and see if you can spot any reasons for why those particular works were chosen for so dubious an honor.)

But all jokes aside: sex in fiction is a very serious craft concern for storytellers. When and how to invite the reader’s mind onto the page to participate in the imaginary work of scene building is critical. Not all sex is romantic or erotic. Some sex is taboo, violent, without consent. A writer handles difficult material through skillful craft choices.

Sarah Creech is the author of two novels, Season of the Dragonflies and The Whole Way Home. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in various publications, including The Cortland Review, Writer’sDigest. com, StorySouth, and Literary Mama. She lives in North Carolina with her husband and children and teaches at Queens University of Charlotte.

Learn From Sarah: Want to write great sex scenes that don’t just titillate the reader but also reveal character and complicate the plot? Join us for “Sex (How to Write About it Well)” at Charlotte Lit, Thursday, September 29, from 6:00 to 8:00 pm. In this course we will study the best strategies to create good tension in a sex scene and learn to avoid the techniques that might get you nominated for the infamous Bad Sex in Fiction award.  Learn more and register here.