Writer Wednesday: On Writing Sex with Joely Sue Burkhart

Joely Sue Burkhart

Please welcome Joely Sue Burkhart as she tackles a rather difficult subject for some of us–writing sex scenes.

Joely always has her nose buried in a book, especially one with mythology, fairy tales, and romance. She, her husband, and their three monsters live in Missouri. By day, she’s a computer programmer with a Masters of Science degree in Mathematics. When night falls, she bespells the monsters so she can write. Find her on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and check out Scribd for free reads!

~*~

On Writing Sex

by Joely Sue Burkhart

Thank you, Tia, for inviting me to talk about writing sex for today’s Writer Wednesday.

How many of you feel squeamish at the thought of getting your characters nekkid? Are you trying to write hotter or more erotic? Or are your characters begging for the chance to get intimate on the page but the scene is like pulling teeth?

As writers, one of the worst things we can hear is a reader who confesses she skipped a few pages or an entire scene in our books. *wince* According to a poll ran over on Dear Author not too long ago, there are quite a few readers who often skip the sex scenes in a book, and not just non-romance readers reading a romance.

If we’re doing our job as writers – making every single scene count and moving the story forward in a significant way – then there’s no way a reader could ever skip a scene, even a sex scene, without missing something crucial.

I’m not going to get into whether or not your story should or should not close the door. The level of intimacy you write is totally up to you. This also isn’t a workshop on how to write hot sex for the sole purpose of arousal. However, if you write a sex scene to deepen characterization, really dig into the whys and emotions, then the scene will not only get hotter, it will also become un-skippable.

So how do we write sex scenes that are so powerful and meaningful that a reader can’t not read them? Is it language? Eroticism? Sensory inputs? What’s the key?

Write transformative sex scenes.

Transformation Implies Change

A good story begins with a protagonist who changes throughout the story. There’s not just an external goal, but also an internal goal/need that may be even more frightening an undertaking to achieve. The success of the external goal should hinge on whether or not the protagonist can heal whatever internal conflict she’s been battling throughout the story. In short, I’m talking about a Hero’s Journey, and one of my favorite characterization tools is the Emotional Toolbox.

A protagonist on a Hero’s Journey has a want that drives her early story goal. However, she has a deep inner need that she may not even be aware of in in the beginning. Fearful of this need, she wears a mask to hide this vulnerability. Our job as writers is to slowly pull that mask away to reveal the true character beneath.

So why should it be any different in one of the most intimate and vulnerable acts a human can commit?

Sex is a Hero’s Journey

If you’re concentrating on the anatomy in a sex scene, then you may very well end up writing a scene that readers will skip in disgust or boredom. We all know the act and the terminology; it’s not the ACT that we need to concentrate on. As you approach a sex scene, think about the stages of a Hero’s Journey.

  • What does the character WANT? I’m not talking about body parts here: how great she looks in a bikini or how his abs are so lickable. I’m talking about deep emotional wants. Are they achingly alone? Or they furious and feel the need to lash out? Do they want to forget the danger just for awhile? Or has this sweet longing been building slowly over time until he just can’t wait any longer?
  • What does the character NEED? I’m not talking lust here. I’m talking about deep psychological needs. Maybe she needs to feel accepted for who she is. Maybe he needs to trust another living person. This need is centered around FEAR and makes them feel vulnerable and scared.
  • How could this FEAR make them back out of intimacy? Because your job as the writer is to force the character to slowly take off that mask, for his partner and for the reader.

Look, I’ll admit it: I’ve written several works that are considered “erotic” but I still blush when my characters use certain words. Yet I’ve also been told that my non-erotic works are just as sensual. A truly sensual sex scene really doesn’t have much to do with the potty words you may or may not choose to use, but everything to do with the character’s feelings, especially fear. That might seem strange to you as you think about writing sex, but think about it. In the wild, the sexual act can be a very dangerous undertaking. You’re exposed and vulnerable. You have to trust someone enough to let them close to your most tender spots…and I’m not talking genitals necessarily, but throat and underbelly – life or death!

If you write sex scenes with the Hero’s Journey in mind, then the character will CHANGE throughout the scene. New layers of characterization will be revealed as you force him to remove the mask. I dare a reader to skip that kind of scene!

Writing Transformative Sex

Here are a few questions you might ask your character in order to write more moving and crucial sex scenes.

  • When it comes to intimacy, what do you need?
  • What’s the worst thing you think you might need?
  • What sexual limits are you intimidated or challenged by?
  • What can you lose or gain if you have sex with this character?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice in order to get close to this character?
  • What emotional scars do you still carry from previous intimate relationships?
  • What fear is keeping you from knowing this person?
  • How will intimacy with this person force you to face this fear?

Excerpt from The Bloodgate Guardian

This book is very different from my other work, and the romance is not front and center. In fact, there’s only one full sex scene and it doesn’t happen until about two-thirds of the way through the book. However, it’s a crucial turning point for the characters. Ruin, the hero, should have already killed the heroine, Jaid, instead of letting her get this close to him. In some ways, she’s using him to help her father, but at least she’s honest about it. They’re chased by horrible demons and there’s no hope at all for tomorrow, for the entire world. Yet they can have one precious night together.

He dipped his head and nuzzled her neck. Slow and gentle, he kissed a path up to her ear, where he lingered, breathing warm and moist, his lips soft against her. “You saw me die.”

She shuddered, her heart clenching with dread at the image of his powerful body crumpled on the floor at the compound with a bloody dent in his skull. “And you always come back.”

“Not always. Someday, I will die the final death. I already fear our connection. If I die, I may drag you to the White Road as well. If we make love, the spirit bond will only grow stronger. I would not cause you suffering, lady.”

She pulled back slightly and looked into his eyes. “Say my name.”

His stark face was as hard as the chiseled rock of the stelae guardposts of his dead city. “For the first time in hundreds of years, I find myself unable to pray for an end to my duty as Gatekeeper. I don’t want to die this time. I don’t want to miss one moment of this life with you, Jaid.”

Such vulnerability trembled in his words. She knew what his heart had cost him in the past. Throat aching, she couldn’t promise she wouldn’t drive him to break his duty, either. Not when her father was trapped in hell and innocents were slaughtered to demons, all because of her research. “I can’t leave my father in Xibalba if there’s any hope that he’s still alive.”

Ruin sighed soft and low, his breath a whisper against her cheek. “I know. I said I would help you, did I not?”

Guilt suffocated her. “I don’t want you to suffer, either. I don’t want to put you in the same position as your brother.”

The sudden white flash of his smile stunned her. “I assure you, I never had this position with my brother.”

She laughed, he smiled, and some of the regret and tension bled away, leaving only the glide of skin, the heated press of his body, and rising desire. She needed to touch him and feel his hands on her skin. For a little while, they could forget the horrors of demons. She didn’t have to worry about Venus Star and her lost father.

This man had already opened her up and stared into her darkest self. Ruin stood at the top of his pyramid, dripping blood from her heart clutched in his hand, volcanoes rumbling and Lake Atitlan surging like a tsunami behind him. She felt new-made, as though Dr. Jaid Merritt had jumped into the lake and some other woman had emerged in the Sacred Cenote. A woman who shivered and moaned at the thought of this untamed, powerful man sinking into her.

Her breath came short and fast. Rising up on her knees, she took him into her body. He groaned harshly, his hands convulsing on her back.

“I’m doubly cursed now,” he said, his eyes glittering eerily, his voice rumbling with jaguar tones, “because I don’t wish to part from you. Ever.”

Notes:

  • Not a single potty word or reference to genitalia.
  • Fears and needs that have nothing to do with lust but are just as compelling.
  • Consequences and stakes.
  • Unexpected bits of humor to lighten the heaviness. Sex should be fun too!

Resources

Some links you may find useful.

~*~

Read excerpts of The Bloodgate Guardian Chapter One (pdf) and Chapter Two or purchase at Carina Press.

Let’s loosen the rules a bit.

  • Please limit your excerpts to 500 words (or thereabouts–I won’t count),
  • Please stay within the conversation thread by clicking the “Reply” link on the comment to  which  you are replying,
  • Please post feedback and excerpts separately for e easier reading.

Joely will be available all day, so fire away with your excerpts and questions!

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23 thoughts on “Writer Wednesday: On Writing Sex with Joely Sue Burkhart

  1. Tia Nevitt

    That was a very good choice of a sex scene to illustrate your points.

    I have a confession to make about SURVIVE MY FIRE. At first, I DID skim over the sex scene. But then, when I tried to start reading the next scene, I thought, “Oh no! I missed something!” and I had to go back and read it. So your technique really worked! And I obviously have no hard feelings about being roped into reading your sex scene because I loved that story!

  2. Great job! As a book reviewer, I’ll add two things, which I don’t *think* you hit on.

    1) Don’t write hotter than your comfort level. It will show and come off as stupid and awkward. You’ll be lucky if the reader only groans and skips it. She may very well scream, throw it against the wall, and tell her friends not to bother reading (buying) any of your books ever again.

    2) Know your readership and write for them. Here’s a guest I wrote to help with that.

    http://www.romancingtheblog.com/blog/2009/09/20/why-some-readers-hate-graphic-sex-scenes

    1. Chicory

      I like rule one, especially since I’m one of those people who starts skipping when things get too graphic. 🙂

      1. Totally understand, Chicory. Everyone has their own taste and comfort level. I’ve skipped scenes too that were all anatomy and nothing about feelings. It’s the emotion that matters to me, not how graphic the scene is!

    2. Kimber An,

      Thanks for sharing the link and thank you for being so sympathetic to people (like me) who don’t like graphic sex scenes. Part of it is just personality (I get embarrassed!), part of it is religious and part of it is that most sex scenes don’t do a thing for plot development or characterization. Me, I prefer a fadeout to black. 😀

      1. Fadeout to black is an excellent option for many writers and readers. Using the questions listed above can still help deepen motivations and fears to worsen the conflict and highten the attraction.

  3. Tia, ha, you sneak! But that does prove the point and makes me beam with pleasure because that was my hope and goal.

    Kimber, great points. It is soooo obvious when a writer is going “hot” and they’re not comfortable with it. That’s why I think more transformative elements — than potty words or “pushing the envelope” — can help make a more sensual scene that is powerful. Very true about the readers too. Not all readers will like or read the same things, including heat level or violence. Some readers won’t read a book by an author EVER AGAIN if an animal is injured or killed. Writing is a Hero’s Journey too, and each person has to find their own way, their own story, and grow along that path.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is concentrating on the transformation and the Hero’s Journey aspect can make ANY sex scene more emotional, even if you’re just shutting the door.

  4. I’ve never had the need to write a sex scene before (I wrote a rape scene once, but I don’t think that counts), but the concepts you’ve touched on here really apply to scenes with any level of sensuality–kiss scenes, ect. My philosophy has always been that characters must have a multi-layered reason for anything they do, and that includes kiss and sex scenes. Nice article!

  5. Thanks, superwench! Definitely true: WHY is one of the most important questions we ask a character. Why are they afraid, why do they want to kiss, why do they want to … you name it. It’s the deep, underlying motivations that will make characterization rich and believable.

  6. Chicory

    Okay. Gathering up my courage. Here is a scene from -not exactly my WIP. It’s more of a possible future story with those characters. After Blanche and Nato get married, Nato is blackmailed into taking the blame for a crime he didn’t commit, and gets banished. This is a scene where he’s just returned secretly to the city to see his wife.

    “Nato.” My lips felt numb. Nato said nothing; he just stared at me from across the room. His hands were shaking.
    I should have been overwhelmed but I felt calm. My fingertips tingled as if they’d fallen asleep.
    Why didn’t Nato say something?
    Then he was no longer across the room; he was close enough to touch. Had I moved, or had he? My fists were buried in his shirt.
    Clutching my husband’s shirt did nothing to prove I was not hallucinating. I undid the buttons. My hands were clumsy and several buttons ripped free before I got his shirt open and slipped my arms underneath.
    He was shaking. He didn’t wrap his arms around me, didn’t touch me. I think he was afraid to.
    “I’m sorry. Blanche I’m sorry, I’m sorry-” the words were raw as if saying them ripped his throat. I stopped them with a kiss.
    Warm drops landed on my cheek. “Don’t.” I caught the next tear before it fell. “You needn’t apologize for protecting me.”
    “I hurt you real bad.”
    I drew back a little, enough to look him in the eye. “You should have told me the truth.”
    “You’d of tried to stop me.”
    He was right. I would have. I leaned against his chest. “Don’t ever lie to me like that again.”
    Nato drew a deep, shuttering breath. His hand traveled to the small of my back. “There was times, specially when I as just half awake, I could feel you there beside me. So long as i didn’t open me eye, so long as I didn’t reach out, you was right there.” He fumbled with the fastenings on the back of my gown. I let go of him long enough to slip it off.
    There was no bed in the garret, only a straw pallet that smelled like dried grass and sunlight. Stubble poked my back, but I didn’t mind. The numbness was gone. I felt Nato’s hands warm against my skin, the roughness of his calluses, the way his lips formed the words `I love you’ into his kisses.
    Words I’d never said to him.
    It wasn’t just cowardice. My highest duty was to my kingdom. No man -not even my husband- could be allowed to outweigh the well being of those who depended on my judgement. If I ever had to choose between them-
    The kingdom wasn’t the one here holding me, kissing me. History would make no footnote if I admitted -just this once-
    “I- Nato I love you.”
    He didn’t try to answer with words. He didn’t need to.

    1. Way to go, Chicory! You’ve got some incredible emotion going here. You also have deep internal conflict between loving her husband and her duty to the kingdom. I loved the touch of his tears, too. Great job!

      1. Chicory

        Wow. Thanks. It surprised me how nervous I got posting this, even here among friends. It’s probably even more nervous and giddy for you, when you to see your books on the shelves and wonder how the readers will react.

    2. Tia Nevitt

      I agree–this is very well done and the tears were unexpected and powerful, even though I had already seen Joely’s comment.

  7. Tia Nevitt

    Ugh! I’m having a hard time finding a sex scene short enough to post! I’ll go with one from Forging a Legend. I’m over word count here. Sorry. Feel free to flout the rules as I did.

    This occurs the night before Abriel is to face a god in combat. Yevin Tavos is her second and her trainer. She basically takes him to her bed because he is convenient and willing. I use terms like “manhood” and “womanhood” to evoke an ancient-world mood.

    She leaned into his kiss. His lips met hers and soon dissolved away to tongue. His mouth tasted of the wine. She drank of it deeply.

    She felt an ache deep in her pelvis. Their breathing quickened. He placed one hand behind her neck, and reached with the other inside her epilures to caress an unbound nipple. Abriel found his boldness breathtaking and wildly exciting. She could think of no reason to stop him. He found her attractive. She found him attractive. Neither had any attachments to anyone else. She was unlikely to become suddenly fertile.

    She might die tomorrow.

    Thoughts of Danor intruded. She forced them out of her mind. She had no future with Danor. And Tavos kissed nothing like Danor. He kissed with an almost brutal passion, which Abriel welcomed.

    His hand moved down her stomach to her wrap and pushed its way inside. The wrap was tight; he could do no more than slip his fingers in at the waist. She longed for his hand to move lower. Her own hand wandered up his thigh and rested on his manhood.

    He stood up and drew her to her feet. She took a candle in one hand and his hand in the other, and led him into the bedroom. She moved toward the bed, but turned when he drew her in a different direction. With a stab of excitement, she realized that he intended to go into the bath.

    Once there, he barred all the doors while she lit the torches from the candle.
    They stood facing each other. He pushed off her epilures, loosened her wrap. It all fell in a circle at her feet. She could almost feel his eyes skim over her body. He reached out and stroked the curve of her breast. Then, he began to remove his own garments. She found his form pleasing: athletic without being too muscled, lean without being too slender.

    He reached for her, but she stepped backwards into the pool. He followed her, his eyes predatory. She walked backward across the pool and he waded after her. She enjoyed the slow chase. Finally, she reached the pool’s deepest point, near the rear wall. The waters lapped at her breasts.

    She stepped forward, brushing her breasts on his chest, ending the chase. His eyes looked feral in the torchlight. He reached down, grasped her thighs, pulled them up around him. She slid her hands along his arms, to his shoulders.

    Their bodies joined there in the warm waters of the bathing pool, their movements pushing rhythmic laps of water over the edge and onto the sloped floor of the bathing room. He pressed her against the tiles of the wall, grasping her around the back of her thighs with a touch that was neither gentle nor rough. She held onto his shoulders and straddled his hips. A moan escaped her lips with each lap of the water.

    Her husband had never taken any time for her pleasure. Early in their marriage, he had been impatient with her inexperience; later, he had been impatient for a son. She occasionally felt some pleasure in their sex act, but it was through no efforts on his behalf. And even later, when they no longer had any relations at all, she had remained true to her marriage vow.

    Now, as she took true pleasure in a man for the first time, she wept tears that mingled with the waters. It should have been Danor, she kept thinking.

    But it is not Danor, she finally told herself. And the man that she rode, even though he was not who she wanted him to be, was a considerate lover, holding back himself for her. She buried her head against his wet shoulder and her breath sounded loud and ragged against the water.

    1. Chicory

      This is really sad. (I mean that in a good way.) It makes me curious about whether she and Danor get their problems straitened out, whether she even still wants to after this, whether Danor even knows they have problems, how this is going to affect her future relationship with her trainer… I like the old-world feel. The setting seems very Greek. (At least that’s what I’m picturing. Especially with the sunken bath.)

      1. Tia Nevitt

        I’m thrilled that you thought it felt Greek because I was going for a Greco-Roman sort of setting. With dark-skinned characters. Thanks for the feedback!

    2. Tia, it definitely has an old world feel, and her tears at the end are so real and moving. Great job!

  8. Tia Nevitt

    Ok, my comment problem is now fixed. I had to deactivate MailPress.

  9. Tia, thanks for having me today! I hope it was helpful for everyone.

    1. Tia Nevitt

      Thank YOU, Joely. I’ll certainly be referring back to this post the next time I have to write a sex scene!

    2. Yes, your post and the comments are helpful here. Thanks. {Smile}

      Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  10. […] of description, dialogue, and character experience here.   And, as Tia Nevitt points out in her post, don’t be afraid to crack a joke or two.  My favorite parts of the scenes I write are not […]

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