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.”


  • 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!


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!