Eventually most writers will have to decide whether or to include sex scenes in their books, and if so, how to handle them. Sex scenes can be incredibly difficult to write well, to the point that while good ones can add chemistry and passion to an on-page pairing, terrible ones can ruin an otherwise good book.
Sex scenes or not?
Not all books need sex scenes, or even romance at all. A reader is just as capable of getting involved in a well written platonic friendship as in a romance, and most readers would prefer a well written friendship to a poorly written romance. Even the writer who does choose a romantic sub-plot, or even a romantic main plot, does not need to include the deed itself. Authors who feel uncomfortable or unable to write a gripping sex scene might consider writing a sweet romance. Also consider — are the characters in question underage? Harry Potter, for instance, includes romance, but considering the age of the characters and the target audience, actual sex scenes would have been in poor taste. As a rule, Middle Grades books should be sex-free, while Young Adult books run the gamut, with more chaste romances found in books like Yes, No, Maybe So, by Becky Albertalli and Aisha Saeed, or The Betrothed, by Kiera Cass. In those books the couples in question share kisses, but nothing much beyond that, aside from, of course, lots of mutual longing and angst.
The middle-ground: fade to black
“Fade to black” is a technique that borrows its name from cinematography, when the camera would cut away from a couple, or literally, fade to black, before a sex scene as a chance to get explicit. In writing, fade to black can include details of foreplay — kissing, touching, with the action usually staying above the waist — but will generally stop short of penetration or description of body parts below the waist. Many writers skillfully employ fade to black as a way to imply the sex act without having to write more graphic descriptions. Many YA and adult authors use fade to black as a sort of middle-ground. Holly Black’s Folk of the Air books for the most part have fade to black sex scenes, as does the Graceling series by Kristin Chashore. In adult fantasy Juliet Marillier and Robin McKinley both write great love stories and sex scenes that are either fade to black, or low on detail. Keep in mind that a fade to black sex scene does not have mean that it was written for your grandmother. Many authors subscribe to the less is more philosophy when it comes to sex, revealing just enough detail to excite the reader’s imagination, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps according to their own preference. Fade to black sex scenes should be treated as any other sex scenes, and if you want the scene to be sexy, rules of consent should apply. A person being forced or coerced into sex is not appealing outside of specific kink communities, and if you’re writing for those, you’ll know it.
Finally, if you’ve decided to write a sex scene, you might decide to go for broke and make it explicit. Perhaps your book has a grittier setting, and the sex scenes are not meant to be pleasant, in which case brutal detail can bring home the cruelty of the act. Perhaps you do intend for the sex scenes to be sexy and romantic, and believe the more detail, the hotter the scene. Detailed sex scenes can be hot and passionate, but they can also quickly verge into cringe territory when writers try to get overly creative with their euphemisms. What reader of A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t remember Martin’s “fat pink mast” or “Myrish swamp?” Or Sarah J. Maas’ description in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series of her male lead’s “velvet wrapped steel?” There is something about sex scenes that turns authors all of a sudden into aspiring poets, and a cock is no longer just a cock.
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, praised by many to have some of the best sex scenes in fiction, says in a blog post “A good sex scene is about the exchange of emotions, not bodily fluids,” and goes on to elaborate that this can mean any emotion — not just love, but anger, sadness, tenderness, surprise, boredom, anything. She suggests that one of the most efficient ways to accomplish the exchange of emotions is through dialogue, so rather than describing a play by play of body parts, who put what where, your characters should speak to each other, talking through the sex scenes. Perhaps they talk about the act itself “tell me how much you want me” (and the benefit of your characters talking it through is that the consent is explicit) or perhaps they speak about their feelings for each other, or perhaps they use metaphor to talk around important issues.
Actions can also accomplish something similar. Does character A reach up and touch character B’s face during the act? Does he rake his nails down his partner’s back? Actions can express emotions too. Most readers do not care how large your character’s member is, or how pink another character’s nipples are. The details are matter are the details that anchor the sex act to the story emotionally. Painting a complete visual picture is less important to writing a compelling sex scene than is connecting the characters to the acts through their emotional reactions to the action.
Regardless of whether you choose to write fade to black or no sex scenes, of course make sure that you do not glorify rape or non consensual sex, and be extremely careful when depicting underage characters having sex. A rule of thumb is that teenagers having sex with other teenagers is generally acceptable and can be written in a healthy way, but teenagers having sex with a 500 year old immortal vampires is unhealthy and problematic. If you want to write problematic sex scenes — sex between the lord of the manor and a servant, for instance — make sure that you depict it as problematic.
Sex scenes can be a lot of fun, and certainly writers should not shy away from sex if they feel comfortable writing, but nor should a writer feel obligated to include sex scenes. However, if you do choose to take on detailed sex scenes, write with care, because while a good sex scene rarely makes or breaks a book, a cringey one, or worse, a problematic one, can easily poison the well of what is otherwise a good book.