Wails from the Script, How Do You write Sex Scenes?

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WARNING: Content contains links to NSFW material

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon and Fifty Shades Darker in theaters this weekend, we decided to ask ourselves a few delicate questions…

How do you approach sex scenes in your writing? Do you avoid the subject altogether? Are they necessary? When should they be used? At some point in your writing life, you may have to take on writing sex scenes. And unless you’re a seasoned pro on the topic, diving right in can be problematic. I should say right now that there will no doubt be a lot of unintended puns. You’re certainly welcome to read this article in the mindset of a 14-year-old-boy.

Togetherness: Brett and Michelle discover just how broken things are. Photo Courtesy: HBO

Writing sex scenes is tricky even for the heavyweights. One false move and you might as well insert a laugh track or crickets SFX. Unless that is your goal. Why is so difficult to get it right?

“Sex is both something deeply intimate and personal and at the same time something that society and culture has built up a lot of significance, meaning and morality around, meaning that there is a lot to balance,” according to TV Tropes. Also, unless the sex advances the story or reveals something about a character or is the centerpiece, sex can seem clunky, fake, distracting, or even tacked on. Disastrously, it can be humorous when not intended to be. Onscreen sex is a sticky wicket. Ahem.

For me, less is more. A conversation, a nuanced line, or a light touch can be a lot more sensual than the old kiss and strip. BTW, does anyone actually do that in real life? For years, I’ve watched people slam their faces together onscreen and then try to undress as they flail across the room like a drunk octopus trying to hot wire a Vespa and usually, it just makes me laugh. Am I the only one? But I digress.

Outlander: Anne Kenney wrote the fan favorite scene for “The Wedding” Director Anne Foerster added the female gaze move creating one of the show’s best scenes. Photo Courtesy: Starz

A slow burn is also nice. Makes for a satisfying sex scene when it eventually happens, even if the sex is awkward, disastrous, and funny. And real. Real in the sense that sex can reveal something more about the characters. Sex often times is not about sex.

In an episode of Togetherness (“Houston, We Have a Problem”) writers Jay and Mark Duplass and Steve Zissis (who plays Alex on the show) use a sex scene between Brett (Mark Duplass) and Michelle (Melanie Lynskey) to bring their marriage problems to a head. The script navigates the complicated waters of a marriage on the rocks, headed for doom, full of depressing mirth. It’s a masterful piece of writing.

I also like a little mystery. What’s not shown is way more sexier than a full-on rodeo complete with circus clowns and requisite car. The couple talks, things are said, someone makes a move, cut to the after shot. Post coital vaping optional. Or simply never show the sex but have the pair (trio or group, the math is up to you) reference it later. People like to use their imaginations. Graphic sex scenes are like showing the monster. Once you’ve seen it, well, the thrill is diminished. See, told you could read this article as a 14-year-old boy.

We can’t show you the motorboat scene from Girls but you can follow the link. Too far? Silly? Bold? Photo Courtesy: HBO

When sex is written well, it can be quite powerful. Diana Gabaldon has made a successful career writing about sex, intimacy, and all of the levels of human sexuality in her wildly popular book series, Outlander. Oh, and there’s a ton of history and some magic in there too.

Bringing the books to screen could have been a fumble, but showrunner and executive producer Ronald D. Moore has not let fans down. Mainly, because he listened to the author and the voices around him. Many of them women.

Moore is absolutely rabid about getting the sex scenes right. He urged his writers to find a new level. “We’re not doing TV sex. TV sex is not real sex. No one has sex like that.’ And they would all laugh and say, ‘Yeah, that’s true. So what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Just do it like the real deal,’ ” Moore explained to Variety.

His approach was to find the reasons for the scene to exist. “Why are we going to do this? What’s the story reason? What’s the character reason?” Moore says. “It’s not just about getting to see them naked again, because we’ve seen them naked, and they’re hot. We get it.”

Fifty Shades of Grey got flogged by critics but did it deliver for the audience? Photo Courtesy: Focus Features

Outlander producer and writer Anne Kenney wrote the episode “The Wedding” where the young Scotsman, Jamie, loses is virginity on his wedding night to wife Claire (Caitriona Balfe). Kenney said that Gabaldon’s books gave her a wealth of explicit material to work from, but she approached the scene from another direction. “Still, it wasn’t a conscious choice on my behalf to sit down and write this hot sex scene. It happened more organically. This was a scene written by a woman (Gabaldon), adapted by a woman (Kenney) and directed by a woman (Anna Foerster). When women are in positions to make decisions and choices behind-the-scenes, you will often get to see something a little different on-screen,” Kenney explained.

The scene was a huge hit with both book and screen fans. Just google “Jamie Fraser’s butt gifs” and you’ll find out. Aye, you’re welcome, Sassenach.

Bridesmaids: This is about my speed when it comes to writing sex scenes. Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures

When it comes to sex, no creator and writer is more different than Lena Dunham. Girls pretty much blows the lid off of TV sex, with varying results. Some say her approach is bold. Others think Dunham is simply out to shock.

It’s hard to choose which scene stands out the most, but probably one of the most over the top comes from season 4 (“Iowa”) and involved Marnie (Allison Williams) getting motorboated from behind by her boyfriend Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach). The reactions ran the gamut from shock to disgust to downright boredom.

Many thought the scene, written by Dunham and executive producer Judd Apatow, was unnecessary. Jezebel writer Anna Merlan said, “Counterpoint: that butt scene looked bad, dumb, and desperately unfun and unsexy.”

Apatow explained Dunham’s goals regarding sex for the show. “From the beginning, we were aware that what we were doing was sexually provocative, and that’s what made it interesting and new and fun. Lena wanted to reveal something that is normally hidden — so often you’re not talking about a giant part of most people’s lives because people don’t want to portray it on film — and that opened up tons of stories that you’re usually not able to tell.” In fact, one scene the pair wrote was so explicit, even HBO had to draw the line. Now that’s saying something.

Compared to Girls, the Fifty Shades of Grey series seems rather tame. Or lame. Depending upon whom you ask. Many felt the screen version was just as silly as the first book. A good many others enjoyed the adaptation. It made $571 million at the box office.

For those who thought the first film was more One Shade of Beige, that could be attributed to the many clashes between director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author E.L. James. Taylor-Johnson wanted to take a more subtle approach, one that actors Dakota Johnson (Anastasia Steele) and Jamie Dornan (Christian Grey) preferred while James pressed for more sex, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Fifty Shades Darker: Who likes elevators? Photo Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Shades screenwriter Kelly Marcel certainly didn’t enjoy her experience. She had the daunting task of adapting a book with record-breaking sales and an international following to screen. “I very much wanted to do something different with the screenplay, and when I spoke to the studio and the producers and made that quite clear, they were very enthusiastic about that and loved the things I wanted to do,” Marcel told Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast, as reported by Vulture. “When I delivered that script was when I realized that all of them saying, ‘Yeah, absolutely this is what we want!,’ and, ‘You can write anything you like and get crazy and artistic with it’ — that was utter, utter bullsh*t.”

Marcel’s script might have saved the film from scathing reviews. “I didn’t want the story to be linear; I wanted it to begin at the end of the film, and for us to meet in the middle. So you start with the spanking, and you have these sort of flashes that go throughout the film. … I wanted to take the inner goddess out, and all of Ana’s inner monologue. … I wanted to remove a lot of the dialogue. I felt it could be a really sexy film if there wasn’t so much talking in it.” Yep and amen. Less talking in this case may have been the key. Also, the inner goddess dialogue from the books? Yeesh.

Marcel has yet to see the film. Perhaps Fifty Shades Darker, written by Niall Leonard and E.L. James’s husband, will fare better.

A friend and I were talking about sex scenes and I realized that to date, I had written exactly two and both were awkward and funny, mostly in the style of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None where no one is really sexy and the possibility of getting popped in the head or pulling something was more probable than onscreen steam. I did a riff on the whole strip and kiss thing as well. My writing sensibility of onscreen sex is more Sleeper and Bridesmaids than Y Tu Mamá También.

Aziz Ansari’s Master of None’s secret weapon? Realness and orgasm jokes. Photo Courtesy: Netflix

But maybe it’s time to write a few scenes as a challenge. My friend said he sometimes read fanfiction to get a general idea of tastes and he says he’s learned a lot from fanfic writers. I thought that was kind of strange, a little voyeuristic, but I’m a person who likes to try new techniques. So… I went on Tumblr, found a random fandom and was quite surprised as how astute and superb these writers are. I recommend it. But… I should warn you, if you are easily offended, the fanfic world may not be for you. Some of it is OUT THERE. Fanfic could either fire up your motorboat or sink it.

Interestingly, E.L. James got her start in fanfic. Specifically Twilight fanfic under the name Snowqueens Icedragon. Her writing has been dissed by many critics, but you can’t argue with over 100 million books sold, a net worth of $50 million, and the magical power of taking erotic fiction mainstream. Can you?

What’s your approach to sex and intimacy? Are you more a star filter fade to black after 6 seconds of kissing kind of writer? Or are you pushing the boundaries such as Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volumes I and II? Or just leaving it out all together. Please share any thoughts, tips, tricks, reactions, or snark.

author-avatar

Lisa Waugh worked her way through six years of a state college and then decided to work only one job in radio as opposed to three to get a degree that would help her land a job in… radio. She then moved onto TV news, then cable news, and then a fun-filled place that made cartoons. There was a ghost involved. She’s been paying the bills as a writer for over two decades. Screenwriting, copywriting, script doctoring, tons of web content for startups that are digital dust by now, joke writing, and a lot of entertainment writing, mostly about TV. She loves writers and wants to see them succeed because writers rock.

16 Replies to "Wails from the Script, How Do You write Sex Scenes?"

  • comment-avatar
    Sean Martin February 11, 2017 (6:56 am)

    I find it amusing to no end that people will accept a straight couple or a lesbian couple having sex onscreen with virtually no problem — but two guys? OMIGOD! IT’S THE END TIMES!!! I still find it amazing that one episode of a 1980s TV series called THIRTY SOMETHING will never be seen again simply because it had two guys talking in bed.

    Yep, we’re all so enlightened…..

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 11, 2017 (12:49 pm)

      I remember that episode! Agree with you, Sean. I thought the writing and handling of sex and intimacy on HBO’s Looking was done quite well. Too bad it got canceled.

  • comment-avatar
    Franklin Sollars February 11, 2017 (7:05 am)

    Thanks for the help. I think I just avoid the sex scene being afraid to botch it. I have been told by reviewers I don’t know how women talk. I watch and listen to women but translating that to script seems difficult. Any further tips?

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 11, 2017 (12:53 pm)

      I’d have to see those reviews but women talk and think in many and unique ways. Who’s to say that you got it wrong? I’ve also recorded conversations sitting with friends and then wrote exchanges into scripts verbatim with a little tweaking. Anyone else have some ideas for Franklin?

      • comment-avatar
        Pia February 12, 2017 (4:57 am)

        I dont think women and men talk very differently, talk depends more on age, education and location. So if the reveiews said it was unnatural maybe next time try to have them speak more like yourself Franklin.

        • comment-avatar
          Lisa Waugh February 12, 2017 (5:27 pm)

          Great advice, Pia. Thank you.

  • comment-avatar
    Elizabeth February 11, 2017 (8:29 am)

    Have to admit that I didn’t even want to read this but felt compelled to because I’m writing an adaptation from novel to script and it has a few explicit sex scenes. This is the second such project for me and they have both been troublesome, as they’re not books that I would have chosen for myself in the first place. However, the information in this article is spot-on in my opinion and is essentially the way I chose to create the scenes in the scripts. I fell a little better now as I work my way through the second novel. Thanks!

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 11, 2017 (12:54 pm)

      I’m glad you read it, Elizabeth, and that it was helpful. I’m certainly no sex scene expert but I’m glad we’re having a conversation about it. My sex scenes end up being very awkward. Which probably says a lot about me. Hehehe.

  • comment-avatar
    York February 11, 2017 (10:31 am)

    The two sex scenes I wrote for my New Zealand 1935-40 period screenplay “Kitty” were integral to the theme. An attractive widow of 40, successfully sues a younger wealthy man she fell in love with, for breech of promise to marry, in a male-dominated society, causing a scandal. In true “show-don’t-tell” fashion, they had to go to bed together. Both sex scenes were I think tasteful and portraying the expected morals and habits of the time, except Kitty, the experienced one, took charge, as all good protagonists should.

    In my “Frances Loves Oscar (Wilde),” the heroine Frances had to shed her dress, shoes, stockings, camisole, corset and panties in an outdoors setting, watched by Oscar and a black squirrel. It’s a natural for the audience to laugh, but should be played straight. Again it helps portray the 1880-84 period, not just that they coupled, but the morals, inhibitions and clothing of the period, again stopping at a crucial point, to tease rather than be pornographic.

    I agree with the author here, that sex should not be shown gratuitously for sex sake, but rather be integral to portraying characterization, furthering the plot and building the world/time of the story.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 11, 2017 (12:55 pm)

      Here here! Well said.

  • comment-avatar
    CY February 11, 2017 (11:25 am)

    I’ve never had a problem writing sex scenes. But then, I’ve always had a good reason for them being there and they always reveal significant clues about the characters. It just seems logical to me that they are obligatory, but must be organic to the story. Sex scenes are not about sex – they’re about characters.

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 11, 2017 (12:55 pm)

      Totally agree.

  • comment-avatar
    Keith Crosby February 11, 2017 (3:38 pm)

    Like the article said sex is where it’s needed and for me how it’s needed. What kind of sex, what kind of story .

  • comment-avatar
    Senate Ewah February 12, 2017 (2:31 am)

    Sex scenes: MAD!!! By the way. To frank. As a realist, I’d learn to listening to everyday conversation, to pick out natural impulses , slugs, pace, tempo and other verbal nuance. So, I’d figured out “real” dialogue is created by motivations (character’s inhibition and ambition). A good character bible helps solve that.
    #Sexonscreen Mad!!! Well, It depends on your style of writing, a realist, idealist, naturalist, surrealist, expressionist, absurdist, existentialist and other forms blended with chosen genre ( romcom, Action, thriller… ). As creatives, It is so true that our personal life styles sometimes reflect on our works, especially in handling or interpreting sex scenes. Personally, the arts of ” love making” tells and shares the spine of this obligatory scene, if it is. If not driven by plot or characterisation – I don’t tell it.
    We must understand that action on ONSCREEN don’t get same viewing values as witnessed in real life… Its about the arts of saying everyday , cliche, familiar, happenings in a new way- it gets bored if it is what we already know… “Directing – same act told in another perspective artistically”
    Interestingly, from the part of the world where am from, SEX ONSCREEN is like an initiation, desirable by few and not acceptable by many.
    Lisa, Nice area of focus, but I believe directing a SEX SCENE from experience, is more awkward and artistically a challenge. I will therefore advise writers to simply state it- creatively, the interpreter should deal with it based on his interpretation. ” therefore try not to force it , or push it, else it may be yanked off , modified or misinterpreted ( bad market). Thanks

    • comment-avatar
      Lisa Waugh February 12, 2017 (5:30 pm)

      Thank you, Senate.

  • comment-avatar
    Nancy Carpenter February 17, 2017 (6:20 pm)

    While I never embrace or pretend I am the female protagonist, when it comes to sex scenes, if I cannot see myself in that scene, then I have clearly failed at sufficiently establishing the relationship, even if it is a temporary relationship. As in life, if the relationship or payoff is right, then the sex scene will follow. After that, I avoid the absurd focus on the anatomy. There are so many better ways to be bold and sexy.

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