The first question we have to ask ourselves when writing a sex scene is: Why are we including this? I can see people saying ‘but what about erotica’ or ‘but what about romance’ both of these include sex, and romance doesn’t always, for a reason. The reason isn’t simply that it’s meant to be an erotic novel or because ‘sex sells’, although people will often try to tell us it is. Sex appears in these novels because it adds to the story, in the case of erotic novels it’s often integral to the plot. The plot is about the relationship between these characters, and their sex lives are part of it.
There are many reasons why we might include sex in a story but the first question we ask ourselves should be ‘does this advance the story’. This doesn’t mean it has to advance the plot like the idea of ‘sexposition’ where sex is added to hide exposition. We can do that, but it undervalues the purpose of sex in stories, and doesn’t actually hide anything, everyone can still see the exposition. We can use sex in fiction to show another aspect of the relationship between characters, how they have sex can say a lot about who they are, or a side of them they otherwise hide. It can also show a changing relationship as they become more confident and comfortable or move beyond lust to something else. We can show these things without sex too, if we show a relationship advancing by hand-holding or a kiss why shouldn’t we give the same consideration to sex? Sex usually takes place when the characters are alone and confined, so there’s also that type of vulnerability to be considered, which should immediately give us, as writers, a moment of pause when we’re writing.
This takes us onto the question of ‘what does it tell us about the characters?’ We can use sex to show another aspect of their dynamic, perhaps one takes the lead in public but the other takes the lead in the bedroom. There’s the classic cliché of the shy person who’s secretly very sexual. Or they might be people who have a very sharp banter in public but are very tender during sex. There are many, many things these scenes can show us about that side of the characters.
Here it’s important to note it’s alright to write characters who don’t have a sexual side. We don’t win or lose by including or not including sex, the point is to consider how it relates to the characters and some characters, just like some people, aren’t sexual. As mentioned previously we can show elements of relationships without sex but if it makes sense for the characters to have sex then we can use that too.
If we include sex purely because it ‘sells’ or as an abstract metaphor devoid of emotion or characterisation we’re already on a path to writing bad sex. Taking the time to give sex scenes proper consideration can only improve our fiction or, at worst, it won’t be any worse than it started as.