First off, this is not an R-rated post. I’m not going to be discussing anything explicit, just giving advice on when—and if—you should include sex or references to sex in your story or novel.
This is also going to be a short post, though I may follow it up later.
The first question you must ask yourself when you are contemplating mentioning sex or having the characters engage in sex in your story is why you feel you need to do that.
Before you say it’s because sex is a part of life and your characters, being normal people, will have sex, then I’ll tell you that’s not a sufficient reason. Lots of things are a part of everyday life, but that doesn’t mean they belong in your story.
Fiction is not about normal, everyday life. If it is, it’s probably going to be boring, and you won’t have many readers. Your fiction must be focused, not be just a mix of common events. Good fiction will take readers somewhere, and it should have a purpose beyond the mundane. I’ve read enough literary fiction that’s mundane on the surface—despite trying to show something meaningful underneath—to know what I’m talking about.
Quite a few of the story submissions that my wife and I receive for Fabula Argentea magazine (www.fabulaargentea.com) range fall into the mundane and not very interesting category. Or if they are interesting, they don’t stand out. And some of them stick in sex or sex references that add little or nothing to the story.
We’re not prudes by any means, but if you’re going to put sex in your story, it had better have a very good and discernable story reason for being there.
It’s been said that good sex scenes, be they long or short, must be about more than the sex. They must tell us something about the characters and they must advance the story. I don’t care how beautifully written the scene is. If the scene is only about the sex, then it’s pointless (unless you’re writing erotica, in which case the primary purpose of the story is to arouse the reader, and character development is purely secondary if even existent).
What about romance fiction? Doesn’t the reader expect sex in such stories? Probably in many cases. But unless you’re going with a shallow clichéd romance story that might sell books but accomplish nothing beyond that, then you might want to reconsider your approach.
And if you’re using sex as a way to show how pathetic your characters are, there are usually much better ways to do that.
Let’s say that your story does require a sex scene to give it proper depth. And by that I mean it’s necessary to the story’s development, as opposed to your simply believing you need a sex scene.
There are four basic types of sex scenes:
1. Closed door, where the sex is implied and never described.
2. Glossed over sex, where it’s a little more than implied but the details are mostly lacking. This may stop at the point where things just start to get “interesting” then move ahead to afterward.
3. Full sex scene with tasteful details (but don’t make it too long or get carried away). Keep it focused on the characters and their emotions, not on the act.
4. Full and explicit sex scene—primarily the realm of erotica, but well-done erotica (which I don’t see a lot of) can be powerful and still character focused.
Some sex scenes can add a bit of humor (in the right situation) and be powerful in their own right as a result.
I’ve seen stories that drop a mention of solo sex. Even though this too is a part of the lives of many males and females, I have found very few stories where the mention of it added to the story. More often it detracts.
Always ask yourself that if you dropped the sex from your story, would it make a significant difference in how the story unfolds? Unless the answer is a strong affirmative, then maybe you’re better off leaving it out.
I have found a number of stories that were progressing well when suddenly the author, for whatever reason, decided that a mention of sex was needed, and in doing so destroyed what might have been an otherwise good story.
Unlike in real life, where sex can be just a meaningless carnal pleasure, when it comes to fiction, every story element must work together and have a purpose—and sex just for the sake of sex in a story rarely serves a good purpose. And this applies whether it’s heterosexual sex or not.