With my latest historical fiction novel, super explicit sex scenes weren’t appropriate for the feel of the story, though there is sex, even in the first chapter. But writing it was a conundrum—how did I write sex without, well, nipples, cocks, clits, women’s cores, and my favorite, steel members coated in velvet?
Then I remembered the sex scenes written by the master, Diana Gabaldon. She doesn’t fade to black but she doesn’t get explicit about it either. And yet I always know exactly what is happening. I might have to read a sentence a couple times to get it. Like wait, did that mean that Claire just went down on Jamie!?! But yep. That’s what just happened in that scene. Without ever saying it. And day-um, it was HAWT. There’s tons of sex in her books, none of it written the way sex is typically written, and it’s more powerful because of that. Here’s what I learned.
Avoid mentioning specific anatomy. Anatomical euphemisms are appropriate for certain romance heat levels. But if you’re aiming for less explicit or want to experiment with writing sex without relying on the old standard (and sometimes laughable) go-tos words, just never mention them.
Use dialogue to drive the scene – in the one I mention earlier, where Claire goes down on Jamie, most of the scene is dialogue. He asks her in a shocked tone what she’s doing. She’s like, what’s it look like? and, want me to stop? To which he responds, understandably, no! The dialogue gives us so much more of a sense of playful connection with these characters (and an idea of Jamie’s innocence at this point) than a physical description of her dropping on her knees and grabbing his ‘member.’
Keep it real. Jamie’s a virgin. He has sex like a virgin, and it’s awesomely awkward at first. So much of sex in real life is not fantasy magic, every one blasting off together at that perfect moment ALL THE TIME. Write sex scenes so readers can see the characters’ vulnerability—it’s hot to watch your characters learn, grow, and build up their sexual connection.
Ambiguity is king. If you don’t let yourself use the anatomy words, you have to get creative, and that makes for interesting sex scenes. But make no mistake, none of this is to say that these more ambiguous sex scenes have to be rushed. Not at all.
Sex scenes shouldn’t be about the sex. Really. They shouldn’t. They’re should be about emotional connection. There are a TON of sex scenes in Outlander. Some are just a paragraph or two, but the ones that get pages are the ones where something is emotionally changing with the couple. Sex is either the means or climax (ha ha, pun not intended) of emotional connection or change. The longer sex scenes occur 1) right when they get married, 2) after Jamie learns the truth about Claire, and 3) at the end. In these kinds of sex scenes a reveal or a reversal occurs. In the first two, it’s a reversal. In the marriage sex scenes, Claire starts to feel something for Jamie she never meant to (reversal). In the scene after Jamie learns the truth about Claire, he intends making love to her to be a ‘claiming’ of her, only to realize she’s the one who possesses his soul (reversal). In the last important sex scene, it’s a reveal of important information—whether Jamie’s going to be okay or not. This is one reason Gabaldon’s sex scenes are so powerful: They have emotional stakes.
Heather Anastasiu writes historical romance and young adult fiction. Her latest release is Tsura: a World War II Romance. To find out more about Heather, you can check out her website atwww.heatheranastasiu.com