On Craft: Want to Write a Better Sex Scene? What Fanfiction Taught Me That My MFA Missed by Jessica Jonas

“When he touched her that night she was so wet, and she rolled her eyes back into her head and said: God, yes. And she was allowed to say it, no one would know. He was afraid he would come then just from touching her like that.” Normal People by Sally Rooney, p. 22

“She didn’t like being touched in vulnerable places without warning, and if he was going to leave a bruise she wasn’t thrilled about his animalistic need to mark her, but then she thought, well, this is erotically terrifying, I am both aroused and mildly in terror, and also is this what it feels like to let my mind go positively blank?” Divination for Skeptics by olivieblake, Ch. 7

Three years ago, my long-simmering dissatisfaction with some character and world-building elements in the Harry Potter books hit a boiling point, even before J.K. Rowling’s transphobic remarks confirmed my decision to leave her canon behind. After a furious, fruitless search for a fanfiction story with the alternate spin I craved, I ended up writing one myself. What I thought would be an exploration of a few scenes turned into a 218,000-word rewrite of the sixth and seventh books, where a sexual relationship between Draco and Hermione changed their loyalties and choices in the war.

I was hooked by the way fanfiction writers transformed Rowling’s children’s story of magical good and evil into a springboard for a richer, more complex body of work. Fics explore adult relationships, LGBT pairings, and themes of maturing in a deeply flawed world. Even after my story was finished, I stayed for the robust, craft-focused discussions of smut in the writing groups I joined. Sex, especially sexual relationships between non-canon pairings, plays an integral role in how fanfic writers reframe character dynamics and make the world their own. My MFA experience never included a class discussion on the mechanics of writing a good sex scene (other programs or other writers in my program may have fared better). What began as a playful side project kept offering ideas that felt important to my growth as a serious writer.

Slip Into Something Comfortable

First, a caveat that readers and writers all come to a text with their own internalized sense of what’s effective or gratuitous, so a universally acclaimed sex scene doesn’t exist. Like sex with a person, so much depends on the timing, the people involved, their histories and desires and turn-offs, as well as the broader social context. Age and maturity of the reader affect what comes across as tasteful, risqué, or obscene. At a certain point, writers need to give themselves permission to write the sex that feels authentic to their story instead of searching for the imaginary line separating “good” sex writing from dreck.

But it’s a copout to stop at “I’ll know it when I see it” about well-crafted fictional sex. If the end goal is for more MFA programs to teach writers how to write sex that feels like an effective, organic part of the story, we need to have some parameters to guide discussion.

Fanfiction writers talk freely about craft because sex scenes are so tightly woven into how writers develop stories, position their work, and attract readers. Major fanfiction sites like Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Fanfiction.net encourage writers to add a maturity rating to their stories. Evaluating your own work for raciness is part of publishing it at all. Adult-rated fics also make up a disproportionately high number of the top-rated Harry Potter stories on AO3. Being able to deliver a varied repertoire of sex scenes and understanding the nuances distinguishing a Mature from an Explicit rating are valuable skills to be popular as a fanfiction writer. They’re transferable to literary writing, too.

Take the two stories quoted at the top of this essay. Normal People, by literary It Girl Sally Rooney, deconstructs elements of the form, offers an incisive look at class and family, and serves up plenty of hot sex. Divination for Skeptics, by Olivie Blake, pairs Draco Malfoy and Hermione Granger, who enter a physical relationship even after a newly invented charm reveals exactly how statistically incompatible they are (a dismal 18% when the story begins).

The depictions of sex in particular bring out the ways that these two texts feel thematically in harmony. Both stories explore attraction between people who don’t make sense on paper. Both address ways it can be difficult for women to articulate their own desire, the lines between submissiveness and trust and self-sabotage. The on-again-off-again relationship and irreproducible chemistry between Connell and Marianne has some common feeling with the more overt discussion of fate and self-determination in Divination for Skeptics. Reading stories across the literary/fanfic divide that use sex to develop character dynamics and story arcs was the lightbulb moment for me. We should talk about sex writing in literary circles as openly as we do in fanfic communities.

Get (Precisely) as Graphic as You Want

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: how explicit can you get, if you’re trying to integrate sex into a broader storyline versus making eroticism the point of the read? Fanfiction writers know their work could get bad reviews or even be taken down if it’s deemed too raunchy for the rating, but websites don’t always make distinctions clear. AO3 says “T” indicates “Teen and up” and E, or Explicit, is “only suitable for adults,” which isn’t much help for writers in the thick of a scene.

I’m partial to Tumblr user silvercistern’s rubric. In a “T” story, they say, “dicks are alluded to, perhaps even mentioned,” while an M rating indicates we’ll hear in detail how one is used, and finally in an Explicit fic: “We know this dick. We know its veins and contours and twitches better than we know the back of our own hands, the smiles on our mothers’ faces, or the smell of our childhood homes.”

What I love so much about this rating is that while it’s clearly tongue-in-cheek, it’s also aiming at something evocative, that even explicit, veiny sex can do something beyond serve as a narrative instruction manual. Deciding which level will work best depends on what the scene is doing in your story.

It’s Not What You’ve Got, It’s How You Use It

If you don’t have a writers’ group to talk smut, you can still start exploring what feels good on your own. Read your way across a range of scenes and watch where writers add detail or hold back, and how sex changes the story.

Normal People would probably merit an M ranking on a fanfiction site. We know a lot about what Connell and Marianne do, but I wouldn’t expect a reader to be able to pick Connell’s penis out in a lineup. Rooney also tends to use language like “Connell touched her,” and let readers infer where from Marianne’s reaction — which makes sense, given that it’s hard to find a word for vagina that isn’t a medical term or profanity. The ways they respond to each other matter most.

Moving a little further along the rating spectrum, sex scenes in The Vegetarian by Han Kang give us details about erections and vaginal wetness and position changes. Both characters are trying to achieve something surreal through sex — him an artistic vision, her a literal metamorphosis — so the talk about penises and vaginas feels less about titillation and more about the ways our bodies fail us.

But stories don’t need to lose the erotic aspect to be both explicit and complex. Consider the peach scene in Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman. Elio and Oliver have had sex for the first time, an experience Elio found disquieting. He removes the pit from a peach and masturbates into it, which Oliver discovers and eats in front of him. The scene is soundly E-rated—you will not view the core of a peach the same way again, never mind the dicks involved. It’s also achingly vulnerable. Elio yearns for a sense of total transformation into his lover, which feels to him like a reverberating effect that both distills and strengthens his sense of self. To shy away from explicit detail would limit the story’s ability to follow that arc of intimacy and identity.

On the fanfic side, reading and writing stories that borrow a familiar setting and cast of characters can make it easier to focus on the techniques involved in making the sex work. Divination for Skeptics kicks off the first sexual encounter between Draco and Hermione with a prostate-stimulation-enhanced orgasm, then flashes back 12 minutes to detail the strictly choreographed foreplay and intercourse plan that led up to the moment (Hermione literally sets a timer for kissing). The efficiency of the orgasm, however good it may be, is the breaking point that pushes Draco to admit, “The orgasm isn’t the point…Is it too much to ask that there be a little more to it than that?” Or for a slower build-up, consider Lumos by birdsofshore, rated E, which devotes at least five scenes to Harry and Draco jerking off in their shared dorm room before going to sleep. It becomes an increasingly participatory activity, and each scene adds an extra element (leaving the light on, getting louder) as the characters progress from sex near each other to with each other.

Playing with time or layering new variations into subsequent scenes to create a progressive arc adds surprise and dimension. The writers are curating the sex scenes to highlight turning points and changes. Like any other plot element, good sex changes the stakes, reveals something about the characters, pushes them toward another decision that matters to the story.

Stop Imagining Your Mom Reading This

The second you start thinking that your best friend, an editor you want to impress or, God forbid, that your parents are going to read this scene, good luck writing it. Kind of like having real-life sex, it can help to wait until the kids are in bed or the dog’s had a walk, so you can block out enough time to get the job done without interruptions.

Knowing why your characters have the sexual tastes they have can mitigate the awkwardness that comes with writing something intimate. You’re not exposing your personal sexual fantasy; you’re showing another side of the same character you’ve been building all along. When Marianne asks Connell to hit her, or Draco objects to a technically proficient but clinical blowjob, we learn something about how they see themselves.

Thinking through your characters’ attitudes toward sex can also help solve the problem of how to refer to body parts or acts. Get in their heads for the language they’d use and the ways they’d experience what’s happening on the page. When even writing a kiss makes you feel like an alien (Their lips—touched? Crashed? Melded? Why can I not remember what it’s like to kiss a human being?), bounce ideas off another writer. An outside perspective can stop you from spiraling over a word.

Was It Good for You?

Nailing the right tone and impact for your story involves knowing when to bring a good scene to an end. While the sex scenes in Normal People are frequent and steamy, they tend to be brief — a few sentences, maybe a paragraph. Divination for Skeptics can keep a sex scene going for thousands of words. This also requires skill—just try and write a 1,500-word scene that balances foreplay and intercourse without making either one feel rushed or repetitive—but a long scene can invite readers to immerse themselves in the erotic, rather than use erotic material as a lens to illuminate other emotional developments. If you are planning a longer scene, think about how to intersperse dialogue or non-sexual exposition into more explicit sections if you don’t want to slide all the way into pure erotica.

How long of a scene is right for your story depends on whether the impact on the characters happens in the aftermath or during the session. Rooney uses sex like chess moves. Each time Connell and Marianne have sex, it changes the power dynamics and the next set of choices they can make. In Divination, Blake uses sex to reveal her characters’ vulnerabilities and challenge their beliefs, so the scenes are longer to accommodate those epiphanies as they happen.

Writing a sex scene doesn’t have to be harder than writing any other scene in fiction. It can feel weird at first, especially if your writing community has avoided talking about ways to do it well. Finding a writing group that’s eager to talk shop about genital terminology and help spot cliches is useful. Read examples in various genres, and learn what language and explicitness level feels most natural to you. Your job as a writer is to push characters to be vulnerable, take risks, and add complexity to their story. Revealing them in all their squishy, tender, naked glory can be one way to serve those needs and find a more intimate layer of development in your work.

Jessica Jonas grew up in Maryland, where she lives with her husband and children. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the University of Baltimore and works as a freelance writer and editor. She is working on a novel, which will almost certainly have a sex scene in it.

2 responses to “On Craft: Want to Write a Better Sex Scene? What Fanfiction Taught Me That My MFA Missed by Jessica Jonas

  1. I love this essay! So glad I’ve read the works you mentioned here. Also side-note but please share the fanfic you mentioned that you write!

    Like

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