By Jean Roberta
When composing sex scenes, you want to keep your readers focused on the action—which means that as the writer, as the magician who runs the show, you need to focus on the details so they don’t have to. If all goes as it should, your readers will forget they’re reading words alone and immerse themselves in your story as if it were an X-rated movie.
Hint: adjectives (hot, wet, breathless, full, etc.) and verbs (gasped, thrust, writhed, etc.) are not enough.
As a reader, I’ve often been pulled out of a scene when the sentence structure is off: not exactly ungrammatical, but unbalanced in some way. This can happen when the subordinate clause doesn’t support the independent clause the way a good bottom should.
A clause is a series of words that include a subject and a working verb, like this:
A subordinate clause (subordinate meaning an underling or servant) adds information to the main or independent clause, the one that could stand on its own as a complete sentence. Here the subordinate clause is in square brackets:
Dave growled [when Sabrina ran her fingernails down his back.]
Do you see what’s happening? The key subject is “Dave” and the key verb is “growled.” But he can’t just growl for no reason. The attentive reader wants to know why. (Even a bear must be motivated to growl.) So the explanatory clause, “Sabrina ran her fingernails down his back” is connected to the independent clause by the subordinating adverb “when.” This tells us these two events happened more or less at the same time, and we can guess that Dave’s growl was a response to Sabrina’s action.
If we want to make these two events equally important, we can write:
Sabrina ran her fingernails down Dave’s back. He growled.
Here we have two independent clauses, which is perfectly legitimate, but the connection between them is less clear. And if the whole scene consists of short, jerky sentences, the reader might be turned off. (This is not guaranteed. Some readers admire the telegraphic style of Ernest Hemingway or Elmore Leonard. But IMO, connections are fairly important in a sex scene.)
So, assuming you are willing to express certain ideas in independent clauses and others in subordinate clauses, you have to decide which points to emphasize. In the first sentence, the emphasis is on Dave’s growl, which is a reaction to the sensation of Sabrina’s fingernails running down his skin. You might want to emphasize something else, as follows:
Sabrina sighed [when Dave’s mouth closed softly on her puckered nipple.]
Here the emphasis is on Sabrina’s reaction not just to the actions of Dave, but to the action of Dave’s mouth. In this sentence, she is sighing in the independent clause, and he exists only as a mouth. The focus here is on Sabrina’s pleasure.
So what could go wrong?
A sentence that includes two or more clauses could unintentionally emphasize the wrong thing. Consider this:
Sabrina went to the kitchen to feed her cat after she spent a long, passionate night with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and the famous Mistress Whipmarks.
This is clear enough, right? But which clause is more important? Let’s break it down.
Here is the independent clause: “Sabrina (subject) went (verb) to the kitchen (prepositional phrase) to feed her cat.”
Here is the subordinate clause: [after she (subject) spent (verb) a long, passionate night (direct object) with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and the famous Mistress Whipmarks (long prepositional phrase)].
The reader might want to know that Sabrina fed her cat. Just because humans are having fun, animal companions shouldn’t be left to starve. If the reader has deliberately picked up a work of erotica, however, she or he is probably more interested in Sabrina’s interactions with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and Mistress Whipmarks than in whether Sabrina is a good cat-owner.
Let’s try moving some words around:
Having spent a long, passionate night with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and the famous Mistress Whipmarks, Sabrina went to the kitchen to feed her cat.
Is this better? Not really. All of Sabrina’s human playmates are still in the subordinate clause.
Let’s try dividing the ideas into two independent clauses:
Sabrina spent a long, passionate night with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and the famous Mistress Whipmarks. She went to the kitchen to feed her cat.
Now there is no clear connection between the two events. The scene needs more continuity.
Let’s try this:
Sabrina spent a long, passionate night with Dave, Bill, Greg, Jennifer, and the famous Mistress Whipmarks. By noon the next day, Sabrina was still so exhausted that she only got out of bed when she could no longer ignore the yowling of her hungry cat.
Now we have a sequence of events in which Sabrina is the subject of two independent clauses. First, she spent a long, passionate night with five other people, and then she was still exhausted by noon. There is a certain logic at work here. Sabrina is even the subject of the subordinate clause: “[when she could no longer ignore the meowing of her hungry cat.]” This makes sense, considering that Sabrina is exhausted. (And cat-owners would understand the insistence of a cat who wants to be fed, now.)
Of course, Sabrina’s long, passionate night could be described in much more depth, but now we have the most important ideas in the most important words.
The relationship of clauses has much to do with viewpoint. If the whole scene is meant to focus on Sabrina (even if the narrative viewpoint is third person), the focus will be clearer if she stars as the subject in most independent clauses, and if all the other clauses help to explain her feelings, thoughts, and behaviour.
Keeping subordinate clauses in their place will go a long way toward keeping a sex scene vivid and easy to imagine.
Modifiers also need to be leashed to the words they modify, but that is a topic for another time.
Jean Roberta writes in several genres. Approximately 100 of her erotic stories, including every orientation she can think of, have appeared in print anthologies. She also has three single-author collections, including The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press, 2013). www.jean-roberta.livejournal.com