Nov 012014

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:

Dave growled.

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).

Sep 172014

By Jean Roberta

Everyone who writes erotica or erotic romance has to find a way to explain what the characters look like – and the appearance of a central character is more important than those of the secondary ones (rivals, exes, parents, siblings, friends, the server in the café who pours coffee for the hero and heroine as they gaze into each other’s eyes). Some writers openly admit that they like to keep descriptions of the central characters as brief as possible so that readers can project their own fantasies onto the page. But in that case, why not let readers write their own stories? Readers want writers to tell them stories they haven’t already heard.

As a fan of the literature of earlier times, I like the long-winded descriptions that preceded film, television and the internet. Here is a description of a successful whore who visits a village in the famous raunchy novel of 1749, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (better known as Fanny Hill):

Nor can I [Fanny Hill, the fifteen-year-old narrator] remember, without laughing, the innocent admiration, not without a spice of envy, with which we poor girls, whose church-going clothes did not rise above dowlass shifts and stuff gowns, beheld Esther’s scowered satin gowns, caps border’d with an inch of lace, taudry ribbons, and shoes belaced with silver: all which we imagined grew in London, and entered for a great deal into my determination of trying to come in for my share of them. 1

Notice that Esther’s fashionable outfit is described at length in one long sentence. And Esther is simply a lure, not a major player in young Fanny’s life.

Most erotic novels of our time introduce characters in terms of physical characteristics. If these follow familiar stereotypes, the women have long hair and large breasts, while the men have broad shoulders and muscular chests. Unfortunately, cliché depictions of conventionally attractive people are easy to parody, and a reader who has seen them all before is likely to be pulled out of the story, rolling their eyes and groaning.

What is a writer to do? Characters have to be described in some way so that the reader can imagine them, but clichés early in a narrative are a clear sign of second-rate writing. At the same time, readers in an age of short-attention-span media usually want the plot to move quickly. Long descriptions tend to interrupt the flow of events.

Columnist Rachel Howard, in an article in The New York Times, suggests that writers can imitate the student artists in the classes for which she modeled when she was younger. She describes the instructor telling the students to begin with a quick sketch:

“Find the gesture!” the instructor would shout, as the would-be artists sketched. “What is the essence of that pose? How does that pose feel to the model? The whole pose — quick, quick! No, not the arm or the leg. The line of the energy. What is that pose about? Step back and see it — really see it — whole.” And then, my timer beeped, I moved to a new pose and the students furiously flipped to a clean page.2

Howard suggests that writers can practice “gesture writing,” which captures the energy or the feel of a character or a situation without adding a lot of detail. Physical description, done well, can suggest intangible characteristics (nervousness, confidence, curiosity, annoyance) before the character has even said or done anything. It’s a tricky skill to master, but it’s worth practicing.

Short story writers, in particular, need to introduce the characters and get the plot moving so that they can reach a climax (of whatever kind) before the story must be wrapped up in 2,000, 3,500, 5,000, or 10,000 words. Descriptions of body language and facial expressions work better for this purpose than descriptions of hair or body build. Descriptions of characters who are already speaking, moving, or touching also tend to seem more believable than descriptions of characters who simply seem to be posing. In the real world, no one except an art model would walk into a room, strike a pose and hold it until the audience has memorized every physical detail.

The general trend in current fiction-writing is to lead with a remark (“Oh my God!” “What are you doing here?”) or a dramatic event, and then describe the characters in the scene. In erotic fiction, a character might be having a screaming orgasm before the reader finds out how he or she got to that point. The trick is to integrate visual imagery with descriptions of sounds, smells, tactile sensations, tastes, and movement in a way that suggests some backstory as well as the forward progression of events.

Find the gesture indeed. I’m still working on it.


  1. From Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963, first published in Great Britain 1749), page 32.
  1. “Gesture Writing” by Rachel Howard, Opinionator, The New York Times, May 25, 2013



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).

Jun 132014

By Jean Roberta

I write in several genres, including blog posts and reviews. I also teach first-year university students to write academic essays, which is a particular, ancient art form related to the art of debate. (When universities were first established in Europe in the 1200s, “logic” and “rhetoric” were high on the list of subject matter that scholars were expected to learn.)

I’ve learned a lot from my students. I like to think I can recognize problems in my own writing more readily because I’ve seen the same groaners in student essays. Most of the mistakes I’ve circled and commented on can be summed up as a general lack of coherence. Some students even contradict themselves within a paragraph, apparently without noticing it.

To be articulate, whether in speech or in writing, literally means to connect the dots, to show connections between a premise and the evidence that supports it, between events and their aftermath in a narrative, or between analogies. (For instance: Putin’s recent annexation of part of Ukraine for Russia is parallel to Hitler’s annexation of surrounding territory for Germany in the 1930s – or not. Discuss.) An articulate approach to anything requires work.

Some literary critic once said that bad writing consists of missed opportunities. This sounds similar to incoherence, or a failure to articulate. A good plot premise doesn’t necessarily lead to a good story, because the writer might miss a chance to show where the central character’s value system or motives are likely to lead, or to connect different themes or viewpoints within the story.

Part of the reason why “pornography” has traditionally been considered bad writing is because it leaves out so much of reality. A loosely-plotted story that consists of one sex scene after another might make a great fantasy, and it might inspire a great wank-session, but it doesn’t resemble anyone’s actual life. Even full-time sex workers have things to do that aren’t the least bit sexy – and selling sex to strangers is not the best way to have an endless series of peak experiences.

The challenge of writing about sex, even if it takes place on Planet X or involves supernatural beings, is to integrate the physical activities with the emotions involved, with the cultural context, and with the circumstances that lead to sex. Behind every set of double-D-sized breasts is a human heart. To describe the breasts as part of a tempting body, without acknowledging that every human body of every size and shape includes a complex human psyche, is to be an amateur cartoonist. The anti-porn feminists of the 1970s had some reasonable things to say about this type of writing. Unfortunately, much of what they said has been forgotten or drowned out by conflicts over censorship, which has continued in various forms to this day (, for example, needs to be watched).

When reading over a rough draft of a story, I ask myself: do all these characters belong in the same imaginary world? Even if the plot twists aren’t predictable (a good thing), are they believable (another good thing)? Have everyone’s feelings been clearly represented? What am I leaving out?

Setting a manuscript aside for at least 24 hours, then looking it over with these questions in mind, can lead to useful insights.

If not everything fits together, you might actually have two stories disguised as one. In that case, you can thank your Muse for being so fruitful, and start rearranging.


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).

Apr 102014

by Jean Roberta

Erotic writers, including the most talented, sometimes reach burnout. A feeling of exhaustion or boredom with writing sex scenes seems parallel to the sexual burnout that happens in some long-term relationships: the thrill is gone; the body of the Significant Other is no longer an exciting new territory to discover.

Having too much to do can dim the spark, both in a sexual relationship and in a relationship with one’s Muse. Writers at every stage of their careers can feel overwhelmed. Newly-published writers contend with the need to prove themselves over and over again, while those with multi-volume contracts can feel as if they have a series of mountains to climb by a series of looming deadlines.

The antidote to burnout, in my experience, is to relax, breathe, and feel. Physical activity can give the brain a rest. Guided meditation usually begins with instructions to feel the temperature in the room (or outdoors), feel the seat, the grass or the floor under your ass, and feel the position of your limbs. While sitting alone in a favourite writing place, you can wiggle your toes and fingers, tense and relax your muscles, focus on breathing in, holding the breath, and letting it go in a long whoosh.

Living in a human body is sexual. As a writer, you can seduce yourself by doing things that feel good: stretch and bend, reach for the stars, scratch an itch, pet the cat or the dog. Don’t think about sex, and definitely don’t think about chores or obligations. Play hooky, at least for an hour.

If a hot shower or sunlight on skin feels good but you can’t get to your bathroom or go outside, try stroking your own arms or legs. Find out what your skin wants after being neglected for too long. Your scalp might like a massage. After a while, your more sensitive areas would probably like some attention. Nipples are sensitive, and so are testicles. There is no rush. You can tease them gently until they demand more.

You can see where this is going. Bodies are capable of waking up after being on automatic pilot for awhile. They don’t respond well to criticism, so avoid telling yours that it is too fat, too thin, too lacking in muscle tone (besides which, you’re a writer. No one expects you to be built like an Olympic athlete).

When you give yourself pleasure, pay attention to the images that flash through your mind. You may even remember some words: yours or someone else’s. What inspires you? The seeds of story that lurk in your mind may have nothing to do with your current work-in-progress—this just means that your mind contains multiple possibilities. Try to hang on to the feeling, the pictures, the music, the sounds that add to your bliss even after you have (ahem) reached release. Jot down what you remember, whether it makes sense or not. You now have something to work with.

I think it is crucial for writers, especially those who write about sex, to occasionally write about something deeply personal, even something that only makes sense to themselves, or something that seems unpublishable. Writers who spend every moment of writing time trying to follow a formula for success are likely to find that 1) no creative person can turn out fifty versions of a certain popular novel series without going into creative drought, and 2) formulas don’t work well for long anyway. What is trendy this year will be undoubtedly be considered stale in the foreseeable future.

Whoever you are, you only have one body to live in, and it is the home for your brain. If you think your nerve endings, your muscles and the blood in your veins have no new stories to tell, you haven’t been listening.


Jean Roberta writes in several genres. Approximately 100 of her erotic stories, including every orientation she can think of, have appeared in print anthologies, plus three single-author collections, including The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press, 2013. ).


Dec 142013

By Jean Roberta

It can be hard to separate the genres of erotica and erotic romance these days. A useful definition of the essential difference is that erotica focuses on the significance of sex (not just the technical details, but what it means to the characters who engage in it) while romance focuses on a developing relationship. Good sex scenes in erotic romance indicate something about how well the characters know each other (not only in the Biblical sense) and how they feel about each other, so the sex and the relationship can never be completely disconnected.

Erotic writers who want to tackle the complexity of sex have to deal with the complexity of relationships in a broad sense. This brings me to an old tradition in romantic comedy that has found its way into erotic writing: the Dearest-Enemies scenario.

Shakespeare handled it hilariously. Jane Austen handled it movingly, especially in Pride and Prejudice. Many Hollywood rom-coms are based on this reliable formula: a man and a woman meet, and sparks fly immediately because they think they hate each other. Typically, each one thinks the other is arrogant and prejudiced. In extreme cases, at least one of them is confused about the other’s identity. The two characters exchange insults. They each tell their friends that they wouldn’t accept the other as a lover even if they were stranded together in the wilderness (and in some cases, this happens).

The emotional truth, of course, is that they are both intensely attracted to each other and unwilling to admit it. The attraction shakes up their plans and even their general worldview. Besides this, each one fears that maybe he or she is the only one who feels the attraction. The fear of feeling drawn to someone who really despises oneself is unbearable.

The secondary characters (friends, relatives, even co-workers or classmates) usually feel an obligation to play matchmaker. Sometimes the friends carry messages or arrange for each of the reluctant lovers to see the other’s best qualities. In some cases, circumstances force the protagonists to cooperate. There is a climax in the plot, in which all misunderstandings are resolved and the lovers confess how they really feel. Cue the music for the happy ending.

A plot like this can reveal certain deep truths about human nature, but only if handled well. There are groan-worthy versions of this formula. In romantic comedies from the 1950s and 1960s, the woman was often a “career girl” and the man was a crusty bachelor who disapproved of “working” women. The solution, of course, was for him to propose marriage and for her to accept on his terms, meaning that she would become a stay-at-home wife and mother—and love it.

In our own time, the dearest-enemies formula can be applied to m/m and f/f romances. The two protagonists can come from different communities based on race, ethnicity or lifestyle. A macho man in a dangerous occupation (firefighter, cop, soldier) can be surprised by his attraction to a sensitive man in the arts, the fashion industry or one of the helping professions (social worker, paramedic). And of course, at least one of them can insist loudly that he’s “normal”, meaning that he’s not gay. Not at all.

A lesbian version of the dearest-enemies plot can involve different conceptions of feminism. Can a woman who has made her own bread and her own clothes while living in an all-female collective find happiness with an urban professional who works mostly with men? Can a woman who has never wanted children learn to live with a single mother and her dependents? Can a transgender woman find happiness with a cisgender woman who, up to now, has defined womanhood only in terms of body parts?

The challenge in writing a dearest-enemies plot is to make the transition as convincing as possible, and not just by forcing one character to give in completely (even in a BDSM plot, a complete change of personality just doesn’t seem sustainable). The seeds of future compatibility have to be there from the beginning of the relationship, and negotiation scenes need to show a certain amount of flexibility on both sides.

At best, a dearest-enemies romance gives us a dazzling glimpse of potential peace on earth and general good will—and at worst, a string of unbelievable clichés.

Sep 252013

By Jean Roberta

During the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s, someone (I can’t remember who) claimed that for women, sex is more emotional than physical, implying that sex is an emotionless form of exercise for men. Regardless of whether you believe this, or which of your characters experience sex in what ways, actual sex is a physical activity for anyone who takes part in it.

At its best, sex is accompanied by intense physical sensations as well as a whole spectrum of emotions from ecstatic love to performance anxiety to ambivalence to relief to gratitude to pride to fear. Sex can actually express and elicit any emotion we can imagine. The one general statement anyone can make about whatever we call “sex” (and definitions vary), however, is that it is a physical activity. In effect, sex is a dance (and it doesn’t have to be horizontal. It can be done standing up, underwater or while flying through the air.)

Writing about any activity—as distinct from describing settings or characters, or outlining a character’s thoughts—carries its own set of challenges. Choreographing a sex scene is much like choreographing a swordfight or a joust in a historical novel, or a dance scene in any era. The interaction of two or more bodies requires a certain amount of strategy on the page, just as it usually does in real life.

Erotica and erotic romance are often considered so different from other genres of fiction that even we (writers of sex scenes) tend to forget that all fiction has certain elements in common. We all have to position our characters so that they move through space (their physical setting) and time (a period of hours, days, weeks or years). Likewise, a sexual encounter needs to begin with a first move (he kisses her, she reaches for his hand, they embrace, Person A deliberately presses against Person B) and progress to the next move, which will usually seem more intimate than the first move, both to the readers and the characters. From those initial moves to the end of the scene, the sexual activities you describe need to make enough sense that your readers can immerse themselves fully in the eroticism of the story.

I have sometimes flinched while rereading a first draft of a sex scene I’ve written. In the throes of writing, it’s sometimes too easy to slap down lines like this: “Their eyes locked from across the room, and they quickly pulled each other’s clothes off.” A reader is likely to wonder: how long were their arms? If the sequence of events is impossible to visualize without a loud guffaw, the reader is likely to be pulled out of the mood.

Other gaffes in unedited sex scenes can include a character who seems to have three arms (or three of anything that most folks only have two of), a sex toy that enters an orifice and never comes out (and even the horniest character is likely to want the dildo or the buttplug to be removed at some point), extreme floggings that leave no marks, bondage that defies the laws of physics and/or medical science, clothes that mysteriously vanish and then reappear on bodies, completely buttoned and zipped.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember two things: one, that even the most elaborate orgy on Planet X must be plausible enough for the reader to imagine it, and two, that safe sex for a sex writer includes proofreading.


Jean Roberta writes in several genres. Approximately 100 of her erotic stories, including every orientation she can think of, have appeared in print anthologies, plus three single-author collections, including The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press, 2013. ).