On Writing or Living the Great Sex Scene

What do we need in the great sex scene in life or in literature?

Posted Jul 14, 2014

Firstly, lead up to the love scene carefully: this may be through a meal with good drink and food (think of the scene in the film of Fielding’s Tom Jones) or a gift of flowers, or just a walk through the town. Here’s Ondaatje’s version of a walk in The English Patient.

“He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another as if passing on a rumour of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.”

And here is a wonderful passage from D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, where he uses flowers so evocatively and with such humour. Don’t forget humour in the love scene both in literature and life. A laugh can be a wonderful entrance into love:

“But he was coming back, trotting strangely, and carrying flowers. She was a little afraid of him, as if he were not quite human. And when he came near his eyes looking into hers, but she could not understand their meaning.

He had brought columbines and campions, and new-mown hay and oak-tufts and honeysuckle in a small bud. He fastened fluffy young oak sprays around her breasts and in her navel he poised a pink campion flower, and in her maiden-hair were forget me nots and woodruff.

'That’s you in all your glory!' he said. 'Lady Jane, at her wedding with John Thomas.'

And he stuck flowers in the hair of his own body, and wound a bit of creeping-jenny round his penis, and stuck a single bell of a hyacinth in his navel. She watched him with amusement, his odd intentness. And she pushed a campion flower in his moustache, where it stuck dangling under his nose.”

And don’t feel you have to invoke grand feelings. A little honest reality in literature and life can work better. Henry Fielding gives it to us straight without any humbug or false sentiment equating love with lust and a good appetite: “What is commonly called love, namely the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate white human flesh." .

Next remember the importance of place. Use things, the outside world to speak of the inner emotion without sentimentality. Here’s a wonderful scene from Marguerite Duras’ The Lover which might be studied for its exact description of the outside world; the honesty of the inner feelings, the moments of revelation, the use of both first and third person for the heroine and present and past tenses, its cinematic quality:

“She plays close attention to externals, to the light, the noise of the city in which the room is immersed. He’s trembling. At first he looks at her as though he expects her to speak but she doesn’t. He doesn’t do anything either, doesn’t undress her, says he loves her madly, says it very softly. Then is silent. She doesn’t answer. She could say she doesn’t love him. She says nothing. Suddenly, all at once she knows, knows that he doesn’t understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness.”

Thirdly use action combined with details of place to convey emotion. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words. Here’s a beautiful scene from Chekhov’s story The Kiss  where the young, awkward lieutenant is mistaken for someone else and kissed in the middle of the party:

“ On his way back he met with a little adventure…He found himself in a little dark room which he had not seen on his way to the billiard room…Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation…Straight in front could be seen the crack in the doorway through which there was a gleam of vivid light; from the other side of the door came the muffled sound of a melancholy mazurka. Here, too, the windows were wide open and there was a smell of poplars, lilac and roses. At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried flootsteps and the ruslting of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered 'At last.' And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck. A warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him…”

Don’t be afraid to describe the body. Take all the clothes off without pudeur and give us what is seen and heard precisely.

Here’s a strange seduction scene from Alice Munro’s story, Wenlock Edge, where the young heroine is asked to take off her clothes and eat dinner with an elderly man, Mr. Purvis and discuss Plato among other things. Sitting down at the table she thinks: “If my breasts had been tiny and ornamental like Nina’s I could have been almost at ease. Instead they were large and lollopy; they were like bald night creatures dumbfounded by the light.” Wonderful writing.

All these examples convey the necessity for freedom in the act of writing as well as the act of seduction, great freedom and at the same time control.


Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.