Sex, Sense and Sensuality

“The sex writer” describes how psychology can enhance a sex scene.

Posted Mar 02, 2016

E. Engstrom
Source: E. Engstrom

“One woman’s erotica is another woman’s pornography,” says Elizabeth Engstrom in How to Write a Sizzling Sex Scene. In other words, what turns readers on has a lot of range. It might sound as if this book is only for writers, but because this approach to writing a sex scene is about our deepest secrets, it offers self-reflection for anyone.

Engstrom has heard herself called “the sex writer” because she’s willing to teach other writers about penetrating a story with sex and sensuality. She knows that the well-crafted sex scene is not as easy as it sounds. It’s a lot of work. It takes practice. Numerous decisions must be made, because, essentially, describing sex between characters in fiction involves expressing personal vulnerability. It’s about what one is willing to put on the page and how deeply one attempts to explore it.

Pretty much everything that entertains us, says Engstrom, relies on three stages, and sex scenes are no exception. There’s the titillating foreplay, the sex act, and the afterglow. Despite the notion that the middle stage holds all the heat, building toward and away from it via characters' fears, needs, and desires supplies the real fuel.

In fact, one can write a good sex scene without the sex act itself. It’s all about well-crafted emotional intensity flooded with poetically-described sensory images. “Preparing an exquisite meal can be erotic in its sensuality, in its desire to please,” says Engstrom.

(This might be a good place to mention my "Innies and Outies" test, because Outies, who pay attention to sensory details around them, have the advantage here.)

Here’s the psychology angle: “When you’re writing a sex scene, both parties bring to the union their entire histories.” This includes expectations, wounds, fetishes, fantasies, prudishness, aggression, need, secrets, blind spots, and many other things. Most of this is revealed in their approach to sex and their retreat from it. How do the characters tangle and then disentangle?

There’s always something to be learned when putting pen to paper,” says Engstrom, “even if it’s just learning about yourself.”

Still, the more mental flexibility you develop in how you experience your world, the greater your range of sensuality. The key, says Engstrom, is to practice writing sensual scenes from many different perspectives. Seeing through the eyes of someone who is not you can show you a lot about yourself – how open or closed you are. It can also inspire further exploration.

I got to know Elizabeth Engstrom years ago when she was organizing the Maui writers’ retreats. (Talk about a sensual setting!) I was impressed with her ability to create multiply layered characters. Since then, she has been in demand as a keynote speaker and has organized some very successful writing retreats. With a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and an MA in Applied Theology, Engstrom knows a lot about the soul of this craft.

It’s no surprise to me that her advice for writing a good sex scene involves loading on the detail. But it’s also more. Her workshops on erotic writing help people learn how to get vulnerable. She’s even held one for men.

In this book, with exercises, you’re challenged to find ways to say things about how something smells or tastes besides the obvious. You must locate your comfort level for writing about sex but also arouse some discomfort. “Discover your boundaries,” says Engstrom, “and then stay on the playing field.”

Men and women differ significantly on what they find erotic, a truth that writers must take seriously. The key to developing the sex scene is to find a point of view and stick with it. Fully engage and fully indulge.

Since Engstrom writes fiction, I asked her which of her own sex scenes she liked.

“My favorite,” she said, “appears in my erotic mystery, Black Leather.

“It plays with a lonely woman, just enough alcohol, and a casual encounter with a man who desires her in a way that she has not ever been wanted before. She is in a foreign location, so she is even more liberated and able to act. There is initial resistance to his approach, but he is persistent. She gives in a little, and by opening the door just a crack, he knows what to do next. There comes a point where she is at the mercy of her lust, and while she is not making ridiculously stupid decisions, there are consequences to her actions.

“This is told from the woman’s point of view, but she is obviously not the only one in the scene, and while he doesn’t say much, he has the power to not only overwhelm her with his sexual energy, but he tries to smoothly move on afterward, putting a crack in her heart and her self-esteem.

“I have written variations of this scene several times, because it is so effective to me.

“Were I to write this scene from a man’s point of view, it would have a considerably different tone.

“In my thriller Baggage Check, there is a scene where both partners are needy, but she has walled off her emotions, believing that a loving relationship is not in the cards for her. He believes in her, he believes in them, and he makes love to her in a way that becomes so emotional that she begins to believe as well.

“These are sex scenes that are intrinsic to the story and to the characters. These scenes dramatize the characters’ pasts (losses) and futures (hopes).

“And that, to me, is the purpose of the sex scene in fiction.”

Using sex scenes to explore feelings, relationships, and primal areas of yourself will enrich your writing. It can also enrich your love life. In fact, not only will Engstrom's advice improve your writing but you can also use the exercises in this book for your own private fun.