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Agony Editor: Expert advice on keeping purple prose and erotic clichés out of bedroom scenes

Dear Agony Editor,

(Evan Munday)

I’m working on a sex scene in my novel, but the process has been a little, er, anticlimactic. When it comes to writing dialogue, building tension, whatever, it’s not a problem. But as soon as my characters’ clothes come off, I tense up. I’m afraid I’ll make what I hope to be erotic a joke. Any suggestions on how to write good sex?

Hot and Bothered


Dear Hot and Bothered,

If I had a dime for every time someone approached me for sex advice, I wouldn’t be able to buy much from the Wendy’s value menu. Writing good sex is no small feat. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of stereotypes and clichés. What do you call everything? How do you describe what the characters are doing? And how many times can you put the word “quivering” in a paragraph before readers start rolling their eyes?

I flipped your question to Toronto Public Library’s romance writer-in-residence, Stefanie London, for her take. “Good sex reveals the deepest truth of a person,” the bestselling Harlequin romance writer told me. “What turns your character on? What does that say about them? Harnessing your characters’ emotions is the core difference between a gratuitous sex scene that the reader will skip over, and one that not only resonates but moves the story forward. A good sex scene goes beyond the choreography to delve deeper into character development, and show what that person is like at their most stripped-back and vulnerable. Skip the purple prose, too.”

Wise advice. Avoid the overly descriptive writing. Approach sex the same way you approach any literary device – as a help, not a hindrance. Sex is a functional tool that can further your plot, reveal character, and add depth. In other words, keep the sex meaningful. Write it authentically with a clear purpose and your readers will no doubt enjoy going along for the ride.

Brian Francis is the author of Natural Order and Fruit and is a regular columnist for CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Have a question for Brian? Email info@quillandquire.com.