Want To Write Erotic Fiction? Here Are 6 Tips From One Of Britain's Top Authors

Photo: George Thwaites
Sarah Hall is an English novelist and poet whose critically acclaimed second novel, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She is the author of Madame Zero, a new collection of erotic short stories. Here is her advice on how to write about sex.
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Cock and bull
A lot of sex is badly written because terminology and phrasing is very hard to get right. Think carefully about which words to use and which to avoid. There’s no blacklist, but there are obvious culprits – pumping, thrusting, etc. Some terms for body parts or activities may seem clichéd or pornographic, others too medical. There is, in addition, centuries’ worth of political freight attached to sexual language and congress, usually in relation to women. But what a word conveys, its associations and resonances, can work for an author. Think about who is narrating a scene or the episode in question, the characters involved and in what context they have come together. Stick to those metrics for wording, and, for that matter, logical interaction (or illogical interaction, if that’s appropriate; sex isn’t rational, after all). Slang can be deployed for a number of reasons – idiom, taboo, power, provocation. But if it’s being used simply because an author has reached for ‘the common language of sex’, while failing to create their own language, in keeping with the language of the surrounding text, this incongruity will show.
Beware metaphors!
Breasts like ripe melons. Her flower of love. Her silky badge. His magnificent sword. These images conjure a kind of surreal, literal, Dalí-esque anatomy. They may create comedic effect, they may be attempting coyness or cleverness, but they do not create naturalism, mood, they do not convince or suspend disbelief. While sex and romance might have inspired historical bardic composition, deeply poetic language should be left in the hands of the (very few) expert poets. Sexual interaction may be at times romantic, elative, godly-feeling, or it may be conversely hideous, uncomfortable, embarrassing. That doesn’t mean the descriptive dial needs to be set to maximum. Words are the activators or the assassins of a reader’s imagination – erotic or otherwise. In an attempt to describe a meaningful human interaction, linguistic over-enthusiasm might ruin a piece of text. I wonder how many sexual occasions have really been worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet? Let’s be honest.
More tea, vicar?
Sex in literature is primarily experienced by the characters involved. The reader is a witness, but not really a participant. An author should think carefully about the legitimacy and purpose of including a sex scene. Like any other event or development in plot, is it right, and is it necessary? What purpose does sex serve within a story? Where pornography seeks to directly arouse a reader or viewer, in fiction things are more complicated. A reader’s arousal might occur if a scene is well described, visceral, seductive, real-seeming, and a reader may experience other emotions and sensations as well if the sex in question compasses other human complexities, feelings, histories, as much sex does. But readers’ arousal is a byproduct. Although a writer hopes to affect a reader with story, atmosphere, character, and the world created, sex scenes must have integrity – that is to say, they serve their host story first. Something written to deliberately shock, titillate or GET ATTENTION, will be seen and dismissed as such.
Throw out the manual
Sex is not an act, but a series of acts, and takes in the realm of fantasy. Nor does sex serve a single purpose, or always yield the same result. It can be successful or unsuccessful, transcendental, rote, violent, boring, illicit, aborted, silly, cataclysmic, drunken, ecstatic, mechanical, virginal, habitual...etc. Writing the nuts and bolts chronology of an encounter (He put his hand there, then she did this with her mouth) may reduce the potency, important elements, and ‘truthfulness’ of what often goes beyond a simple physical act. Don’t fixate on timelines and routes, as if walking the dog along a familiar path. Time is often a metaphysical thing during sex anyway. Watch out for those poetic flower bombs, but have licence to be artistic. In some instances, lacuna works best. If sex is more powerful or relevant off the page, beginning a sentence, ‘Afterwards, she went home…’ is a good option.
Do you have to be having it to write about it?
No! The imagination is a phenomenally powerful device. Without it, a writer might be stuck in a constructivist, phenomenologist world of only knowing about, and therefore only being able to recount, experiences that she has had. Luckily, we’re equipped with this fabulous multi-dimensional feature in the head that allows us to escape our personal limitations – part projector, part intuitive, part empathic, part fantasist. Sex begins in the brain. Desire is physical, animal, but it’s also cerebral. Every sexual act written down, unless autobiographical, is a created fantasy anyway between other people/characters. The very act of writing about it disengages an author – so take permission to write what is already ‘other’. Top tip for intrepid researchers, though – change all names.
Great lovers
Never mind these tips – read other writers who write about sex well. I can’t stress enough how important it is to see how talented experts have done it, and think about how they have succeeded, stylistically, intellectually, individualistically. Ask readers you trust for recommendations. My favourite writer on sex and eroticism is James Salter. His two novels A Sport And A Pastime and Light Years, are astonishingly deft, insightful, and fearless. Reading his work is quite the masterclass!
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall (Faber) is out today.
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