"You are not writing a sex scene. You are writing intimacy that reveals the character." ... "The reason you take characters into bedroom is because there are things that can't be revealed anywhere else." --ZA Maxfield
Despite having those quotes ready, I wasn't originally planning on writing an entry about sex scenes today. Then I realized that, if all goes well with the little story I'm working on tonight, I'll be writing a sex scene tomorrow. So let's talk.
Part of the reason I like those quotes so much is that they're the best way to approach sex scenes I've ever read. I don't think such scenes should be gratuitous, done just to titillate the reader or (gods forbid) just to keep them reading. If your characters are going to have sex, there should be reasons behind it based in their characterization and the plot. Otherwise, really, what's the point? There was a time when I thought about including a sex scene in the final part of Skyborne, but I deleted that sentence from the plot not long after writing it, because it didn't serve any real purpose. I thought it would show how far the main character had come over the course of her story, but as it turned out, a rather intimate conversation did the job just as well.
...my computer's MP3 player is now playing Garbage's "Sleep Together". I knew this thing had a sick sense of humor.
I think what's most important about a sex scene shouldn't be that the characters are having sex, but why. It seems obvious, but it's also something I'd never seen discussed or even mentioned until I found the above quotes. It should be important, not necessarily a pivotal moment but something that leads to a change in the character(s) or the plot itself. In other words, it should be just like any other part of the story.
Years ago, I was talking about writing with my dad (he's not a writer, but he builds bicycles in his basement with fire and steel, and that's cool too), and he told me about an interview he'd read with a writer. I don't remember the author now, but what he said stuck with me: everything that happens needs to advance the plot. Every scene, every conversation, every action.
Even if the conversation is limited to grunts and other assorted noises and the action can't be shown on network TV.
Looking back at my bookshelves, there's only a handful of volumes there
that have sex scenes in them, and in most, they serve the purposes I've discussed here. Those scenes show things about characters that wouldn't appear otherwise. Those scenes represent changes, turning points, breaking with the old and joining with the new. Above all, they are essential parts of those stories. I hadn't really thought it before, but that's definitely part of why those books have their places on my shelves.
A final note: the lead character in Skyborne, Shiloh, floats above whatever solid surface is beneath her and has never touched the ground. I've been asked what her sex life is like more than anything else about her. Seriously.