Monday, July 4, 2011

Writing Sex Scenes in YA

Melanie Fishbane
As writers of Young Adult books, I think there’s a tendency to shy away from the complexities of sex because we are writing to a younger audience and there is a certain responsibility that comes with that. Perhaps, someone will think that if there is a sex scene that we are promoting pre-marital sex. Yet, there is also a responsibility to our audience to tell a story that speaks to them. It is an audience that is probably having sex or knows people who are having sex, or, who is thinking about sex. I believe we would be remiss to not include a sex scene if it’s an important part of a character’s overall development.

At Vermont College of Fine Arts, we are encouraged to read novels that use particular techniques or themes that we are working on to help us navigate questions of style. I think that this exercise works well, because it gives us insight into how to write something differently than we had before. This past semester, I read two books, Cassandra Clare’s City of Fallen Angels and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens, in which the authors wrote a sex or make-out scene that was sexual and passionate, but also spoke to the complexities of how it feels to be thinking about being intimate with someone and having sex.
By observing how these authors write their own sex scenes, showed me different ways of approaching this scene in the novel. When Clary and Jace are making out in City of Fallen Angels, Clare combines the perfect amount of heat and intensity with Clary’s desire for Jace, coupled with the uncertainty of how far she wants to go. This fit in perfectly with some of the questions I had with my own character. Knowing that others seem to be asking the same kinds of questions, made me feel better about the scene that I was writing.

When writing the sex scene in my novel, I wanted it to be sexual, sensual and loving. I considered how my character felt to be kissed. What it would taste like to kiss her boyfriend after they’d just had some popcorn at the movies. How his fingertips lightly caressing her bare forearm would feel. I didn’t want to skim over the experience because it was an important development in their relationship that will influence how the characters relate to each other later in the novel.

I didn’t want the encounter to be perfect though. I remembered as a teen feeling confused and surprised at how my body responded to someone’s touch and my insecurities of my own “sexual talents,” so I tapped into that and used it in the scene. I wanted my character to have some of these insecurities. As she is enjoying the way he kisses her softly on the nape of her neck, she is worried if she’s doing it right. As he moves his hand up her thigh, she’s excited but also scared as to what will happen next.

At VCFA, I’m learning by reading other authors work, I can read as an observer, taking notes at how other authors do things, then incorporate those techniques into my stories.

Melanie Fishbane is starting her second semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. With over fifteen year working in YA/Kids lit at various Canadian book chains, she decided it was time to write one herself. She writes book reviews for the Canadian Children’s Book News and is active with online communities promoting children’s literature, Laura Ingalls Wilder and L.M. Montgomery. You can see her blogging about writing, YA and her love of classic children’s lit at . Feel free to contact her with any questions about this post or the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program at


  1. Alas, I haven't kissed a girl since LBJ was in office.
    Loose Lips Sink Ships

  2. Thanks for the advice. I just finished Carolyn Mackler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I also like her approach.

  3. I think sex scenes are a part of the teen experience and an important part of the literature. I also think that including the holistic experience: the thoughts, feelings and reactions is key part of the event. There's already a venue for descriptions of the physical side only in porn. Hopefully YA goes beyond that.

  4. Some really good ideas here on how to make a sexually tense scene work well and feel real. You gave me a lot to think about here :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  5. What a great post. I've only written one YA sex scene, and it was awkward, embarrassing and over very quickly -- so, just like the real thing when I was sixteen!

  6. "I think sex scenes are a part of the teen experience..."

    Not this teen's experience. Sigh...
    Frustrated In Limine

  7. I agree, it's disingenuous to skip over teen sexuality if you're writing YA. Sex is an integral aspect of growing up. The most important thing is honesty. If you can dig into your own experience, it just adds verisimilitude. Thanks, Melanie.

    I'm really looking forward to featuring more VCFA articles Tuesdays in August, on my blog, On Beyond Words & Pictures

  8. Thanks for all of your wonderful comments. If this blog post helps you in any way, than my job is done. :)

  9. As a young adult, I think books which avoid the sex scene-Stephanie Meyer did this quite well, earning her books the satiric name of 'Mormon anti-porn'-are more than a little ridiculous. Unnecessary sex is just as ridiculous, but if you know that the sex itself is crucial to character and/or story development, then you know it needs to be included.

    That said, I haven't written a lot of first-sex scenes. My characters aren't that innocent.

  10. What an interesting post, thank you. Your examples certainly adds to the appeal of this topic. Thank you.

  11. Excellent post. As always, Pen and Ink tackles the nitty-gritty of writing. For me, sex scenes have to be realistic. That means the fumbling, embarrassment and emotional quotient involved when the act of love is still fairly new.

    What I think should be added (in both books TV and movies) is the angst about a condom - to use or not to use? And should the male ever stop to ask if the girl is on the pill, or some other pregnancy protection?

    When characters in books and movies hop into bed without giving a thought to these matters, it makes teens feel like, "WOW, they do it, so I guess it's fine for me to go without protection too!"

    By all means write passionate sex scenes, but responsible authors and producers should make sure that somewhere in the plot, before or after sex, the characters talk, think, or ask questions about just how dangerous unprotected sex can be - even with someone you THINK you know. An unwanted pregnancy can cut short college dreams,and career potential for both parties. Some concern about this needs to be woven into every story that includes a passionate sex scene.

    My opinion about this comes from being the mother of 3 now grown children, and observing the messes some of their friends had to deal with because they thought they could act like TV and book characters without paying a price. My kids and I had many discussions about all these matters. + the pleasure, risks and the responsibilities involved.

    Margot’s Magic Carpet
    Books With a WOW Factor

  12. "Pen and Ink tackles the nitty-gritty of writing."
    That's right, Margot. We pride ourselves on our fearless, feckless look at the art and craft of Children's Literature. No subject too sacred. No book too taboo.

    Now if only we could get our Mexican-In-Residence to stop flirting with our readers.
    The Management

  13. Margo is always in there tackling the nittiest and grittiest. She has exposed the elephant in the room that everyone else ignored. Examining the consequences is the only way to rise above porn.

  14. I have been writing several sex scenes for a project. I like your post, and a few points you made I wanted to re-emphasize. First, you are telling a story about a character, not about yourself. If that character would have premarital sex then it is your right and responsibility as an author to be true to that. It isn't your job to worry about your own morality or even that of the reader: the only thing that matters is the moral code of the character, if you wish to write something honest and genuine. Also, as you point out, sex is part of life experience; sexuality shapes us to such an extent throughout our lives, that to leave it out seems like a huge omission in human experience.


We love hearing from you.