Written by Travis Maiuro from the Script Lab
Sex sells, right? And it doesn’t seem like that’s going to change anytime soon. So since sex is going to continue to sell, then it goes without saying that love scenes in movies are forever essential. And the thing about love scenes: they pop up everywhere. A script doesn’t need to be some epic romance to feature some steamy lovemaking. I mean, hey, love makes the world go ‘round, doesn’t it? Why wouldn’t it be everywhere from action movies to fantasy to comedy? Love scenes are crucial and if they’re that ever-present, it would be beneficial to nail (no pun intended) down your sex scene writing skills. Writing these scenes may be awkward for some but let me tell you firsthand, reading poorly written ones is even more awkward. The trick is to avoid being cringe-worthy (obviously) but the problem is that love scenes have the most cringe-inducing traps into which you can fall. Remember, you’re not trying to write HBO’s next soft-core porno. Or maybe you are, in which case, more power to you. You do you. But for this scenario, we’re going to stick to the more mainstream, hope you don’t mind.
Take a cue from romance novels. Seriously.
If you’ve ever cracked open one of those novels that literally feature just some dude’s chiseled abs on the cover (come on, haven’t you ever been curious enough to peek inside one of those when no one has been looking?), you’ll know that it’s filled to the brim with sex scenes. So many, in fact, that the author must find new and unique ways to write them or risk becoming repetitive. Granted, this can also spell the downfall of some romance novels — iron-hard tumescence and passion-moistened depths should never be used as stand-ins for penis and vagina in your screenplay. But even those embarrassing descriptors speak to what makes romance novels work: they clearly have fun with sex scenes while actually putting thought into them. As should you. If you don’t want to get caught browsing the romance section of your local bookstore or library, head over to the iBooks store or Kindle store on your tablet — they have plenty of free romance novels in which you can take a peek. Note the way the writer enjoys the process of writing sex scenes — they’re not mechanical or stale. A stage direction of “They have sex” might get to point, yes, but does it make for a good read?
Innuendos can work wonders.
There’s something to be said about romantic films from the 30’s and early 40’s that fell under the strict tutelage of the Hays Code: many still found a way to be sexy and romantic despite the suffocating and puritanical grip of law. Take a look at It Happened One Night and the famous “Walls of Jericho” scene. No skin is shown, no actual kissing — just the dropping of a bed sheet separating two different beds to signify lovemaking. It’s an act that tells us everything we need to know, without spelling anything out. It’s clever and classic and still puts a knowing smirk on your face, 84(!) years later. This isn’t to recommend that you put a tight, Hays code-esque leash on yourself. Rather, take from these films lessons in subtlety and restraint in your writing. Allow these films of yesteryear to inspire some thought in your work. Just because you can get away with showing two people going at it in all their glory, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to — at least not in such straightforward ways. If your script calls for it (and it most likely does), find more creative ways to stage your sex scenes.
We’re living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp world now and it’s important for your script to take this into account. Some may laugh and scoff at this but movies and TV can change minds for the better, something that has been proven time after time. I don’t want to call it subliminal messaging because, well, that just has a negative ring to it, but making an effort to write movies that promote sex and love scenes that everyone can enjoy may help turn the tide. Sure, it’s comparatively small to the much bigger issues, but it could go a long way in terms of shaping the views and minds of the people watching. However, please, don’t get preachy about it. Remember that you’re writing a movie and not an awards show rant. Don’t force your characters to be someone they’re not or steer your script in a direction it shouldn’t take simply to “craft a message.” Let the story be the story — but if there’s room for it, try and do your part. And what exactly is it? It all boils down to equality. Equality in the little things: nudity equality, sex scenes that aren’t simply just a straight man’s wet dream, sex scenes that give the woman the initiative. If the story allows for it, take a moment to think how the scene can be tweaked in order to be a little more equal. And don’t think that you can just throw the woman on top and call it a day.
Know your tone, know your audience.
Arguably more important than all of the above is staying aware of your script’s tone when writing your sex scene. If your movie is a raunchy comedy, get raunchy in your writing style. Don’t suddenly start writing a sex scene that takes itself too seriously, straight out of Fifty Shades. Unless, of course, you’re spoofing it, but even so, your writing style should reflect the humor. Take a look at the following examples and how the writing style of the sex scene fits into the overall tone of the film.
From Bridesmaids, written by Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig:
The film is obviously comedic in tone and the writing for the sex scene falls in line. This is more dialogue-heavy than other examples, but that’s because much of the comedy lies in the talk. But Wiig and Mumolo still find a way to be humorous in their love scene writing: their writing here is minimal and to-the-point, but using words like sweaty, vigorous, and bounces SUPER FAST tells us what we need to know while also being playful. They also write in the use of cuts and camera directions (which, of course, is frowned upon by some, but who cares, this movie turned out to be a modern classic). These directions help visualize the sex scene while also, again, adding to the comedy of it all. The cuts act almost as punch lines here.
From Moonlight, written by Barry Jenkins:
It goes without saying that Moonlight and Bridesmaids could not be more different and that’s reflected in the scripts’ respective writing styles. In this Moonlight scene, hesitation is important here — if these two go through with this, everything changes. So the scene takes its time. An intimacy is created. Like the film as a whole, Jenkins’s writing style here is poetic. There’s almost something novelistic about it. But the key thing here is the pace of the text, the deliberate slowness of it. It takes its time as a way to echo the nervousness and hesitation Chiron feels about his sexuality.
From Thelma & Louise, written by Callie Khouri:
We have two parallel love scenes going on here featuring the script’s two main characters. And, in a way, the love scenes say a lot about both women. In Thelma’s scene, it’s about the visuals, the symbolic. Callie Khouri makes an effort to detail the scene, as it’s very important for Thelma — she’s making big strides in taking control of her life here, allowing her ring to be removed. Her love scene needs no words — and no actual sex, at least at the moment. With the help of J.D., Khouri gives Thelma’s love scene a playfulness, despite the consequences of it. And then we have Louise’s love scene, which comes off more mature, more seasoned. It’s more spare and to-the-point than Thelma’s scene. There’s a familiarity present here, which Khouri gets across in the lack of text. There’s no need for too much detail — these two know what they’re doing.
From Basic Instinct, written by Joe Eszterhas
Here we have the longest sex scene example, which makes sense, given that it’s Basic Instinct. Romantic thriller, sex thriller — sex is the engine for this type of script. And clearly: this is the opening scene, the entire opening page. This is our introduction and Joe Eszerthas wastes no time getting down to business. Note the way the scene is written like a fight scene in an action movie — multiple paragraph breaks to pick up the pace, use of ellipses to pull us in. His word usage keeps it as sexy as can be — of all the examples, this is the closest thing to one of those aforementioned romance novels (and that, of course, is no insult).
And there we have it. The next time you come across a sex scene in a script you’re reading, pay close attention to the style of it, the way it fits into its tone and genre (or doesn’t). And when you next find yourself writing a love scene in your own script, keep these tips in mind. Enjoy the process of it — it’s sex! Why wouldn’t you be excited about it? Find room to embrace equality if your script calls for it. And remember, subtle innuendo can be your friend.
Write well, love well.
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Photo credit: 20th Century Fox