Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing Sex

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"And Panhuyzen really gives good sex.” ~National Post, August 1999
Sex! Did you hear that, sex! We’re talking about sex today. Oh, what’s that, you don’t want to talk about sex? Well, too bad, we are talking about sex. Sex in the context of fiction that isn’t about sex, but has sex in it, because sex is simply part of the lives of your characters, even if they don’t have sex, in which case not having sex is part of their experience. So we are discussing sex, even if there is no sex.
I’m making a big deal about sex because in literary fiction, it shouldn’t be a big deal. This is essentially the problem: writers may be either uncomfortable or enthusiastic about the sex in their writing, which makes them use language and description in a way that deviates in an obvious way from the rest of their writing style. It becomes jarringly different than the rest of the work. It’s akin to watching a movie in colour, which abruptly switches to black and white for a two minute scene, and reverts back to colour.
Sex is just part of the lives of your characters. They eat, they sleep, the go to work, and they have sex. The treatment for all of these actions should be identical.
Let’s say your character comes home from work:
Cal thumbs the tab on a beercan and steps onto the fire escape and drinks it while watching the sun settle between the skyscrapers downtown. The air is sultry, a swarm of tiny flies swirls and undulates above the street. The beer is a pilsner and it’s too cold to taste. The can sweating in his hand. He finishes it with a few long pulls and immediately wants another. Crosses the threshold and is reaching for the fridge’s handle when he hears a creak from his bedroom. He silently sets down the empty can and moves silently to the threshold. On his bed, asleep in panties and a tank top, is Ella, Ella of a year away in Spain, who said she'd never come back, whose touch he's missed and longed for, all the while remaining painfully chaste, as a kind of penance for letting her leave. 
He lets out a breath, studying her body, her lax features, the glaze of sweat on her darkened skin. He returns to the kitchen and gets that second beer, returns to the bedroom and perches himself on the edge of the bed. Ella’s eyes crack open to regard him as he draws the tab, as the seal squawks and gas escapes the can. “Hi,” he says, and takes a long drink. She lifts herself, and propped on an elbow, reaches for the can.
Don’t cut away. Don’t euphemize the next hour of your story, because man, I want to see what happens. Maintain the level of detail. If you are describing how Cal opens the can – “he slipped his thumb under the tab and flicked it up in a practised move” do not then balk on how Sam handles Ella’s nipple while she’s drinking (in other words, don’t do what I’m doing right now in this semi-family-oriented blog).
Here’s an exercise then. Write the rest of the scene in a voice consistent with the opening. Or rewrite it in your own words and style, and compose the rest in the same voice. Send it to me if you like, and I’ll provide feedback. I’d like to see what other writers will do with it. Please limit your entry to 700 words, and email it to
The above quote from the National Post review – for my 1999 collection of short stories, The Death of the Moon – went, "And Panhuyzen really gives good sex. Messy, complicated, tender, realistic love scenes, and not the unconvincing gymnastics so many writers put in a story to liven things up a bit…” Those were messy, complicated stories, and so was the sex. Stay true, even if your characters don't. ;-)
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen is the author of the short-story collection The Death of The Moon (Cormorant, 1999) and a novel, The Sky Manifest (ECW, 2013).

Go to Brian Panhuyzen’s Author Page