Writer's Workbook: Outlining a Sex Scene

October 29, 2014

I just started watching Masters of Sex, the Showtime series based on Thomas Maier's 2009 biography of Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the team whose research in the 1950's broke new ground in the field of human sexuality, particularly human sexual response.

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex.  Image from Huffington Post.
Masters of Sex was developed by Emmy-nominated screenwriter and producer Michelle Ashford, who was involved in The Pacific and John Adams, two shows whose writing blew me away.

Masters and Johnson's research led to our understanding of the sexual response cycle, a cycle of four phases that both men and women experience on their way to orgasm.  The four phases are excitement, plateau, orgasm, and resolution.

Image from WebMD.
Not to get too clinical about stuff, but knowing this cycle can help romance and erotica writers create a basic outline for sex scenes, which can be notoriously difficult to write well.  For me, a good sex scene includes a lot: dialogue, internal dialogue, sensory details.  Underneath it all, this outline serves as my timeline of physical responses.  In other words, this outline is my Christmas tree before I add all the tinsel, popcorn, ornaments, and the star at the top (ahem).

 Here's an explanation of the four phases from WebMD.

Phase 1: Excitement

General characteristics of the excitement phase, which can last from a few minutes to several hours, include the following:
  • Muscle tension increases.
  • Heart rate quickens and breathing is accelerated.
  • Skin may become flushed (blotches of redness appear on the chest and back).
  • Nipples become hardened or erect.
  • Blood flow to the genitals increases, resulting in swelling of the woman's clitoris and labia minora (inner lips), and erection of the man's penis.
  • Vaginal lubrication begins.
  • The woman's breasts become fuller and the vaginal walls begin to swell.
  • The man's testicles swell, his scrotum tightens, and he begins secreting a lubricating liquid.

Phase 2: Plateau

General characteristics of the plateau phase, which extends to the brink of orgasm, include the following:
  • The changes begun in phase 1 are intensified.
  • The vagina continues to swell from increased blood flow, and the vaginal walls turn a dark purple.
  • The woman's clitoris becomes highly sensitive (may even be painful to touch) and retracts under the clitoral hood to avoid direct stimulation from the penis.
  • The man's testicles are withdrawn up into the scrotum.
  • Breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure continue to increase.
  • Muscle spasms may begin in the feet, face, and hands.
  • Muscle tension increases.

Phase 3: Orgasm

The orgasm is the climax of the sexual response cycle. It is the shortest of the phases and generally lasts only a few seconds. General characteristics of this phase include the following:
  • Involuntary muscle contractions begin.
  • Blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing are at their highest rates, with a rapid intake of oxygen.
  • Muscles in the feet spasm.
  • There is a sudden, forceful release of sexual tension.
  • In women, the muscles of the vagina contract. The uterus also undergoes rhythmic contractions.
  • In men, rhythmic contractions of the muscles at the base of the penis result in the ejaculation of semen.
  • A rash, or "sex flush" may appear over the entire body.

Phase 4: Resolution

During resolution, the body slowly returns to its normal level of functioning, and swelled and erect body parts return to their previous size and color. This phase is marked by a general sense of well-being, enhanced intimacy and, often, fatigue. Some women are capable of a rapid return to the orgasm phase with further sexual stimulation and may experience multiple orgasms. Men need recovery time after orgasm, called a refractory period, during which they cannot reach orgasm again. The duration of the refractory period varies among men and usually lengthens with advancing age.
Something else I'd like to add: Masters and Johnson's four phases of sexual response chart kind of looks like Freytag's plot pyramid, the standard diagram for storytelling and creating any plot with a climax:

Image from everwalker.

So just think of it this way: whenever your characters have sex, they're telling their own story-within-a-story, complete with a climax.

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