#112: How to Get Characters out of Bed

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write plot that isn’t porn??? Sometimes the characters have got to get out of bed, or they’ll chafe!!!

—angelsaves (she/her)

Dear angelsaves,

This is a delightful dilemma. My immediate question is, what do the characters want that isn’t sex? I don’t mean instead of, but in addition to. Because even when someone really, really, really wants sex, they want other things too, related or unrelated to the sexual desire.

In the sexual context, the characters might want things from each other/one another such as comfort, love or the appearance of love, a specific sex act, reconnection after time apart, pregnancy or the prevention of pregnancy, a feeling of being recognized or respected or understood in a sexual context, for the sex to go quickly so they can do something else, for the sex to go slowly so as to delay something else, money, a favor, a repayment of a favor… sex is almost never just sex for sex’s sake. Even if it’s all in good clean fun, that itself is a specific thing to want.

Outside of that context, the characters might want things from each other/one another such as… well, anything. If they’re longtime spouses, there might be ordinary household stuff in the back of their minds: chore divisions, mental notes to remind one another about tasks or events. If they’re meeting clandestinely, one might be really tired of keeping the secret and want the other to come out into the open, or loving sneaking around and hoping the other(s) will keep playing along. Or maybe one is a spy and hoping the other(s) will reveal sensitive information during pillow talk. Whatever relationship they have that isn’t about sex, they can want something from or within that relationship. And if their relationship is all about sex, maybe one or more of them wants something different.

Also, they undoubtedly want things that are unrelated to sex or to the person they’re having sex with: success, acclaim, money, time, rest, stability, adventure, all the things humans want.

These desires can point the way toward what the characters do outside of bed, either together or separately. And the combination of desire and action points the way toward plot as the desires are frustrated or achieved, strived for or despaired of.

I’m focusing on what the characters want because it sounds like you’re already very comfortable writing sexual desire and understanding the dynamics of stories where people want something and then get it or don’t. Those dynamics are totally applicable to stories that aren’t about sex. Build on that strength.

If you’re having trouble writing the characters out of bed, start in bed and have them be interrupted. (A thing they suddenly want: to get out of the burning house! Ideally with their clothes on.) Or the non-sex actions can precede, follow, or preclude sex. Maybe write two sex scenes that clearly take place some time apart, and then figure out what would need to happen in the middle to get the characters from A to Z.

Two writing exercises to try:

  1. Take a sex scene you’ve already written, keep all the emotional resonances the same, but turn it into a tennis game or a business meeting or a seven-course dinner or some other non-sexual situation that still has components of direct interaction, specific desires, and mutual satisfaction.
  2. Write a short scene about characters who are physically or psychologically incapable of having any kind of sexual interaction. Take sex off the menu and see what’s left.

Even in the porniest porn, sex scenes are rarely just about sex. You have more expertise than you know in writing non-sex things. Keep practicing it the way you would any other writing skill, and you’ll find your way.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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3 thoughts on “#112: How to Get Characters out of Bed

  1. I’ve had a lot of fun using mind maps to figure out characters’ secondary and tertiary desires, and I think it could be a fun exercise here too.

    If that sounds like something you’d want to try, put your character’s simplified, primary, uncomplicated desire in the center (in this case “sex”) and start creating branches from there asking the question “why”? Why would your character want that?

    Okay, so sex. Why? It’s usually more than just one reason. It could branch out into comfort, gender exploration, experimentation, lust, thrill-seeking, affirming love, nice orgasms and so on. Then take one of those and branch it out again. Okay, so, thrill-seeking. That could branch out into curiosity, maybe boredom, maybe fixation with danger, maybe unresolved feelings from a past experience. By the time you get to the third layer, it’s possible you’ll discover a ton of hidden desires and compulsions.

    So yeah, basically what Story Nurse said, but a visual exercise can really help pin it down, if that’s the way your mind works. (Mine does, but obviously YMMV.)

    I think that while primary desires drive the plot from event to event, secondary and tertiary desires drive the characters on a deeper level and provide the thread that stitches together what would otherwise just be a series of events. And this mind-mapping thing, if that’s your style, can be a pretty neat way to start. Because characters, like humans, will act on conscious and subconscious desires as well as simplified primary ones. It’s what makes them feel like real humans.

    Also, this is now my new favorite Story Hospital question 🙂


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