Writing advice from Sally Rooney

I read Normal People in 2019 in a one-day sprint, drawn into the story and the lives of the characters. This year Normal People was made into a series screened on the BBC. I watched it over a weekend, completely immersed in the story again, and particularly moved by the music.

For me, this was a story about how hard it is to say what you feel, and at points to even know what you feel. It’s a story of how we can misread another person’s words and expressions with huge impact. It’s a story of how to love someone can be to give them a type of power over you, a power that should be respected.

It felt profound to watch this story of love and misunderstanding in a time where we are all covering most of our faces and have lost even more of the social cues that give us a hint of what the person we’re talking to might be feeling. How odd it must be to fall in love at this time.

One of the things that has been spoken about a lot in the media around the series is the sex scenes (there are plenty) and how intimate and beautiful they were. The Guardian wrote about the fascinating role of intimacy coordinators in Normal People and in the film world in general. These coordinators are vital in keeping the actors safe and feeling comfortable with what they’re doing. I highly recommend watching the video clip on the Guardian to understand just how profound it is, and how new it seems for many directors, to care about this.

Many writers find sex scenes difficult to write. In fact, there is a whole award for writing terrible sex scenes each year. So, I thought it was interesting to read what Sally Rooney had to say for OprahMag about writing the sex scenes in Normal People. Perhaps this framing of it as a dialogue is exactly why they worked so well.

I hope you enjoy this bit of advice.

When I hear the phrase “sex scene,” I think about a dialogue scene. What do these characters want to say to each other? I won’t just write a scene where two characters say words to each other randomly. Similarly, sex scenes have to actually play some dramatic role. If I locate something that’s being exchanged between them in an emotional sense, or that’s changing the dynamic between them, I’ll have to follow them through the scene. I want to be there because otherwise we don’t get a sense that anything’s changed.

Sally Rooney as interviewed by Oprah Mag