Sex & Violence
Of all the scenes to ever trouble the weary fingers of the career author, those which rely on sex or focus on action and violence are the most difficult to write—and, from the writer’s own perspective, often the least satisfying. Both involve the same two hang-ups: action, and intense and passionate emotion, which can be difficult to convey in swift and sudden fashion.
This, of course, is how you often want the heart of an intense scene to progress: buildup aside, you want things to proceed briskly, rather than getting lost in the details. The mind of the reader needs just enough to work with so that they can fashion an image of what’s going on for themselves.
With that in mind, how should you go about conveying this kind of imagery, ensuring that enough bridges the gap between writer and reader—without knocking the reader’s head against the wall, just to remind them that it’s there?
Pace Your Scene
The Devil is in the details… so avoid them. Use the buildup to your sex or action scene to establish atmosphere. Describe a few important details; when you visualize the scene itself, what stands out? Is it the color of the room, or the texture of a wall—perhaps as someone’s fingertips run along uneven masonry? Does the creaking of a bed remind your main character of the treehouse that their long-vanished father built for them as a child? Establish atmosphere before reaching the heart of the scene, using colorful, vivid, but increasingly clipped detail.
Your audience will remember the atmosphere. Now, it’s all about the action. Think of it as the foreground to the atmosphere’s background. Describe actual action in minimalist terms—whether it’s combative, or sexual… or both, if you’re into that sort of thing. Be sparse with your description, but make sure that what you do use is well-written and relevant. As a rule, you shouldn’t describe superfluous detail that stands starkly in contrast to the atmosphere you’ve already laid out.
With the conclusion of your action sequence, hearken back to the atmosphere briefly, just to tie it all together. Make a final, departing reference to the texture of the wall, or the creaking of the bed, before you continue with your story. Unlike the buildup to an action scene, the ensuing story can return to its previous pace abruptly—not without acknowledgement, but some of the most accomplished authors in existence manage this with a short paragraph, if not a single sentence.
The transition from the main force of an action scene, back to dialogue or narrative, can be as abrupt as the action itself.
Know What You’re After in Advance
The broad strokes of this are obvious (“it’s a fight sequence with the villain,”) but let’s take things one step further than that.
By overcomplicating an action sequence, you risk giving your reader too much to absorb. Sudden changes, such as points that profoundly affect the narrative, need to be indulged quickly—or else they run the risk of interrupting the scene. That’s sometimes a desirable thing, but certainly not always.
Suppose that you’re writing a tense Victorian crime thriller. Your heroine is a young heiress who spends her night fighting for London’s impoverished lower classes—mask and all, although her primary tools are her father’s dueling pistol and her brother’s rapier. You’re writing a scene where she finally comes upon the villain she’s been pursuing. The setup is quick; there is both cause and vengeance at steak. You’ve laid the groundwork: a fiery intensity of emotion, a keening Warrior Princess cry that leaves her foe backpedaling, and our femme fatale draws first blood.
In so doing, she unmasks her foe—revealing the face of her brother, whom she had thought dead, and for whom she had been seeking vengeance all along.
I’ll even give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there’s more to the story than that, Shyamalan. Her brother, as it turns out, isn’t the villain at all: he’s been working against the same forces that she’s been fighting, the whole time, but he always did his best to hinder her progress and—in so doing—keep her out of harm’s way.
He’s less interested in the greater good, and more in avenging an unfair slight against his family’s honor. He’s done terrible, horrible things in the act of pursuing his vengeance. Your heroine is confused, and she wants answers, but that rage is still there—she knows what he’s done. She’s seen him do it. The righteous fury of the cause rises to the surface…
It’s a bit much, isn’t it? To be conveyed during a fight scene?
You’ve got two choices here. Progress the action scene for a time, giving your reader some satisfying, adrenaline-pumping excitement, before the unmasking of the noble heroine’s brother. The foe can appear to be toying with her, only to have it later revealed that he was simply trying to avoid doing her any harm.
Once he is unmasked, have the heroine stagger; convey a cold, hard shock, and shift things into a tense dialogue to explain what’s going on.
The other option is to continue the fight. In place of cold shock, there is the fiery anger of betrayal; the heroine redoubles her efforts against her treacherous brother, who is not so unwilling to do her harm that he is willing to risk his vendetta by falling to her sword. The two continue fighting, but there is brief, clipped dialogue intermixed with the action—don’t use four words, when three will do, and only cover the broadest possible details. Major revelations should pause, if not end, the scene.
Too many people get lost in the scope of the detail with an action scene that’s important enough to have more at stake than the simple result of the action itself. They try to introduce new plot elements mid-fight, to change the atmosphere entirely, or to introduce lengthy, interruptive dialogue in between every act involved. This kind of thing bogs an action scene down, and is better reserved for the consequence of a scene—not the mid-point. Full paragraphs and a sudden mood change is a transitory point, not something to indulge in while the bullets are flying.
Pace your Writing
We’ve gone over pacing a scene, but there’s something else to remember about pacing: it applies to your actual writing habit. The greatest writers all say the same thing: “just write.” Sit down, and write. Write until you don’t have anything else to write. Write until you’ve hit the end of your ideas and you’re rambling—then ramble some, before stopping.
Never, ever “edit as you go.” Editing as you go is writer’s block waiting to happen. It’s 100% assurance of dissatisfaction with your own work, and for something as important as an action scene, you don’t want to second-guess yourself unto eternity.
With sex and violence, it’s more crucial than ever that you just… keep… going, until you’re done, and then don’t let yourself change anything right away! Continue writing your story. Write it until the end. Write subsequent action scenes; during the editing process, what you’ve written later may inform some minor tweaks you want to make to what came before, but you’ll be far more likely to be happy with what you’ve written in context. Editing sex or violence as it’s written is the surest way to wind up mired in what I like to call “porn syndrome:” too much detail, not enough reality.
Trust Your Reader, Trust Yourself
This point is critical, but is too often overlooked: you need to relax. Your reader knows what they’re after in a story. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to convey the desired imagery for this scene in the same way that you’ve held your reader’s attention thus far. By the same token, you should also trust that your reader is enjoying your story; if they’ve made it to the sex, or the action, they want to appreciate the scene—but they also want to know what’s coming next. It’s very unlikely that anything you’re likely to do, if you relax and let the words flow, is going to shatter their immersion or ruin their appreciation of your work.
By staying true to yourself—to your vision, your established style, your existing techniques—everything will most likely turn out fine, without a lot of hassle.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen
As a writer who has spent the last couple of years trying to transition into new genres and mediums, I’d be very interested in what you have to say about this, or any of my other articles concerning advice for writers. If you have questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to share them in a comment below.
If there’s anything I’ve left out, such as some strategy which has worked well for you in the past? Share it in a comment as well—for the benefit of anyone else who might come along!