In love as it is in war

I promised some friends (and students) that I would talk about how one goes about writing a successful sex scene.  There are a lot of theories about this–one school, for example,  believes that a successful sex scene should titillate. (Do they believe a successful dinner scene should make you hungry? I write my dinner scenes for all sorts of reasons, and making people hungry is only occasionally one of them.)

Me, I believe that a successful sex scene should perform the functions of any other successful scene. It should advance the plot (by which I mean, introduce or resolve tension/conflict); it should illuminate theme; it should develop character; and it should establish setting and evoke mood (this is often shorthanded as “worldbuilding,” but as that’s a term specific to science fiction and fantasy, I try to avoid it–all worlds need to be built for the reader, after all, including our modern one, because Manhattan is not Krakatoa, and vice versa). That, and you have to get the arms and legs in the right places.

I know, it seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

It is, really. A whole lot of work. But that’s pretty much writing in a nutshell. “If it were easy,” my writing partner Sarah Monette often says, “it wouldn’t be fun.”

You know, it might be fun. It might be a whole heck of a lot of fun. But probably nobody would pay us to do it.

So how do you write a good sex scene? Well, first, stop being intimidated by it. It’s just an action scene like any other action scene, and all this cultural freight and baggage we bring to it makes us crazy. So we overcomplicate. Ooops.

Okay, so it’s an action scene. It’s also a conversation, in that two (or more) characters are acting upon and reacting to one another.

So that gives us two starting points. It’s an action scene, and it’s a conversation. That’s two ways of managing the flow of information to the reader, which is really–in many ways–what storytelling is all about.

Well, it happens that there is another sort of scene which is both an action scene and a conversation.

The fight scene.

Curiously–or perhaps conveniently–fight scenes evoke many of the same complex emotions in readers and writers that sex scenes do. Writers fear them or love them; readers read for them–or skip them entirely, on the theory that nothing important happens during them.

I got news. If nothing important happens during your fight or sex scenes, they’re not doing any work, and they need to come out of the book–or they need to be put to work. They do not justify their own existence any more than any other kind of scene does. It’s not enough to just show up naked, despite what the old joke says–you have to do the job while you’re standing there with your pink bits hanging about.

Maybe that’s why sex scenes are so damned awkward….

Ahem. While I’m not suggesting that the proper way to write a sex scene is just to write a fight scene and then change the verbs–

–okay, actually, I am. Or more precisely, I’m suggesting that the same strategies apply to both.

Here are a few tactics that can help.

1) Figure out what the scene is doing and do it.

What is this scene doing in the book? What character development, thematic freight, or important revelation is buried in that sex scene? Why are we here watching this? Where’s the tension? Where’s the conflict?

Find that conflict, get in there, and exploit it.

2) For every action there is a reaction.

In a fight, or a conversation, or a sex scene, or an action scene, characters both act and react. They act out of their personal impulses and experiences; and they react based upon those personal impulses, the actions of the other people involved, and their deep-seated psychological trauma and trigger issues.

3)  Keep it real

I don’t mean that every sex scene needs to be detailed at the level of tabs and slots, but it does mean that unless you are specifically writing erotica, it’s more convincing (and interesting) if a sex scene reflects the little triumphs and awkwardnesses of any human interaction. That in itself, if you stay true to character, will help with the issues of introducing tension and conflict–because people are always in conflict between what they want and what they need.

And nowhere is that more in evidence than when they want and/or need something very badly. Which is often the case in love as it is in war.

16 comments to In love as it is in war

  • Thanks for the great advice!

    I wonder about readers who skip the action scenes thinking that nothing important happens during them. A fight scene has built in tension and conflict, actions and reactions. If a reader doesn’t think that’s important, how can s/he be reached?

  • Hmm . . . there used to be an RSS feed for comments here. Is that no longer the case?

  • Sex and violence — ah, the missing link! There are a couple of other checkpoints for me in writing a sex scene. One is the degree of exxx-plicitness vs. implicitness. Sort of deciding where to point the camera. And the microphone. And the diary of what’s going on in either character’/animal’s/group’s thoughts and emotions. ECU with the camera locked on a tripod with full lighting and you end up with dessert but no nutrition. Catch the shadows and silhouettes, the breathing, glistening flashes and the hiss of fingers through the sheets and it becomes sexuality and sensuousity. Another decision for me as a writer is whether or not the scene is really about some other words, like “love,” “passion” or “romance” — which also incline (recline?) toward the formerly mentioned “sexuality” as opposed to just “sex.” And finally, the framing around the scene has major importance to me. Call it foreplay and aftermath. The latter tends to get more internal, maybe even stream-of-consciousness. But it tells a lot about the degree of emotion in the characters. All of these represenations in a sex scene can be just as significant by their absence as their presence, though sometimes you have to point to that a little, i.e. show it in some overt way as opposed to just leaving a void. Sex is so symbolic and…uh, potent. It’s really a chance to do an emotional blueprint or schematic of your characters. Thanks for broaching this, Elizabeth.

    — Sully

  • David Niall Wilson

    Joe, I will look into it. This site is on an entirely different host, and under my management now…this theme no doubt supports that RSS feed for comments, I just have to find and activate it.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David_N_Wilson and Storytellers, Scribophile. Scribophile said: Writing sex scenes without fear – http://storytellersunplugged.com/blog/2009/11/23/love-and-war/ [...]

  • … despite what the old joke says–you have to do the job while you’re standing there with your pink bits hanging about.

    What are you trying to do, incite another #racefail? :-P

  • [...] Good advice… Great note on writing sex scenes from Elizabeth Bear: Here [...]

  • Lenora Rose

    Joe Iriarte:

    I think that the assumption that fight scenes have inherent conflict is actually part of why some readers (And movie-watchers) skip them. because if a source of conflict, character, and plot is assumed, then there’s no attempt on the writer’s part to actually integrate or illuminate plot or character or theme in the process.

    The most obvious examples come out of the film industry. There are, for instance, several quite extended fight scenes in King Kong where you can ask yourself afterwards: How did that advance the plot? Did it tell us a single thing we didn’t already know about the fighters or the witnesses? Did it highlight a theme or a hitherto unknown aspect of the world?

    And the answer is, quite often, not much. The woman is still running away from the ape and/or clinging to him as her protector. The dinosaurs are still horribly dangerous. The filmmaker is still an egotistical grandstander. The island doesn’t look any different. The plot stops dead for spider pit and/or tyrannosaurus. Whoop-de-do. If you like them for themselves, that’s fine, too, I suppose, but being stuck watching bits of it again on a long plane trip, I was struck by how little story there is between fights.

    Or, of course, almost any car chase ever.

    And yes, I can think of umpteen counterexamples where fights do matter and are interesting; but I would guess fewer readers skip those, because they aren’t set aside with a big marker saying “Look! Obligatory scene of battle!”

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  • Lenora Rose:

    Thanks for the example. I haven’t seen King Kong, but that makes sense to me. As a reader, I’m too OCD to skip anything; if it’s not good, I’ll just read it and get annoyed. *grin* I think Bear’s point and your point indicate a larger issue: everything in a story should change something or reveal something. I’ve read–and written *wince*–plenty of scenes that are just brain candy, just there because “Wouldn’t this be cool?”

  • Elizabeth Bear

    Joe, that’s actually my point. If you check my second paragraph, it’s all about the various things *any* scene should do.

    If it doesn’t, that’s just bad writing.

  • I’ve never thought of a sex scene in terms of advancing the plot or revealing something about my characters. I just wrote them because the timing seemed right for one. Now I’ve got to go back through my MS and make sure I’ve not written sex for sex’s sake. Thanks for the great tip!

  • *grin* Yes, you did say that. Sometimes I have to work around to things in my own slow way is wall.

  • Funny, I found while writing “badbadbad,” a novel about sex, God, rock ‘n’ roll, and the social Web, that the sex and preacher scenes came most easily. Ahem… what’s that say about me? I’ll leave that question for the therapist. Wait, I quit therapy. Guess you best watch out, people.

    As Ms. Bear points out, a sex scene is like any other: it has to “feel real” and the reader has to “be there,” thoroughly engrossed. On a good day or night, that involves some sort of turn-on. But not all sex is a turn-on. So however the scene plays out, it needs to hum with vivid emotional, physical, and psychological detail, not unlike any other part of the narrative, si?

  • [...] In Love as it is in War, Elizabeth Bear [...]

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