Monday, August 12, 2013

Sex and Sword Fights

First off, I want to thank everyone who helped spread the word and make The Legend of Eli Monpress's turn as the Kindle daily deal a HUGE success! I made it to #9 in the overall paid Kindle store. NINE. For a few glorious hours there, I was #1 in Fantasy. The Eli in me is most pleased! (Now I just have to make it to #1 in all of Amazon, BWA HA HA HA!)

Seriously, thank you all so much! And if you're one of the lovely, lovely people who bough my book over this last week, I'm so glad to have you!

Now, let's talk about sex and fighting, cause that's how we roll here.

Sex and Sword Fights

Way back in the day, when I was but a wee little newly published author at her very first convention, I was put on a panel called "Writing Sex and Combat Scenes." Now, at that time, I hadn't actually written any sex scenes for publication, but I had written a lot of sword fights, and I guess half-qualified was good enough.

I don't remember much about the actual panel (I think we went off topic a lot, though saying "authors went off topic at a convention panel" is like saying "dogs went off topic when they saw a squirrel"), but that implied connection between sex and combat has stuck around in the back of my head ever since. It's only now, though, with 9 additional books, multiple sex scenes, and uncountable sword fights (as well as gun fights, fist fights, ship fights, and myriad other forms of conflict) under my belt that I've really begun to understand just how true the premise of that panel was. And so, to prevent you, lovely reader, from having to slog through all of the above as well, I'd like to take fifteen hundred words or so to talk about how writing sex scenes and writing fight scenes both work pretty much the exact same way.

Since this post is about to go R-Rated and slightly NSFW (assuming your boss is reading over your shoulder, I promise/apologize that there are no pictures), here is a cut to protect those who'd rather not be assaulted with this sort of How To on a Monday morning. ;)

0) A Quick Clarification
First up, I think I should clarify that when I say "sex scenes," I'm not actually talking about writing the physical act of bumping organs together (though I will get into that, so get all your best "sword fight" sex puns ready). I mean the combined romantic scenes between two characters, of which sex is only a part. Likewise, when I say "sword fight," I mean any sort of combat scene where conflict and tension are running high, which may or may not include actual swords. That stated, "Structural Similarities Between Romantic and Combat Scenes" didn't have quite the same ring to it as "Sex and Sword Fights," so here we are. Sorry for any confusion.

1) Why Are Sex and Sword Fights the Same?
On the surface, romance and war might seem like opposites. I mean literal opposites, as in love and hate, tenderness and brutality, etc. That said, you don't need Pat Benatar singing Love is a Battlefield on repeat to have picked up that loving and fighting have a lot of parallels, especially regarding the way they both fit into a narrative structure, such as a novel. The reason for this is tension.

I've said many many times that all of writing is really just tension management, but nowhere is this truer than with love scenes and fight scenes. Think about your favorite romantic scene. Chances are, there was a LOT of build up before hand. Maybe you'd been waiting years (or at least an entire book) for those characters to get together. You knew it was going to happen, but things just kept getting in the way, and by the time they actually did kiss/screw, you were as ready for them to get on with it as they were.

Now, think of your favorite fight. There was probably a lot of build up there, too. Maybe this fight had been a long time coming, or maybe the villain had defeated the heroes before and it was time for some well deserved pay back.

In both of these situations, the author used tension to get you hyped up about the conflict in question. They played you like a fiddle, piling on twist after twist and scene after scene until you were desperate to reach the conclusion. Once you got there, all they had to do was make good on the promise of the build up, and you were in reader heaven.

This is what tension does: it excites, it entices, it makes you turn the page. Of course, this is not to say that skillful prose doesn't also play a big role. Good writing is always important, but tension is the motor that makes it go. It doesn't matter if you've written the most gripping, beautiful sword fight ever committed to paper if you can't instill that need to find out what happens next. Fortunately, the mechanics of tension are fairly predictable if you know what you are doing.

To use a sexual metaphor (because if there was ever a post for a sexual metaphor, this is it), creating gripping tension is all about anticipation. A skilled lover doesn't go right for the goal, pedal to the metal the whole way. They tease and entice, building you up to the edge before backing off and coming in from another angle. Only at the end when you're out of your mind do they finally go all the way, and the climax is all the better for it. (For a less lusty, more technical analysis of narrative tension, see my tension mechanics post over at Magical Words or the chapter on tension in 2k to 10k).

On a book level, this rise and fall cycle is often achieved by having a series of escalating fights/romantic embraces that finally culminate in a climax (in many ways, wink/nudge). If you've ever read any sort of traditional Romance novel or paranormal romance, you've already seen this winning formula in action. The main couple will come together multiple times, each one going a little further into physical and emotional intimacy, until they finally get their big finale/confession, quickly followed by their happily ever after. Likewise, in a combat story, there will be a series of bigger and bigger fights (some of which might actually be defeats that the characters will recover from and vow vengeance for) leading up to a climactic final battle with the big baddie. Fighting anime/manga where the hero has to fight a series of ranked escalating battles to reach the final fight is the most stark/simplistic example of this.

On a scene level, sex and fight scenes also follow similar tension arcs. Both generally start off with tension between two parties (unresolved sexual tension or threat acknowledgement, such as walking into a bar they've already been warned is a hotbed for murderous thugs) and then there is an escalation to a tipping point. For example, the hero saves the heroine from a run away carriage only to find she is now trapped beneath him, her curves pressing delightfully into his body, or, in the combat case, the loud angry man at the bar has finally said something unforgivable, forcing the heroine to draw her sword and teach him some manners even though he is much bigger than her. It is after this point that the actual fighting/loving finally occurs (and usually either ends in an unsatisfactory way or is cut off prematurely to keep the tension rolling for the next scene).

The details are always different, but as you see, the general shape of these scenes is the same. But then again, the devil's in the details, isn't he? It's easy to talk about building tension in the abstract, but how can this arc structure actually be achieved inside a narrative? How do you actually write a good fight/love scene?

Well, writing's not paint by numbers, so I can't tell you for sure. I can, however, tell you two guidelines I've discovered that can at least help keep you from writing bad ones.

2) It's the Who and the Why, not so much the What
Penny Arcade illustrates the conundrum nicely, I think.

One of the biggest to avoid when digging down into the actual writing of a fight or a romantic scene is getting caught up in the What. What does the sword look like? What is he doing with his feet? What is she wearing?What kind of fighting style are we using? What are they doing with their tongues?

These details might seem vitally important (and they are important, make no mistake), but the thing to always keep in mind is that the What of a scene is never as important as the Who and the Why. It doesn't matter how technically perfect your sword fight is if we don't understand and care about who is doing the fighting and why we should care. Likewise, a sex scene can be erotic and titillating as hell, but it will never be really moving and important unless we as authors give readers the information they need to understand who these people are and why their loving making matters.

Because of this, a fight scene or a love scene must also be a character scene that moves the plot forward. I've heard several people, even other authors describe action scenes and sex scenes like expected treats for the reader. "Oh, this part of the book is getting boring, let's throw in a sword fight/shower scene to spice things up!"

This sort of thinking boggles my mind, mostly because it's such a horrid waste. The reason sex and fighting are so magnetic is precisely because of their enormous potential to change people and situations. It doesn't matter how awesome that spaceship battle is, if nothing changes, if there's no momentum, then the scene is pointless, and nothing drags a story down like a pointless scene even if it is full of orgasms and/or explosions.

Like every scene in a novel, fight scenes and love scenes have to earn their keep by moving the plot forward and revealing information. That said, the combination of our natural interest in sex and violence combined with character development and plot reveals can make for some amazing moments. By keeping our eyes on the prize and our scenes focused on the Who (characters) and the Why (plot/character development), we can take the What (humping/stabbing) from "interesting by default" to "absolutely amazing." A well done fight/sex scene that combines inventive and exciting details with character growth and plot twists can easily become someone's favorite part of a novel, and understanding why that is, and how to pull it off in your own work, is a invaluable skill.

3) Conflict is King
This overlaps a bit with point 2, but I really wanted to end this post on the most important aspect of any love/fight scene: character conflict.

If you've ever watched any sort of fighting anime (Dragonball Z, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, etc.), you might have noticed that the characters spend a lot of time talking, usually in the middle of fighting. Sometimes there's even a character watching a fight on the sidelines for the sole purpose of providing commentary.

On the surface, this seems unspeakably silly. Are we really supposed to believe that two enormously overpowered super beings locked in mortal combat are pausing between blows to monologue at each other? But this seemingly out of place, over-explaining dialogue is actually serving a vital narrative purpose. By having the characters talk while they fight, often about each other and their respective reasons for fighting, the author is injecting character conflict into what would otherwise be an endless series of blows (and breaking the tension up into more manageable chunks in the process).

Now, some authors do this better than others, but the general idea is always the same. Characters talk while fighting because 1) it's probably their only opportunity for dialgoue in the narrative, and 2) talking while fighting gives the fight meaning beyond its basic stated purpose (defeat bad guy, save world yet again). And if you think about it, it's actually a pretty exciting venue. I mean, these characters are literally in conflict of the life and death variety, which means they are both in a crucible for enormous personal change. That's interesting stuff!

Cheesy fight dialog aside, it's this explosive conflict on multiple levels, and the changes such conflict inevitably leaves in its wake, that makes for the absolute best fight scenes. After all, without personal conflict, all you've got is too warriors taking shots at each other, and while that might be interesting on a technical level, it's not the gripping stuff of novels. Why else do you think fight promoters go through such enormous lengths to create rivalries between boxers? It's that element of personal conflict that takes what would otherwise be a technical match between sportsmen fighters and imbues it with the narrative punch that drives fans into a frenzy. Hell, the entire multi-million dollar sport of Wrestling is based around creating and exploiting character conflict in fights.

I'm not saying you should stoop to Wrestling level melodrama or having your combatants take a five minute break after each super move to narrate at each other and/or have meaningful flashbacks, but the machine works for a reason. By learning to channel that same energy and interest, we can turn a simple sword fight into the pivotal emotional scene of a novel. And of course, this works for love scenes, too.

It's actually easier to pull off character conflict in love scenes since it's more natural for people to talk about their feelings in intimate situations than in the middle of a battle. The Romance genre is built on character conflict and growth through sex, and even if your book isn't a Romance capital R, there's absolutely no reason you can't steal the well honed tricks of the trade and use them to make your own love story better. All you have to do is remember that the true thrill of a sex scene isn't the mechanics of lustful bodies, but the give and take between the people those bodies belong to.

Just like a fight, both characters should leave a sexual situation different from when they entered it. Even a kiss should change everything, at least for the people involved. This is what Romance is all about, resolving the conflict between two characters, and like all good conflict in novels, it should get worse before it gets better.

So, to sum up: a good sex scene and a good fight scene have the same requirements. They are conflict scenes between characters that rely on tension to keep them going (and make them awesome). They can be highly and excitingly detailed, but in the end, the most important aspect are always the characters involved and the stakes at risk. Once you've got a good handle on this, it becomes almost impossible to write a bad fight or love scene and imminently easier to write a really, really good one.

And that's the current summation of what I've learned over thirteen novels so far. I hope you'll find this information helpful in your own writing. As always, please feel free to leave your comments below. I'd love to hear what you've discovered helps make an excellent love or fight scene.

As ever, thank you for reading!

- Rachel


  1. An enjoyable read, as always! Your posts always leave me with food for thought and at least one thing (usually more!) that I can apply to my own writing. Thank you! :-)

  2. Lots of food for thought here. I think I've been subconsciously following your thinking in my writing anyway but it's nice to see thing's summed up in words rather than my gut feelings. As I reader and writer however I frown apon talking during a fight with swords or any weapons for that matter. I only deal in fantasy but still believe realistic reactions are required. If someone was trying to cut my head off I would not be worried about talking. I guess it's a matter of balance however. Good read though

  3. I've been really interested in your thinking on writing fight scenes since reading your Eli books. How do you approach the 'What' of those scenes? Do you act out the movements? How about research on weapons, fighting styles? Have you done sword fighting yourself, or did you do a lot of reading, or consult with experts? It would be cool to hear more about your method, because your fights are both interesting/entertaining and convincing, and your writing advice is great. Thanks for sharing so much, btw :)

  4. Really very nice Post i enjoyed the post. and many many Thanks for advice us such great tips.

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  5. Thank you so much for your blogs! Your advice has made me a better writer!!

  6. Excellent comments. I've had both romantic and martial scenes in my first novel "Zombie Turkeys" and I've mixed them together. I love going from romantic scene to a fighting scene and vice versa. I like having one interrupt the other. I know I need to maintain the reader's interest and I know I can't resolve everything, so I always try to leave something more hinted at in the future.

    But I hadn't analyzed the tension aspect at the book level consciously. I knew after my big battle scene 2/3 through my book, everything seemed anticlimactic, so I added additional romance and battles, while hinting the situation was not resolved, but getting worse.

    Your ebb and flow of tension throughout the book will help me with my future books in my comic urban fantasy series. Thank you.

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