Sex and violence.
These are a few of my favorite things.
In movies. In books. In life (though my violence is consensual these days, limited to martial arts sparring and competition).
Sex and violence are core parts of the human experience, two of the things that drive us the hardest because of how evolution and survival work. On one hand, we have the drive to make more of us. On the other, we have the drive to defend what’s ours and who we love (or to make more things ours, though society frowns on that).
They seem so different. One is a way for two (or more) people to express fondness, love, affection, attraction, or simple naked lust. The other is a way for two (or more) people to express derision, contempt, hatred, anger, or simple naked aggression.
But they’re not different.
Both come from basic drives that have been with us since before homo sapiens was a thing. Both are intensely physical and emotional acts. Both carry with them real risk of pain — physical, mental and/or emotional.
What’s more, both are tests.
As our species was growing up, life was full of tests: opportunities to see how strong, how fast, how smart, how empathic, how (fill in the blank) we were. If we passed the test, we lived. If we failed, we died — or at least we missed an opportunity to make surviving the next test easier.
Our intelligence and technology have insulated us from tests. Most of what we do in a day is just a matter between different gradients of pretty all right.
We no longer have to strive.
But with sex and violence, we’re back in that test. In both cases, we put our best foot forward. We use skills and attributes we’ve developed over years and we see what happens next. With violence, walking away means we passed the test. With sex, I don’t need to go into detail.
Either way, we do our utmost, what happens next happens, and we succeed or fail in real and unmitigated terms.
I believe strongly that’s why sex and violence are such powerful forces in our fiction. They dominate the news, the movies, our literature, our mythology. They dominate our history.
There’s a whole lot of bad sex and violence in our fiction.
Here I don’t mean sex and violence happening for the wrong reasons on-screen. That’s a whole different puddle of fluids, related but not core to the problem.
I mean sex and violence executed poorly. And that’s what I want to talk about with everybody today.
Bad sex is like the worst porn. It’s all about tab A inserted into slot B, along with all kinds of overreactions to the tabbing and the slotting. It’s mechanical. In actual porn, it’s totally meaningless. In sex scenes within a legitimate manuscript, it’s a few uncomfortable pages that don’t fulfill any narrative function.
Actually, come to think of it, that’s true of bad sex in real life. A meaningless one-night stand can be entertaining, but unless it has a real place in the narrative of your life, it’s not as good as something that matters fundamentally to you.
The Worst Violence
Bad violence is much the same. It’s described in terms of what each combatant does, in an almost clinical and detached way. It exists for its own sake, even though at least one of the characters involved could have avoided the whole things by exercising an ounce of good sense.
I blame tabletop roleplaying for the blow-by-blow description problem. A lot of writers got their narrative starts playing D&D and similar games (myself among them). The structure of combat in those games is a blow-by-blow series of turns, and not all writers have graduated out of that framework.
As for the violence divorced of sense and context, it’s just like the sex. Because our society (and the audience) glorifies violence, it gets put in where it doesn’t need to be, or expanded into 20 minutes on-screen when 5 would have done it.
The Good Stuff
We’ve all seen porn and combat porn — movies and books where the sex and fight scenes are long, drawn out, luxurious, and without meaningful context. Those are pretty experiences sometimes, but they’re never the experience you get when sex and violence are executed well.
Thing is, when we write sex and violence, we need to focus less on the physical goings on and instead focus on what makes that particular act of sex or violence meaningful.
It’s not the shagging or the smacking that’s important here. It’s the emotional impact and consequences of both. Those things should be absolutely clear during the f-word you’re describing (whichever word beginning with f that applies).
Remember in Terminator when Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get together in that hotel room? Remember how it was slightly too long to comfortably watch with your parents? But remember how it was touching because we’d seen it coming, and it came after Kyle confessing he’d loved her from the future for much of his life? And how it gave us the twist ending that made the movie so good?
That’s good sex. It wasn’t particularly graphic or acrobatic or interesting (the sex itself), but the context and consequences were real, and immediate, and important.
You don’t even need to have sex to make a sex or love scene have power and importance. In my YA book Wrestling Demons, the protagonist and his girlfriend have a make-out session in her car, parked outside an apartment they both know is empty. Sex doesn’t even happen, but the kissing (around a painful broken nose) and the potential is there. And the context and consequences are (I think) plain on the page.
And that makes it far more interesting than watching a housewife shag a pizza boy, or reading about James Bond’s latest conquest.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Enjoying Porn
Whether that’s actual sex porn, or the kind of fight porn you see in the some genres of martial arts and action movies. I love The Raid and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for instance. And you have your favorites, too.
But when we’re writing, we should aim for more than a graphic depiction of physical acts between two human beings.
We should aim for scenes of action (either kind, or both at once), with power, importance, consequences, and context. Because that’s what makes sex and violence great.