Warning: This essay contains explicit material and examples from SGA slash.
Summary: The lovely M of the twoweevils commented on my sex-writing technique in Windfall. This essay was written in response, and explains how I go about constructing sex scenes. (x-posted to sg_workshop)
Sex Scenes are Really Action Scenes
When I sit down to write a sex scene, I conceptualise it as an action scene, because the techniques for writing sex effectively are exactly the same as those for writing gripping action. This is because the goal is the same: evoking a physical response in the reader.
With other types of scenes (humour, mystery, romance, etc) you are usually trying to evoke either an emotion or intellectual curiosity (or sometimes both at once). These things are relatively easy to evoke with word pictures, because we use words to express these things all the time in our own lives. If I write:
Rodney hugged himself and swallowed hard, blinking in a rapid staccato, and John pretended not to notice the liquid shine of his eyes in the dim light.
I don't have to tell you that Rodney is upset; the context and description tells you that. Likewise, if I write:
"Hmmmm?" said Rodney, staring at the tiny device as though it held the answers to life the universe and everything, and hell, as far as John knew, maybe it did.
we have a classic setup for an intellectual puzzle: What is the device? Why is Rodney interested? Why is he more focused on it than on John? It could be a bait-and-switch story (ie. the device doesn't do what the author sets the reader up to think it will do); or it could be a story about Rodney's obsession with knowledge and John's obsession with Rodney, and how the two collide; or a story in which the device is a deus ex machina, which causes a problem that needs to be solved; etc, etc, etc.
These types of emotional and intellectual scenes are the standard stuff of most fiction. Action scenes differ because they are trying to recreate a physical, embodied response (adrenalin, vertigo, arousal) in the same way that other types of storytelling try to recreate feelings or provoke curiosity. I find action scenes the hardest to write, because I just don't have a natural facility for them (perhaps because I live a fairly sedentary life). I've forced myself to learn how to tackle them, as these types of scenes are really important if you want your characters to do anything other than talk and think.
To get around the fact that action scenes don't come easily to me, I very deliberately use a formula. I'm no action-writing star, but this same formula is used by writers like King and Crichton, who do it really well (when they're at the top of their game), largely because they meld action and plot together. For the sake of this essay, however, it's much easier to discuss how the formula works by looking at a Plot, What Plot? story, where all the extra stuff has been stripped away, and there's really just the action framework left. As it happens, I deliberately played around with the action formula in the stories Forbidden Fruit and Windfall, so I'm going to use them as examples.
The Action Formula
The action formula can be broken down into three parts: a) the action/context ratio, b) show, don't tell, and c) negative/positive build.
A. The Action/Context Ratio
This is by far the most important thing to master when writing action. Effective action scenes follow this one simple rule; all the rest is icing. The rule is:
1 Action: 2 Description
What this means in practical terms is that for every action you have a character perform, you should give two corresponding pieces of context. Context is the description of how characters react to the action; what they think, feel, taste.
Still scratching your head? Let's consider some examples.
Action without context reads a lot like a shopping list: it's just one thing happening after another. You can see what I mean in this version of Windfall's "first touch" scene, which has all the context taken out:
Before Rodney could say anything else, John reached out and pressed his hand to the front of Rodney's pants, cupping the semi-hard jut of his cock.
Rodney made a strangled sound in the back of his throat, and John was about to drop to his knees and blow him when Rodney beat him to it. Gripping John's waist hard for support, he landed on the floor with a dull thump. John curled his hands around Rodney's head and jutted his hips forward.
Now with the context:
Before Rodney could say anything else, [Action:] John reached out and pressed his hand to the front of Rodney's pants, cupping the semi-hard jut of his cock. [1st Context:] It felt so good to finally be able to touch Rodney the way he wanted to; [2nd Context:] no pretence, no holding back.
[Action:] Rodney made a strangled sound in the back of his throat that [1st Context:] went straight to John's dick, and [2nd Context:] he was about to drop to his knees and give Rodney the blow-job of his life when [This one is mixed together. 1st Context:] Rodney beat him to it, [Action:] gripping John's waist hard, [2nd Context:] using him for support as his knees gave way. [Action:] He landed on the floor with a dull thump. And, okay. [Another reversed one. 1st Context:] John could go with that. A good plan always had some built-in flexibility, and [2nd Context:] John was nothing if not flexible; so [Action:] he curled his hands around Rodney's head--[To give a feeling of things happening all at once, this action/context set collides with the next one. 1st Context:] enjoying the soft crinkle of hair beneath his thumbs, [2nd Context:] the blood-heat curl of Rodney's ears in the hollows of his palms--[Action:] and jutted his hips forward [1st Context:] to give Rodney better access to his zip.
It works so much better with the action/context ratio applied, doesn't it? And it's not because I'm some inspired genius. This story took me a week to write--and re-write--because I had to keep going back over it and over it until the action: context ratio felt right. You'll notice too that while the ratio is pretty consistently 1: 2, it can be mixed up so that it doesn't feel like a formula, with the descriptions before action, or after action, or even combined in the same clause. It was actually hard to separate out a couple of bits in the example above, because the action and context were so closely intertwined (Rodney falling to his knees, in particular).
I mentioned earlier that I was playing around with this formula in Forbidden Fruit and Windfall. Basically, Forbidden Fruit is a story in which the context is skewed out of proportion to the action. The only action is John eating some fruit. That, believe it or not, is not an innately sexy action! But because I over-saturated the context, the action has way more significance than it otherwise would. Like this:
[Action:] John leant forward and sucked the juice off his skin, [1st Context:] the lines of his face serene and uncomplicated in the dim light, [2nd Context:] his expression full of simple joy.
[This is in passive voice, so it's not an action. 3rd Context:] The sharp, plastic edges of the chili-sauce packets bit into Rodney's suddenly sweaty palm, [4th Context:] and he could feel his pulse in his tongue, his throat, the tips of his fingers, and [5th Context:] in the unexpected press of his half-hard cock against the seam of his pants.
See? 1: 5 ratio, which turns a simple action into something chock to the brim with subtext. I wrote the story that way because I wanted to test the theory that it's context which makes sex hot in fiction, and that the actions are mostly there to drive the context forward. It's not a theory that can really be definatively proven, but I find it both suggestive and fascinating that Forbidden Fruit received three times the comments Windfall did.
Windfall is more conservative in terms of action/context--it has a pretty consistent 1: 2 ratio--but it has some other techniques going on as well, which work to increase the tension.
B. Show, Don't Tell
This is a standard practice of good writing, but it's particularly important for action scenes, because you want them to be immediate, detailed and visceral.
It's really easy to make the mistake of telling rather than showing. In fact, I made it in Windfall, with the first draft of the "kiss" scene. Have a look and you'll see what I mean:
... Rodney hadn't done this a lot, but clearly he'd done it enough to have learnt the no kissing rule. Just as clearly, he wanted to kiss John.
Even doped to the eyeballs on afterglow, John knew this was one of those key moments. In the past, he'd always been pretty happy with the no kissing rule, but then, he hadn't wanted to actually spend any quality time with those guys, and he hadn't wanted to touch them any more than necessary in order to get off. They were just disposable fucks. But the whole point of the current plan was that he wanted Rodney to stick around, and that meant making Rodney happy, and right now it looked like breaking the no kissing rule would make Rodney happy. All up, there was maybe a nano-second between Rodney's gaze landing on John's mouth, and the moment John consigned the no kissing rule to his mental trash can.
After writing that, I sat around blocked for two days trying to work out what was wrong and why I couldn't go on and finish the story. Doh! I was telling the reader about John, rather than letting his experience of the moment and his actions speak for themselves. This is how I fixed it:
... Rodney hadn't done this a lot, but clearly he'd done it enough to have learnt the no-kissing rule. Just as clearly, he wanted break the rule, wanted to kiss John.
Even doped to the eyeballs on afterglow, John was aware of something deep inside his head hitching, changing tracks, going with it; because this wasn't what he'd expected... this was so much more than he'd expected... this was Rodney's too-honest face full of yearning as he looked down at John, and Rodney's body thrumming with tension everywhere they touched, telling John everything he needed to know about just how much Rodney wanted him, and God, this was like winning the fucking jackpot without even buying a ticket!
It's so much more immediate now that the prose is describing how John is reacting to Rodney. The other version dumped the reader out of the physical experience that John was having, because exposition is read as thought not lived experience. The re-written version gives the reader pretty much the same information, but does it by showing John's reaction; it lets us feel the moment inside our skins as he feels it inside his.
Show, Don't Tell sounds like a beginner's rule, but when it comes to writing action scenes, it's vital!
C. Negative/Positive Build
The final technique that makes a major contribution to action is negative/positive build. Again, this is a technique that's commonly used in all fiction, as it adds an extra emotional wallop to the narrative. In its simplest form, negative/positive build flips the emotional content of a scene from one end of the spectrum to the other. So, for example, from happy to sad. It's called "build" because you use each "flip" as a building block, in order to create a more and more charged emotional payoff. So, for instance, you could have the following sequence of scenes:
Happy to Nervous (Positive to Negative)
Nervous to Frightened (Negative to More Negative)
Frightened to Grieving (Negative to More Negative)
and then the next scene is:
Grieving to Ecstatic (Negative to Positive)
which means the reader gets a much bigger bang for their buck, because they will have been lulled into expecting the downward pattern, and than--WHAMMO!--it reverses on them. To give you an idea of how this particular sequence would work, imagine a quasi-death story. You know the type: John is believed dead and everyone grieves, and then, BAM! Rodney realises he missed something and John isn't dead at all.
You can, of course, use other combinations of negative/positive build. Windfall is just one long scene, rather than a true three-part story, but even so, I broke it down into parts so that I could use negative/positive build in this very simple pattern:
1st Flip [Positive to Negative]
John gets to his quarters: John=Happy
Rodney doesn't turn up: John=Nervous
2nd Flip [Negative to Positive]
Rodney still doesn't turn up: John=Freaked-Out
Rodney turns up: John=Relieved
3rd Flip [Positive to More Positive]
Rodney is inexperienced: John=Turned-On
Rodney wants to kiss: John=Ecstatic
Longer stories have multiple flips and builds, with a climax at the end of each act, and then an overall climax at the end of the story. Comedies (which happily-ever-after romances usually are) traditionally have a positive/negative/positive pattern (just like Windfall, but writ large). Tragedies are the opposite: negative/positive/negative. The audience gets their hopes up in the middle of the story and then everything comes crashing down, twice as tragic as before.
Really good action scenes milk the negative/positive build technique for all it's worth, because the protagonist's actions usually either cause or are the effect of the swing from one state to the other. External factors can, of course, also influence the flip, but the best pay-off, especially for the final climax, is when the protagonist's fate is linked to their action. Think of the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, which has one of the best flips ever. We know from A New Hope that Empire is going to be an action/adventure movie and we expect a typical happy ending. But instead, the pattern is positive/negative/*negative*. The audience ends up with the ultimate WHAMMO: (spoiler) "I am your father!" Followed by Luke's action, which is to commit almost-suicide! What a brilliant combination of action and negative/positive build.
(If you're interested, you can find out more about this technique in Robert McKee's Story. He also does an in-depth analysis of the Empire ending.)
Negative/positive build doesn't have to be that epic to be effective, though, as even a small flip can add a dimension to a story. For instance, the final line of Forbidden Fruit completely changes the reader's understanding of John's actions, which is always a powerful way to end a story.
Negative/positive build might sound tricky at first, but it's well worth taking the time to master if you want to add emotional impact to your action scenes.
At the start of this essay I said I was going to look at the action formula in stories stripped of plot, to make it easier to see how it worked. To put this formula back into the context of more complete narratives, it's worth pointing out how common threes are in storytelling. Three is the standard structure for stories (beginning/middle/end); it's the most common combination for negative/positive build; and it's the most effective ratio of action and context (1:2). Sex scenes, too, have a three part structure: foreplay/climax/afterglow. If you can write your story so that the sets of three match up--for example, so that beginning/first flip/foreplay all go together--the reader will get a really satisfying reading experience.
And that's it really. That's the formula I use when writing action scenes, with some variation from story to story: the action/context ratio; show, don't tell; and negative/positive build. Yes, it's slow and laborious to write this way, and it takes a lot of re-writing, but the payoff is that there's a certain basic level of quality to the prose produced.