February 9, 2024

Birds AND Bees

Last week was a bit of a flop, sorry. It happens sometimes, and I’m trying to be better about not letting it throw everything off for a week. We’ll still talk about throwing things out, don’t worry. I’m rescheduling a bit, moving a few things back on the calendar

Speaking of the calendar… Valentine’s Day is next week! With all the fun indoor (and sometimes outdoor, if you’re daring) activities many of us associate with said holiday.

So I though, in the spirit of the day, it might be worth revisiting the sometimes awkward topic of… writing sex scenes.

Don’t worry. None of this is going to be too explicit or NSFW and it probably won’t get your work machine flagged. You know your boss better than I do. Move forward accordingly.

Like sex itself, a lot of writing sex is going to come down to our own personal preferences, comfort zones, and what works in a given situation. As such, it’s going to be really tough to offer any specific advice about when and where and how these moments should happen in your book.

What I wanted to talk about here is more the act itself, so to speak. Writing sex scenes is a skill, just like writing action or gore or anything else. It’s a balancing act of too much vs. too little, exciting the reader or maybe horrifying them, and it’s ridiculously easy to make people roll their eyes.

No, not like that.

So here’s a few things I tend to keep in mind when writing a sex scene.

One is that we don’t always need to show sex happening in order for sex to have happened in my story. Nuance and subtext are a huge part of sexiness—on the page and in real life. If Phoebe drags Yakko off into the forest while the rest of us are siting around the campfire, we can make an educated guess what they’re probably doing out there. Especially with context. If they’ve been flirting for the whole trip up to the mountain, whispering to each other while setting up tents, and they come back half an hour later with stupid grins, wrinkled clothes, and leaves in their hair… I mean, is anybody confused what they were doing out there?

So depending on the overall tone of my story, maybe I don’t actually need to write out my sex scene—I can just let my reader fill in the blanks themselves. And again, like so many well-done subtle things, this can end up being much, much sexier than actually spelling everything out. As an artist friend once pointed out, “nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”

Probably worth noting that, like any kind of subtext, there’s always the possibility it’ll slip past some folks. So depending on how important this particular hookup is to my plot or my story, I may want to be a little… y’know, less subtle. Just to help keep things moving. Still don’t have to show anything, but maybe drop one or two more clues when we return from our walk in the woods.

Two, if I’m going to show my sex scene, I want to remember that sex is… well, action. Not necessarily in “expending lots of energy and effort” (although that might be the case in this story), just that actual, physical things are happening in my story. And like any other action, it gets dull fast when it’s written poorly. Yes, it can get dull.

There’s going to be some exceptions, but I think most action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would take to happen. Nobody wants to read about a three paragraph sniper shot or a four page fist fight. When I over-analyze or over-describe anything, I’m slowing the pace of my story, and I don’t want to slow things down to tell my reader how fast things are happening.

And writing about sex works the same way. I’m not saying every sex scene has to have the frantic intensity and enthusiasm of two college sophomores, but If I’m telling you these two people are eagerly ripping each others clothes off and it’s taking six paragraphs for it to happen… you’re probably going to start skimming. And that’s never good. Strong action trusts that the reader’s going to fill in a lot of the blanks and understand what happened between A and C.

Now, since we’re talking about describing all that action…

Three would be personal taste. I think the catch with writing explicit sex scenes is they essentially become porn. Porn, as a friend once pointed out, is when we see everything. And after a certain point, that’s pretty much exactly what we’re talking about with any written-out sex scene. And some people like porn, some don’t. No judgment either way. That’s just a simple truth.

But there’s more to it than that. Because even the people who do like porn don’t all like the same kind of porn. This particular act really turns me on, but you find it kind of quaint and almost routine. Reading about that might weird me out, this might be a complete non-starter for you, and that… okay, that seriously disturbs both of us. On a number of levels. It’s a pretty safe bet that the more explicit—or shall we say, exotic—my sex scene becomes, the less people it’s going to appeal to. And the more people it’s going to… not appeal to.

This is going to be one of those points where I want to have a very clear sense of who the audience is going to be for this story. And I need to be honest about that. What kind of sex scene I put in, and how I describe it, is going to have an impact, so I want to be sure it’s the kind of impact I’m trying for.

Four, last but not least, is something I’ve also talked about with my rules of love that I bring up now and then. Y’see, Timmy, for a long time Hollywood tried to convince us if two good looking people (or even average-looking people) ended up alone in an apartment, a car, an office, a cave, whatever… they’d have sex. It was just what people did. What else were they going to do? Talk? Watch television? Read?

And there are a lot of reasons to think this way. A fair number of people enjoy sex. A decent amount of folks have a phase in their lives where sex is a high priority. And crass as it may sound… sex sells. More than a few filmmakers sold an additional ticket or three (or four or five rentals) off the promise of skin and naughtiness.

But the truth is… most of us don’t have sex at the drop of a hat. And there are times and places that it’s just not going to work. For any number of reasons. Sometimes the reason that sex scene feels kind of forced and gratuitous is because… well… it is

So go forth on this holiday and write your sexy moments. But please consider if you really need to show them. And how they’re paced. And who you’re writing them for. And if they should be there at all.

Next time… I’d like to talk about the new tabletop game my friends and I have been playing. And how it relates to writing.

Until then, go write.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

June 24, 2021

Two Days Earlier…

A couple weeks ago I talked about a certain kind of opening that shows up in a lot of books and movies. It’s when that prologue or first chapter or first scene has some stuff happen (computer virus is stolen, monster lands on earth, vampire comes out of the earth, etc) and then it jumps forward in time four day, five weeks, six months, or more. It can be a problematic opening, and the fact that I feel the need to point out that time gap—how separated these events are—should usually be a sign to take a serious look at how important that opening chapter or scene really is.

Today I wanted to talk about the reverse of that opening. It’s another one you’re probably familiar with, and I’d guess it should probably be an even bigger red flag. It’s not always a sign I’m doing something wrong… but I think it’s really leaning that way.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the infamous opening scene of high action, desperate people, severe crisis, screams, shouts, gunfire, exclamations, and then—

Thirty Six Hours Earlier…

You’ve seen this, yes?

Now, on a casual first glance, this opening seems great, right? We’re diving right into the action at the start. We’ve got tension. Strong character moments. And then—usually—a following scene that shows these characters in very different circumstances, leaving us with the mystery of “how do they end up there?”

Thing is, the more we look at it, the more this opening tends to falls apart.

First, it’s dropping us deep into the action. Sounds good on the surface, but as we’ve talked about before, a lot of folks who do this misunderstand what “starting with action”  really means. By its very nature this opening is out of context, and there’s a good chance I don’t know any of the characters involved, so this “action” opening has superficial stakes at best.

Think about it. Me telling you Wakko has a knife to Dot’s throat is… bad? Good? Bad for Wakko?  Without context, there’s a drastically different way to view almost any scene any of us can imagine. Seriously. Kids on the playground, people fooling around on the couch, someone reading a book in the library—in the right context, any one of these can be funny, sexy, sinister, or right out creepy.

Ah-hah! Says random internet guy #108. That’s the whole point! Like you said above, it’s creating a sense of mystery!

Funny you should mention that…

Second, this opening’s trying to build mystery by showing me an out of context piece of my story. But, a lot like the straight action, this opening mystery is a mystery without any stakes. If I need another six or seven scenes to establish “no, it’s really weird that Wakko would have Dot at knifepoint,” well… doesn’t needing another seven scenes to explain it kind of hint my opening isn’t that powerful?

Plus… this isn’t really a mystery. It’s just withheld information. We expect things are going to be different at the end of my story. The tension level should be higher. My characters should be in a different place, on several levels. It’s sort of like if I said “Wait, he’s Spider-Man at the end of the movie, but he’s just Miles Morales at the beginning?? Whoa! How could that possibly happen?”

The point of the story, quite literally, is to tell us how we get to the end of the story.

Third, it sucks a lot of tension out of my story. One way or another, I’m telling people who makes it to the end. Nothing that happens to Wakko until then is going to be a real threat, because I know he needs to be there at the end to hold a knife to Dot’s throat. Likewise, Dot’s got to be there to be knife-helden. Anyone standing around watching this? Well, we know they’re going to make it, too. This may sound silly, but if I tell people what happens at the end of my story… they’re going to know what happens at the end of my story.

Small note—if I’m gambling on my readers/audience forgetting that opening bit and being surprised when the plot guides us back to it, well… does that sound like a great opening? One I’m hoping my readers forget?

Fourth and finally, I think when I use this kind of beginning, it’s me admitting I just don’t have a great beginning for my story.

Y’know how I’ve suggested cutting off some prologues and seeing how the story works without them? I’d bet three out of four times, if I cut this “One Week Earlier” opening off my story, I’ll find the one I’m left with is kind of weak. Nothing really happens. The characters aren’t that interesting. It kind of meanders a bit before it gets back to the plot.

Y’see, Timmy, if I’ve started my story at the wrong point, the “Two Days Earlier” opening can seem like a quick fix. It’s me pasting on a more interesting beginning. But odds are it hits a lot of those problems I just mentioned. That’s why I think it’s such a big red flag.

I should consider starting my story now instead of at the end. I’m not saying this never, ever works, but if now feels like such a lousy place to start my story… well, that might be my subconscious telling me something.

And maybe I should listen to it.

Next time, I’d like to tell you why you should delete all your dating apps and meet someone the old fashioned way.

Oh! And a shameless self-plug. NPR is doing their summer reading lists and is looking for sci-fi and fantasy books that you loved from the past ten years. And while I’d never stoop so low as telling you how to vote on such a thing, I’m not above reminding you how much you liked Paradox Bound and how it’s a wonderful stand-alone novel that would appeal to most anyone. Just something to have in mind. While you vote.

Anyway, until next time, go write…

April 22, 2021 / 4 Comments

License to Prologue

I know I said I was going to talk about creepy clowns this week, but I couldn’t get the idea to gel quite right in my head. Plus then I got the social media question and had to deal with some other stuff. Anyway, I figured I’d backburner the clowns for now and talk about something more exciting for a minute.

Prologues.

Sorry, not prologues. Everyone knows prologues are awful and you should never, ever use them. Except, y’know, when they work. What I meant to say was Bond.

James Bond.

Let’s talk about James Bond and prologues.

If you think about it, prologues are kind of baked into the Bond film formula, especially the classic films. We’d always begin with James off on some little side mission, or maybe just finishing up a larger one, and then the opening credits would roll and we’d begin the actual movie. You know what I’m talking about, yes? It was the standard structure for decades, and even the new films kind of hold to it (although not quite as rigidly).

So why were these prologues so amazing that they were used through over twenty movies?

Three reasons…

First, it’s starting with action. By dropping us into the story right as a mission’s being brought to a close, it’s a perfect time for face-punching, explosions, gunfire, and bigger explosions. So not only are we starting with action, it’s action that has a clear purpose, a reason for its existence.

Second, the prologues always directly involve Bond. We don’t get long prologues about what other agents are doing, it’s about what our hero is doing. Right now. He’s part of the action, and usually the driving force behind it.

Third, and maybe most importantly, the Bond prologues always end up tying back to the main plot. Often directly to it. We get far enough in and learn that guy’s not dead after all, she was related to that other guy, or that other person got away with the goober that’ll let them do the thing in act three. So the prologues also serve as a bit of worldbuilding for the overall story and maybe some character introductions, too.

Three solid reasons the Bond prologues always worked.

And it’s not just Bond. This structure became so popular dozens of other action movies followed it. Hell, they’re still following it. Look at Thor: Ragnarok. Drops us right into the action with Thor winding up a mission to get Surtur’s crown, which ultimately ties back and becomes a key part of resolving the movie’s main plot.

So don’t be scared of doing prologues. Just make sure they follow Bond’s three simple rules. And if they don’t, well…

I was going to make some sort of “licensed to kill” joke here but everything I came up with was pathetic. Just pretend I said something fantastic. And accept there’s a good chance I’ll need to get rid of a prologue that doesn’t follow these guidelines.

Next time… I may double-post again next week. So there could be multiple topics.

Until then, go write.

November 12, 2020 / 3 Comments

Not THAT Kind of Action…

How’s everyone’s week been? Anything interesting going on in the world?

Today I’d like to dissect one of those chestnuts of bad advice that keeps floating around the internet and showing up in different writing-related groups. Well, it’s not so much bad as really misunderstood. Which is what happens when a lot of these things get distilled down to quick little buzzphrases instead of, y’know… explained.

So, an explanation.

The advice in question is start with action. I’m sure you’ve heard it once or thrice before. I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times and why it isn’t the best rule to follow.

Because starting my story with action doesn’t mean explosions and automatic weapons firing.  We don’t need to have dinosaurs in mech suits fighting vampire kaiju while SEAL team sixteen  (the best of the best of the best) blows up the Washington Monumentto take out the ninja lizard men trying to steal the Declaration of Independence. No boxing matches, no car chases, none of whatever other type of wild action scene might grab the reader immediately.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But it should be clear there’s a lot of genres they won’t work in (although I do think a lot of Hallmark’s Christmas rom-coms could be improved by introducing kaiju). Heck, even in genres where this kind of high energy intro could work, they might not fit in the particular story I’m telling.

Trying to force these high-action openings into every story is the misunderstanding I mentioned up above. It makes for a lot of clumsy openings that often don’t match up with the tone or plot of the actual narrative. When we say a story should start with action, what we’re really saying is that characters should be active from the beginning. A story should start with something happening.

But… and this is why I’m revisiting this…

I’ve had a few people point out to me (with a few different tones to their voices) that lots of things count as something happening. Right now I’m typing. And pausing to re-read a bit as I go. And digesting lunch. And breathing. I mean, technically, sleeping is me “doing something.” So is walking from room to room. Taking a shower. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. Yeah, those are all actions, no question. But none of these make for really compelling openings. They’re not exactly what I’d use to kick off a book.

So we don’t need to begin with gigantic, all-caps ACTION, but we also don’t want to begin with a light breeze making a few strands of my character’s hair drift side to side while she naps. 

I’ve been trying to think of a simple way to explain this better, that level of action that falls between explosions and mundane. And the other day I came up with what I think is a pretty solid one. With two small provisos.

So here’s your new rule to replace start with action.

Start with someone’s life changing.

This sounds big, but hear me out. It doesn’t need to be a permanent, scarring change. It doesn’t need to be gigantic. It just needs to disrupt the flow of their life to some level. It should be something that they notice happening if it’s going to be worth us using it as a starting point for the story.

Wakko finding out he’s got a flat tire when he’s heading into work is a change to his life—it’s going to affect his whole day. Same with Dot spilling her coffee and having to stop and clean it up. Phoebe finding out her ex thought she was “comfortably dull” (yes, no matter what they were doing) is going to change her life. And to use an example I’ve mentioned before, Sam Wilson realizing the guy he’s trying to run laps against is Captain Americais definitely going to make some ripples in his life.

Keep in mind—the big change in Sam’s life comes much later, when Steve and Natasha show up at his place looking for a place to hide and learn Sam has some skills of his own. But the action of that opening scene… Sam’s just met an actual living legend and had a moment of bonding over their experience as returning combat vets. If nothing else ever happened, if Sam and Steve never saw each other again, we still know this moment would’ve had some effect on Sam, for the rest of that day if nothing else.

Simple enough, yes?

Okay, here are my two little additions/provisos to this rule.

One is that this life changing event doesn’t need to be connected to my main plot in any way. Or even a subplot. It can be, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s more about giving us a first impression of the character. Wakko’s flat tire doesn’t need to lead to the bigger overall story. The opinions of Phoebe’s ex don’t have to tie into a larger arc about relationships. And honestly, if you snipped that morning jog scene off The Winter Soldier and just began with Cap rescuing the ship at sea… what would really change, plot-wise? 

Two is a little trickier, but… it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. I’ve blathered on a couple times about the idea that characters should be used to things in their world. To the point that what would be amazing to us might be almost boring to them. With that in mind, I can start with something that might not be life-changing for the character as long as it would definitely be for the reader. Taking a gravity elevator-shuttle to the Moon is normal for Caliand Kurt, maybe even boring, but we can still appreciate the idea of kids bouncing around the cabin as people glide through the aisles and over seats. It’s nothing to them, but it’s something to us.

And one more time, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with explosions, car chases, and vampire kaiju. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dinosaurs in mech suits. But these big action pieces need to work with my story as a whole. They shouldn’t be something I just wrestled into place so I can say my story starts with action.

Look at the opening of your book. Does it change somebody’s life? Because that’s the big goal here, right…?

Next time, I’d like to hit you with a rock.

Until then… go write.

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