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Sex and Violence - Mo's Journal
March 1st, 2010
09:43 am

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Sex and Violence
This started as a comment on a post in princessofg's journal. I thought it was worth expanding on here.

In my story series Canadian Nights, Scott wants to tell Logan a story about something that happened to him a long time ago. "It's not a happy story," he says, "but it's got sex and violence in it - two of your favorite things." Logan laughs at that.

I think for a lot of writers and readers, sex and violence are two favorite things. Some avoid one and relish the other. Some love both. I remember when I started writing slash, or rather, a little bit later, when I told my then 13-year-old son that I was writing X-Men fanfic, he asked me "Do you write action scenes?" I was momentarily unsure of how to answer, although the snarky response, "Yes, but not the kind of action you're thinking about, kid" went through my brain.

I got into slash partly for writing sex. I thought it would be interesting, and a challenge. I've always had writing hobbies but I'd never written anything about sex. I felt that writing m/m sex was a good enactment of "write what you know" since I've been listening to gay men talk about their sex lives for decades. At the same time I thought it would stretch my creativity, since I'd have to imagine what it feels like. Also, since I'm a pretty private person about my own sex life, it appealed to me because it was divorced from my own sexual experience.

My first story series, I Know What You Are, didn't have a lot of plot but it did have a lot of sex. I don't think the sex was gratuitous, even looking back. It was about sex, about how initiation of a fairly dysfunctional sexual relationship affects both characters. However, as I wrote more, I found that I wanted the stories to be about more than sex. Sexual activity is a really good vehicle for a lot of things I want to do with my writing, and it figures largely in most of my stories for that reason. On the other hand, it's not enough to carry a story for very long. Over time, I've given a lot of thought to when to include explicit descriptions of sex and when not to.

To make that determination I generally ask myself: What is the function of the sex scene? If that function is met without the details, I'll just indicate that it happened. But often what I want to do with sex requires the reader seeing them having sex, not just knowing they did. So that's when I write them.

Sex scenes can advance plot, illuminate character and/or relationships, set a mood, set the scene for important dialogue. The last point is particularly true with characters who don't open up so much in ordinary conversation. That's not to say that someone who's a tough guy in most of his life is going to get all hearts-and-flowersy during or after sex, but people do often have less control around sex than around other parts of their lives. Since both of my main characters have a lot of self-control (of very different kinds) I find sex is an opportunity to see a different side of them.

Of course it's not just that you write it but how you write it that counts. The first chapter of the series I'm working on now opens with a sex scene. In my first draft I got it all wrong - it had the exact opposite effect from what I was aiming for. Once a beta pointed it out to me (thank you, kestrelsparhawk), I saw what was wrong with it and rewrote the scene. Now I believe it does do what I meant it to.

Some writers tend to describe in a lot of detail what happens before their characters have sex - lots of kissing, lots of intimations that they're about to have sex - but then fade out and resume the next morning. I do think that that kind of PG fade out can be cheesy, and kind of comic, if it really feels like the author wimped out of an explicit scene that would have fulfilled one of the functions mentioned above better (think the going through a tunnel scene on the train at the end of North by Northwest).

I write almost exclusively in X-Men fandom. It's an action/adventure fandom focusing on a paramilitary group, so combat is an important part of the plot. I wrote explicit sex from the start, but in my early days of writing had the battle scenes happen "off screen."

Combat, in a milieu where it's part of the characters' lives, can have many of the same functions in the story that sex does - it's important to plot, it's an emotionally intense experience, it can illuminate aspects of a character you don't see in more mundane situations. So I think it's worth writing but I did the equivalent of the PG fadeout for a while there, myself. I mostly wrote that way because I know a lot more about sex than violence :-) and was more comfortable writing it. But I worked a lot on developing my skills in writing combat and I think the stories are better for including those scenes.

So... when do you write sex and violence? Do you use the same principles for deciding when to write it explicitly and when to gloss over? Do you think they have anything in common? Please, let me know.

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From:executrix
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:07 pm (UTC)
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I practically *never* write violence! It's true that sex and violence are both adrenaline-driven, and the writer's intention is to produce exciting reading. But, although I don't identify with characters, I still have far more fond memories of RL sex than of RL violence.
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From:mofic
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:12 pm (UTC)
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LOL! Me, too. But do you only write about what you have fond memories of?

It seems to me to have fully realized characters we need to have the good and the bad in the writing. And that applies to sex, too - I don't only write good sex.

Violence is certainly not required in all writing, by any means. But I've come to feel that it can be an effective tool, and also that when writing about people who live pretty violent lives, as my characters do, it's not good to omit it. You don't get a whole picture of who they are...
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From:executrix
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)
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There's a book by Meredith Skura called "Shakespeare and the Purpose of Playing," and this post really raises questions about the Purpose of Fanfic. I tend to feel that its function is as much providing extras and fix-its as continuing the canon, but I certainly see the arguments for adhering to the tone and subject matter of the canon.

And I always have to guard against the temptation to say "Gee, I can't write about that effectively, therefore IT ISN'T WORTH WRITING ABOUT." Luckily, there are plenty of other writers in my fandoms.

I am likely to write about the silly side of sex but not its traumatic aspects...
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From:mofic
Date:March 1st, 2010 05:02 pm (UTC)
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I tend to feel that its function is as much providing extras and fix-its as continuing the canon, but I certainly see the arguments for adhering to the tone and subject matter of the canon.

I think fanfic has multiple functions. And yes, fixing and continuing canon are good ones. I feel its purpose is whatever we want it to be.

My preference in my fandom is for very realistic fiction. That's what got me into X-Men in the first place, the ability to kind of squint mentally and believe it's all real. So, for me, the fighting is part of that. Which doesn't mean it *has* to be "on screen" but I've found there are things I can do with it that I couldn't when writing just what happened before and after the battle.

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From:redfiona99
Date:March 1st, 2010 04:45 pm (UTC)
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It's also really difficult to write action scenes well, because, if we take sword fighting as our example, what's a really cool looking swishy flick manouvre in real life is difficult to describe, hard to time and there's fewer possible breaks where you can insert a little soul searching or characterness because a parry is a parry.
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From:mofic
Date:March 1st, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
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That's very true. OTOH writing a description of the really cool looking swishy flick maneouver is not the only way to write a swordfight. It's possible to write it focusing on the characters' feelings (excitement, fear, triumph, pain) as much as or more than the specifics of the movements. Actually, the same is often true of sex :-).

Do you know Dick Francis? Mystery writer who used to be a steeple chase jockey. When his characters get hurt, the action itself might not be all that memorable, but boy does the pain stick with you! I figure he got injured a lot in his previous career and knows how a lot of different kinds of pain feel. He certainly writes it vividly...
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From:wneleh
Date:March 1st, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
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Responding to remind myself to respond tonight...
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From:mofic
Date:March 1st, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)
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I look forward to your response. I'm intrigued because I thought you write neither sex nor violence...
From:pin_drop
Date:March 1st, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC)

I bring you links

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Dude, I was literally just talking about this stuff with some other folks in another post. Check out this thread in particular, though the whole post is worth reading.

Also: given that you've linked to someone who's probably the same person as princessofgeeks on dreamwidth, you've probably already seen this. You've seen it, right? (You didn't comment in it, so I thought I'd point it out just in case.)

ETA: *facepalm* Right. Found the lj version of that entry. I feel like an idiot now. *tail between legs*

Edited at 2010-03-01 07:18 pm (UTC)
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From:mofic
Date:March 1st, 2010 08:44 pm (UTC)

Re: I bring you links

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Thanks for the link to Lorraine's post. She's on my flist but I missed that one. It was really interesting.

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From:ringthebells
Date:March 2nd, 2010 04:31 am (UTC)
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I do think that sex and violence have a lot in common, writing-wise. Oddly enough, though, I find violence much easier to write in general (although still challenging)!

The trouble I have with sex, mostly, is trying to make a given scene interesting and unique. The thing is, an awful lot of sex scenes seem to come down to "They moved their bodies in mutually pleasing ways, at first slowly and then more rapidly, and then everybody had an orgasm. It was nice."

I enjoy the choreography of a big fight scene, though!
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From:mofic
Date:March 2nd, 2010 01:30 pm (UTC)
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The thing is, an awful lot of sex scenes seem to come down to "They moved their bodies in mutually pleasing ways, at first slowly and then more rapidly, and then everybody had an orgasm. It was nice."


LOL! Yeah, a few of those can kill a story. But, I think, if that's all there is to the sex scene, it doesn't really have a function in the story, so it's probably best to skip it.

OTOH, writing about sex doesn't necessarily mean writing about good sex. In the series I'm working on now, Logan knocks Scott's glasses off accidentally during sex, for example.

Also, there can be points of interest in what the characters are thinking about during sex, which isn't necessarily "it's nice" or in what they're doing. Maybe it's something they don't usually do, maybe one of them has some misgivings about it, maybe the circumstances are interesting, maybe what they say is interesting.
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From:ringthebells
Date:March 2nd, 2010 05:11 pm (UTC)
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Yes indeed!

I didn't get to write the whole comment I intended to write (since I got interrupted by a toddler—that happens a lot around here!) but I was going to go on to say essentially what you just said—that sex where something goes wrong is much easier to write! And, indeed, if there isn't something more happening than "they had sex and it was nice," these days I'm likely to essentially skip the scene. Back in the earlier days I did feel obligated to write them, though.

Violence, on the other hand, I will tend to write out even if it can be summarized by "and then the fought the mini-vampires, and won." :-)
[User Picture]
From:ringthebells
Date:March 2nd, 2010 05:12 pm (UTC)
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(er, they fought the mini-vampires, obviously)

*does not have comment-editing capability*
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From:mofic
Date:March 2nd, 2010 09:49 pm (UTC)
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That's okay - I read what you meant to write :-).
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From:vorquellyn
Date:March 2nd, 2010 08:24 am (UTC)
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It's strange. As a reader, I like a sense that something is happening. It may include sex and/or violence but it doesn't have to. I will admit that I really liked God Emperor of Dune and that has practically no sex and very little violence. I also know that I don't seem to be in the majority with that opinion.

As a writer the last time that was an issue I skipped over the sex because to me it wasn't the interesting part of the story. My fanfic was a satire of the books set in the TV show's verse and focused more on all the flaws in reasoning that the books and show made. The point was more about the emotional state of the character. So while it contained sex and violence, the emphasis was on how it affected the characters. I faded to black because once I got them to the place where they were having sex I was more interested in how that would change the way they saw each other and interacted than I was in the sex itself. I don't think it was cheesy but I'm not unbiased.
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From:mofic
Date:March 2nd, 2010 01:34 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for weighing in. I'm certainly not suggesting that skipping over the sex is always cheesy (see comment to ringthebells above). If it doesn't have a serious function in the story, I think the sex scene should be skipped, but I think that's true of other kinds of scenes, too, not just sex.

It's interesting what you say about liking a sense that something is happening. I love Barbara Pym's novels, for example, yet lots of people can't read them because they feel like nothing happens. I'm fine with the something that happens being kind of quiet and mostly in people's heads, if that's appropriate to the text...
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From:vorquellyn
Date:March 3rd, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
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Oh, I know you didn't mean that. I meant it more as a statement about author intent. I didn't intend it to be cheesy but I'm not going to assume my readers agree. Especially since I've been told that the story is "confusing, rambling, boring and doesn't going anywhere." *shrugs* Being confusing was not my intent but I succeeded anyway for at least one person.

And I agree it's true of other things. If I'm reading historical fiction like Jim Kjelgaard and right before the end elves or aliens show up with no warning, I'm going to call shenanigans on the author. Not that there aren't exceptions where the author was working up to revealing that aliens were responsible for the American Revolution but as a general rule sudden genre changes are more irritating than interesting. I see suddenly grafting violence and sex onto a story that would flow better without them as a genre change.

I don't mind quiet, introspective stories. I'm having trouble thinking of an example but there are some where I'm left thinking, "Ok, why?" Something I don't find boring because that's a different sort of problem. I mean stories where I just don't get why the author felt it had to be written. Laurell K. Hamilton's more recent work falls into this category for me. There may be a lot of sex and violence but there's no sense that anything is actually happening. Am I making sense?

Sorry about how long it took to reply. Yesterday I crashed right after work.
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From:talktooloose
Date:March 4th, 2010 04:54 pm (UTC)
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Warning: this rambles a lot.

I was surprised about when I wanted to be explicit and when I didn't when writing Days of Becoming. The hottest and most explicit scenes were definitely those at the beginnings of relationships (either Bobby/Lance or Bobby/John). And as Bobby and John were working through the first winter of being together, I got them into interesting and explicit situations. I think I needed the reality of the newness of sex to be on the page. There is this big jump from the imaginings of sex to its mechanics, and in the mechanics you can play with the abandon, the awkwardness, the new language of physical communication — all those levels. I'm reminded of Bobby figuring out how give a blowjob and also the first time he really looks at someone's asshole, but also the guilt/excitement of shooting cum on the clean towels in the linen closet.

You'll notice, however, that the sex became more "off the page" later. There is a lot of sexual tension in the hotel room in San Fran, but the sex (or at least its description) is more perfunctory. The last sex scene of the book is dialogue-only and ends with the request to be fucked. I'm not entirely sure why this is. There is a more explicit draft of that last scene, and it didn't work as well. Maybe because we already know how they insert tab A in slot B.

And violence... hmm. I like writing action. I think I realized during the scene at the Turcott clinic that the subjective experience of action would be one of chaos and that the difference between a seasoned vet and a rookie would be how well he/she can sort out patterns within the chaos. From there, it was like writing a comic book action scene, but from inside one character's reality rather than with the objective frame of the panel or camera. Powers, debris, screams — all fun to manage.

Truly, the most violent scenes are really ones about fear — I'm thinking of Mike about to die at the hands of Friend of Humanity in the gym at his hs, and Bobby being dragged to the punishment rooms in the camp. In those scenes, the emotional violence is pitched high. In the latter, as with some of my sex scenes, that was more important than actually seeing the acts.
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From:mofic
Date:March 4th, 2010 09:56 pm (UTC)
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Interestingly I think of the last sex scene in your novel as being in the epilogue. It was only one sentence iirc, so maybe it wasn't really a sex scene exactly. But it was sweet, hot, and in character.

I think you make good points about emotional vs. physical violence.
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