On Writing Combat and Sex Scenes

Today I want to talk about writing sex and combat (and no, I do not mean combative sex). This post is inspired by a few recent events:

  • Once, a long time ago, I read a blog post that said “if you can write a combat scene, you can write a sex scene” and that was mind-blowing for me because while I was well-versed in writing erotica, I couldn’t write combat to save my life.
  • More recently, at Boskone, I participated on a panel about writing combat, and the research involved there-in.
  • Even more recently, I had someone look at me say, “You’re not a gay guy. How do you write gay sex scenes?”

So. Let’s begin.

I get it—sex and combat aren’t interchangeable. But at their core, they have some strong similarities which can be leveraged while writing. Both are intense, high drama, and can involve a lot of anxiety and quick thought. Both tend to narrow focus down to the moment and the current feeling and action. Both are heightened emotion and physical reaction. Both can involve actions that lie outside the author’s personal experience.

I started writing erotica when I was a freshman in college. I posted it online (does anyone remember rec.arts.erotica?) and was surprised (and pleased) by the compliments I received. Turned out my readers were not expecting the idea of emotion being entangled in their erotica. They were invested emotionally in how the stories went, and how my characters felt. Since I was writing from the point of view that made sense to me at the time, they were het stories from a female perspective, and they were very focused on the emotional connections and how the physical events heightened those emotions.

Male readers were surprised by the intensity of the feelings that these stories gave them (as opposed to pure arousal). It got me thinking about how I wrote, and why I wrote, and I tried to talk about it some at the time. I was eighteen. I was still a new writer. The internet itself was new. I wasn’t entirely certain how to frame it, but I remember getting one comment where a guy was surprised at how struck he’d been by the moment in the scene where everything shuddered to a halt due to an event in the story that interrupted the action, and I replied that that was because I wasn’t writing about the sex. I was writing about the character’s reaction to the sex.

Which has always been how I write. At the time, that was my only tool: put myself in the character’s mind, and write what they feel. If that’s affection and attraction and physical reaction, write that. Tangle it up, and hope the reader feels that entanglement.

Now, fast forward several years, and take a little side trip onto a tangent wherein I learned something very important about writing craft.

I was reading Syne Mitchell’s End in Fire, I think it was, and I kept having panic attacks. Now, I did most of my reading late, often when I woke in the middle of the night due to stress, or just because my brain refused to rest. I was in a rough place in life in general, with a lot of external work stuff going on and very small children. I wasn’t sleeping well. And it took me some time to figure out why I was struggling to read a book which I actually loved (and when I read it later in life, I enjoyed it greatly).

It was the sentence structure.

In order to induce the emotion of the scene, the sentences were short. Sharp. Quick. There was no time for the reader to breathe, much like there was no time for the heroine to do anything but act. The reader was caught up in the rising tension, to the point where my anxious, sleep-deprived brain, caught a panic attack from it.

The technique was brilliant.

Now back to our original timeline, wherein I read a post about how if you can write combat, you can write sex scenes. This post assumed that more people felt comfortable writing violence than sex. I was the reverse. I’d been writing about sex for over a decade when I saw this post, and it made a light bulb go off in my brain.

If writing sex was like writing combat… was the reverse also true? Could I improve my skills at writing battles by analyzing what worked when I wrote erotica?

So I tried doing just that. Back then, I found combat overwhelming. There was so much going on, and I was trying so hard to write good description that I lost all of the intensity. I was focusing on everything that was going on at the same time.

Thinking about how sex scenes were all intense emotion and narrowed focus, I applied that to my combat scenes. I wrote only what the point of view character experienced, and tied everything to their actions and reactions. I thought about how they breathed, how they moved, how they thought. I used those short, sharp sentences as they processed the scene. 

That doesn’t mean I forgot about everything else going on in the scene. That’s impossible. After all, in any story the things the character doesn’t pay attention to might be as important as the things they do focus on. Stuff still happens, and there is still fallout. I needed to know what else was happening so that if the character moved from one place to another, or did something that put them in the path of a different part of the action, I could have them start processing it.

But it also meant that on the page, out of sight was out of mind. Everything narrowed down to the now. The immediacy. Suddenly my combat scenes snapped into focus.

During the panel at Boskone, all of the panelists had experience with different fighting styles (fencing, street combat, and of course, me with taekwondo). I spoke about how for me, that narrow focus is very real when I spar. I know there are some people who naturally see a move or two ahead while fighting; I don’t. I am stuck in act and react mode. Can I kick them now? Can I attempt a head shot? Oh, no, circle back and away or they’re going to hit me… that’s how my brain works during a sparring match.

It’s not like a total blackout—there should be a vague awareness of things around the character. Sounds in particular, or sometimes flashes of movement. Something distracting can catch the attention of the fighter, but the personal fight will always pull the character back.

Combat feels easy when I’m writing like that.

Of course, there’s still the question of writing about something if I’ve never experienced it. As someone did point out to me: I am not a gay man, so how does that affect writing sex scenes? I’ve also never fought with a sword. Brawled. Fought from horseback. I have, however, held a blade, shot a gun, shot an arrow, rode a horse. I have a vague idea of how these things work, much like I have a working knowledge of sex in general.

So yes, research gets involved. Sometimes research is observational, sometimes it’s reading (there’s so much good stuff out there). I highly recommend video for combat scenes—find things that have the feel that you’re going for, then put yourself in the place of the character you want to write about. Practice. Work through the ideas of how things fit together, and what your character will (and will not!) know during the fight.

If you need to, stand up and block the scene by thinking about how you would experience it. What can you see, and what is out of sight? If someone is coming at you with a blade, what are your options? How do height differences affect you? Yes, I have asked friends and husband to help me block scenes. 

“Stand right there and show me what it looks like if you punch me. Okay, so if I do this then…” Yeah. It’s a thing. But it works.

When doing your research, remember that movie fighting (and hell, movie sex scenes) isn’t realistic. It’s meant to look good. For combat, if you can find re-enactments, or sparring videos, I highly recommend taking a look at those. 

Anyway, the point is: I don’t have to have shot someone, and I don’t have to have had gay sex in order to write about them. What I do need to know is how it feels emotionally to do those things, and I can extrapolate that from what I do know. I need to know enough about the details so I can get it right, and that’s where research will help me. Also, use language to create emotion. Because emotions are where we grab the reader, and how we pull them into the scene.

Combat and sex aren’t so different when it comes to writing, and the personal experience. Now, go forth and write!

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