Scenes, Sex and Violence and Snark

NOTE: We both had rough weeks so we were even more disorganized than usual on this one.  I thought Sex and Violence was next week, Bob had it scheduled for this week, and we were both so zotted that it took us awhile to figure out we were going in different directions.  You must all be so impressed.  Next week we’ll be fighting about Time, so we should be more focused then.

Jenny: A scene is a unit of conflict.

Each scene has its own protagonist and antagonist, not necessarily the protagonist or antagonist of the main conflict.

It begins when a stable situation is disrupted and ends when a new stability is achieved.

It begins when the conflict begins and ends when the conflict ends in a climax or the climax propels the characters into the next scene.

Sounds a lot like the plot of an entire story, doesn’t it? If you’re writing linear/cause-and-effect story, you’re probably writing in narrative units: scenes, scene sequences, acts (or whatever you want to call the stretches between turning points), story-as-a-whole. And cause-and-effect narrative units tend to be structured the same way because of that.

So a scene starts when the conflict pushes the scene protagonist and/or antagonist out of whatever temporary stable situation they were in. One of them does something that disrupts the other. The other pushes back and a new disruption begins, that unit of conflict finished. That unit is called a beat.

The next beat/unit of conflict has more tension, higher stakes, faster movement; that is, it escalates until it throws the scene into the next beat. That continues until the scene climax, when the conflict is either resolved by somebody winning, or pushed the characters into their next scenes.

What good is knowing all of this? If your scene is in trouble, if it drags, do a beat analysis and you’ll see where you dropped the conflict or failed to escalate the tension and stakes.

Should you do this for every scene? God, no, you’d never finish the story. This is Scene 911, emergency stuff for when you can’t cut the scene but you don’t know how to save it. The same thing goes for scene sequences, the series of scenes that make up their own unit of conflict. In that case, you can look at each scene as a beat in the sequence, checking the escalation to make sure the sequence holds together. The key is that the scenes taken together are a unit of conflict, each scene its own unit of conflict, each scene composed of beats that are a unit of conflict. It’s about the conflict, honey.

And, of course, each scene contributes to character arc throughout the course of the story. But again, don’t overthink it. If a scene is working for you, let it be. This analysis stuff is for fixing problems in the rewrite, not for writing a story. If it ain’t broke . . . .

BOB: I was thinking about this and the key is to always leave them wanting more.

What I mean is that each scene is a mini-book, with all the elements, but at the end, the reader should be anticipating the next scene.

Right now, I’m writing Equinox and it’s one of my Time Patrol books. Since I never make things easy, each Time Patrol books consists of six missions to the same day, in six different years. And each mission has five parts in a single day. Thus, after I gather my team together, they get their briefing, and then there are thirty scenes. Add in a present-day scene between each set, the bulk of the book is seven scenes, looping back five times, until each mission closes out and they are all back at the Possibility Palace. Exhausted yet?

I’m writing it by trying to write each mission on its own straight through with five scenes. However, as I get near the end, three of the missions come together in the same place, same year: Berlin 1947. Yeah. I don’t make it easy. I actually thought these books would be easier because of the fixed template, but it turns out I’m writing six short stories that somehow have to tie together.

My goal is to end each of all these scenes on a little bit of a cliffhanger. Because once I put the book together, the reader gets to the end of a scene with one character, say, Roland, and then reads six other scenes with six other characters in different times and places before they get back to Roland. Sort of like how Batman was when we were kids. Remember? He was always tied up and in a perilous situation? No bad guy ever just double-tapped Batman between the eyes, like they should have.

As far as sex and violence. Hmm. Well, violence for me happens in real time. It happens fast and furious. The ending of New York Minute, the climactic scene, was the most difficult scene ever for me to write logistically. Because I was describing intricate moves between two men fighting each other for their life in real time with a rope.

I don’t drag my fight scenes out. One thing I like about Will Kane is that he takes no pleasure at all in killing. A really bad guy is begging to be put out of his misery in one scene and Kane just does it; someone else might have let the guy suffer. But that’s not Kane’s code. That last word is interesting. We’ve been watching a lot of old Westerns lately and one thing they have is a “code”. There are rules that shouldn’t be broken.

As far as writing sex scenes, I don’t like doing it. What’s important is what role the sex has in the plot and how it affects the characters. I already have sketched out a sex scene for Kane in the next book, No Quarter. It’s the third time he has sex with this enigmatic woman who he knows little about except she works for a covert agency and is a killer. The first two times were what they used to call zipless sex. Fast, over with, no talking. This third time, though, will be different because she allows herself to be vulnerable. Not with the sex, but making a decision to wreak vengeance for personal reasons. For a professional like her, that’s a real break.

I have no problem writing a scene if I know its purpose. If I don’t know its purpose, I’m in big trouble.

Jenny: I don’t like writing sex scenes, either.  I figure everybody reading my books has either had sex or seen it on cable TV, so unless there’s a reason for showing it, there’s no point.

I just read a romance that had an excellent reason for detailing the sex–The Year We Fell Down by Sarina Bowen.  That kind of sex scene can be great to write because you’re not just writing stereo instructions.

BOB: Gets back to serving a purpose. Same with violence. I can’t stand the John Wick movies since the violence is so silly.

I still remember going with my father to see the Wild Bunch in the theater. The violence was unbelievable then. But it served a purpose.

Jenny: I like the absurdist idea of the first Wick movie, but it’s violence porn so it becomes “why is this scene of him beating up bad guys different from the last one?”

I thought the violence in RED, the Bruce Willis movie was great even though that was absurd, too.  It moved the plot.

BOB: Exactly. The first one was because they killed his dog. Okay. A bit extreme. But then it’s the same old, same old. Also, I think we trivialize violence too much in entertainment. Give people a false sense of reality.

I loved RED. A lot like Grosse Pointe Blank which I also loved.

Jenny: I loved RED, too, and Grosse Pointe Blank.  I’m not anti-violence, it just has to mean something.  (My protagonist actually says that in the book I just finished,)

How did we get on sex and violence?

BOB: Because on my outline is says: scene structure; sex and violence.

Jenny: Sex and violence is next week.

Oh, crap, we combined them?

BOB: Now we’re two weeks ahead! Yay me.

Jenny: I just checked: Sex and Violence is next week.  Action scenes.

BOB: One problem I think I’ve had with New York Minute is a slow start because my point was that although this was a man capable of great violence, his arc was that he had to be forced into it over the course of a book. Unlike book 3 where he awakens to a guy holding a Bowie knife to his neck saying “I could have killed you while you were sleeping.”

Hmm. I’ve got Unity for next week.

Jenny: We have to get a grip here.  I think we’re talking about scene, how to use them.  Action scenes are next week.  We can combine them, but I’ll have to reorient here.

Unity is September.  I think.  This may not be our night to do this.

BOB: We can reboot next week

Jenny: So am I talking about sex and violence this week?  I can do that.

BOB: Yes you are as i’ve said all I’m ever going to say on the topic.

Jenny: So over to me.

BOB: As far as scene I think we agree– a complete unit of action. Although Cormac McCarthy might disagree

Jenny: Okay, a scene is a unit of conflict which means that no matter what the scene is addressing, it has to a conflict-driven purpose.  No “This is a romance so I have to put a sex scene here even though it has no impact on the plot and could be handled with one sentence–and then they had great sex–and so is completely unnecessary.”  Ditto for fight scenes.  A scene has to move plot and arc character or it goes, no other reason for it to be there.

BOB: Exactly. I need a PURPOSE to a scene. Or else I can’t write it.

Jenny: I’ve written scenes in discovery draft that were just the next thing that happened, without figuring out why they were there, but in the rewrite they better find a plot purpose to carry or they’re gone.

BOB: Yeah– sometimes have to just muddle around to find the purpose. That’s what today has been with one scene for me. I’ll lie down and just think about it and stuff will eventually come.

Jenny: I’ve been overwriting a lot, too.  I look at a scene and think, “Why the hell is this so long?” and realize I got sucked under by banter that does nothing for plot and character.

As my old mentor used to tell me, “Here you went for the cheap laugh, and here you went for the cheap laugh, and here . . . ”

Cheap Laffs R Us.

BOB: If a scene starts boring me as the writer, the reader is in big trouble.

Jenny: Oh, absolutely.  Scenes that are boring me are death for a book.

Those are the ones you write because you think you have to in order to get to the next scene that you really want to write.

BOB: Gus is barking at me. Had to take his cone off. Now have to make sure he doesn’t undo 24 hours of cone by licking his foot. It’s always something

Jenny: I may keep going here alone since I did not discuss action scenes before.  Go take care of Gus.

Don’t think I don’t know that you’re using your dog to get out of talking about sex scenes.

BOB: Actually I’ll take him and Scout down to a ball park where they can run free inside the fence. Their own private dog park.

Jenny: Take care of your eyes, too.

BOB: I am. Take care of yourself. Sounds like you had a tough week.

And its only Tuesday

Jenny:  Thank you.

The big thing I know about action scenes I learned from Bob, which is that professionals avoid fights as much as possible until there’s no other option and then they end them fast.  Those long drawn out fancy fights in movies are audience bait.  (I just watched The Winter Soldier again, and when Steve is being efficient, he’s very fast, and when he’s not fast, he’s showing off which is out of character.  Annoying in such a good movie.).  That’s really the only bit I know about action scenes, but every time I have to write violence, I make it short.  Saves me writing what i don’t know, too.  Bonus.

Sex scenes, I know more about.  That was the only part of writing a novel where Bob just said, “You do it” and went off to walk Gus. (Wait, I think I see a pattern.) He did write some of the sex scenes, as I remember, but he screamed a lot.

Which I can understand.  I don’t like writing them, either.  The ones I’ve written that are most the effective are the scenes where the important thing that’s happening isn’t the sex.  I’ll give you an example from somebody else’s book for a change, the one I mentioned above, Sarina Bowen’s The Year We Fell Down.

The heroine is in a wheelchair, courtesy of a spinal cord injury eight months before.  She’s recovered to the point where she’s started her freshman year in college, but she’s still in therapy, still trying to figure out what she can and can’t do, and one of the things she’s not sure about is sex.  The love interest is the guy across the hall, on crutches for a temporary injury that he’ll completely recover from.  He also has a long-time girlfriend, so the two are friends, going to classes together and playing video games.  Except this is a romance and she’s madly in love with him, and he is with her, too, he just hasn’t noticed yet.  Then his girlfriend stands him up on his birthday, and the two of them get drunk on champagne, and he suggests they find out if everything works for her.

That scene has everything I like about sex scenes in it: it’s bumpy (not everything goes right), it has conflict (they trade off power, so neither one has the upper hand all the way through), it changes character (they both find out something new about each other and about themselves), and it changes the plot because it changes the relationship.  That’s the kind of sex scene you can’t skip because too much happens during it; the rest of the story doesn’t make sense unless you’ve read it.

Sex scenes where everything works beautifully are boring and rarely move plot.  That’s one of the reasons why first-time sex scenes (the first time these two people have sex) are more interesting than most later sex scenes: first times rarely go perfectly, there’s a lot of discovery and shifting of assumption along with shifting of body parts, and it always has an effect not only on the relationship but on the individuals.  Writing sex scenes is not my favorite thing to do, but I do like writing “okay, that wasn’t what I was expecting” scenes because they’re so crunchy for character, like the bad-sex-on-the-couch Davy and Tilda begin with in Faking It, or the throw-the-lamp-against-the-wall sex in Welcome to Temptation.  I wrote a sex scene in the Nita book that went so badly that the heroine yelled, “Damn it, I was looking forward to that!”  That was a fun scene to write.

In a lot of ways, sex and violence scenes are alike: it’s not about how long they go on or about how showing off how skilled the participants are, it’s about how they confound expectation, moving plot and arcing character.

So like every other scene.

Next week is Time, which includes flashbacks, epilogues, and prologues.  Bob loves ’em and I hate ’em because I feel that screwing with time is screwing the reader while Bob is writing multiple time travel plots in the same book.  (I have no problem with time travel, per se, see Connie Willis, just with screwing with time without thinking it through.). Prepare for conflict.

NOTE: It’s Thursday and I just got this e-mail from Bob about doing the next chat:

“Okay– today at 5.  Are we doing August 22, 2020 11.   Scene Structure; Action Scenes: Sex and Violence as per schedule?  Somehow we’ve lost that week ahead– because that’s scheduled for this Saturday. Not a big deal.  We can have it up by then.”

And he wonders why sometimes I get snarky.  Sigh.

BOB: Since I have to post this, I get the last word.

That’s all. The LAST WORD.

JENNY: Since I have to edit it before it goes live, you do not.


4 thoughts on “Scenes, Sex and Violence and Snark

  1. I had to write a sex scene yesterday. Based on the genre, it kind of has to be improbably good sex, and Jenny’s normal excellent wisdom of “make sure it’s got conflict as characters pursue goals and that it moves the plot forward” wasn’t quite piercing the writer’s block. My friend’s advice was to figure out how this scene tested/ aggravated the characters’ vulnerabilities, and that angle let me make it an interesting scene, while still making it improbably good first time sex per genre demands.

    My favorite fight scene blog is howtofightwrite. They’re big theme is that violence has to have a reason and it has to have consequences.


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