Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fight Scenes and Sex Scenes: It All Goes Back To The Details

Some of the most exciting scenes in a book, any book, occur when characters surrender their normal rules of civility and act on a more primal level. Some of these scenes are so memorable for me that I can write an autobiography based on when I encountered them. I was in my dorm room bed at UC Davis when I read about Shingo Ogata lusting over his daughter-in-law, Kikuko. I was in a Brazilian hotel room, surrounded by muddy geologists inside and prostitutes outside when I read about Rabbit Angstrom coming home to encounter his wife and son after having left them for several weeks. And, I was in a refrigerated room of the UCLA biochemistry building, purifying an enzyme, when I read the scene in The Road where the father and son open a hatch in the floor of a house and go into a basement only to discover...

Action scenes that reveal the most about individual human nature are some of the hardest things to write about. How often have we been tempted to skip over their details when we include them in our stories?

They looked longingly into each other's eyes. The next day, Tina felt embarrassed by how she had behaved in bed.


Peter inflated his chest and asked Hugh to step outside with him. The fight lasted all of two minutes and then Peter was lying on the ground.

In a way, skipping over the details seems justified. We writers don't want to get our fingers dirty. We don't want to expose our readers to any sort of discomfort. Or, as people have mentioned in comments on this blog, we don't want to bore our readers with the nitty gritty details. But, at least for me, one of the best reasons to read is that I am allowed to witness some of the most private fantasies and some of the most desperate times for characters. Whether literary or not, I appreciate when an author makes the effort to imagine important action scenes in such detail that they (and I) are able to experience these scenes vividly and entirely.

I have a fight scene in my novel. A teenager is tied up and forced to confront a fighting rooster. My first attempts to write this scene involved me summarizing some of the graphic details. My excuse was that I didn't want my story to suddenly fall into an action genre. But, the real reason was that I didn't want to take the massive amount of time and energy that was required to really think out every twist and turn of the scene until I knew exactly what happened. Eventually, though, I did it. I wrote it out detail by detail, action after action. I was not trying to make my details serve more than one purpose. I was not trying to include symbols or character revelations beyond what was revealed by the fight. If anything, this scene is one of the more "shallow" description scenes I have, only because my sole intention was to see as much of what happened as I could, and I didn't worry about being boring.

When I read it out to my writer's group, my friend Norm said something like, "I feel like I'm reading a real book." It was a very new experience for me. For the first time I realized that emotion and depth were not the only things worth sharing. Action can reveal the most powerful elements of human nature, and they deserve to be written thoroughly and precisely, often with a lot of detail.


  1. A question on details... the first book you refer to is (I think) "Sound of the Mountain" am I right?

  2. Yes! That was actually the book that inspired me to start writing, although it's been years since I've read it. I'm so happy to find someone else familiar with Kawabata!

  3. Good post, Davin. You gave me more to think about.

  4. I'm not one for romance. My wife will tell you that in a New York minute. When I wrote this scene it surprised me. It's not graphic, but it is not void of detail. I like to leave a portion of it to the reader to visualize, but I provide ample fuel to fire the imagination:

    They walked up the stairs and into Gil’s room. They did not say a word as they undressed and crawled into his bed. They lay there, warm under the covers and pressed against each other, trading gentle pecks to the cheek as they looked into each others eyes.

    Gil’s hands caressed her naked body. He started at her hips, feeling the curve of her pelvis in the heel of his hand, then moving up her flat abdomen to her breasts. His fingers lightly teased her nipples and he kissed her neck. She pressed her hips against him, feeling his rigid member on her belly.

    “Do you have a condom?” she asked.
    Gil froze. He did not. He knew it. There was not chance of looking for one, finding a stray in his wallet. He remembered using the last one. He remembered thinking he should get some more, but putting it off because he dated so infrequently he never thought he would need it. Until now.

    “No,” he answered. “Sorry.”

    “Don’t be. This is nice enough as it is. I’m sure we’ll be able to think of something to get around it,” she said as she slid down his body, stopping at his waist.

    “Yeah, we’re both pretty smart. I bet we’ll thing of something,” Gil agreed as she took him in her mouth.

    They exchanged favors until each was fulfilled, and then fell asleep in each others arms. Some might think the fact that they did not penetrate each other meant they did not make love. According to them, what passed between them was definitely love.

  5. I don't write out sex scenes, but I make it clear what is going to happen: a mention of nudity, a remark or two, scene end.

    Okay, sometimes I write out more of the scene on the side to see how it would read. Tee hee.

    I usually write out action scenes, but I don't know how skilled I am at it.

  6. Ah, sex and violence. Gotta love it. Two of the human elements that really keep us reading and interested. And by sex, I mean all of it. Attraction, the physical act, the dating game, all of it.

    I don't write entire sex scenes, but I do like to give enough information to give the reader a good idea of what is happening, how the characters feel, and what the outcome is. It is difficult to keep it tasteful and clean, in my opinion.

    I did two posts of fight scenes awhile ago. (sorry if I already provided these links in an earlier comment, I can't remember) I don't feel that details are the most important in a fight scene. I feel that the "emotional punch" is really what will pull your reader in.

    I happen to be married to a fight choreographer. That is very helpful when planning out a fight scene. We do a lot of drawing out movements and acting them out in the living room so I can get them down correctly. Details are important, but in writing the details, don't forget the character's thoughts and emotions.

  7. I might stray more toward narrative summary of fight scenes, because a) as a reader, I'm generally not interested in a blow-by-blow description (and too often, these highly detailed scenes are simply baffling and confusing to me), and b) I'm more interested in what it *feels like* to be in the fight, what the emotions are. It's a hard balance to find, I think.

    Sex scenes are, by and large, uniformly awful. Almost every sex scene I've ever read seems like every other sex scene I've ever read. Rick's is, to me, "generic sex scene." In A.S. Byatt's "The Virgin in the Garden," (I think) there's a scene where we know the characters are having sex, but we're more inside the head of the woman and getting her emotions. Frankly, I've never read a well-written sex scene. I am tempted to say it's not possible. It's like reading a description of someone eating a meal: "He picked up the fork and pushed it's long tines slowly into the mashed potatoes, creamy and white. Raising the steaming mound to his lips, he could smell the hot, melting butter and longed to take it onto his tongue." Et cet. I am routinely embarrassed for writers when I read their sex scenes.

  8. Thanks, Captain Hook.

    Rick, I think your scene works because it has the classic elements of a story and seems to have content more than just the intent to get a reader excited.

    Justus, Have you read All The Pretty Horses? There's a great fight scene in that book. Amazing. You can see how yours compares.

    Lady Glamis, How cool to be married to a fight choreographer. Yes, I'm sure that can be quite helpful. I think it's great to draw things out. Really, I think it's all about being able, as a writer to imagine the scene fully, and that those details will magically get onto the page even if you don't feel like you are writing everything out.

    Scott, Have you read Rabbit Run, by Updike? He has a great sex scene in there. You are absolutely right about the emotion. Really, I think for a sex scene or a fight scene to be worthy of inclusion, it has to have tremendous emotional weight behind it. Dramatic sex often has so many emotional undertones. It can't just be sex for sex sake. Same with a fight, which, at it's greatest can make a character confront life and death.

  9. Wow, what a great post! In a high school creative writing class that I took many many moons again, I still remember an exercise we did where we had to watch an action scene in a movie and then write that scene on paper. It was really hard, but it was a great lesson.

    These days I can often be seen sitting in my desk chair, looking like some kind of odd mime as I try to figure out exactly how I would grip a window I was climbing out of, or something like that.

    Sex scenes are harder. I've read so much romance (and I love romance novels so this isn't a dig) that I've become a bit bored by them, after a while they all start to seem the same.

  10. Davin,

    I must admit that I've not read any Updike. When I was a teenager, I saw a mass-market copy of one of the Rabbit novels with an truly awful cover, and I assumed for decades that Updike was a lowbrow sort of writer. I just learned that John Cheever admired him. I've read Cheever's short story collection a number of times, so maybe I should finally make a move on Updike.

    Most sex scenes I've read seem like either mechanical descriptions (he did this. she did that. this went here. that went there. she moaned. he moaned.) or they were trying so hard to be original that they ended up, frankly, just weird. I've never read a sex scene that reminded me of real sex--of how it feels to have sex, that is. So much of it is like badly-written porn, or simply awkward. Hari Kunzru's "Transmission" has a believable sex scene, mostly, though he makes too hard an effort to constantly remind us of the squalor in which the scene takes place, which I found distracting.

    Hypocritically enough, the novel I'm going to write after the next novel I write (reword that, thanks awfully) is going to start with three sex scenes, all in a row. We'll see how awful they are.

  11. I tend to summarize sex scene and move on. As for action scenes, it depends entirely on where the scene is a key scene to the novel. For example, I can't go on and on a car chase scene. That would be boring. But it my MC is about to get axed, I have to show at least enough details to show how he gets himself out of the situation.

  12. I have two sword fights in my book. The first one is summed up more or less as "there was a ringing of steel, and..." The second one is several pages in length. The difference? The first fight is to show a character's attitude about fighting, against an opponent nowhere as skilled as he; the second is a sincere fight to the death between two serious students of the rapier. I worry, frankly, that the second fight scene has too much detail. It alternates between narrative summary and blow-by-blow. Hopefully I've concentrated on the right details and skipped those that don't matter.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.