Sex and Violence: A Writer’s Worst Nightmare

25 Mar

Vanessa Di Gregorio

If there is one thing I’ve been taught, it’s that sex scenes and fight scenes are the parts you keep an eye on, as both a writer and an editor (or crit partner). Why? Because sex and violence can make people uncomfortable. Because those scenes with sex and violence are difficult to write. It’s what most writers dread having to write sometimes.

So, we’ll start off with violence in books; specifically, those dreaded fight scenes. Chances are, if you’ve never written a fight scene before, you will write something nonsensical. People reading it might be completely lost and unable to visualize the scene at all. The flow and pacing might be too slow. It might lack the OOMPH you’re looking for.

The best way to remedy this? READ FIGHT SCENES IN BOOKS.

Don’t copy word for word, but take a look at how some books portray fight scenes. Heck, make some notes. If you read a book with a great fight scene, place a sticky note or a bookmark there; use it as a reference. But, some books might also have some awfully lackluster fight scenes; and I’m sure you all have come across some not-so-great scenes at some point in time. Writing a fight scene is so much more difficult than one would think. Watch fight scenes. Act them out in your living room. Think of how a body moves during a fight scene, and be varied. Don’t keep having them swinging punches; mention body weights shifting, balance; whatever you feel is necessary to make the scene not only make sense, but more engaging for your readers.

A fight scene consists of Action and Reaction.

He kicks, she stumbles back.
The action should come before the reaction.
She stumbled as he kicked her hard in the chest. While not a bad line, and certainly understandable, it might be more effective to write it this way: He flung his leg out, kicking her hard in the chest. She stumbled backwards, winded.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m brilliant at writing action scenes, but you get my point. The pacing is just that much more intense when the action comes before the reaction. If we find out that the character stumbles before getting hit, the pacing is different; the fight scene is no longer as intense, and it doesn’t impact a reader the same way. We can visualize it, sure (which really is the first goal of a fight scene; to have it make sense); but you also want to consider how tense your fight scene should be.

Short sentence are key. Long sentences in a fight scene can make it too complicated/convoluted. So, stick to the short and sweet. But be careful; you need to vary it a little bit. Don’t have all the sentences the same length.

Bad: She kicked. He blocked. She punched. He ducked.
Okay, so maybe that was a bit extreme. Here’s another example:
Bad: He could hear her approach. He turned and they faced off. She suddenly rushed at him.
Better: Footsteps echoed in the alley. He whipped around. A woman rushed at him, throwing a wild punch.

Vary your sentence lengths. Yes, the shorter the better; because then the flow and pacing is quick, as it should be for a fight scene. But you can see how having different sentence lengths makes it more interesting. If all your sentences are the same length, it can also interrupt the flow by being too staccato.

Now that we got through some violence, let’s talk about love (or lust) – and the even more dreaded sex scenes. Whether you are writing YA or Adult Fiction, chances are you might try to write a sex scene. My first suggestion? DON’T MAKE IT CORNY. Your readers should not be snickering while reading a passionate (or perhaps not so passionate, depending on the type of sex scene you are writing) love making session. It shouldn’t be painful to read unless you’re trying to make it awkward.

Writers often fall into the use of clichés, or use inappropriate names for body parts that can either be completely and utterly ridiculous, or just plain offensive. Sex can be both, if it’s your intention to do so. But most authors trying to write sex scenes aren’t trying to make you squirm in outrage (or laugh outright). So here is a list of things to consider when you come across an intimate scene between your characters.

Avoid euphemisms. They can end up being really tacky, funny, and just plain awful. Unless you are trying to be ridiculously funny, avoid body part euphemisms. In fact, why mention the naughty bits at all? I’m not saying you shouldn’t, but really, there are so many other body parts. What about the small of her back, or some trembling hands? You could even just say that she reached for him and you would get the point. So, if at all possible, avoid words that might make you laugh. You can be explicit without being… well… explicit.

Make your sex realistic. Are two teens going all the way for the first time? Well, I’m not sure if you remember what your first time was like, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the greatest session of love-making ever. Sex can be boring or unsatisfying for your characters. It doesn’t always have to end with the ultimate climax. But when a sex scene is earth shattering for your characters and boring/unsatisfying for your reader, well… you have a problem.

People do not talk like porn stars
. Unless you are writing about porn stars, your characters should in NO WAY sound like them. Again, it is tacky. And funny (in a sad, this-is-hilarious-even-though-it’s-not-meant-to-be sort of way). No one talks like them during sex; porn is over-the-top. Your sex scenes shouldn’t be.

Don’t forget to use all the senses. Sex (like any intimate scene) shouldn’t just be purely physical. There are sounds and scents and tastes. And it doesn’t have to be obvious, like a shuddering moan or something. Think of all the little details: her strawberry lip gloss, or the sound of the bed sheets ruffling.

So now, hopefully when you go off to write about sex or violence, you’ll find some of these tips helpful. Have your critique partners pay particular attention to these scenes when they read your work. And just keep writing them. Don’t shy away from these scenes because you don’t know how to deal with them. Practice writing; you don’t necessarily have to show it to anyone, but the more you practice, the better. Once you feel comfortable, then write the scene for your manuscript. Look over the scenes after; often, these are the scenes a writer will write, and then not edit/revise. Sure, it might be embarrassing, but if you can’t read it, then why would anyone else? Believe in yourself and your skills as a writer; you never know what you can do until you try.


Vanessa is an intern at The Rights Factory, a literary agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program, and is trying to figure out where in the world of publishing she wants to end up in. Currently, she is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.

20 Responses to “Sex and Violence: A Writer’s Worst Nightmare”

  1. Angela March 25, 2010 at 7:39 AM #

    Thanks for the tips on action scenes. I never thought of making my sentences shorter than I usually make them while trying to vary sentence lengths at the same time.

    The part about love scenes made me laugh. I read a lot of Regency romances, so I come across a lot of *cough* Well, you know what I mean. Something that’s been annoying me lately is that most of the sex scenes I come across in Regency romances seem to sound the same, even if the authors are different. I don’t know how to say this, but it seems as if the guy does the same thing to the girl and the girl has the same reaction in every book.

    I have zero experience in these matters *cough* but I’m pretty sure every female’s sex experiences are different, even if it’s with a guy she’s madly in love with.

    *cough* I hope you understand what I’m talking about. I’m blushing madly as I write this, and I’m feeling a little uncomfortable. Hopefully, I won’t be writing any R-rated scenes anytime soon. @_@

    Yeah, well… Thanks for the action tips. I’ll be sure to keep those in mind the next time I write a fight scene.

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 12:22 AM #

      I’m really glad you found this helpful! I just know its a huge problem area for writers (I see it all the time!), so I thought it might be useful (and I’m happy it was!!!)

      Yeah, I think people forget that fight scenes need to be looked at differently. I tend to write really LONG sentences, full of commas and semi-colons, and it just doesn’t work that well in a fight scene.

      And yeah, it’s terrible when sex scenes become generic and replaceable!

      Oh, and I totally get what you mean!! And honestly, the best way to get comfortable with writing sex scenes is to just try it. You don’t have to show anyone; but try writing a few. You might just surprise yourself!

  2. cgwriter March 25, 2010 at 8:43 AM #

    Ha! Love the part about the sex scenes.

    I’ve written both, and I can say my fight scene (or, more accurately, violent chase scene) is pretty typical. It’s one of the things I need to work on.

    But the thing I LOVE is that you really hit on the problems with sex scenes. I’ve written plenty of them–heck, I started on for goodness sake, and we all know half the stuff that goes on there–and although I don’t remember many of them, I remember having a REALLY hard time. I have a pretty twisted short story with a lengthy rape scene in it, and although I got some positive reviews, I’m not happy with it at all. It made ME uncomfortable reading it. Honestly, I didn’t think I was capable of that.

    But my problem is that point isn’t supposed to be a comfortable thing, especially for the characters, so would you say readers should be uncomfortable as well? I mean, you WANT a reaction out of them.

    Thanks for the article! And good job. :] I’d write more but I seriously need to leave for work. haha.

    • cgwriter March 25, 2010 at 8:44 AM #

      Um, can you tell I didn’t proofread this? “But my problem is that RAPE** isn’t supposed to be a comfortable thing” … I think I got stuck halfway between “my problem is” and “my point is” …

      • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 12:29 AM #

        Thanks! I had fun writing this post!

        As for rape scenes, they should DEFINITELY make you uncomfortable. You’re right; it isn’t supposed to be a comfortable thing. It should make you AND your readers cringe. Sure, its ugly, but you’re trying to depict this ugly thing happening. And I think the idea of being forced is something you really have to keep in mind when writing a rape scene.

        I think there also isn’t a need to mention body parts really either; I mean, saying that he forced himself on her (or in, if you want to be just a little bit more explicit) will get the message across. Your character would also be focusing on the pain/shame/horror of it. Emotions/feelings are a big part of sex and violence that I wish I had touched on. They are completely vital.

  3. Rowenna March 25, 2010 at 8:47 AM #

    Great tips! I think, also, that reading intimate or violent scenes that do make you giggle or feel uncomfortable is a good idea–you can see what’s going wrong and avoid repeating that author’s mistakes!

    Something else that I think we often forget when stressing about writing this kind of thing is that the most important elements of the scene might not be the punches or the, erm, embraces, but the emotional reactions–anger heating up your neck as someone insults you before you throw the first punch, feeling cossetted and safe in someone’s arms…that kind of thing. Not only easy to leave out, but easy to forget that anyone can imagine what the emotions would feel like even if they can’t imagine what the action would feel like.

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 12:33 AM #

      Thanks Rowenna!

      And that’s so true! Reading scenes that DON’T work are a great way of figuring out why… a sort of “what-not-to-do”.

      I wish I had touched on it more, but yes; emotions are VERY important (as they are in writing ANY scene). Scenes are far too dry when there aren’t any emotions or feelings involved. They need to be in these scenes as well. Otherwise, it will feel very detached.

  4. Kat March 25, 2010 at 9:08 AM #

    Hi! I liked what you had to say about how lack of experience in these things can lead to… awkwardness, haha

    PS. I sent the group email a well, email a few days ago (Sunday, I believe). I never received a response. Maybe you guys have lots of emails and just haven’t gotten to mine yet, but I’m just afraid it might have gotten lost in the great canals of the interweb.

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 11:16 AM #


      And yes, we received your email – hopefully we can get back to you soon!

      • Kat March 26, 2010 at 11:49 AM #

        Okay, thanks!

  5. gabriellan March 25, 2010 at 9:55 AM #

    Thanks for posting this. I have a ton of fight scenes to write and it’s slowly nudging me closer to the edge of insanity. I’m a movie girl, so I feel like I know exactly how I want it to look, now my problem is making it read properly. Hopefully this will help me out.

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 12:37 AM #

      I hope it does!!! I’m a visual person myself, so it can be super frustrating when I can see it so clearly in my mind, and yet be struggling with getting it onto paper. Good luck with your fight scenes!

  6. Aurora Blackguard March 25, 2010 at 10:53 AM #

    Was it awkward writing this??? 🙂

    Anyway, thanks for the advice. What have you got to say about rape and er.. well, not outright sex scenes but like.. sexual violation. And rape in not-so-many-words???


    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 1:14 AM #

      It actually wasn’t! (but then, I have no shame, ahahaha!)

      I had a hard time trying to keep this post as PG-13 as I could! I mean, I REALLY struggled! I think I did a good job of not being explicit while explaining HOW to be explicit….

      As for rape or scenes of sexual violation, well… I talked a bit about it above in my reply to cgwriter. But I’ll add a few more points.

      I think the problem with a lot of sex scenes is that when a woman says “no”, or “stop”, they don’t really mean it and end up having mind-blowing sex. Which is wrong. You’ll find this a lot in Harlequin romances, but it’s fantasizing “rape” in the way that porn fantasizes about rape. If you’re writing a Harlequin, then it perhaps could work. But if you’re writing any other kind of story, no means NO. Otherwise, it’s rape.

      Writing about sexual violation is hard, because like I mentioned in my reply to cgwriter about rape, you and your readers NEED to feel uncomfortable. There is nothing pleasant about being sexually violated; and the key word is violation. Something is being done without consent, and something sexual is forced upon an individual. When writing these scenes, they can’t be sexy; in fact, they have to be the complete opposite. Focusing on the emotions of your characters during these scenes are the best way of conveying what is happening to them. They’ll remember the pain and the hurt.

      I hope this was somewhat helpful. I am functioning off of very little sleep right now, so if I was at all unclear or you want me to elaborate, let me know! 😀

  7. Renee March 25, 2010 at 12:58 PM #

    Great point on both counts, fight & sex! Something I’ve learned about writing sex scenes is if you’re too uncomfortable with the gritty details, just allude. One of my favorite authors does that, without going into detail–or else start at the beginning of the sex scene and then skip to the end while writing, again without the details. 🙂

    As for fighting–I’m taking every word of that to heart! They’re really difficult scenes for me to write, so thank you very much for the advice!!!

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 1:20 AM #

      I like allusions more, personally, when I read sex scenes. Although some authors are amazing at gritty details, especially when they are writing those really uncomfortable sex scenes.

      But yeah, alluding is just as good as being super explicit.

      And I’m glad the tips on writing fight scenes is going to be helpful!!!! I know that it took me a while to figure out how to write them! They’re difficult for pretty much every writer out there; the ones who are good at them are people who’ve practiced writing them over and over again!

      Good luck with your fight scenes!!! 😀

  8. Nandi March 25, 2010 at 9:42 PM #

    awkward but inevitable question, i’m sure one can write a fight scene without ever having actually gotten into a scrap, you can act it out until you see how it would go etc… but how do you write realistic sex scenes if you’ve well… never had any…?
    I remember my teenage writing and I know I wrote really bad kissing scenes until I actually got kissed… now I basically point blank avoid any love scenes, infact i think i’m avoiding a whole story because I know that’s where my characters are headed…

    • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 1:41 AM #

      I suppose reading books with sex scenes is your best bet. Not Harlequin sex scenes, but… maybe a book like Looking For Alaska. There is that awkward first-time sex scene, which really isn’t graphic at all, but it’s a great start at looking at the many ways people experience sex.

      I suppose your best bet is to figure out what kind of characters you have, in the sexual sense. Are they experienced? Maybe one is a virgin and the other isn’t? It might be weird to think of your characters this way, but imagine what kind of people they are. If you have a shy character, chances are she’ll be nervous taking off any clothing. Will they be intoxicated when it happens? Cause then there are less inhibitions. There are so many factors that can lead to different behaviors during sex.

      I think, if you don’t have the experience yet, you can still write believable sex scenes. You just have to read books with sex scenes, and bookmark them as references. I would suggest watching movies, but Hollywood movies make almost all sex scenes mind-blowing. Film festival and indie movies make a much better source for realistic sex scenes (Y Tu Mama Tambien is a great example; there is a whole lot of sex in the movie, but a lot of it is awkward). But reading is definitely a plus. See what other authors are doing. And if it doesn’t weird you out, watch awkward sex scenes (the movie Juno also comes to mind). I think you need to understand the awkwardness of sex before you can write “average” sex (couldn’t think of a better word than that for now… sorry!)

      Hope this helps! Let me know if you want me to clarify/expand on anything! 😀

    • Angela March 26, 2010 at 2:51 AM #

      Hahaha. I remember Harlequin sex scenes. I had to spend two weeks at a mom’s friend’s house where the only things on the bookshelf were Harlequin novels and a few books by Johanna Lindsey. My innocent 14-year-old self was scandalized by some of the scenes in the books.

      But yeah, I don’t think Harlequin is a good way to learn how to write sex scenes. After reading dozens of Harlequin novels, I’ve realized that they all sound the same, which gets very boring.

      • Vanessa March 26, 2010 at 11:22 AM #

        I know, right? They all have crazy foreplay, and the guy whsipering how “beautiful” she is, and the intense heat rushing through her body at his touch, and etc etc. And there are always somehow these crazy orgasmic experiences! If life were a Harlequin…. lol

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