These are the notes for a 1.5 hour lecture/tutorial I'm giving on writing sex and violence.

Writing Sex and Violence

This session will not look at writing erotica/pornography or gore-fest violence, but will deal with the problems of writing sex or violence as part of a plot. If you want to know how to write the others, you only have to read a sampling of the genre, since the markets positively encourage cliché - all you need to do is master punctuation, vocabulary and grammar and some fairly believable plotting skills and you're set - you'll already be ahead of 75% of the writers in those fields.

Writing sex or violence in a way that it is integral to a larger story, or even the central feature of a story, without becoming overly sentimental, tasteless, or cringe-making, however, is much more difficult - and it's a problem that just about every writer comes across, sooner or later.

At this point, there's a reading of a post from usenet. Since it's not my copyright, I can't put it here, but you can find it at:

It's completely hilarious.

Whether the scene is sexual or violent, you need to decide:

What's the scene for?

  • To shock? There are perfectly legitimate reasons for this - perhaps everything has been going too well so far, and you want to bring your reader up short.
  • To advance the plot?
  • To provide character development?
  • To develop a relationship between characters?
  • It's the whole point of the story - you can't have a murder mystery without a murder (or a sexual thriller without sex)!

Whose point of view will you see the scene from?

  • An impersonal narrator?
  • One of the participants in a sex scene?
  • The victim in a scene of "intimate" violence (a crime)?
  • The perpetrator in a scene of "intimate" violence?
  • A participant in a scene of larger violence (war, riot etc)?
Each of these reasons and points of view offers alternative approaches, and matching the answer to the first question with an appropriate choice from the second is vital. There are some key rules that apply whatever you do, however.
  • Avoid cute euphemisms - if you must use descriptive words for parts of the anatomy, use ones that are actually used in speech. It's much better to talk about an 'erection' or a 'hard-on' than someone's 'stiff member'. Blood is blood, it's not 'heart's fluid'.
  • Shift the focus - rather than simply describing 'bits moving in bits' or 'the agony of breaking skin and the crunch of bone' involve the other senses - what are the sounds, the smells? Is the room hot or cold? What is the colour of the curtains? Is the light bright or shaded?
  • Don't overdo it, ever - don't describe every blow, every bullet, every thrust. Even if your intention is to shock, repetition of any shocking event dulls its impact. Lingering description of blood blossoming from a wound is fine - once.
  • Seek realism always - search in your own experience for what enhances believability - What do people really say during sex? How often is sex actually perfect (no cramp, no intruding elbows or spare arms)? What does pain feel like, really? How does fear manifest itself? Be cold, don't sensationalise.
Read accomplished writers in the field. Examples of what not to do are everywhere, good examples are rarer. Graham Greene's "Brighton Rock" is a wonderful case study in criminal violence. John Fowles "The French Lieutenant's Woman" or Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient" deal effectively with sex. Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series has marvellous battle scenes.

To shock

If you are seeking to shock, you will probably want your scene to be explicit. This is much more common in scenes of violence than sex, but there are a couple of approaches that help here:

  • To make a detailed description effective without 'squicking' your audience you need to distance the reader from the actual scene.

In "A Clockwork Orange" one of the most explicitly violent books you can imagine, Anthony Burgess does this by writing in the first person character of Alex, a violent teen, using an invented slang called "Nadsat". The need to 'translate' puts a barrier between the reader and the actual violence which simultaneously makes the acts bearable to witness, and allows horror and shock to dawn slowly. While it may not be practicable for you to invent a whole new language, you could have your perpetrator describe in a casual, oblique way that allows the actual events to unfold slowly.

You could have your victim recount the scene, to a friend, or better still a police officer, counsellor or reporter. This is likely to be done in short, cold sentences that simply recount the activity, without any description of the pain felt, or the emotions at the time. If you then wish to explore emotions or pain, it can be done through a question and answer format. This is an especially effective way to deal with sexual violence.

You could have the violence reported by a paper, TV news, a policeman in court - again, bare facts allowing the reader to fill in the fine detail for themselves.

Rather than describing the horror of a battlefield, you could have a protagonist slip in blood, trip on a body - something brief, unexpected and frightening.

To portray shocking sex, have one of your characters be shocked by it, describing the effect the scene has on them, rather than the scene itself.

To advance the plot

For plot advancement, it is likely that all that really matters is that the scene has happened, so here is where you would tend to use the impersonal narrator to give a brief exposition.

  • He cried, the first time he hit her, apologised, promised never to touch her again.
  • "She woke to hear him snoring. "Oh no," she thought, "I couldn't have, surely?"
  •  He looked along the street, taking in the burned out shop-fronts, the broken windows, the cars overturned onto the pavements.

These might seem like a cop-out, but if the description of the event itself isn't essential, why waste words on it? Remember, you want to make every word you use count.

For character or relationship development

To develop a character, or a relationship between characters, you should try to use that character (or one of them) to describe the scene, or allow the narrator to provide the thoughts of all involved.  This can best be done in one of two ways.

  • As the scene unfolds, describing the character's thoughts on each event as they happen.

Concentrate here on emotion, peripheral thoughts that drift into their mind, perceptions of things outside the actual events that might seem irrelevant, but would, in reality intrude - the sound of a car skidding outside a window, a crick in the neck from a pillow slipping, the light cast on the wall by the sun reflecting off a knife blade.

If the character you are focusing on is the perpetrator of a crime, explore their motivations, what they are getting from the experience, especially whether it is giving them all the satisfaction they expected.

This approach is the most immediate, but allows little time for reflection on the character's part, as they are involved what's happening

If you are developing a relationship, describe how each character perceives the other in the light of what's happening. Avoid extravagant generalisation in description. "A sudden rush of tenderness", "An overwhelming disgust" and so on are the stuff of pulps. Something like "I was surprised how boyish he seemed in the half-light, and how protective that made me feel", or "Chris was shocked by Andy's casual brutality, half-horrified, half-admiring" is better -- couple the reaction with the stimulus, so that it makes sense to the reader. Don't give your protagonists startling revelations during the scene - epiphanies generally happen in hindsight, and in any case, they get in the way of the action.

  • In retrospect, looking back and reflecting on the events.

Once again, the concentration here should be on the effect of the events on the emotions and thoughts of the character, rather than on the specific events. Here, the peripherals are less intrusive, but the character will treat things more analytically, considering why this or that behaviour prompted the reaction it did, and on the changes in themselves that have arisen from the scene. This could be straight exposition, a letter to a friend, a diary entry - there are numerous possibilities.

The removal of the need to react to events as they happen allows you to look forward as well as back, but please avoid "She knew, after this, her life would never be the same.

To develop characters simultaneously, you could make the retrospective a conversation between the characters involved, discussing what happened, how they feel about it, and where to from here.

To hang the plot on

Where the scene is the lynch-pin on which your plot hinges, the most effective way to treat is in bits. Throughout your story, reveal a little more about the scene from one or other character's perspective, referring to it when it affects how a character reacts, or something happens to bring it to their mind.

Here, you can use all the techniques. Start with the bare, plot development description. Later, perhaps, have characters discuss it. Later still, have a memory or a nightmare, where somebody relives it, have a scene where a character reads a letter or a newspaper report - you can choose, if you wish to have a final, full description, or to allow your reader to piece it together from the elements you've dropped throughout the story.

By this time, a full description should serve as resolution, rather than a shock tactic, as your reader should have a fairly complete picture of the scene in their minds and your final exposition should just be dropping individual puzzle pieces into place. Because they know pretty much what to expect, you can get away with being a little more graphic and intimate, as you have telegraphed the blow.