Let's Get it On! A Primer on Writing Action Scenes
Warning: Contains Book 2 Spoilers
Also Warning: The Spoilers Contain Graphic Sex
If you dig back through my first blogs, you’ll see one called, “Sex and Sensibility.” There, I mused on the many different, often opposite reactions I got from readers about the sex scenes in my books. If you aren’t familiar with my books, Book 1 of the trilogy is a slow burn. The other two have a lot of sex in them (they do contribute to character and plot arcs one way or another, I promise). They are almost always referenced in reader reviews, as are action scenes.
I still have mixed reactions to both. Most people love them. My sex scenes are very detailed and very emotional and intense. Readers who prefer the door closes, fade out approach to sex scenes get uncomfortable or just say the book isn’t to their taste. That’s fine. There are a lot of books out in Amazonland for just about any preference you can imagine.
Same for action scenes. I do a lot of research for those kinds of things. What does it feel like to be shot with what caliber of firearm? How do you fight with a spear, a short sword, or a longsword? Where does the blood spray when you slash someone at a particular angle? You get the idea. The fight scenes aren’t graphically bloody, but I do aim to make them easy to imagine and realistic, at least as much as superhero fights can have verisimilitude. There have been readers who wish they took less time. Again, most people really enjoy them.
So, aside from mentioning that different people like or dislike different things, why am I bringing up making love and war in the same space? The reason is that I write them almost with the exact same techniques.
The first rule of sex scenes and fight scenes is that in addition to the action itself, the scene is about something else. There has to be subtext. This is true even for erotica. Otherwise, they’re relatively pointless.
The next is that there has to be buildup. People don’t usually lose their pants or pull out their fighting knives out of nowhere. They’re both acts of passion, and the intensity the character is feeling has to reach boiling point one way or another. Sometimes it’s subtle, but the sex or the fight need to be the only logical outcome, and that depends very much on how deeply you’re mining through the character’s psyche as you develop their arc.
The nitty-gritty of the technique is, basically, cause and effect combined with active, immediate language and short sentences that read quickly. Cathy fell when Sheila hit her makes for a poor action sequence. It’s calm and explanatory. Sheila pulled back a fist and slammed it into Cathy’s solar plexus. Cathy gasped and stumbled backward is more evocative, and the action is sequenced logically. The fist comes before the hit, which comes before the other person falls over.
That’s a good start. Better still, add sensory description. That’s the other half of what makes for an evocative action sequence: Sheila pulled back a fist and slammed it into Cathy’s solar plexus. Cathy huffed as the air left her body. She stumbled and fell backward, landing on her arm. Dirt and gravel scraped and punctured her hand and face. She tasted gritty blood as she inhaled and wheezed. Sheila stormed toward her and lifted her leg. She brought it down, but Cathy rolled onto her side. Sheila missed the kick, but Cathy’s head throbbed and her palm stung. Her lips felt puffy.
I’ll add here that if you envision the above scene, there’s no time for conversation. You can’t have a talk and beat each other up simultaneously. It gives the opponent time to take advantage. Had Sheila stopped to gloat or monologue, Cathy would have had time to get up and either fight or flee. The Princess Bride is a rare exception.
It works with sex scenes as well. Below is a scene from Book 2. Daniel and Nina have discovered the identity of the mastermind villain, and it shakes Daniel to his core. This is a longish scene, and the build is slow, ratcheting up the emotional and physical intensity as it progresses. While I do include the things Nina thinks about, I focus on what she’s doing and what goes through her mind at each particular stage. There is some, but not much dialogue. There only a few adverbs. If something happens, the action generally gets described rather than given a qualifier.
The other thing I do in sex scenes that some people like and others don’t is avoid euphemisms. You will never find love caves, quivering members, and the like in my books. They sound childish and often are cutesy and cringeworthy simultaneously. These are adult characters doing adult things, and I treat the scenes as such.
This is a scene in Chapter 12 of Book 2: All Our Yesterdays, “Direction.” There are spoilers here, so if you don’t like spoilers, stop reading now.
The returned to their room, closed the door, and Daniel collapsed in Nina’s arms. A cloud of dust and a few loose spider web strands blew up in a small cloud around their faces. She supported his weight and rocked him. He didn’t cry; he just shook. She stroked his filmy hair and held him until his shaking subsided enough for him to stand properly.
Nina unzipped the front and sides of Daniel’s Lionheart costume. He stood still and let her peel it from his shoulders, down his arms and over his hips. He held onto her shoulder and let her lift one foot at a time to take off his boots, socks, and the rest of the uniform.
She gazed back up at him. “Daniel? My love?” His eyes were glassy and wet. He shook his head. “Tell me what else to do, Daniel,” she begged.
He didn’t move. He opened his mouth, as if it were an effort to do so. “Take the rest of it off.” His voice barely registered above a whisper. “Yours too.”
Nina tilted her head. Daniel didn’t look like he wanted to make love right now, nor was he even hard, but she did as he asked. He raised his arms over his head to help her take his shirt off. He was shivering. She slid his boxers down past his ankles and again, lifted one foot at a time for her to pull them off.
She remained in a squat at his feet. She reached around, pulled her shirt and bra off, and peered up. She wasn’t sure how to read him. Daniel looked down at her with no expression whatsoever. “Tell me what to do,” she implored. He didn’t say anything. Nina sighed, stood, and pulled her jeans, panties, socks, and boots off in a couple of expedient zips and shoves. “Now what?” she asked. When he still said nothing, she steered him toward the bathroom.
In the shower, she turned Daniel to face the wall and massaged body wash over his shoulders, around his armpits, and along his back. He passively allowed her to shampoo the dust, sediment, and spider web threads from his hair. Murky water mixed with artificially flower-scented body wash made tributaries over the lines of his muscles, pooled around the drain, and slid away.
Nina guided him to lean his back on the tile wall and then proceeded to work on the front of his body. She gently soaped his neck, sliding her fingers past his throat and along his collar bones. He closed his eyes as she lathered one arm, then the other. As she spread more body wash over his chest and abdomen, the only sound was of the water spraying over them and against the walls and floor.
She avoided his genitals and focused on his thighs. Even though the proximity and pressure of her hands obviously aroused him, he still rested against the wall with his arms dangling at his sides. He didn’t crouch to meet her or put his hands on her head. Remembering his admonition about using sex as a distraction from difficulties, she continued. He offered neither resistance nor help when she sat on the floor to lift and wash one foot, then the other.
“You’re clean,” She said when she rose. She kissed him and started to clean herself. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back to wet her hair, trying to think of something to say.
Nina lingered to let the hot water drench her hair. Daniel moved behind her. He kneaded his fingers around her temples and up to the top of her head. His heart beat steadily into her back when he pulled her back to his chest. Nina didn’t dare say anything. She reminded herself to breathe, and not to turn to embrace him, letting him take the lead.
Daniel slid his lips along the side of her neck and her shoulder. He wrapped his arms more firmly around her, and she let her head fall against him. She relaxed but didn’t respond. He could do whatever he wanted to her; she wanted him to come back from wherever he was right now.
Daniel continued to move his lips along Nina’s upper back and over to the other shoulder. She barely registered them for the lightness of his touch and the water raining over them. His lips were soft. He slid his hands up Nina’s rib cage and abdomen to cup her breasts. She purposely slowed her breath because his fingers that close to her nipples made her want to reach for him. She pressed harder against his chest, and his erection grew and settled toward the top of her buttocks.
He glided one palm down her abdomen again and over her mound. The insides of her belly fluttered when he extended one finger to trace around her labia. He added another finger and spiraled them further inward until he found wetness that did not come from the shower. He was hard, heavy, and warm against her lower back. He continued to circle the fingers of his other hand around and around her left breast.
Nina rocked her hips into his fingers, and he circled around some more, sliding his fingers up the length of her vulva and over her clitoris. She shuddered and sank against his chest. It was soft and hard at the same time, and the hot water made her want to dissolve into him.
She leaned her head around and he kissed the back of her jaw, eliciting a quiet moan from her. She pulled away so that she could turn around, but he pulled back to keep her where she was. She didn’t put up a fight about it. She softened every muscle she could and remain upright. For whatever reason, Nina understood, Daniel needed to touch her and to trust her to give in to him. She obliged.
He slid his free palm down her side and squeezed her. “You have a beautiful ass,” he mumbled.
Nina furrowed her brow for a second. Daniel was usually more than a little hesitant to talk during intimacy. Not that she was upset by it; it felt like strange timing. He cupped her ass and moved his hips against her back in rhythm with his fingers inside her. Shivers radiated from her belly, through her ribs, and down between her legs. She squeezed around his fingers and she felt him smile against the back of her neck.
Each time she tightened, her body shivered more. He reached his hand from her ass to her right breast. “You also have gorgeous breasts,” he said. “I love the way you gasp like that when I touch them. And when you lose a little control if I do this to your nipple.” He strummed his fingers over her nipple. The change in sensation was enough to make her moan more deeply and her hips rocked faster. He leaned in and smiled against the back of her neck before he touched the tip, then the flat of his tongue to the nape of her neck.
Nina breathed Daniel’s name. In response, he whispered, so closely to her ear that it filled her head, “I love you.” He bit her earlobe, rendering her unable to answer. All she managed was a throaty groan.
He pressed his fingers more firmly and she writhed against him. “Does that feel good, sweetheart? Does it? I’m still learning. I love learning about your body.” His chest glided along her back, slippery. His cock rocked from the top crease of her ass to the small of her back. She reached behind to find his cock.
He moved her hand away. “No. I want you to come all over my hand. I like the way you’re wiggling all over me. I want you to come while I hold onto you.” There was a sad, desperate quality to Daniel’s voice even as he said what he probably considered filthy things to her. She couldn’t deny the effect though.
Daniel’s breathing quickened along with Nina’s for a few moments. She felt the heat of his breath against her ear and neck when he asked, “Does that feel good?” He pumped his fingers faster and rolled his thumb around her clitoris. “Let it go. I’ll hang onto you. Let go. God, I love you.” She lost control. She moaned one more time and shook hard as her insides clenched around his fingers, sucking them in and holding them there as she convulsed and gasped Daniel’s name.
He didn’t slip his fingers away until she stopped moving. She turned in his arms and pressed against his chest. He lowered his head to kiss her while she reached down to handle his cock. She slid her hand up and down, waiting for his pace and breath to change before she sped up. When he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, she looked down and watched as he pushed against her pumping hand.
Nina loved watching this. Daniel almost never let her watch him ejaculate, even though he knew she thought it was fascinating and beautiful. She wondered if this was taking advantage, because he didn’t seem to have the will to argue. His entire body darkened as he lost control of his movements and his hips rolled and jerked against her palm. He squeezed his eyes shut and then emitted a high-pitched groan. A few moments later, he opened his mouth widely, huffed, and ejaculated.
Nina pushed her abdomen against Daniel’s. It was too irresistible not to. His chest was hot and slippery. She bent down to lick the watery cum off him. She sucked it from the hair that trailed from the center of his abdomen, down past his navel, and above his cock. Its saltiness was thin, dilute, and coated her tongue before it slipped past her throat. Tasting him this way was practically a compulsion. Even knowing he was vulnerable, she couldn’t stop herself.
“Oh, Nina,” Daniel whimpered, when she faced him again. She soaped up her hands and lathered them both as she kissed him. He pressed his lips back on hers only a little bit.
The water cooled, but they rested in each other’s arms against the wall for another minute or two. “We’ll figure this out,” she offered again, and kissed his chin.
“I know.” Daniel smiled, but his voice cracked.
The subtext here is Daniel’s horror and shock over what they’ve discovered, Nina’s uncertainty about how to handle it given her skill set and knowledge, and Daniel’s fragile state and sexual hangups. She easily could have backed off, and most readers would have felt cheated. It would have worked the same way building up to the point where Sheila hauled off and socked Cathy. There would have been some sort of exchange, some body language that conveyed mood, and some details that contributed to the tension.
This isn’t, as I mentioned, everyone’s cup of tea. By no means am I dictating a “correct” way to write or encouraging you to adopt my writing style. I could have made the scene a bit shorter, but I was going for the gradual tension. The reason for that wasn’t primarily to titillate, though. So, if you write any kind of action scene, think about the purpose. My goal was to show the slow, sometimes hesitant process of discovery between the two characters, including their anxieties and self-doubt.
Quite the contrary, I’m asking, if you are a writer, to leave no stone unturned before you decide your scene is complete. Have you achieved the emotion and immediacy you were hoping for?
Experiment. I had read a lot of romance novels, paying attention to technique, before I wrote sex scenes between Daniel and Nina. I spent an entire weekend at a conference dedicated to writing action and fight scenes. I’m asking you to do your homework and apply the lessons as needed. The more tools in your writing technique toolbox, the better your writing will become.