Fight Scenes and Love Scenes: Seven Tips to Writing Action

Virginia Kantra

Fight scenes and love scenes involve two (or more) characters in the grip of strong, basic emotion grappling at close quarters. These are action scenes, larger than life moments that evoke our readers' emotions and propel our stories forward.

Understanding the similarities between fight scenes and love scenes can help us identify strategies to make both kinds of action stronger.

1. Action springs from character.
What our characters do reveals who they are.
How your characters act and react in action scenes will depend on their
Level of skill
Experience
Emotions

Because our fictional characters are often larger than life, we can choose to make them exceptionally well-endowed or talented. We can write kickass heroines or sexually skilled heroes. But to avoid writing generic fight and love scenes, keep in mind what your characters know, how they learned it, and what they bring to this particular encounter, at this moment, in this mood. The more aware you are of your characters, the more they can surprise you and the reader. Think of Indiana Jones pulling his gun to shoot his sword-wielding opponent in Raiders of the Lost Ark. His action is credible and in character, yet it’s also a wonderful surprise.

2. Players in an action scene should be well matched.
Tension springs from conflict. In fight scenes, your antagonist should be strong enough to defeat the hero, to put the outcome of the fight in question.

Your lovers should be equally matched. While the hero and the heroine in a love scene don’t threaten each other physically (well, except for that wonderful scene in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are rolling around shooting at each other), you can increase the tension by making them vulnerable to each other in other ways. Again, put the outcome of the scene in question. Will the skilled rake seduce the well-brought-up virgin? Or will she turn the tables by taking control?

3. Every character in an action scene should have a goal.
Unless your characters are drunk or otherwise judgment impaired, they should have an objective, a desired outcome, going into the scene. Whether that goal is to avoid a confrontation or to start one, to establish intimacy or distance, your characters shouldn’t jump into a fight or into bed without some kind of purpose. What do they want? What are they prepared to do to get it? Remember what I said above about tension springing from conflict. Your character must have a stake in the outcome of the scene. Which brings me to my next point.

4. Action scenes should impact the plot.
Fight scenes and love scenes should impact both the characters' emotional arc and the development of the story. Scenes should not be stuck into the story because sex titillates or violence sells, but because the action of the scene changes things for the participants. Maybe the fight clears the air. Maybe sex changes the balance of power. Maybe somebody gets hurt.

As with any other scene, fight and sex scenes should advance the plot and either complicate or help resolve the conflict. The action should be significant and relevant to the rest of the story.

5. What's going on? Choreographed action and emotional progression.
How much detail you include in your fight and love scenes will depend in part on your story, your style, and your subgenre. Lengthy descriptions of scenery will slow your pacing, but a brief depiction of setting will establish both the mood and the “field of battle.”

You don't need to choreograph every movement. But the action should
Be possible
Be plausible
Flow

Fighting and making love are ultimate physical expressions of intense emotion. Your characters and your readers should be plunged into the scene, not outside watching it. Use visceral detail: pounding hearts and sweaty palms. Sensory description can add to the immediacy of the action, but focus on how each touch, each scent, each sensory trigger makes your characters feel. Dialogue can increase either the intimacy or the conflict, but it should be brief and to the point.

6. Actions have consequences.
Even if the fight is won, even if the sex is great, action scenes often end in unforeseen disaster. Now the bad guy knows where they are. Now the hero is injured. Now the heroine is emotionally vulnerable or pregnant.

Ask yourself, how are things better or worse as a result of this action?

7. Both fight and love scenes should escalate throughout the book to the climax.
Your characters should grow through the course of the story.
The villain should get stronger.
The stakes should get higher.
The tension should mount.

And all that pulse-pounding emotion, all that evocative detail, the pain and the ecstasy, should be that much more.

To illustrate what I'm talking about, here are two brief excerpts from Forgotten Sea, the intro to a fight scene and the intro to a love scene. These aren't full scenes. But as you read, see how the different elements discussed above come into play, the way the characters' objectives and emotions, the setting, stakes, and visceral details help bring the action to life.

THE FIGHT, p.185

Black birds ringed the parking lot like spectators at a boxing match. Or vultures.

Justin's heart jack-hammered. The three men from the diner had Lara trapped between a big rig and the Jeep.

At least this time none of her attackers was possessed by a demon.

That he knew of.

A chill chased over his skin. Briefly, he met Lara's gaze, blazing in her pale face. "Get inside."

She opened her mouth to argue before she figured out his order was for the benefit of their audience. Pressing her lips together, she took two jerky steps toward him.

Tattoos took the toothpick from his mouth and pitched it to the ground. "I say she stays."

"Let her go," Justin said evenly.

The stocky man with the weary eyes met his gaze. "Or what? You’ll call the cops?"

Duck into the diner, leaving her alone? Risk having the cops run a make on their stolen Jeep?

"We don’t want trouble," Justin said again.

Tattoos laughed.

The man in the red bandanna crossed his arms over his chest. "Then call off your spies."

Spies?

"I don't know what you're talking about," Justin said.

"Call 'em off, or your girlfriend's going back to Heaven ahead of schedule."

But Lara was easing between the Jeep and the truck, retreating toward the diner, securing herself space and a wall at her back. Smart girl.

Justin started circling with Bandanna Man and the stocky guy, hoping to buy time to let her get away, get inside, trying to keep an eye on Lara and another on his new dance partners, watching their hands, watching their eyes. Hoping nobody had a knife or, Jesus, a gun.

Tattoos realized Lara was slipping away and made a grab for her. The flock of birds burst from the ground, a feathered explosion of black wings and raucous cries.

Lara dropped out of sight behind the Jeep.

Shit.

Now let's look at another example of a different type of action in

THE LOVE SCENE, p.204

Iestyn's blood drummed in his ears like a roaring wind, like the crashing sea. Lara should have left him when she had the chance. Instead, she was putting herself in his hands. Literally.

What the hell was she thinking?

Take me, she'd said.

Heat surged in his veins. A cold sweat trickled down his spine.

For seven years, he'd drifted, a nobody answerable to no one, responsible for no one but himself. Because of Lara, he knew who he was. What he had been. Her choices had gotten them this far.

But they had left her world behind. With every mile, they traveled closer to his.

Where they went from here was up to him. She was his responsibility now. Her safety, her satisfaction, depended on him.

He looked into her misty gray eyes and his vision contracted suddenly as if he were sighting the stars through a sextant, plotting his course by her light. All he could see was Lara.

He was no angel. Maybe he would never be what she needed. But in one area, at least, he could give her what she wanted.

Sex was part of his world. He could take responsibility for sex without any problem at all.

See how Justin's level of skill, experience, and emotion affects each scene?

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