When are Sexy and Horrible Things Relevant to your Plot

When they are useful.

Everyone’s different. I’ve read books where I skipped the torture scenes. The fact that they are there? Tells me more than I need to know about the characters involved. I don’t need to see it play out. Its purpose – to show me a characters suffering and another characters cruelty – is fulfilled merely by a glance.

Some other people may like to sit through all of that. Maybe. But, if all you showed was torture scenes, if your book was nothing but gratuitous pain? Well two things are going to happen:

  • Your readers will get bored (seriously, even an entire book of sex scenes is a as dull as dishwater unless each of those scenes has a different dynamic and means something different.) It’ll just be “oh, here’s another of those scenes”
  • They will see that there’s no point, and they will leave, because generally speaking, people don’t sit through things they don’t like.

Now obviously the second point applies (hopefully) more to violence than to sex scenes. Sometimes, if they’re written well, people will read sex scenes because they like the sex scene. This is fine, although be aware of what genre your book is in, and what you’re promising to the readers by using that genre as a tag.

People will get a bad case of “can we please get onto the plot” if you have too much of the same thing going on. Even sex.

This is true even in erotica. Maybe if you don’t read it much, a whole book of sex scenes where emotions and outcomes never change and the actions don’t affect anything will enthral you. I don’t read a lot of erotica, because I find it difficult to find books that do it well, but I’ve read a fair few romances with high heat levels. And I find it difficult to not skips sex scenes after we’ve reached number 4. Because things start to repeat.

Everyone has had sex. If nothing important is revealed or happening during a sex scene, eventually people will skim over said sex scene.

Which brings us full circle regarding relevance to the plot. Sex can be relevant. As can horrid things like torture, death, rape. But as to how much of that needs to be in there?

It needs to be there if it serves your book. If the scene shows character, or emotional change, or plot elements. If it doesn’t? Keep in mind that shock factor only lasts for so long, and eventually people will get tired of reading about the same people having sex over and over.

Even in these circumstances, you have to give readers a reason to care.


Image via Flickr, attributed to Marina Del Castell


When Not to Write

Now. I know I talked about how to make yourself sit down and write regardless of whether the muse was visiting or not on Wednesday. However, I think it’s important to note, there are some times when it’s just not a good idea.

Here’s the thing. If you’re treating writing seriously, then writing is work. Work you enjoy, yes, but it’s work none-the-less. That comes with all the normal caveats. So we’re going to be referring to writing as work for a bit here, and the reason will become apparent later.

So when is it a bad idea to work?

  • When you have other things that need to be done that take higher precedence

Now be careful with this one. Our brains are very good at making up things that we “could” be doing, not “should” be doing. Do the dishes really need to be done? Probably not. Can you just decide you’d rather write than eat/feed your family/do your day job? No. So set aside time for writing, give up some things that don’t need to be done (TV, playing games, decide between whether your early morning time is for running or writing or half-and-half). But don’t write when you have shit that needs to be done.

  • When you need to take care of yourself.

I had a bit of a moment the other day which I now recognise as being sad. It wasn’t depression, because I was able to deal with it, I got stuff done, and I recognised and understood what was going on, but I was sad. There was a very identifiable cause. As so I got about 1k of words done, and then I decided that I was going to read fluffy fanfic for the rest of the day.

This is fine. It’s healthy, even. If you’re doing it all the time? It’s not a time management issue – it’s an issue you need to be seeking advice about.

  • When you’ve done enough for the week

Writing, when we’re talking about it like work, has a limit. That limit is different for many people. Some will tire of it after 2k each day, some manage only 500 words before they hate everything to do with it. I think each person’s daily limit reflects on how they write – I can comfortably get 2k in. But I write a fast first draft, don’t plan it, and use said first draft as my jumping off point, for the at least 4 rewrites I’m going to need. A friend only manages 500 words a day, but they’re not words she ever needs to edit.

So if you’ve hit your weekly goal (in my case 10k/week), feel free to stop. Go and do something else. Walk the dog. Exercise a little. Write something technical, just for kicks.

This leads me to my final point:

There is other writing than work writing.

The things above apply to “work writing”. Something you’ve told yourself that you’re going to get done. There are other kinds of writing.

One way that I dealt with my sadness the other day was creating a pretend memoir and writing out how I felt. Seriously. There were chapter headings and everything. Journaling, too, has a way of settling some people.

So yes. Take a moment when you need to. Don’t write when other priorities trump your writing work, and don’t write when it’s just a method of punishing yourself further- either because you’re exhausted, or because you need a bit of you-time.

But if a short poem is something that gives you joy after a week on a novel, then go ahead. It’s not work, and work is what we sometimes need a break from.


Image from Flickr, creative commons, attributed to Doctor Popular

Work. How to Make Words.

I’m a big proponent of the idea of sitting down and just writing. You do it enough, and eventually you’ll train the words to come.

Sometimes you won’t know what’s going to happen next. This is a big issue for some people (it’s the part I like best about writing). It’s also, generally speaking, the difference between people who plot, and people who don’t. So if you struggle to figure out what’s going to happen next, sit down. Write out your plan.

Then after that’s done, train yourself to sit down and write everyday. You know what’s happening. How it happens? That’s another issue, but you fix that by using three things:

  • Experience
  • Creativity
  • Copying

Experience is straightforward – you’ve heard arguments before. Maybe you’ve had a loved one die. Maybe you’re smelt blood before.

So you dip into your bank of a brain, and you get on with it.

Note, age has nothing to do with this. Experience often comes with age, but it’s not tied to it. I’ve lived in four countries, and spent two years running around in an ambulance in a city of 9 million people. I’ve had more experience in some areas than people twice my age.

I’ve never been truly in romantic love, nor had a child. So those things aren’t something I could ever talk about with authority. But I’ve watched people die. I know what someone in true pain looks like, I know what it is to be helpless. I know what devastation and grief looks like. I’ve had children stop breathing in my presence.

So. That’s experience. Where does creativity come into it?

I’ve never truly been in love – not a long term relationship, anyway. A few very short ones, but long term isn’t really my style at this point in my life.

I’ve known my best friend for 10 years though. And while I can’t say that the three months when we were in university where we had a falling out is exactly like a break-up? I must say, it’s not difficult to extrapolate from that experience to what it might feel like.

Like you’ve been jumping into a safety net that is comfort and home all in one and suddenly it’s gone.

So. That leads us to the last one. Copying.

“You want me to plagiarise?” I hear you saying. Nope. But I want you to go out and steal other people’s experiences for your own.

Take note of that word. Steal. It’s the correct word to be using. Because you’ll never be able to truly represent experiences that aren’t yours. You can have a fairly good go. But you are stealing how it feels, the way it impacts a life, from someone else. Keep that in mind. Be respectful. Perhaps make sure you know what you’re on about enough that the stealing feels less like stealing, and more like borrowing.

For some things, no-one will care. Nobody is going to care if I read about how it feels to have a child, and then write about it, taking in all those second hand experiences and feeding it through the filter of my creativity. People will also, generally not care if I write from the POV of a guy, even though I’m a woman.

They will care if you start writing about groups that you’re not from and doing it badly though. Because there is an impact there for hurt. The male white community is not going to be injured if I get them “wrong”. They’ll probably just go on ignoring me.

If you’re writing about someone when the world already gets most things about them and their people wrong? Try not to add to it.

Image from Flickr, by Kristina D. C. Hopper

Halfway Point – Impact, Processing and Change


There are  a lot of articles on the internet that talk about the halfway point. People will analysis it ad-infinum, will talk about it’s emotional structure, how the plot moves forwards from here on out, ect.

For me, I think the structure of a midway point has a lot to do with reader patience, and the ability of the writer to not repeat themselves.

If every character that ever tried to fix their problem succeeded, there would be no stories. So by virtue of there being a story, character have to fail, and thus look for another way forwards.

If the character continues to fail, continues to not make any proper progress, eventually reader patience is going to run out. It’s like supporting a friend in a crisis – if they’re not at the point where they can help themselves, you eventually get tired of being there. That doesn’t mean you leave – this is your friend, you love and care for them.

Unfortunately, the obligation and connection that a person has with a friend is not one they nessercarily have with your book.

So what to do? Let’s look at the size of an average novel. 80k, or thereabouts. Let’s say it takes a person a week to read that much – they’ve dedicated 3.5 theoretical days to your character’s woes.

If your character doesn’t have a plan? Doesn’t have resolve? Hasn’t figured out what everything’s all about (or thinks they have)? Hasn’t pushed through and dealt with the emotional angst that is coming through all this failing?

Well the reader better adore your character. Because they’re not going to stick around otherwise.

So the midpoint, to me, is a change in tone. It’s when the character stops just reacting, and starts planning. They start looking at their other options. They process some of the emotional trauma that’s been dealt to them over the past 40k.

The character has been active previously to this – but they’ve been actively reacting. Trying to ride the back of the bucking dragon, so to speak. At this point, they hop off. They check over their scars, process what they’ve learnt from all this reacting, and then they go off to figure out how to kill said dragon.

Because again, unless your readers love your character like a friend they’ve loved for years? They’re not going to stick around for endless riding-of-the-dragon.

Note that there was a emotional component to all this. This is important. there is no point to your character running off into the second half of the book if they don’t have the time and the quiet to process the first half of the book.

This is why the midpoint is normally big. Its generally action packed. It does three things by being the massive, big event that it is:

  1. It lets the protagonist know that the reacting thing isn’t working. Something has to change
  2. It provides a massive moment of impact. This in itself helps to hold up the middle of the book. But the impact provides something else:
  3. It means that the reader will be ready for breathing space.

Yep. Breathing space. The first half of your book only matters if it feeds into the makeup of the main character and informs what they do in the second half.

This means the main character has to have a moment to process the chaos that has been their life over the first half of the book. And this processing is important – it needs time. And not only does your big moment in the middle signal to the main character that things aren’t working, not only is it a spectacular moment of impact in and of itself, but it allows for a quiet moment to follow.

If you’re hit the reader over the head with your moment of impact, they’ll let you have a moment afterwards where your characters process things. In fact, they’ll almost be expecting it, because they’re human too. They also take a moment when life hits them in places that hurt.

So let your characters do the same. Given them their moment, their processing time. And then have them make a decision. Have the strike out. Because something obviously needs to change. And if they keep doing the same thing, over and over again, you’re going to loose people.

After all, your main character is not the reader’s childhood friend. They’re not going to stick around forever waiting for them to sort their sh*t out.


Image via Flickr, by Jenny Mealing