by | Jul 17, 2016 | KJ Howe, The Writer's Life | 8 comments

by KJ Howe

Sex and fights are two enticing ways of cranking up the tension in novels.  Why not take it a step further and do both in the dark?

The most obvious way to depict sex and fights is to describe what is happening, tapping into readers’ visual cues.  But talented thriller authors can enrich the impact of their stories with more sensory details–touch, taste, feel, and sound.  And when you immerse your character in blackness, those other senses are heightened.

In Brett Kahr’s book Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?, this well-renowned psychotherapist explains that many people prefer to have sex with the lights off–not necessarily to hide self-perceived body flaws, but more to quiet the outside world, allowing participants to allow their fantasies to come to life.  Just like when we visit a theater or cinema, the lights go down, and we can immerse ourselves in another world.  In pure darkness, we can also lose ourselves in the secret cinema of our minds, our sexual fantasies played out without interruption.

It’s interesting that we close our eyes when we kiss passionately.  According to psychologists Polly Dalton and Sandra Murphy, who studied a group of participants interacting with both physical and visual stimuli, the brain cannot fully appreciate the physical when distracted with the visual.  Closing our eyes before an intimate kiss helps us to block out the world and continue the interaction to a sexual encounter.

If darkness provides a sanctuary for exploring a rich fantasy life, why not let our characters delve into their secret desires on the page, allowing both the characters and the readers to lose themselves in this fantasy world where the visual fades and other senses take over.  Focus on the soft brush of silk sheets, the warmth of a lover’s touch, the enticing whiff of cologne or perfume, or the salty taste of a beachside romp.

The same theme applies to fight scenes.  Instead of authors focusing on the visual cues of one combatant hitting another, why not go deeper and explore other senses.  The soft crunch of cartilage breaking, the whizz of bullets brushing by, the sting of a blade cutting skin, the agony of being sucker punched.

David Morrell created an unforgettable fight in THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE, which takes place in complete darkness.  If you haven’t read this iconic scene, be sure and check it out.  David masterfully showcases how to write a compelling fight scene using only the non-visual senses.

As David eloquently shares, “I tell my writing students that a novel should take sight details for granted and emphasize the other senses.  That way there’s a multi-dimensional effect.  In the 1980s, when I was a literature professor at the Univ. of Iowa, I taught a course called Modern Fiction, which featured novels that made a difference in the 20th century.  One of those was E. M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA, in which an English woman goes into an absolutely dark cave in India and experiences nothingness.  I thought it would be cool to try to create something like that in a thriller, so in THE FRATERNITY OF THE STONE (1985), I had my main character chase someone at night.  The chase goes into the basement of a house and then into an absolutely dark room.  The task became to write a scene that was many manuscript pages long, in which the main character uses sound, touch, and smell to figure out the dimensions of the room, what it’s used for, and where his enemy is waiting to strike.  It was a thrilling experiment. I still get comments about it.  The memory of writing it makes me smile.” 

As David showcased, fight scenes in the dark offers a plethora of unique challenges for our protagonists.  Balance is difficult to maintain.  Basic furniture in a room becomes a minefield of potential obstacles.  Distance becomes very hard to judge.  When a shot is fired, our heroes only have an instant to register the muzzle flash and determine how to react.  And what happens when the shooter keeps moving after firing the shot?  Darkness exponentially ramps up the tension, challenges, and difficulties of a fight.

Taking away our visual cues can empower our other senses.  During a study where participants were blindfolded and then played various types of harmonic music,  the individuals had greatly enhanced abilities to discern between harmonies.  

Let’s get our blindfolds out, and start enjoying the richness of the darkness.  Our readers will appreciate our efforts to plunge into the black hole.

What makes a sex or fight scene memorable for you?

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  1. Jamie Freveletti

    Nice photo! Best scene I've read: most in a romance novel. Those women can write a sex scene! Best on television: Lots, but the one in THE BIG EASY ranks up there.

  2. rjh

    Great article, the non-sight senses are neglected in a lot of fiction, but when the author takes the time to add them in properly the work can leap off the page.

  3. S. Lee Manning

    Good to remind us to use senses other than the visual in our writing.

  4. Gayle Lynds

    Love KJ's fresh way of viewing these scenes!

  5. Sonja Stone

    KJ, I love the examples you've written here. The secluded, immersive nature of the movie theater has always brought me a thrill, but I never considered sex in the dark as netting the same result–removing enough stimuli to thoroughly experience a single event. Really interesting! I'll have to check out David Morrell's scene. His lectures at ThrillerFest were extraordinary!

  6. Karna Bodman

    Great post, K.J….really made me think about focusing on ALL the senses when writing a love scene (among others). And yes, David Morrell is an awesome author. I hadn't thought about fights scenes in the dark – what a great challenge! Thanks for writing this most interesting article!

  7. KJ Howe

    Thanks for taking the time to read, Karna, Sonja, RJH, Sandy, Jamie and Gayle. I try hard to include all the senses when I write…and it's a great go-to task if you are stuck in a scene. And darkness provides that cloak where we can explore all the senses!

  8. Chris Goff

    Thanks for this, KJ. I have to say, I thought of those restaurants where you eat in the dark, you have no idea who's around you or what you're eating. You can taste, hear, smell and feel. It's funny, when asked what they ate, it's amazing how many people don't get it quite right.