The other day, I was sitting around, thinking about Captain America: The Winter Soldier (you know, like you do). Specifically, I was thinking about the opening fight scene, and how smart it was.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (what are you doing? Stop reading this! Go! Go see it now!), the scene involves Captain America, the Black Widow, and a legion of strike commandoes rescuing a ship from modern-day pirates who are holding it and its crew hostage, awaiting a hefty ransom. Before our heroes’ plane has even reached the drop zone, Captain America is jumping out of it without a parachute. He hits the water, climbs onto the ship, and proceeds to knock at least a dozen people on their asses by way of smacking them in the head with his shield, tossing them overboard, or a combination of the two.
Note. He hits them. He punches them. He knocks them into the water. Brutally efficient. And entirely non-lethal.
We cut to the Black Widow, who takes a slightly different approach. She goes in guns blazing and shoots, garrotes, or electrocutes everyone in her path without a moment’s pause.
There’s more that happens in the scene, but let me stop right there before I give the whole game away. Ostensibly, this is an action movie. People are in that theatre because they want to see some good, bone-crunching violence.
But what the film’s writers, directors and actors handed us was more than just a bunch of people beating each other up. They gave us character development, and they gave it to us with a nice, easy-to-swallow action movie coating of panache. We’re ten minutes into the movie and we know that Cap will get the job done, but he’ll do it with the smaller possible number of casualties, whereas Widow will shoot first and ask questions later. If ever.
Simply put, they showed it to us instead of telling it to us, and the vehicle they used to show it to us with was violence.
Look closely and you’ll see: every action sequence of the movie fills some other purpose beyond satisfying the audience’s bloodlust. One establishes character. Another raises the stakes and reveals information about the enemy. Yet another is the backdrop of the biggest reveal of the movie, and the final fight scene? I won’t give too much away, but it packed a punch, and not just a literal one. It got me in the heart. It made me feel.
And that’s why the movie is so damn good.
As a romance writer, the guilty pleasure through which I ply my trade isn’t violence (though I occasionally manage to find an opportunity to work some of that into my books, too). It’s sex.
People expect sex in a typical romance novel. They enjoy it. Who wouldn’t? It’s quite conceivably the reason they bought the book in the first place.
But here’s the thing. To make your book memorable. To make it sizzle. To make it resonate. You have to use the sex scenes you write for way more than titillation.
They have to establish character. Or reveal something about the plot. Or raise the stakes for your hero or your heroine. They’ve gotta punch your reader right in the feels.
Otherwise, they’re boring and gratuitous. Just like an action movie that drags on and on, with pointless fight scene after pointless fight scene. It might be pleasant. But it won’t stick with you, or inspire you to write long, rambling blog posts in which you recommend the movie to your readers and friends.
Because in the end, sex and violence might sound like all you need to make a story great. But in reality, they’re just the tools you use to tell your story with. The way you use them is what makes your story great.