Search This Blog

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Rewind: Writing Action

Dear Readers, Writers, and Precious Patrons,

Today on All Authors Friday Rewind, we bring you an article from Issue 4 of All Authors Magazine called Writing Action

Writing Action

I was in one of my writing groups the other day and someone asked for advice on writing action and that got me thinking.  What makes for a good action scene?  We see them all the time, in movies, on T.V. and of course in books. There are certain things we come to expect. What would a James Bond movie be without that opening chase that has 007 in a car chase or skiing down a mountainside while being shot at by Russian border guards?  Sometime the action is intense and realistic and at others, it's impossible, but they all have the same elements. I remember growing up watching Kung Fu Theater and reading books by authors like Clive Custler and being amazed by the scenes the writers created, because let's face it, before the director can say "Action" or the editor gets that manuscript, the writer has to tell them what's going to happen. 

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”― Pablo Picasso

So, what are the rules? Or if not rules then rather guidelines. Because as Picasso said, in order to break them, you have to know what they are first.  This is my perspective on writing action.

First of all, how long is too long? I like a good fight scene as much as the next person, it's why I watch certain movies or pick one author over another sometimes. Have you ever seen one where they drag it out forever? The key here is to keep it brief, don't go one for six or eight pages because while you might have a really intense scene, eventually your reader is going to get punch punk like a boxer who's been in the ring too long. I find the easiest way to avoid this is to describe a few exchanges and then give an overview of the action. A few good descriptions sprinkled through the scene allows your readers to envision what's happening when you don't tell them directly.  

Sometimes lengthy that can't be helped, like when you're writing a large battle scene or a siege but there are ways to avoid wearing out your reader. I guess the best way that works for me is to break the scene into smaller scenes. For my book, The Gatherer, I have large-scale siege of a city. Because it is such a large sequence and a key one at that, I broke it down into sections. I take the attack and divide it into smaller pieces, not just defenders but attackers as well. The readers see the battle from different perspectives .  

Your action needs to have a pace to it. It shouldn't be four pages of frenzied activity, ending with one or the other character defeated. Fights only last an average of a few seconds in reality. That is unless you're watching a title fight on cable. But if we wrote them as they might really happen, who'd want to read them. So we set a pace, our hero  is overcome and runs for cover or our villain goes into hiding to ambush his victim. Now during the fight, there's not a lot of time for reflection, your characters are too busy. During my years in the martial arts, I had a chance to compete in tournaments and when you're face to face, you're not thinking about what you had for breakfast or what movie to watch later. You're focused on the other person. Your characters need to be also. 

But during those lull, while your villain is lying in wait, there is a small window for a little snippets of what they're thinking or how they're feeling. Now is the time to make mention of why your villain might be so obsessed with killing your hero. Still not time to consider why he didn't turn in that third grade book report but it is time to mention that twisted ankle that's going to cause him trouble later.   

The next thing is don't fall into a rut. For me, this means predictability. Action is fluid, outside influences can have a real impact on what happens. I was part of a group of martial arts instructors who put on demonstrations for local events. We trained in one fight scene for weeks and the night before we were to perform it, it had rained. That seemingly insignificant event changed how we performed our demonstration, which we had practiced inside. One thing, a little water on the grass made the entire fight sequence different. As a side note to this, what should have been a harmless kick that should have missed, broke someone's nose. So when we write, we should think about the small things that can impact what's going on. So look the surroundings, what might your character find to use to either attack or defend? What are they standing on, a slanted roof or maybe it's raining. Because let's face it, predictable action is boring. Or not as exciting as a scene that catches them by surprise and makes them need to turn to the next page.    

But this doesn't just go for a fight but the classic chase as well. And for this, I go back to what for me are the best when it comes to the chase scenes, 007 himself. Ok, pick any of those movies and how does it start? It starts with a chase. The sequence, is always fantastic, our hero being pursued  by twenty henchman down a steep alpine  slope armed with nothing more than a ski pole. And yet, he always survives and usually there's a gorgeous woman waiting for him at the lodge. Martini anyone? But even here, our hero lives in a real world with real laws of gravity and physics. So  when he skis off the edge of the cliff, he will fall. He might only drop a few feet to a conveniently place  slope while his enemies  crash into trees and rocks and he comes out unscathed but it's still within the boundaries of reality. Still even in a chase, things happen that can change the course the chase takes like a badly parked truck (the bigger the better), or the mother pushing the stroller across the street. Our villain may try to use this to his advantage but for the hero, this could be a problem. Played right, it might allow the villain to get away until later in the book.

Now here's where I go back to our friend Picasso. Now that we know the rules, we might be able to break them. Yes, there are rules and certain immutable facts that in the normal world, we can't get around. If you jump from a building, you will fall. And like any rule, there are exceptions. But in order to use them you have to tell your reader why they're there in the first place. We all know that people can't fly. That is unless you establish early on that he or she has some special abilities or is somehow given them in the story. This is your world, you built it and filled with people and objects so at the end of the day, the rules are what you make them but they have to make sense to the reader. In the middle of a fight, your hero can't suddenly remember he can jump eighteen feet on the air or walk through walls. You'll confuse your readers. 

The best illustration of complete fly-in-your-face-I don't-care-about-the-rules writing is Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This for my money has the most outrageous actions and fighting sequences. They fought on treetops and running across water but the action was written in in the style of the old Black Belt Theater movies I grew up with. It was fantastical but that was established very early so nothing that happened came as a shock or looked out of place with the rest of the movie.     

Another good one for this were the Matrix movies. The writers got around the real world physics  by offering two realities, one real world, with normal rules that govern everything. And an artificial, computer generated reality where normal rules didn't apply. The rules or lack of them was established by the writers early so we didn't sit there shaking our heads in disbelief.

So how do we write our scenes? The time has come for the hero and the villain to face one another. We've picked our time and our place but then what? Now when it comes to one on one or even one against a few, I have an understanding of how fights happen because of my time in the martial arts. I'm also constantly watching videos. However, even with my understanding, to make it realistic, I sometimes have to rely on people who have a greater understanding of what's possible and what isn't.  But not all writers have access to black belts who can help them. Sure, if you're a writer in a Hollywood studio, you can get all the help you need. All you have to do is pick up the phone

The key here is on line. Websites like youtube or sites that have libraries of martial arts and self-defense videos. There's a treasure trove of information out there for the asking. Need your hero to slide down a roof, land on parked car and then jump into a moving pickup? There's a video for it. In some areas you might have more than enough experience to draw from but for the rest, it's all about the research. Our scenes have to make the reader or audience believe and for that, we need to learn it. The internet is a wonderful resource because everything we need to know to make or writing better is right there. This works for action that takes place inside as well. There are plenty of videos and pictures to furnish you with all the large or small details you need, whether your action takes place in a turn of the century train station or Fisherman's Wharf.  

This goes for chase scenes as well because there are hundreds of clips from movies and videos on defensive driving to let you create your own action. And when it comes to mapping a chase, my all-time favorite website when it comes to learning about places is Google Maps, especially street view. Whether I need to know the layout of a small fishing village in Ireland or my way around Boston, it's there, furnishing those little details like whether or not you're going uphill or down or what the buildings look like. You take your chase through down a street in New York that doesn't run where you say or misplace a park, anyone familiar with that area is going to call you on it.  This can have a big impact on your readers and make them more critical of your work, especially when leaving reviews.  


If we've done our jobs as writers, then our audience or our readers will feel like they've been there with us, in the passenger seat or fighting beside us. It's up to us to give them the best adventure we can, because after all, that's what books are, adventures and we're the guides. And like any good guide, we need to be prepared when we lead our tour. And if we do a good job, our readers will tell others and so one down the line.