Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Action Stations!


There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don't tell.


This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However, you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won't automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what's on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.




If you write lots of short sentences describing numerous things all happening at once the reader can easily get lost. If you take your time giving a thorough explanation of what’s happening, the reader can easily get bored.



Here’s some tips for making an action scene in a novel more than just a series of events.



Firstly, it helps to have an idea of what’s at stake. If two men are going at it, pulling off stunning martial arts moves and backflips, the eye candy aspect of it can keep a cinema-goer engaged, but in a novel not so much. If the reader has an idea of what’s at stake (and assuming what’s at stake is seen as a worthy thing to fight over), it will create suspense and an interest in seeing the outcome.



Secondly, POV. Don’t write from a neutral, objective viewpoint. Choose a side (preferably your hero) and write the action from his or her perspective.  Use their emotional state when describing what’s happening. It’s not that you shouldn’t be realistic, but also be character-specific. If he’s a Navy Seal and sees every punch thrown in an analytical and technical fashion, fine. But if she’s a PR executive in a catfight with the surly waitress who dropped a bowl of soup on her, take that into account. Not only will it give the action a more original slant, it will help define your character for the reader.



Thirdly, pacing. It would seem obvious a fast-paced scene should be written fast-paced. But if you vary pace, if you mix up your quick jabs with the occasional slow and heavy haymaker your opponent (the reader) doesn’t see coming, you can pull off a more satisfying scene.



Lastly, have a reason for what’s happening. Whether it’s a chase or fight or a bank job or a football game, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get approach will not register with much weight in the reader’s mind. Have another, less obvious reason for what’s happening. Take it in a direction the reader wouldn’t expect. Plant information in the action that plays a role later in the story.



If two guys discover they are after the same girl and get into a fistfight, that makes sense and everyone gets it. If halfway through the fight one guy starts beating the other guy quite easily, even though the other guy seemed to be the better fighter at first, and then we find out the girl is watching, and then we find out she hates men who fight and that the guy taking the beating knows this, it adds a level of complexity to events that go beyond who gets hit where, it becomes about what the consequences of those actions are.

Action scenes can end up being very simplistic and on-the-nose, a conflict in its most basic form is resolved one way or the other. In order to make an action sequence more that just a description of events try to layer more than one meaning onto it.  Try not to have everyone involved (the protagonist, the antagonist and the reader) on the same page. Each should have a different interpretation of what's going on and why, and that will lift the most action-oriented scene into a much more complex, character-revealing piece of writing.


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28 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good tips! And I like planting things for later.

julie fedderson said...

Nice post! Actiony sequences are hard for me to write realistically, and this will really help!

Lydia K said...

Great thoughts! I need these kind of tips for my action scenes.

L.J. said...

Awesome advice. I struggle with fighting scenes. I can picture them in my head, but I'm not very good describing them. Great post!

Alleged Author said...

I don't write action plots, but I love this advice. Isn't someone expecting a review from HC soon?

Jen said...

This is great advice, Mood!

Laura Josephsen said...

Excellent tips. I really like the idea of making something more than it seems, adding important information and reasoning in the action.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, very much appreciated.

Claudia Del Balso said...

Right on! My mentor always tells me to keep sentences short to make impact when the pace is faster in some scenes. Thanks for the reminder.

Misha said...

Like every other aspect to writing a story, fight scenes must add meaning to the plot, otherwise the reader won't care about it. Which would be such a waste.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Good advise. I usually mix up short sentences with longer pauses for the reader to catch up. It works well.

Michelle Fayard said...

You are absolutely correct that the principles of action writing aren't just for action scenes; excellent post!

P.S. I've left a response to your comment on Bird's-eye View, http://michellefayard.blogspot.com/2011/07/getting-blog-comments-to-work-for-you.html.

Nancy Thompson said...

I have 2 rather violent scenes in my novel. When I first wrote them, I knew nothing of "the rules" of making such scenes more intense and gripping.

When I learned these rules and applied them, I found it sucked the soul right out of it. The first draft had a better, more visceral feel to it, because it was as if I were caught up in that moment for the very first time.

I've learned to go with my gut now on these types of scenes. And I've changed most of them back to their original form.

Lorena said...

Fight scenes for me are the hardest to write (closely followed by love/sex scenes, which is part of the reason why I don't write much of these). But, unfortunately, action scenes have been necessary in both of my mss. My husband always laughs at my scenes and tells me "this is not how it happens in real-life". My problem is my only source of inspiration for fights are movies, but according to my cop-husband those fights are often unrealistic, too. My solution? My husband "choreographs" the fight scenes and I write them (otherwise he puts too many adverbs, ha!) So I guess my only tip on these difficult scenes is: don't try to replicate what you see in movies (and don't have them always punching each other on the jaw or falling unconscious after one punch, ha!)

Suze said...

'Thirdly, pacing. It would seem obvious a fast-paced scene should be written fast-paced. But if you vary pace, if you mix up your quick jabs with the occasional slow and heavy haymaker your opponent (the reader) doesn’t see coming, you can pull off a more satisfying scene.'

I liked this. A lot.

Arlee Bird said...

Great tips. I use short sentences for faster paced scenes, although I've not yet had much fighting in anything I've written. I definitely agree that the words have to keep the action moving quickly or momentum is lost.


Lee
Tossing It Out

Michael Offutt said...

Great advice Moody.

Melissa Bradley said...

This is fantastic advice. I always have problems with my action scenes. Thanks for sharing this.

Jessie Humphries said...

That was a super succinct writing tip. I love it. I gotta come here more often.

Twisted said...

Always a pleasure to read your blog Moody. Do you have any suggestions for examples? One of your analyses of a particularly successful action scene would be good to read.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Helpful! I'll have to make a note of this for my pirate sword fight scenes :)

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Jj Rodriguez said...

for somebody like me who is beginning to discover writing as a form of hobby, that is very informative.

discovered your blog through life 101...

have a great weekend...

JJRod'z

The Golden Eagle said...

Great post.

I tend to have too many people all at one time when it comes to action scenes--streamlining so the scenes flow smoothly and quickly is something I need to work on.

mooderino said...

Thank you all for some great comments.

@Twisted - thanks for the suggestion I'll have a think about it and maybe do a separate post.

Anna said...

Super great post. I'm scared to revise my action scenes, but I guess I'll have to get to it eventually.

Also, I tagged you in a game of blogger tag. Have fun!

Paula Martin said...

Great post. I've only written one fight scene - only a minor punch-up, but it took me ages to work out whose arm/fist went where!

Laoch of Chicago said...

Here is an article I think you might find interesting:

http://www.wetasphalt.com/?q=content/how-write-book-three-days-lessons-michael-moorcock

Christa said...

These tips are awesome. I can't tell you how many times I read bad action scenes.

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