Monday 11 August 2014

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.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
This post first appeared in July 2011. Mooderino is still on Summer break, although it's raining so not much of a break.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Like the twist about the girl despising fighters. Clever!

mooderino said...

@Alex - cheers.

Unknown said...

I think the fight sounds complex to pull off. It goes make for a great story though.

Unknown said...

I like the twisting story....
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Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Mooderino, I always learn something new on your blog. I like the twist of the girl hating fighters. Its a masterstroke. And I am going to use the tip of writing a fight scene using the character's emotional state in mind.

Unknown said...

I had to stop reading a novel two chapters in because of how horrible the action scenes were. It was non-stop combat, blow by blow action. Very painful to read.

I can't stand blow by blow detail all in the name of getting the reader to visually see the action. If one person is going to die from the altercation, just tell me the first punch, then the flurry of action just before one guy bites the dust. Done. End of scene. NEXT!

Chemist Ken said...

My story has an action scene coming up in the not too distant future. Thanks for the tips.

mooderino said...

@Lilith - tricky on paper especially, but once the reader gets emotionally involved can be very rewarding.

@Kimberly - thanks.

@Rachna - hope it works out well.

@Diane - definitely not like watching a movie.

@Ken - yvw.

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