Sunday, May 21, 2006

Getting Some Action, or Writing Action Scenes

To continue my series of posts from keyword searches, I chose to forgo this phrase: xxx short stories, and instead talk about this one: writing action scenes. [[I'm pretty sure that the searchers of the first phrase don't mean short stories with lots of words that contain xxx in them, and even if they did I'd be hard pressed to find that many xxx words, if any...]]

So let's talk about action scenes, an exciting subject.
What makes an action scene good?
A good action scene grabs the readers in such a way that they hold their breath and don't want to put their book down. A good action scene allows readers to see the action in their mind and to live it as if they were there.
So how is it done? Good question. I'll try to answer the best I can, but input, additions, disagreements and sources are, as always, more than welcome.

First, I'd like to establish that action is movement. Maybe it seems stupid to mention it given the meaning of the word 'action,' but I thought I'd mention it anyway. And since action is movement, then it is movement that needs to be described, described with enough details so that readers can understand what's going on, but not too many as to slow the action down, which brings me to...

Second, action scenes need to move quickly. Don't get me wrong, someone can crawl slowly in an action scene, but when reading, the action needs to move fast. Or it's no action. So either something happens while the protagonist is crawling, or skip most of the crawling and get to the gist.

Third, action scenes tend to have more than one character in a chaotic structure. It is difficult to keep describing what each character does. Keep the POV and don't get frazzled with wanting to describe everything. Keeping things from your protagonist can only add to the tension for example. Speaking of...

Fourth, tension. Action scenes are all about tense emotions. Even if the protagonist is cool, the reader should feel the tension. How? Probably not by getting into the protagonist's head and describing his thoughts and feelings at that time, most likely, she's concentrated on dodging a bullet and has no meaningful thoughts. Sometimes it's enough to mention a flickering vain or twitching eyes.

Five - dialogue. Yeah, right. Short, very short. And to the point.

Six - descriptive language? - Yes, indeed! When describing action it's not enough to write: John hit Jane and she fell to the floor. See it - How did John hit Jane? Did she dodge? Hit back? Was she afraid? Hurt? Did she taste blood? Cracked her ribs when she fell? Maybe something like this? : John lifted his right arm and looked at Jane, his eyes narrowing. For a moment, their eyes locked and Jane opened her mouth in disbelief. She started dodging but John's right hook caught her in the chin. Her jaw cracked and she flew to the floor yelling, exactly on the spilled wine. Her white blouse turned red.
(I know, I know, no need to comment on this and keep the jokes to yourself :)

Seven - pace. Not all action scenes are alike. Some move faster, such as fight scenes, some slower, such as breaking into a place or following someone etc. Use more or less descriptions for the pacing, or shorter and longer sentences. Remember also that adverbs and adjectives slow things down.

What did I miss?
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Jennifer said...

I admire good action writing. I do very little of it because I feel I never capture/write the scenes well.

Though practice is making me better :D

I really like this post. Great way of breaking down action writing and looking at it in parts that add up to a whole.

Fred Charles said...

Great post. I think that you hit all of the major points. There are lots of action scenes in my novel. I try very hard to make sure that they flow and are not boring. My challenge is keeping track of all of the characters during the larger action scenes. You have to make sure that you account for everyone if you are dealing with a large group of characters.

Melly said...

Thanks Jennifer. You're right, practice makes perfect (or at least better ;)

Wow, thanks Fred. I did my best.
And I totally understand what you mean about keeping track of everybody in the scene. It is hard to do. BUt like everything else, if I feel overwhelemed, I simply have to start and of course I don't get it right the first time, but at least I have the skeleton and can go from there.