We’re relocating and redecorating!
We’re relocating and redecorating!
This scene comes to us courtesy of M.H. Mead’s Taking the Highway of the Detroit Next series, which just released on December 1. I’ve read it and the other Detroit Next novels, and they’re pretty awesome near-future cyberpunk. Available from all online retailers.
Setup: Taking the Highway takes place in near-future Detroit. In this scene, detective Andre LaCroix has been temporarily suspended from the police force, pending an investigation. However, his partner, Sofia Gao, tells him they got a tip from an informant that will break open their case and vindicate Andre. The informant has set a meeting in one of Detroit’s abandoned neighborhoods. They have no choice but to go. We have some lively dialog and detailed description as they drive to the meeting place, and then…
“I just want to see if there’s anybody in the area if we need backup.”
“Backup?” Her voice shaded between amusement and scorn. Andre understood. If she were on her own, without a disgraced partner in the car, then maybe she could ask for some. As it was, unless things went very shitty very fast, they were on their own.
Sofia spun the wheel around a sharp corner with an obstructed bend and stood on the brakes.
The active and passive restraints held Andre tight against the passenger seat, but his head still bobbed forward. Across the narrow road, two derelict cars, burnt-out minivans from thirty years ago, stood nose to nose, their side-mirrors sticking out like handles. [Good setup of the scene here, minimal but evocative of the feeling of being trapped in an ambush.]
Sofia swore and was about to move to reverse when a gunshot slapped her window, fogging it white-gray in an instant. [I really like this.] She and Andre ducked down, fighting their seatbelts for room just as the window sagged and fell away, followed by the one on Andre’s side.
“Yes, backup!” Andre yelled over the thrum coming from his implant. Sofia must have triggered the alert and a single, deep note pooled at the base of his skull. Designed to resonate with the hypothalamus, the signal acted like a battle cry, triggering an adrenal surge from the nervous system. Fine if you were on the receiving end, but the person triggering it was usually panicked enough.
Sofia fumbled to draw her weapon.
Andre grabbed her wrist. “Get us out of here!”
Rounds impacted the doors with ineffectual thumps. The lightweight memory plastic between the panels was designed to absorb and disperse crash energy, but it had the added benefit of making the doors nearly bulletproof. [This sentence slows down the urgency a bit. You could probably say something simpler, trusting your audience to sort out the rest. Also, couch it in Andre’s perceptions. Something like: They’d told Andre at the Academy that memory plastic made doors bulletproof. He was glad they’d been correct.] Sofia reached for the shift lever again and flinched when several rounds entered from each side and blew out the rear windows. She ducked in the seat and pushed the accelerator to the floor panel.
The swoop of elation Andre felt as they surged backward was as short as their movement. They hadn’t gone three meters before they were thrown against their seats and ground to a skidding stop, the left rear of their car now raised off the ground by whatever they’d hit. Fire from the right impacted the windshield. The slight tilt forward pushed them against their seatbelts and left them hanging, helpless. They’d hit hard, but not hard enough to trigger the airweb system. [Great paragraph!]
Andre tore off the restraints and kicked his door open. He nodded to Sofia as she freed herself and followed him. [Is she unable or unwilling to get out her own side, which would be faster? And if they’re being shot at from both sides, wouldn’t they be in the best cover possible by staying in the bulletproof car until it becomes a necessity for them to leave it?] Using the open door for cover, they scrambled out and around the rear of the car. Both of them had drawn their weapons and crouched against the ruined rear bumper of the Banshee where it angled up and onto the wreck of yet another junker, this one unburnt. Everything about the car—except the tires—looked like it had been rescued from a junkyard. Who put new tires on a car like that? [Not sure this observation is necessary. It wasn’t behind them before; it’s pretty obvious somebody rolled it behind them. Things like this can drag down an action scene. It’s not bad, because you keep it brief and tie it into the narrator’s perceptions, but consider whether it’s needed at all.]
Sofia was breathing hard. [“Panting” might be a stronger, more active term here.] A cut near her right eye trailed a thick line of blood down her cheek. Fat drops fell from the line of her jaw. “Where the hell did this thing come from?”
Andre risked a look and saw the driver side door hanging open, a glimpse of something dark and lean running farther along the street they’d turned in from. She ran like a panther, black hair flying, disappearing around a corner. “I’d say that’s the lid on the pot.”
Gunfire continued to impact the car—cars now—but it had slowed. The three-round bursts had stopped and the attackers, whoever they were, were using single shots, conserving ammunition. Or, Andre thought grimly, trying to make us think they’re low on ammo. He touched Sofia’s cheek and held up his fingers. “You’re bleeding.”
“Nicked by the windshield glass,” she said impatiently. “I think those are Ingram nine millimeter, the longer barrels for accuracy.”
Andre was glad Sofia’s mind was still working, analyzing, but her assessment was depressing. Nobody wanted the gunpowder shooters anymore. Everyone wanted light and quiet and odor-free, so Ingrams were everywhere on the black market and clips were cheap. These guys could shoot all night.
[You’ve got a great little action sequence here. I think the pacing is very well-done, and you have an excellent blend of urgency and dialogue. When all I can do is figure out a minor tweak or two, it means you’ve done a good job. Thanks for submitting your scene!]
Continuing our series, Angel has just jumped from her boat onto Gwynnie Bartlett’s boat to engage her in less-than-gentlemanly fisticuffs.
Continuing from our previous two posts, Angel the bounty hunter is fleeing the Bartlett sisters with the help of her ally, the corporate cyborg ninja Mikio.
Continuing from yesterday’s post, Angel has just escaped from the “Dock Gunfight” Engagement via a broken window, but she’s not out of the woods yet.
Troubleshooters contains what I modestly think is one of the best action sequences I’ve ever written, as well as one of my favorites. I’d like to take a couple of posts here to break it down for you so you can see how it works based upon the lessons in the Action! book.
Setup: Angel is a professional bounty hunter, raiding a competitor’s base of operations as revenge for an incident that happened earlier in the book. The setting is London in the mid 2050s, after the sea levels have risen to make much of the city resemble Venice, with waterways replacing roads.
Author Carrie Vaughn posted a short piece about how she used action figures to help with an important scene. Here’s the link to the original post.
If you’re having a tough time with an Engagement, you might try setting up a physical model of the setting and the characters. You don’t have to be detailed at all. Carrie Vaughn used a fold-up TV tray and some action figures. You could use something as simple as some stacked books or DVD cases on end for walls, furniture, or whatever. Bottles, spice shakers, or even coffee cups can stand in for your characters. Anything to help you visualize the Engagement and how your characters move through it in the course of their Stunts.
If you have kids, or you are a kid, or you still have your toys even though you’re no longer a kid, I’ll bet you’ve got something lying around that can function well enough to play the part. I’m a fan of LEGO for the flexibility it offers. Your mileage may vary.
Don’t be afraid to play as part of your writing. It’ll make you a better writer and make your action scenes sparkle that much more.
Stephen Gustav is writing an epic contemporary fantasy/military mashup called The Veil War, and posting chapters as he completes them. His latest chapter had a really tremendous pitched battle scene between two large armies, and I thought he wrote it very well. I asked him to break it down for you all here, so read and enjoy! Although you should probably read the story from the beginning, if you would like to read the chapter that really stood out for me, it’s here. Take it away, Stephen…
Wait – no one had done Tom Clancy techno-thriller meets fantasy? Something must be done!
Step one, daydream a lot. What would happen if the dark hordes invaded the Earth? First approximation: they’d get blown up from a great distance. Start over…
The Veil War is goblins invading the Earth. Giants, dragons, trolls – creatures of myth that turn out to be a little less imaginary than we had supposed. Magic had existed once, and now has returned. And in the Middle East, a company of Marines is trying desperately to get home.
Our Story So Far
Over the course of twenty-four chapters, Captain Lewis and his Marines manage to make some progress toward this goal despite all I do to hinder them. They’ve fought their way out of Iraq. They’ve met and allied with the descendants of crusaders, whose own world is threatened. Lewis quickly comes to realize that the knowledge these crusaders possess is crucial to our survival.
The enemy is coming after them, and in great force. As they approach Kuwait they find that between them and their pursuers is a Heavy Cavalry Brigade Combat Team – a few thousand Idaho National Guardsmen who are about to be ground into paste by the enemy. This turn of events presented Lewis with two options:
* Run behind and let the cav get ground up to hamburger. Maybe escape, maybe get caught anyway.
* Intervene now, and combine the strength of his magical new allies with the firepower of an armored brigade to inflict defeat upon the enemy.
Lewis chooses the latter.
From about Chapter 19 to present, that battle is ongoing – and will continue for several more chapters at a minimum.
What is this ‘Process’ you speak of?
I find myself mildly embarrassed to discuss “process” or “craft” in relation to my own work. Not that I don’t sort of have a process and certainly not that I don’t believe that there is a craft of writing that I hope one day to have.
But I am new to this whole writing thing. Sort of. I’ve been writing for decades, and I even get paid for my writing. Yet the Veil War is the first fiction story I have ever run to even the moderate level of completion that I’ve achieved here.
So, that out of the way, what was I doing here? Well, something very different than what I was doing in the first eight chapters. The first eight chapters I had actually imagined in a rather thoroughgoing way before ever I laid finger on keyboard. So that was really like dictation.
As the story moved on beyond the little movie I had made in my head, things immediately became more difficult. But I soldiered on; and
with a few brutal reminders sound editing advice from Ian managed to tame the story and get it focused to the point where we could get to the next big action sequence.
What’s a Day Job?
So is there a process? Thanks to a cruel and uncaring universe, writing the Veil War is not my day job. That miserable fact imposes certain constraints on how I go about getting it written.
Last winter, I took a week off from work so that I could get some serious writing done. Everything from about chapter thirteen on, I wrote that week. Or at least I wrote the original version that week. I wrote as fast as I could, being as visual and descriptive as I could. My goal was simply and always to get as much written as possible.
Since then, every week I read the chapter before, read what’s next in the queue, and then attempt to figure out how I need to change the text to fit what’s happened already and how my picture of the plot has altered. There’s a lot of clean-up, too. Like places in the text where I’d inserted <
Sometimes it is as simple as rearranging a couple things, a few tweaks, some polishing and, presto DONE! But not as often as I’d hope.
If in the greener lands of the future I am a professional novelist, I don’t know that I’d write a novel this way. There are advantages though: it forces me to treat every chapter on its own merits. (And if it doesn’t have any, repair that.) I can’t just skip ahead to the interesting bits. It also forces me to cut and pare away the dross, so what’s left is better – I think – than if I’d just written the whole thing in seclusion.
The biggest benefit is feedback. The input from my weekly readers has been essential, and I don’t think it will be easy to move away from that.
How Sausage Is Made
There’s a lot going on in this battle. There are four distinct sides: Lewis and his men, The Prince and his crusaders, the Cavalry Brigade, and the enemy. Lots of that last. Not being content with such a simplistic layout, I divided the crusaders in two. And among the enemy there are many regiments of goblins. Plus trolls. Plus giants. Plus a dragon. And, starting next chapter, even more.
All of this needs to be coordinated. First, in my head; and then I have to relate all that to the reader. I have to be mindful of the pacing and build tension in how I flip from one aspect of the battle to another.
I’ve tried to treat each scene as a short story of sorts – I’m not just cutting away at a random word length or just to get back to something else. I try to have each one come to some sort of climax or at least a plausible cliffhanger before I move on to the next.
For example in this chapter I begin with Odo, the crusader second in command. I’d left the readers hanging for quite a while as he charged toward the giants – a good cliffhanger. That needed to be resolved, so I tackled that first before moving to the next scene.
As the battle has gotten more complex, I find I’m diverging more from what I wrote back in February. For the last few chapters, my process has changed from editing to something more like construction. To manage the complexity, I’ve assembled a timeline. Each faction has his own thread – a sequence of events that they personally encounter.
When I assemble a chapter, I dip into the timeline to see what has to happen. Then I dip from the pot of prose to get story that covers the need. The shape of the battle is different from what I originally imagined – but strangely a lot of the individual events in it are much like what I’ve already written.
There’s a few things that I try to keep in mind as I write, whittle and edit. One thing Ian impressed upon my fragile brain last Spring was, “Does this move the story forward?” If it doesn’t, it goes no matter how much I like it. Another I learned from Tom Clancy, in an inverse way. Don’t have everything go right for your heroes. My final rule is, “Try not to suck.” That’s the hardest one.
One of the biggest struggles I’ve had writing this battle is that it is not happening to Lewis. Corporal Coleman is essential, because he’s a kind of a geek chorus. He says what needs to be said because most of what I’m doing is actually describing someone watching someone else fight. Which makes sense in the context of choosing Lewis for my point of view, but otherwise is completely retarded.
The one saving grace is that it offers a reasonable means of offering commentary on what is happening. It’s a frame for describing the events of the battle. This will change shortly, as the battle is coming to Lewis – and that will present different challenges.
Wow, it’s been a stupid long time since I posted anything on here, and I imagine most of you are no longer reading. But if you are, I’m here to announce that I’m back and blogging about Action again-at least as much as I am able to.
There will be some design changes coming here soon-a whole new look. In the meantime, I want to address the last comment I received in its own post.
M.H. Boroson wrote: Hello Ian Thomas Healy! I have read your ebook (one of the rare ones that was worth the price), but it left me wondering: what about wizard battles? Yes, yes, fireballs and lightning bolts are essentially shootouts, but there’s voodooesque spells as well, and spells that cause opponents to shrink or turn into a thousand butterflies, and much more. What advice would you have for the writers of cinematic magical battles?
Interesting idea, that. Let’s remember that the basic requirement of any combat situation is that your protagonists are trying to (a) kill or (b) defeat without killing their opponents. Whether they use bullets, blades, parahuman abilities, or magic is just special effects. Make sure you have the proper intent behind your characters first of all.
For magical spells such as you described, the first question you have to answer is can such a spell be dodged, blocked, or parried? If your shrinking spell can be defended against in some way, then it’s a ranged attack and therefore falls under the category of a Shootout.
Example: Warren the Wizard casts his Shrinking Spell upon Wanda the Witch. Wanda throws up her Impenetrable Shield of Butterflies, protecting her against Warren’s spell.
Now, if your spell cannot be defended against, then it just changes the complexion of the combat. Perhaps the setting is altered, or the nature of the combat changes from a Shootout to something else.
Example: Warren casts his Shrinking Spell upon Wickersham the Warrior, who winds up the size of a mouse. Suddenly, Wickersham isn’t any longer a threat to cut Warren into Wizard Giblets, and Warren can do his best impression of stomping on a cockroach. The combat has changed from a Fight or a Shootout to a Chase, with Wickersham doing his best to avoid getting trod upon.
Hope that helps!
Great news, everyone! Using amazon.com’s disturbingly useful and easy CreateSpace process, I have transformed the Action! book into a print edition. This slim, 60-page volume has an attractive new cover and retails for the paltry sum of $7.99. You should totally order one, because then you will have it handy at all times when the urge to write an action scene strikes you. You can also order the ebook for only 99 cents, but let’s face it. Sometimes you just want to hold a bound book in your hands, you know? Here is the new cover. It’s not quite ready for sale yet, but you can expect it to be within the next week or two at the latest.