3. What is an Action Scene?

September 29th, 2010

 At its most basic level, an action scene is an expression of plot or character development through violence.

Wait, violence?  Is that really necessary?

In a word, yes.  We’re still essentially the same cantankerous hominids we were a hundred thousand years ago.  Ever since the first proto-human got angry about something done by one of his neighbors and picked up a rock to bash the other fellow’s head in, we’ve been solving our disagreements through violent acts.  And over the millenia, we’ve gotten very, very good at it.

We may use the trappings of civilization to try to curb our instinctive violent cores, but in the long run, virtually anyone is capable of committing violence at some level.  Because of that, action scenes in media play to our low brains.  Perhaps it’s some kind of Jungian racial memory, but when we observe others in action, it gives us a kind of catharsis we haven’t been able to obtain socially for thousands of years.  That’s why an action scene has to be every bit as important and planned out as a dramatic conversation, an erotic encounter, or a beautiful description.  Readers crave that kind of feeling, and it’s up to you to provide it.

Can an action scene be nonviolent?

Sorry, pacifists.  No, it cannot.  Because action scenes are defined by some level of violence, you cannot have a nonviolent action scene.  Scenes without violence are driven forward by other impetuses, such as dialogue or emotional content.  Sooner or later, though, a character will choose to take action which is counter to the goals of another character, and that will beget violence.

Your best bet is to make sure it’s a good scene.

Critique #2

September 28th, 2010

Backstory:  A space courier is refilling his spaceship when three thugs he’d seen the previous night appear on the landing pad demanding his cargo.

The Hunters split up, boxing him in.  One donned brass knuckles; the other a switchblade.

Deep mentally rehearsed his moves.  He pressed his foot against the base of the rig, waiting for the last moment.  He had to move fast, without remorse.  It was them or him. [This is good – you establish the character’s goal right away. Survival in the face of superior odds is a good basis for an action scene.]

Knuckles came in range. [I’ve noticed throughout this narrative that you have a lot of very short paragraphs. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works as well, because it breaks up the flow of what should be a smooth, well-paced fight scene. Every action doesn’t have to mean a new paragraph. I think if you were to consolidate these down, it would make your narrative read much better.]

Deep moved.  [This 2-word sentence could be cut without hurting the narrative in the least. We know he moved, because you describe his motion very well in the next sentence.]

He lunged at the Wayfarer’s fuel port, ripped out the hose and sprayed it in Knuckles’ face.

Knuckles stumbled back, screaming, clawing at his eyes.  Switchblade swung forward at Deep’s stomach.

Deep parried with the hose.  The blade sizzled straight through.  Pressurised fuel squirted out like a fountain, raining down on the pad.

Deep swung the hose nozzle at Switchblade, but Switchblade ducked and thrust his blade forward.

Deep fell back against the rig. [Try to change up the rhythm of your sentences. Five of the previous seven start with a character’s name, and three of those with Deep.]  He grabbed the flow meter, rolled back onto the rig and kicked Switchblade in the face.

Switchblade’s head snapped back.  His feet skidded in the fuel, but he managed to stay upright. [The previous six mini-paragraphs could be consolidated into a single paragraph. It would flow better and consists of what I term a single Stunt. If you think of this scene as a film director, the previous six paragraphs could be shot as a continuous take. When I’m writing a scene, I tend to think of paragraph breaks as new camera shots. When you see a movie that has action scenes broken up into lots of cuts, none lasting even as long as a second, do you find that it has no flow? I do. Same thing applies when writing one in fiction.]

Deep dropped back to a crouch and pulled the stiletto from his pocket.  Them or me.  [I like this little thought interjection.] He charged at Switchblade, slipped, fell forward and rammed the stiletto through Switchblades’ chest. [If you wanted to draw this out a little without hurting the pacing or flow, you could take all four of those clauses and give each one its own sentence. Longer sentences read faster than short ones, believe it or not, and sometimes readers blast through them so quickly they skip clauses (or forget and have to go back).] They fell together in a splash of fuel.  Switchblade whimpered then lay still. 

Deep hauled himself up—

Brass smashed into his side and a vice clamped his chest, squeezing him tight. 

Pain rolled up his body like a tidal wave as he crashed to the ground, Knuckles holding him tight.

Deep clawed at the arms, but his hands were slippery from the fuel.  Knuckle’s eyes were blood red, his face screwed up in rage.

Spots cluttered Deep’s vision.  He couldn’t breathe.  He smashed his elbows down on Knuckles’ head and back.

Knuckles kept squeezing.  He battered at Deep with his knees.  [I’m having a tough time picturing how this works. If you’re holding someone and squeezing them, even if you’re on the ground, you’re going to find it difficult to also knee people.]

Deep gasped as a rib cracked.  He was beyond pain now though; he just kept crashing his elbows down again and again.  Time had no meaning; all that existed was his arms and Knuckles.

Finally Knuckles grunted and his grip slackened.

Deep rolled away, gasping.  Fuel thundered down from the heavens, deafening him, stinging his eyes.  The switchblade lay by the rig.  He dropped, fumbled, grabbed it, turned and slashed as Knuckles ran at him. [This is another four-clause sentence that could be split up. You’ve actually used an identical pattern as up above when Deep acts, missteps, acts, acts again.]

Knuckles’ stomach split open and he crashed to the ground.

Deep fell backward, chest heaving, fuel washing the blood from his hands.

The world darkened.  The leader reared over Deep, pistol inches from his face. [I’m confused about who the leader is. Maybe you established that in the part coming up to the action scene. If you didn’t, you need to clearly identify who that is. Also, if he has a gun, why doesn’t he use it first?]

Fuel saturated every inch of the leader.  It ran down his face, tracing the scars.  He looked like a pieced-together monster.  He spoke with a dark finality.  “The ship fob.”

“Ok, ok,” Deep forced a shaking hand into his pocket and tossed the fob toward the ship.  “Take her.” 

The leader’s chuckle rang in Deep’s ears.  “We’re way past that now, boy.”  He jammed the pistol’s emitter into Deep’s forehead.  “The human skull is a good flash suppressant.”  He smiled.

[Overall you’ve got a good start to this scene. If I were rewriting it, I’d think in terms of Stunts. The first Stunt would be Deep defending himself against Switchblade and Knuckles. The second Stunt is Deep going on the offensive and stabbing Switchblade. The third Stunt is Knuckles on the offensive. The final Stunt is Deep turning the tables on Knuckles. Each of those Stunts could be a single paragraph. Thanks for submitting your scene!]

Critique #1

September 26th, 2010
Stan pulled out his tranq gun from the inside of his coat.  “I got no problem puttin’ you down again, El Creepo.”  He cocked the gun and pulled the trigger. [This is good, clear action]
Marx moved so fast even Louis’s eyes struggled to track him as he threw Sera into the path of the tranquilizer dart. [I think this would have more punch if you split it into two sentences. Longer sentences read faster, but when you’re describing specific action, you may want to clearly identify each movement in its own sentence.] It hit her in the chest and she went down fast.
Fury filled Louis’s mind. “Excuse me, you fuckin’ jerk. That was my girlfriend.”  He charged at Marx, grabbing him by the collar, and launching him twenty-five feet into the side of Shirley’s Tahoe.  All of the windows shattered with the impact and the frame bent inward, as if it had been t-boned by a school bus.  Marx crumpled to the ground in a heap.  Louis ran up and kicked him in the stomach.  “I’ll make you burn, you psychotic syphilis blister.” [This is a strong paragraph overall – very cinematic. I might break up the three-clause sentence ‘He charged at Marx…’]
Marx grabbed his legs and pulled his feet out from underneath him.  Louis went down with a thud but scrabbled away before Marx could leap atop him.  He raced up the street and stopped at the corner to see Marx giving chase.  Louis looked for the first thing he could grab to use as a weapon.  He grasped the pole for the street sign and gave it a yank.  It broke off where it went into the frozen ground. He gave it a twirl over his head like a baton and thrust it at Marx, who soared through the air at him with the guttural yell of a Viking warrior.  The jagged end of the pole connected with Marx’s gut and he flew back in a high arc, landing on the wooden privacy fence that separated the house on the corner of Pearl and Main from what used to be Chagrin Falls’s busiest intersection. [I like everything in this paragraph except the last sentence, which seems too wordy. Otherwise, you’re describing action very well. I can picture it easily.]
Louis ran toward Marx, ready to deal another beating with the pole, perhaps the final one, when Marx hopped to his feet.  A 2-inch plank of fencing protruded from his abdomen.  Though Marx was breathing hard, the wound didn’t slow him down much.  Instead, he yanked the plank out with two heaves, leaving a gaping hole in the bloodless flesh just below his sternum. He launched it at Louis like a supersized dart, where it connected with Louis’s right collarbone, cracking it. [As good as the previous two paragraphs were, this one could use some work. Simplify the action-oriented sentences. If you want to simulate the closeup used in movies, you might throw a descriptive sentence into the middle, perhaps dealing with Louis’s horror at Marx’s wound and his blase reaction to it. That makes the sudden yanking out and hurling much more effective.]
Louis dropped the pole from his numb arm.  He was about to pick it up again with his good one when he heard a metallic gron. [What’s a metallic gron? 🙂 ] He looked up and saw a white compact car hurtling through the air toward him like a giant snowball.  Louis ducked just in time, and the little Ford sailed over his head to crash into the front window of Larry’s Guns, Shoe Repair, and Beef Jerky.  The peal of the shop’s burglar alarm reverberated off the surrounding buildings, summoning cops that could no longer come. Marx stood at the intersection laughing. [Believe it or not, your verbs ending in (-ing) make this paragraph weaker than it would be if you used simple past tense (-ed).] “I’ve got plenty of fight left in me, Louis.  How about you?”  He raised his hand and another car, this one a blue full-size sedan, levitated off the ground and launched itself at Louis.  He didn’t have to duck so much as back up several steps, for the Chrysler didn’t sail nearly as high and as far as the Ford had.  It crashed into the street and tumbled in a spray of broken glass and plastic.  Pieces of the flying shrapnel chewed into Louis’s face and hands.  
[Overall, this is an outstanding action scene.  You do an excellent job with creating cinematic-style action and keep it flowing throughout. Well done!]

2. Directing the Scene

September 26th, 2010

To effectively create an action scene that meets both the needs of the story and the needs of the reader, you must think more like a movie director. This means that you must consider not only the characters and their goals, but their motion through a given scene. Action scenes require characters to be in motion, and the effective description of that motion is what makes the difference between a good, cinematic-quality action scene and a merely adequate one. By making this transition from good to great, your action scenes will be exciting to read, memorable, and have a visceral quality that will have your readers turning the pages, desperate to keep up.

Blocking and staging are terms for the motions a character performs during the course of the scene and in what order. Example: Joe enters the room, spots his opponent, Bob, and charges to attack him at the room’s center. Those are three simple stage directions one might find in a script, but they’re just as effective to use when planning out an action scene in a novel.

Scripting is the dialogue of the characters uttered during an action scene. It’s neither necessary nor welcome to place every single shout, grunt, or groan inside quotation marks. This is, after all, an action scene. But in movies, characters always seem to find enough time to carry on some kind of conversation during action scenes, whether taunting their opponents, arguing with them, calling for help, or uttering pithy zingers. Depending upon the tone you’re trying to create, dialogue can be a good addition to any action scene that demands cinematic quality.

Choreographing is the planning of specific stunts performed by the characters in your scene. Choreographing is not the same thing as blocking. In the above example, the blocking of Joe is to enter the room and move to meet Bob. Once they’re engaged in actual combat, choreographing takes the place of blocking. If Joe swings with a heavy left hook and follows it up with a knee to the nuts, that’s choreographing. In other words, choreographing is the blow-by-blow breakdown of any given action scene, the interaction of characters.
Taking the example of Joe vs. Bob a little further, we can identify the characteristics of each part of the scene:

Joe flung open the door [Blocking]. Bob smirked at him from across the room, raised his hand, and beckoned to Joe [Blocking]. “Come get some,” he said [Scripting].
With an inarticulate yell of rage, Joe charged across the floor as Bob dropped into a fighting stance [Blocking]. Joe launched a heavy left hook at Bob, but the man ducked underneath the blow [Choreographing]. Before Bob could respond, Joe drove his knee hard in between Bob’s legs [Choreographing].
Bob turned the same color as the floor, grabbed himself, and collapsed [Blocking].

Poor Bob. If only he knew the fundamentals of action scenes, he might have given a better accounting of himself. Let’s see if we can teach him.

More to come!

1. It’s Hollywood’s Fault, or Why Johnny Can’t Write Action Scenes

September 24th, 2010

(Excerpt from the Introduction to Action!  Write Better Action Using Cinematic Techniques)

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume everyone reading this has seen a movie.  If you’ve never seen a movie, well, you probably shouldn’t be reading this book because you have a barn to raise and a beard to grow.

In the 19th Century and before, writers had far more leeway to write action than they do today.  Outside of live performances, books were the only game in town when it came to entertaining people.  Consequently, readers had to imagine whatever the writer described, sometimes without any frame of reference at all.  Motion pictures changed all that.  Suddenly, filmmakers could take their imagination and, through the use of carefully-planned stunts and special effects, film exactly what they were imagining.  By committing those images to film, they shared their action scenes as they intended them to look with mass audiences.  Instead of audiences having to imagine, they could sit passively and observe someone else’s imagination. 

For example:  The two men, one garbed in shining black and the other in soft brown, battled across the floor with their laser swords.  I’ll bet most of you immediately pictured the Darth Vader—Obi-Wan Kenobi duel in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Your memory of the scene as it was shot filled in the details without me describing them.  If I’d written that sentence as part of a story that involved neither of those characters, you’d still think of the movie scene, because that’s how motion pictures have affected the modern reader—by giving us a common frame of reference.  For a century now, from the earliest silent films loaded with dangerous and creative stunts, to the shootouts of the Westerns, to the car chases of the ‘60s and ‘70s, through the martial arts movie craze of the ‘80s and the CGI era after that, action scenes have become indelibly imprinting upon our minds.  We’ve become a visually-oriented culture instead of an imagination-oriented one.

So what’s a modern writer to do to reach this jaded reading audience?

On this site, along with offering critiques of author-submitted action scenes, I will teach what I can about how to make your own action scenes appeal to modern readers.  Over time, you’ll learn what defines action scenes, how to break them down into their component parts, the types of scenes and the associated qualities of each one.  You’ll also learn how to craft remarkable scenes of your own.

Join me for this journey, won’t you?