A note from management…

October 30th, 2010

In case you don’t know, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo for the seventh time this year. What does this mean for this blog?  It means posting may be a little less frequent.  I have a few critiques in the queue (and would love to have a few more if you’d like to submit one!), but instead of posting twice a week, the posts may drop to one a week in November just to let me put my emphasis foremost on writing my book.  If you’d like to learn more about what exactly I am going to write in November, visit this link.

On November 6, I will be conducting a Write Better Action workshop for a group of conference volunteers for the Pikes Peak Writers.  I’m hopeful that it will translate into a workshop slot at the 2011 PPWC or a Write Brain workshop (or both!).  If it doesn’t, it’s still going to be good presentation experience for me.  Since this is for a private function, I’m not posting it for general attendance.  If you’re a PPWC volunteer and on the fence about whether or not to attend the mini-retreat next weekend, perhaps this workshop might be a good reason for you to attend.

Finally, if you have a writers group (and are in or near Colorado) and would like to have me do a workshop for your group, please let me know.

Critique #8

October 28th, 2010

Setup: Fozzie and his covert ops team are en route to rescue a teammate (Grinch) in the company’s private jet. They’ve just been given their cover assignments, and are supposed to be posing as scientific researchers. Fozzie has taken one look at the material he’s supposed to be memorizing and fallen asleep. This scene takes place relatively late in the book, which is a romantic suspense.

[I want to make special note of this before I begin the critique–This is the first submitted scene I’ve had where the Hero’s Opponent is not another character, but an inanimate machine. It doesn’t make this less of an action scene, but it makes for a good example of how to utilize a different kind of Opponent beyond just another character. Although the plane in this scene doesn’t have its own goals (beyond that of anything in the air, which has the eventual goal of hitting the ground as soft or hard as necessary), it is certainly operating contrary to the Heroes’ goals, and therein the conflict is created.]

Fozzie snapped awake when he heard a loud boom, followed by equally loud, “Oh shit,” from the pilot over the PA. [I find it odd that the pilot turned on his PA to say “Oh shit,” unless he was flying with it constantly on, which would be equally odd.]

He had his seatbelt unfastened before he heard Hotshot call, “Fozzie, up front. Now.” [You’re using a good combination of action and dialogue here to convey urgency without actually telling us it’s urgent. Nice job!]

“On it.” Fozzie rushed forward. The right side of the sky glowed through the porthole. [A covert ops specialist would refer to it as the starboard side, not the right.] The plane tipped in that direction, and he grabbed the nearest seatback to keep his balance. He felt the plane losing airspeed. [Again, you’re utilizing your words to good effect, upping the stakes with the actions of the plane.]

“Bad Thing. Number two engine,” Cheese said. “Need some help.” [Nice, snappy dialogue.]

Fozzie slid into the second seat and slapped on a headset. The plane yawed more toward the right. The red master warning light came on. In too-rapid succession, the displays showed systems shutting down.

“We’re flying heavy,” Cheese said. “We need both engines or we’ll have to go down.”

Ditching was definitely not an option. Fozzie knew they carried extra fuel to cover the distance. Any delays might cost Grinch his life. But now, Fozzie was more focused on his own. [This introspection pulls back from the urgency a little. You might consider having Fozzie and Cheese talk this through in their terse, snappy dialogue. Then you might show them fussing and fighting with the controls as they discuss it. You’ve given them a problem and proceeded to escalate it. Now I want to see them trying to overcome it – wrestling with the stick and pedals, flipping switches to attempt a restart, banging on the console in futility, all while talking out what you have now as passive introspection.]

“Shut off the damn buzzers,” Cheese said. “Can you get a visual on the engine? See anything?”

Fozzie glanced out of the cockpit seeing individual blades where there should have been a blur of propellers. “No obvious damage.” [Just as an FYI, “jet” would refer to an airplane with jet engines instead of props, like a Learjet. I don’t know what era your book is set in, but if it’s modern times, I would guess that 95% of corporate airplanes would be jets. You could certainly make minor changes to the scene without hurting the integrity to correct that if you think it’s warranted.]

Cheese’s hand grabbed the lever beside the throttle. Fozzie watched the angle of the propeller blades shift as Cheese feathered them to reduce drag.

“Trying a restart,” Cheese said. [I realize that these are probably jaded, cynical special ops guys, and I might have to turn in my Man Card for saying this, but I’d kind of like to see the emotional stakes raised. Are these two men afraid for their lives? Sure, they’re not going to be screaming and panicking, but even a hardened bastard might find his hands shaking and voice quavering at the idea of plunging into the ground at approximately 600 mph. You can put the bravado in their dialogue, but their body actions might indicate inner turmoil nonetheless.]

“No worries,” Fozzie said, sweat filming his palms.

Cheese flipped the starter switch. Nothing.

Lots of worries.

“Okay, let’s go to plan B,” Cheese said. “Restart protocol. Book’s behind my seat.”

Fozzie snagged the notebook. Quickly flipped to the emergency section. Read each step aloud. Focused on Cheese’s “Rogers.” [This is good – you could have bogged the scene down with all these steps but by short-cutting it like this, you keep the urgency and pacing up.]

“Need more airspeed,” Cheese said. “Watch the N1 indicator and tell me as soon as it hits twelve.”

Fozzie glued his gaze to the small circular gauge. Instead of a healthy ninety-five, the needle hovered at the four percent mark.

“Hang tight,” Cheese announced. “We’re going to play roller coaster. The E-ticket kind.”

Fozzie tightened his harness as Cheese tilted the plane’s nose down. He concentrated on keeping his breathing steady as his stomach plunged. He watched the needle creep across the dial. Six. Eight. Ten. Eleven.

“Now,” he said as soon as it hit twelve.

Cheese pushed up on the fuel condition lever.

Fozzie heard the engine whine as it came back to life. Outside, the propellers shifted angle and picked up speed. He fought the increasing g-forces and his stomach did a reverse trip as Cheese pulled out of the dive and brought the plane to altitude.

After several reverent moments contemplating the familiar sounds and vibrations of normal flight, Fozzie turned to Cheese and slipped the notebook back into its pocket. “Good onya, mate.”

“Would rather not have to do it again,” Cheese said, rubbing his thigh. “Man, keeping her steady is a bitch on the quads.” Sweat trickled down his face. He ran his fingers over the instrument panel as if stroking a lover. “That’s my girl.”

[This is a good, non-combat action scene. You’ve kept up the pacing and urgency, raised the stakes appropriately, and brought it to a satisfactory conclusion. I think you could beef it up more with some more description of the men trying to get the plane under control and restarted, and add a bit of emotional intensity. If we as readers sense these men are legitimately afraid for their lives, it makes their success in overcoming the conflict sweeter, and we feel relief like the characters would. 

Thanks for your submission!]

7. The Stunt

October 25th, 2010
Giele whipped the pan out, up, and across Rarik’s face. It rang with the impact of iron on bone as Rarik flew backward into the middle of the aisle. Giele whirled around as the Dwarf shouted and fired his pistol. The bullet hit the pan with such force it nearly twisted the handle from Giele’s grasp. His hand went numb from the vibration of the metal. He glanced down and saw the bullet embedded in the pan’s bottom. God’s Blood! It had almost burst through the thick iron and into his chest.
The one-eyed Dwarf aimed again, pistol raised up toward Giele’s head. He hurled the pan at the Dwarf. He tried to duck, but the iron edge caught him behind his right ear. He went down as quickly as if Giele had shot him.
Giele yanked his knife from the scabbard strapped against the small of his back just as Cianid brought a jar of preserves down on the other Elf’s head. His eyes rolled back and he dropped, bleeding blood and raspberries.
“Nicely done.” Giele sheathed the blade again.
“Idiot. I had things under control until you got involved. Does trouble follow you everywhere or do you have to seek it out?”

 The Stunt is the basic building block of the action scene.  Think of a Stunt as a single camera shot or closely-related shots in film.  All action scenes, even the most complex, can be broken down into a series of Stunts.  A Stunt is either a single action undertaken by a character, or a brief flurry of related actions.  There are four Stunts in the example at the beginning of this section.  They are:

1. Giele hits Rarik with the pan.
2. The Dwarf fires his gun at Giele.
3. Giele throws the pan at the Dwarf.
4. Cianid hits the Elf with a jelly jar.

Stunts have several qualities.  They are generally brief, often lasting only a single sentence.  If the Stunt has several actions relating to it, it could last as much as a paragraph, but that is the longest it should go.  If you are writing a Stunt and it seems like it should be broken into more than one paragraph, you are writing multiple Stunts.  Think like a director.  If you would yell “Cut!” after an action to reset for the next shot, that’s a completed Stunt.  A Stunt can be described at its simplest in a single sentence, like the examples above:  Character does something.

Stunts always occur within a single set piece.  Characters performing Stunts don’t have to stay rooted to one spot, but if they move significantly within the set piece, it’s probably multiple Stunts.  Because Stunts are brief in real time, there isn’t much room for dialogue, lengthy description, or internal monologuing.

One of the most important aspects of a Stunt is that it and of itself will never resolve a main conflict.  The equivalent would be spending two hundred pages setting everything up, only to have your Hero walk into a room, draw his pistol, and fatally shoot the main Opponent.  Can that happen?  Yes.  Is it anticlimactic and a poor way to resolve the book?  Most probably.  A Stunt can be part of a larger sequence that resolves a main conflict (more on that later) but single, solitary Stunts have different uses for a plot.

A Stunt can be used as an effective means to introduce either a new character or a new subplot.  These are when isolated acts (of violence, remember) have long-reaching consequences for the characters of the story.  Luke Skywalker is about to be killed by a Tusken Raider on Tatooine when Ben Kenobi’s arrival scares off the Sand Person.  A young boy watches helpless as his parents were gunned down by a mugger in an alley.  That boy grows up to become Batman.  Both of these events were simple, single Stunts that led to important plot points.

Isolated Stunts can also work to develop characters further.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, a swordsman confronts Indiana Jones, swinging his weapon in a vicious, threatening display.  Indy, in turn, pulls out his gun and shoots the man.  On the surface, this is a simple, entertaining moment in an entertaining film.  It’s memorable, which is a key aspect of isolated Stunts both in film and in fiction.  It also helps to define Indy’s character better.  The audience instinctively understands that he’s not going to take the hard path if a simpler opportunity presents itself.  Throughout the series of Indiana Jones movies, this personality trait is repeated time and time again, where Indy applies more direct methods to solving problems than working out complicated solutions.

The most important aspect of a Stunt is its inclusion in more complex series of actions within a scene, and that is what is called the Engagement.

Critique #7

October 21st, 2010

This is an excerpt from a fantasy novel.  In this scene, Kilen (the swordsman) is chasing down the Kopi, a man who has been hired to guide a group safely through a dangerous forest but has fled the group and is escaping into the forest.  Kopi is the name of the character’s ethnic group.  Farce is Kilen’s horse, and Tegu is Kilen’s sword.

The Kopi saw the swordsman bearing down on him and whipped the reins against his horse’s neck, but Farce was faster and brought Kilen to the fleeing chestnut’s flank.  Kilen gripped Farce tightly with his knees, switching the torch to his left hand and drawing Tegu with his right.  Now he held the torch in the hand away from the Kopi, the sword towards him, and he swung his arm forward, connecting his fist with the back of the guide’s head. [This is a very good, strong start to your scene. Immediately I get a sense of motion, conflict (pursuit, specifically), and the characters. I don’t have any sense of where they are, but that may be in the paragraphs leading up to the action, so that’s fine. The final sentence is a little confusing to me, because he’s holding a torch in one hand and a sword in the other, so which fist does he use to hit the Kopi? It’s clear in the next paragraph, but you might clarify it here. You might consider combining the latter two sentences to avoid the reiteration about the torch and the sword and set the scene a little at the same time. Consider as an example: “As Kilen drew alongside the fleeing Kopi, his torch fluttered and hissed like a flag. He gripped Farce with his knees, drew Tegu, and swung the pommel at the back of the guide’s head.”]

With the force of the heavy pommel behind it, the blow pitched the Kopi forward and he lost his grip on the reins. [Divide this into two sentences, because they’re both important points. Give the Kopi a more pronounced reaction to the blow. “With the force of the heavy pommel behind it, the blow pitched the Kopi forward. His hands flew to his head and the reins flapped loose around his waist.] The two horses still galloped forward and a branch whipped across Kilen’s face as Farce went to the left around a large tree, the Kopi’s chestnut to the right. [You’re actually going into a little too much detail here. I’m nitpicking because you’ve got a really good scene. Instead of saying who went left and who went right, simplify. “The horses split apart to avoid a tree, and a branch whipped across Kilen’s face.”] Kilen had just enough time to sheathe Tegu before the horses came back together, and he reached out with his free hand, grabbing at the chestnut’s reins. [Instead of saying Kilen had just enough time, simplify it again and just say “He sheathed Tegu to free one hand and grabbed at the chestnut’s reins.”]

The Kopi had regained some of his wits by now, but Kilen was faster, wrapping the chestnut’s reins around his fist and pulling with all his strength on the bolting horse’s head, at the same time sitting back hard, signaling Farce to slow his pace. [Okay, this is a really busy sentence. Break it up into a couple of shorter sentences and simplify, simplify, simplify. Don’t give your reader too many things to keep track of when you’re blocking out a scene. Too many details will bog down the action.]

As soon as their breakneck flight had slowed, [I don’t like your use of “had” here or in the previous paragraph. Don’t use past perfect tense in an action scene because you want it to have a feel of this is happening right now, not something happened a few seconds ago and I didn’t tell you about it. 😉 ] Kilen flung down the torch and wrapped both arms around the Kopi, pulling him from the saddle.  The guide rolled free of the horses’ legs and scrambled to his feet, but not before Kilen’s feet hit the ground.  The Kopi turned to run but Kilen pushed him down again, and stood over him. [This is a good Stunt here. Nicely done.]

The torch gamely blazed on in the undergrowth, oily rag resisting the rain, and Kilen stooped to retrieve it, his eyes on the guide.  [I’d break up the previous sentence into two. As a general rule, if you have any sentence with more than three clauses, it should really be two sentences.] “Get up,” Kilen said in his native language, hoping that it might be close enough for the man to realize what he was saying. [I’d end the sentence with “Kilen said.” and leave the rest off.]

When the guide didn’t move, Kilen reached down and grabbed the Kopi’s collar, dragging him to his feet.
“Let’s go,” Kilen said, giving the man a little push to encourage him, and whistled for Farce.  [Again, I’d break this sentence into two different sentences. Make whistling for Farce a new sentence.]

The Kopi stood silent and miserable while Kilen collected the chestnut and tied her to Farce.  Farce was sidling and prancing, begging to continue their game as Kilen prodded the Kopi over to Farce’s side and wordlessly had him mount.  Kilen swung up behind his hostage and their combined weight managed to quiet Farce.  To Kilen’s relief, it was easy enough to follow their backtrail to the camp.

[You’ve got a very good action scene here, and I think you’ve handled it very well. You asked me specifically about how to avoid overusing characters’ names and in this circumstance, unfortunately, it’s difficult since you have Kilen (male) and the Kopi (also male) and Farce (undetermined but I suspect male as well). You can’t use the pronouns he and his without potential confusion. On the other hand, you can use alternative descriptions instead of names: The raven-haired swordsman; the fleeing guide; the stallion; etc. My final advice for you is to simplify your sentences – you’ve got a lot of multiple-clause sentences that could be split into two or more. Also consider whether you may be force-feeding too much information to the reader to the point that it slows down the pacing. And get rid of those pesky adverbs and watch out for passive voice, especially in the last paragraph. Thanks for your submission!]

Critique #6

October 18th, 2010
The following is a fraction of the scene where our (anti)hero thief character first meets our (anti)hero actress character. They’ve both heard stories about the other but haven’t actually met till now. Your basic heist gone wrong. Here they’re fleeing from guards.
The arrow released a long thin rope that reached to five feet or so above the rooftop below. He grabbed the rope, hauled himself back in with Madeleine’s leverage. He unhooked her hands from his belt.
He went first, rappelling down the side of the building. He stood at the bottom, one eye looking out for patrols, one eye on Maddy descending. Must be hard with skirts. She alighted. He grasped her wrist. They ran. A lead weight whistled past their heads. Jackrabbit ducked.
They’re fast.”
Get to the far corner there.”
Where the fire escape railings are?”
You’re quick, for a girl. Are you armed at all?”
Have you forgotten so quickly?”
I’ll meet you there.” [This section begs the use of either some dialogue tags or actions which otherwise identify the speakers. I have to backtrack from “You’re quick, for a girl…” to figure out who speaks first. In an action scene, if the characters aren’t moving while talking, you should give the reader a better sense of where they’ve stopped to converse. Lengthy dialogue sections will slow the pacing of an action scene if there’s nothing else going on.]
Thunk! [What happened here? If you’re going to give us a sound effect, you need to give us a reason for it.]
Jackrabbit stopped, straightened.
What are you doing?”
Keep running.”
All right, we’ve got you in our sight, thief. Freeze!” [I would probably introduce the guards above, as the origin of whatever thunked.]
He stood still. The guards came clomping up, panting. Maddy was at the fire escape. The moon was low, and enormous. [This sentence about the moon doesn’t really belong here unless there’s something very important to the scene about a low, enormous moon. Otherwise, introduce it at the scene’s beginning to help the reader understand that 1. It’s night and 2. It’s still comparatively bright.]
Put your hands up, asshole.”
He raised his hands, held them just above his head.
Maddy clutched the fire escape railing. She saw something round in Jack’s right hand. She inhaled, closed her eyes, and began to descend the metal ladder. Her shoes made small sounds on the rungs, but nobody on the roof noticed.
Frisk him, Lowland.”
For a moment through closed eyes, Maddy saw pink.
I can’t see!”
Get him!”
Where’d he go?”
You imbeciles, he’s gone!”
What the hell was that?” [It seems like there’s some headhopping going on here. First the scene seems to be in Jack’s head and switches to Maddy’s just in time for her not to see any of the combat taking place between Jack and the guards. As a reader, that feels like a cop-out. If you want to have the scene in her perspective, that’s fine, but be consistent throughout and don’t switch part way through. And if you do keep it in her perspective, I would consider having her stay at the top of the ladder to watch the combat instead of hearing random sound effects and dialogue. Let her see how Jack defeats a handful of guards before she descends the ladder.]
Madeleine landed on the wet cobblestones. She flattened herself against the wall, in the darkest nook she could find. She loosened her bodice laces, and labored to catch her breath.
She couldn’t hear him at all, even when she felt his cloak fanning her as he came up beside her. She jumped. Then she could hear him breathing hard, and saw the steam from his mouth on the air. She cleared her throat.
Hello dear, glad you could make it.”
You all right?”
[You’ve got a good start to a scene here. Try to break up your lengthy blocks of nothing but dialogue with some dialogue tags and character action, and consider keeping the same character’s point-of-view throughout the entire scene. Also, consider showing the conflict between Jack and the guards instead of telling about it through dialogue and onomatopoeia. Thanks for your submission!]

6. Why an Action Scene at all?

October 15th, 2010

Like all good fiction, it all comes down to conflict and the ways a character can choose to resolve it.  Ultimately, these boil down to three possibilities.  Any of these are legitimate means for dealing with the central conflict of your story, and be sure to weigh the pros and cons of each one when deciding your character’s route.

Avoidance.  The character chooses to avoid taking action in the face of conflict.  This is the ultimate non-violent solution.  This is a fairly common choice in the real world because people either don’t want to get involved or else choose to involve themselves in a non-confrontational way.  This is the equivalent of not answering the door when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come calling.

Dialogue.  The character chooses non-violent, active methods to resolve conflict.  This often means the character argues his position or opens a negotiation dialogue with the opponent.  This is a very common method of conflict resolution in the real world in a variety of circumstances.  Dialogue is the staple tool of the courtroom drama, for example.

Action.  Sometimes a problem is too serious to avoid, and the time for dialogue has passed.  In those moments, an action scene must suffice.  Or, as Padme Amidala described it in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, “aggressive negotiation.”

Critique #5

October 12th, 2010
The MC is an off duty DI on her way back from a murder case in Lincolnshire that is linked to other murders she is investing by the same killer.

Petrol was low so I took the slip road to the next service station and pulled up onto the forecourt. I jumped out and noticed a red Vauxhall Astra pull up at the pump behind me. A skinny youth got out and headed over to the shop to get sweets, I assumed. The next thing I knew there was gunfire. A bullet flew through the air and thudded into the plastic waste bin to the side of me. Fuck. All I could think about was petrol pumps and my arse being right next to them. I threw myself to the ground and yelled … GET DOWN … to anyone who could hear me. [Maybe instead of saying what the character said, make it as dialogue?] I scanned around from my vantage point behind the car and thanked God there was only me, the Vauxhall and a motorbike at the pumps.

I reached for my phone but it was still plugged into the cigarette lighter. I glanced toward the shop – a man fell through the door holding his chest, SHIT, SHIT – okay clam down, Lyns, think. I poked my head above the bonnet and BANG another bullet flew past me – stop the fucking shooting for Christ’s’ sake. [This is a little hard to follow because of the odd punctuation. Is the character thinking this? Saying this?]

“I need a fucking phone?” [This shouldn’t be a question.] I yelled aloud, more to vent frustration than anything else. [“Venting frustration” is a very passive act in the middle of what should be a scene full of tension. The MC really does need a phone, right?] The guy belonging to the Vauxhall threw me his phone. Okay, okay, that’s good. I hit the emergency button …

Fire, Ambulance, Police

“Police and an ambulance.”

The guy who’d been shot was lying on the floor bleeding to death. I could make out someone through the window; he/she was waving something around – a gun – possibly. [This is the first mention you’ve made of the possible shooter. Your MC is a trained police officer. The first thing she would do is to try to locate the shooter. I think you might wait too long to bring this up. She would most likely locate the shooter before screaming for a phone.]

Only one service madam

“Listen dickhead, I’m an off duty police officer in a hostage situation get me the fucking police and an ambulance – NOW.” [She should report shots being fired and an injury. If you’re going to write what seems like a police procedural, make sure you’re having your character stick to appropriate procedures (unless you’ve established her as a renegade officer who says bugger all to the rules.]

Police. Where are you?

“I’m on the A15 between Peterborough and Cambridge…” I looked up, BP… “At a BP garage in …” shit, I looked over at the Vauxhall guy, he was crouched down behind his car staring at me.

“My son’s in there…”

I tried to stay calm, I steadied him with my hand, “Okay, it’s gonna be fine, just tell me where we are?”

“Little Hampton.”

“…BP service station in Little Hampton.”

Okay, we gotcha. What’s going on there?

“There’s a fucking madman waving a gun around, I’ve got one man down, and there may be more – hurry up.” [Good that this came up, but it needs to be the first thing she reports.]

He hung up. I flattened myself onto the floor and tried to edge my way toward the Vauxhall – slithering along on my belly like a snake. I reached the boot end of my car and looked round it – BANG – SHIT – a bullet ripped through my jacket.

“Oh fuck, oh fuck … Sam, Sam …” The Vauxhall guy was up and ready to run toward the shop.


He stumbled and fell onto me, I realised then I’d been hit, there was blood soaking into the sleeve of my jacket. [I don’t think people would “realize they’ve been hit.” I’ve never been shot, but plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that bullet wounds are intensely painful, and even in the heat of combat, your MC would likely know right away.]

“My kid’s in there, fuck, Sammy …”

“Okay, it’s gonna be okay …”

Police sirens had never sounded so good.[This scene has potential to get a lot better if you put in some more detail. If we break it down into Blocking, Scripting, and Choreographing, we’ve got this:

1. Shots are fired at the MC, who ducks under cover. Blocking
2. MC calls for a phone. Scripting 
3. MC has a conversation with the operator, then the police. Scripting
4. MC converses with the other driver. Scripting
5. MC crawls around the car and gets shot. Blocking

What you’ve got here is an action scene with very little action in it. Your MC is a police officer. She should be more focused on serving and protecting and taking some kind of action to stop the shooter. She’s got a gun at least in her car, doesn’t she? At the first sign of shooting, I’d think she’d know a car is little protection against bullets (Mythbusters proved this) and would be better off risking being shot to retrieve her weapon and try to put the shooter down before anyone else gets hurt. 

Whatever choices you ultimately make with this scene, remember that your MC is your Hero, and your Hero should never sit passive and wait for others to take action if she can take action herself first.

Finally, and this is more of a technical note: you’re using far too many hyphens and ellipses and ALL CAPS in this narrative. Any agent or editor would strike those, so you’d be better served to eliminate them yourself. Thanks for your submission!] 

5. Where do Action Scenes take place?

October 10th, 2010

In short, anywhere you want to set them.

I call the location of an action scene the set piece. Set pieces are crucial aspects of any action. Take two characters who are going to fight each other. Put them in a doctor’s office. Now put them on a beach. Now put them in a crosswalk. Each of those scenes has the same basic conflict: two characters fight. But the setting itself necessarily dictates their actions within that scene. Characters in action will always interact with their surrounding environment, and that can be crucial in the development and resolution of conflict. Crashing through a picture glass window in a frontier town bar is quite different from crashing though a picture glass window on the 43rd floor of a Manhattan skyscraper.

A set piece doesn’t have to be a static location like a room or a battlefield. Think about car chase scenes, for example. The road itself becomes the set piece, and the characters in their vehicles move through it.
When you’re creating your set piece, take a little time to populate it with objects and bystanders. You don’t have to mark every single item and person in a given location, but if the Hero and Opponent are going to interact with them in some way, give them a little thought and a reason to be where they are. If you really want your Hero to use a chainsaw against the zombies, he’s not going to realistically find one in the pizza joint. He will, however, find heavy pans, two-handed pizza slicers (have you ever seen one? They’re wicked!), and cooking oil. On the other hand, any number of interesting bystanders might be in the restaurant noshing on the Triple Pepperoni Heartburn Special when the zombies come. So if you have a mean streak toward Caucasian suburban thug wannabes, and have the zombies grab one when he trips over his pants because they only go halfway up his thighs, go right ahead.

Just make sure it all makes sense, because if your action scene doesn’t follow the logic of the world you’ve created, it will come across as fake and hollow.

Critique #4

October 7th, 2010

This is from an urban fantasy. Set up:  Kathryn and Jimmy had been dating but not sleeping together, and she broke it off. They live in a rural area, and are, in fact, standing on the front porch of a modular home, formerly known as a trailer. No one else is around. Jimmy has never been abusive before now. Neither has Kathryn, although she doesn’t know she has more-than-human strength rolling through her blood now. Jimmy is confronting her not because she dumped him, but because he thinks she putting out for someone else when she wouldn’t for him. She slapped him and he slapped her back.

 “I know he was with you last night. Out parking. And I know he didn’t go home last night, so I figure he’s cozied up here. Getting a little somethin’ somethin’ that should be mine.”

“You arrogant asshole.” Kathryn’s blood rushed to her face as her anger trampled down her fear. One quick step and she raised her hand, arcing her arm as hard and fast as she could as she returned Jimmy’s slap, with interest.[I feel like this sentence is saying the same thing three times- she raises her hand and arcs her arm and returns a slap with interest. I’d cut one of those and stick with your favorite (mine would be ‘She raised her hand to return Jimmy’s slap… with interest.’)

It was his turn to stagger a step back. He rubbed his jaw and grinned at her. “You really shouldn’t have done that. I don’t take shit from women.” He rolled his shoulders, watching her. [You start off with a great threat from Jimmy, and then follow up with him being passive. The scene would carry a lot more weight if he says that and then wades into her, giving her a chance to defend. It also makes him a clear aggressor.]

Kathryn planted her left foot and shifted her weight. Her right foot went back, toes resting lightly on the snowy deck. She dimly registered that she was standing barefoot in the snow.[I like this little paragraph, but I think you should move it to right after she slaps him. I also think you should get a little more visceral with the barefoot in the snow part. “She dimly registered that she was standing barefoot in the snow.” is pretty dry. Ever stuck your bare foot into snow? Your skin prickles with sharp ice crystals, the shock of the cold drives your blood to seek warmer climes, your bones ache, etc. You’re not hurting the pacing of the narrative at all to use a visceral, descriptive sentence instead of a simple declarative.]

When he came forward, [How did he come? Did he charge in a bull rush? Did he sidle in like a nervous prizefighter? Give us something we can see in our mind.] she was ready. The first time. His slap missed but the backhanded blow half-connected with the side of her head. [And how did that feel? It’s not going to hurt the pacing to give us some “insider information” about Kathryn’s feelings, so long as you limit it to a few words here and there. Put the audience inside her head.] She blinked back stars, pivoted and drove her foot into his stomach.

Out of practice, she didn’t have as much force as she should have. His reach was longer. She hoped her head was clearer. [I think these prior sentences could be cut. They’re too dry and analytical and drag the pacing down.] He grabbed her from the side then slipped on some ice. She brought her heel down on the inside of his knee and he went down. [This, by the way, is extremely painful and he might not bounce right back up again, unless he’s really drunk. It also doesn’t take much lateral force to dislocate a knee. With her unknown more-than-human strength, it’s very likely she would dislocate it with this type of blow. That would be, uh, pretty difficult for him to recover from. Maybe if you decide to have that happen, she responds to his name-calling instead of a new attack from him.] He lurched back to his feet, swearing at her, calling her bitch and whore and worse. [Don’t tell us what he said; have him say it. That has more power in the narrative. You may have a problem typing out the words “You fucking cunt whore!” but the fact is, that will make Jimmy seem more real and make Kathryn’s response more valid.] One clout connected with her shoulder, another glanced off her skull. When he charged her, every self-defense class she’d ever taken deserted her. She danced to one side and skipped around him. She grabbed his arm and used his momentum to slam him into the porch railing. [“Dancing” and “skipping” are playful, lighthearted verbs. They don’t convey the right feel for a combat situation unless she’s toying with him and enjoying herself doing it. How about “She dodged to one side and attacked his flank by grabbing his arm and slamming him into the porch railing.”

[Pacing-wise, this should be part of the previous paragraph as it completes the action begun with her slamming him into the railing.] He stayed bent over it for a minute. She thought he’d give up, go away. But he stood up again and came at her, limping a little.[Or a LOT if his knee is hanging sideways. 😉 ]

Nothing fancy this time, she aimed straight for his crotch and poured every bit of anger and misery she felt into her effort. [“Her effort” is taking the easy way out. What did she do? Did she punch his nuts a la the Cockknocker? Seismic knee-lift? Fire a fifty yard field goal between the uprights of his legs? Don’t leave the action up to the reader to imagine; show us what happens instead.] The contact lifted him off his toes. When he came down, he kept going down, but Kathryn grabbed his hair before he could fall and slammed his face into her knee.[I like the imagery in this last sentence, but it should be broken into two sentences for better effect.]

Pain shot through her leg. If that hurt him half as much as it hurt her, she’d be happy.

He collapsed to the ground. The sounds coming out of him sounded like a cat with a hairball stuck halfway up its throat.[This is good. One of the best descriptive sentences in the entire scene. This is the kind of visceral feeling you should shoot for in your combat as well. Ew. LOL]

If she acted quickly, she could bring her heel down, hard, on his throat and stop that noise forever. Stop everything about him forever.

[I feel like you’ve got a good start to a scene here. The Hero and Opponent are clear, as is the conflict. Don’t be afraid to wade in and get your hands dirty, though. Dry, analytical description makes for a boring scene. You showed you’ve got the sense of powerful phrases in that next-to-last paragraph. Bring that skill into the rest of the scene and it will POP. Thanks for your submission!]

4. Who Is Involved In Action Scenes?

October 5th, 2010

I’ve already hinted at this in prior posts.  At its most basic level, an action scene involves two characters:  the Hero (the narrator or focal character of the narrative) and the Opponent.  The Hero is, of course, who your story is about.  The Hero has a goal of some kind, and the Opponent has a goal which opposes it.  That opposition creates the conflict which is the root of all action scenes (and indeed, all fiction).  Without an Opponent, there can’t be any conflict except the Hero’s internal conflict, and that type of conflict cannot be resolved through action scenes.

When I say Opponent, I don’t necessarily mean it has to be another character.  If your Hero has to defeat a series of mechanical traps that will try to kill him before he reaches the Golden Cup of Valhalla (or whatever), those traps are Opponents; their goal is to kill him, while the Hero’s goal is to survive.  Opposite goals equals conflict equals action.

The problem with using non-character Opponents is that their goals can’t change in response to the actions of the Hero.  In the example above, if the Hero decides to forgo the traps and the Golden Cup to go party with Heidi the Valkyrie instead, the traps can’t get angry and come after him.  If you want real excitement and drama in your action scenes, Opponents should be characters.  Let’s look at the four essential types of conflict in literature and why three of them don’t really work as a basis for action scenes.

Character vs. Self

This type of conflict stems from a character having a problem with him- or herself.  This makes for compelling drama and loads of introspection.  Unfortunately, what it doesn’t lend itself to is action.  Unless you’re going to have your character beating himself to a pulp in a bathroom, internal conflicts just aren’t resolved by the external means of action scenes.  Let’s let our poor, conflicted characters figure themselves out and move onward to the next kind.

Character vs. Society
At first glance, this might seem to work well for the basis of an action scene.  Your character is fighting against something about his society.  Doesn’t that make him a rebel, prone to action?  Well, no, not really.  In this type of narrative conflict, the characters’ issues are with social norms, mores, and other cultural factors.  You can’t really write a character having a fistfight with racism, for example.  That’s not the same as battling agents of society, but that’s a different type of conflict.

Character vs. Nature

Now we’re getting somewhere.  How many movies have this as their basis?  It can be very exciting, watching characters as they flee molten lava, tornadoes, earthquakes, meteors, etc.  There’s room for lots of spectacle and insane action as Nature pushes on its merciless course.  The main issue with this type of conflict when it comes to action scenes is the fact that Nature is not only merciless, but has no antipathy toward the characters.  It may seem like the avalanche is trying to kill the characters, but the fact is that forces of Nature happen whether the characters are in the way or not.  Yes, it can create action, but an essential element of a true action scene is missing: the goal of the Opponent.  Nature has no goals; Nature only exists.  While this kind of conflict can sustain a story for awhile, eventually the reader will want to see a clear Opponent for the Hero—one whose goals work against the Hero.  Overcoming Nature is possible but nowhere near as rewarding as overcoming an active Opponent.

Character vs. Other
This is the meat and potatoes of the action scene.  When a character or group of characters enters into some kind of direct conflict with another character or group of characters (or machines, or zombies, or genius biker punks—you get the picture!), it becomes the catalyst for action scenes.  In fact, all the other types of narrative conflict can make a story better if you can make the ultimate conflict personal:  Hero versus Opponent.

Say your Hero is suffering from a mental disorder that is causing him to question his every move, paralyzing him.  Okay, that’s great, but if he discovers the root cause of his problem is that he was imprisoned and brainwashed by a sinister organization, he now has an identifiable Opponent, which makes his eventual victory (we hope!) much sweeter.  Rebels against the Evil Empire is a noble cause, but when they’re battling the Empire’s top military commander, it becomes a personal conflict.