Merry Christmas from the Action! blog

December 24th, 2010

It’s been an exciting few months since I began this project. It started with a simple goal of creating a method to share my knowledge of writing action scenes and has since morphed into a book project, live workshops, and eventually an online workshop. I hope that some of these plans will come to fruition in the following year.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll keep submitting me action scenes to critique. Likewise, I hope the critiques I’ve already provided have been useful to you as readers and writers. If you have any suggestions for changes or additions to the blog, I’d love to hear about them.

Coming up next: a treatise on Chase scenes.

And finally, whether you celebrate it or not, I do and would like to wish you and yours a Merry Christmas.

Article: Perceptual distortion in real-life action

December 21st, 2010

This post was emailed to me by a friend (*waves to Stacy*), and I agree with her assessment that it was valid to reprint here. Source: www.delanceyplace.com.
In today’s excerpt – in moments of extreme duress, such as that which police experience during a shooting, human perception alters radically:
“Over a period of five years, [researcher Alexis] Artwohl gave hundreds of police officers a written survey to fill out about their shooting experiences. Her findings were remarkable: virtually all of the officers reported experiencing at least one major perceptual distortion. Most experienced several. For some, time moved in slow motion. For others, it sped up. Sounds intensified or disappeared altogether. Actions seemed to happen without conscious control. The mind played tricks. One officer vividly remembered seeing his partner ‘go down in a spray of blood,’ only to find him unharmed a moment later. Another believed a suspect had shot at him ‘from down a long dark hallway about forty feet long’; revisiting the scene a day later, he found to his surprise that the suspect ‘had actually been only about five feet in front of [him] in an open room.’ Wrote one cop in a particularly strange anecdote, ‘During a violent shoot-out I looked over … and was puzzled to see beer cans slowly floating through the air past my face. What was even more puzzling was that they had the word Federal printed on the bottom. They turned out to be the shell casings ejected by the officer who was firing next to me.’ …

“The single distortion under fire that Artwohl heard about most, with a full 84 percent of the officers reporting it, was diminished hearing. In the jarring, electrifying heat of a deadly force encounter, Artwohl says, the brain focuses so intently on the immediate threat that all senses but vision often fade away. ‘It’s not uncommon for an officer to have his partner right next to him cranking off rounds from a shotgun and he has no idea he was even there,’ she said. Some officers Artwohl interviewed recalled being puzzled during a shooting to hear their pistols making a tiny pop like a cap gun; one said he wouldn’t even have known the gun was firing if not for the recoil. This finding is in line with what neuroscientists have long known about how the brain registers sensory data, Artwohl explains. ‘The brain can’t pay attention to all of its sensory inputs all the time,’ she said. ‘So in these shootings, the sound is coming into the brain, but the brain is filtering it out and ignoring it. And when the brain does that, to you it’s like it never happened.’

“The brain’s tendency to steer its resources into visually zeroing in on the threat also explains the second most common perceptual distortion under fire. Tunnel vision, reported by 79 percent of Artwohl’s officers, occurs when the mind locks on to a target or threat to the exclusion of all peripheral information. Studies show that tunnel vision can reduce a person’s visual field by as much as 70 percent, an experience that officers liken to looking through a toilet paper tube. The effect is so pronounced that some police departments now train their officers to quickly sidestep when facing an assailant, on the theory that they just might disappear from the criminal’s field of sight for one precious moment.

“According to Artwohl’s findings, the warping of reality under extreme stress often ventures into even weirder territory. For 62 percent of the officers she surveyed, time seemed to lurch into slow motion during their life-threatening encounter – a perceptual oddity frequently echoed in victims’ accounts of emergencies like car crashes. In a 2006 study, however, the Baylor University neuroscientist David Eagleman tested this phenomenon by asking  volunteers to try to read a rapidly flashing number on a watch while falling backwards into a net from atop a 150-foot-tall tower, a task that is terrifying just to read about. This digit blinked on and off too quickly for the human eye to spot it under normal conditions, so Eagleman figured that if extreme fear truly does slow down our experience of time, his plummeting subjects should be able to read it. They couldn’t. The truth, psychologists believe, is that it’s really our memory of the event that unfolds at the pace of molasses; during an intensely fear-provoking experience, the amygdala etches such a robustly detailed representation into the mind that in retrospect it seems that everything transpired slowly. Memories, after all, are notoriously unreliable, especially after an emergency. Sometimes they’re eerily intricate, and yet other times vital details disappear altogether. ‘Officers who were at an incident have pulled their weapon, fired it, and reholstered it, and later had absolutely no memory of doing it,’ Artwohl told me. If your attention is focused like a laser on a threat (say, the guy shooting at you), Artwohl says, you may perform an action (such as firing your gun) so unconsciously and automatically that it fails to register in your memory banks.”

Author: Taylor Clark
Title: Nerve
Publisher: Little, Brown
Date: Copyright 2011 by Taylor Clark
Pages: 245-248

9. Types of Action Scenes: The Shootout

December 18th, 2010

 The Shootout
or, “PEW PEW PEW!”

Once upon a time, humans developed technology that allowed us to stand away from our opponents and kill them at a distance.  Ever since then, we’ve been obsessed with ranged combat in all its myriad forms.

In fiction, there are three rather broad categories of ranged weapons, roughly equivalent to the past, the present, and the future:  arrows, bullets, and lasers.  Note that these are personal hand weapons as opposed to large siege engines requiring a crew, for example; those fall under a different style of action scene which will be discussed later.  Arrows in this circumstance refers to any kind of pre-gunpowder projectile, either thrown, slung, or launched using string tension.  Bullets mean any projectile fired using gunpowder (or a variation thereof).  Lasers refer to any kind of futuristic energy weapon based upon technology not yet invented.

Action scenes involving ranged combat are similar in setup to Fights.  You still need to work out the details of the set piece and where your characters fit within that area.  The primary difference between a Shootout and a Fight is the distance between the opponents.  No matter what type of weapon in use during a Shootout, the goal of each character should be the same:  Shoot your opponent before your opponent shoots you.

Stunts in Shootouts will generally fall under the following categories:

  1. Shooting your weapon at your opponent.
  2. Moving through fire between cover to close or increase the distance between you and your opponent.
  3. Using the set piece to your advantage, ie: taking cover, moving to high ground, or shooting set piece elements to change the outcome of the shootout.  Example:  firing an arrow through a rope supporting a heavy cask which then falls upon your opponent, catching him unawares.

Narrating a Shootout works best in either first-person or third-person close.  If you’re beginning to detect a pattern here in using limited points-of-view for action scenes, you’re right.  The further apart characters get in physical distance, the harder it is to provide effective narration from an omniscient point of view.

A Shootout ends when one side dies, surrenders, or escapes.

There are some factors in Shootouts which an author needs to pay more attention to than in a simple Fight.  The first of these is Cover.  Cover is a portion of the set piece behind which a character can hide to make it harder to hit him  or her with a ranged weapon.  It is the single most important factor for any character in a Shootout.  If you can’t see your opponent, you can’t shoot him.  Cover protects characters from enemy fire.  It gives them a place to plan their next moves, which is something an author should take full advantage of when writing the scene.  It also gives them a place to pop up/out from to fire their own weapons.  Cover may be static set pieces, like wall corners, tree trunks, car doors (although a staple of cop shows and movies, not recommended because bullets go right through them), rocks, etc.  They may also be mobile pieces, such as animals, vehicles, or the ever-popular human shield.  In the event a character is using a mobile set piece for cover, he or she will have to move with it, or guide it if possible.

Another important factor in a Shootout is ammunition.  Although you don’t need to keep track of every arrow and shot fired in every situation, there will be times where that becomes important and you need to know when your character either has to reload or is out of ammunition, necessitating a change of plans.  If you, the author, want to have your characters run out of ammunition at a crucial part of a scene, make sure they fire enough arrows/bullets/lasers beforehand.  A soldier in a pitched battle in World War II, for example, has access to a great many rounds of ammunition, either his own or from fallen comrades.  The same soldier who’s parachuted down behind enemy lines may only have six bullets with which to fight his way back to his allies.  Reloading a weapon is always a good opportunity for characters to interact with other characters, whether whispering to each other behind cover about their next move or shouting across open space to taunt opponents.

Wounds are a big factor of any action scene, but they have a special place in the Shootout.  Injuries that happen in the course of a Fight often have their effects minimized until after the engagement because of adrenaline, guts, or whatever the fiction equivalent is in your world.  In a Shootout, wounds are much more immediate, often painful and possibly quite damaging.  The character is under high stress from being in a combat situation, but if he is behind cover and takes a bullet, he will have much more time to realize how much it hurts and how badly he may have been wounded.  Because of the penetrating nature of ranged projectiles, victims in Shootouts may find themselves peppered with buckshot, grazed by bullets, pierced by arrows or spears, or burned and charred by lasers or blasters.  As a writer, it is imperative to take full advantage of those opportunities to make your characters more believable and bring the readers closer to them. 

Critique #11

December 13th, 2010

This is from a fantasy WIP.  Abbreviated backstory: Sorcha is a sort of Paladin, hunting down an evil warlock.  She finally tracks him down at the edges of a reef where a half-drowned ruin lies buried in mud and encroaching tides.  Her goal is to capture him and prevent his escape.


Where was the vile man?  Sorcha could feel the cold trail of his soul’s hate snaking through the waterlogged reeds, deeper into the muddy stones of the drowned ruins. She stretched out her feelers and traced the trail to a giant column of stone rising out of the muck before her.   He was there, and she could feel his hunched form coiled around his soulfire. A gentle lapping of turgid water hissed against the stone. 

Ah, I have you now, she thought, and hiked up her shield.  She stepped towards the column, muddy water sloshing against her knees.   His soulfire waited, drawn up inside him like a ball of snow with a core of ice.  She tightened her hold on her wooden shield, hefted her sword, and stepped around the megalith. 

The man lunged himself at her with a shrill shout, a kris aimed at her head. She threw up her shield arm and gasped as the full weight his body slammed against her shield.  She heard a dull thunk as the kris cut into the wood.  She yanked it back, tugging the warlock off-balance, and kicked him in the knee.  He yelled and stumbled back, cursing.  “Bare-faced bitch!” [This is quite simply a very good start to a fight scene. The pacing is good and the description of action is fast-paced and detailed without being overbearing.]

He pulled on his soulfire and Sorcha’s senses shrieked alarm. Her nerves buzzed, and pain shot up her arm and down her back. [Maybe it’s because I haven’t read more of this story to understand it, but I’m confused by the whole “pulling on the soulfire” thing which is somehow injuring Sorcha.] “Oh no, you don’t!” She said and threw herself at him, sword aimed at his hip.  [A paladin and professional warrior wouldn’t be aiming for a hip unless she didn’t want to kill him immediately. If she wants him dead, she should ALWAYS be going for a fatal blow if she can, which means head or heart.]

Ice froze her Core, and a blue ball of Fire exploded into the air, engulfing her head and chest. [Is this a result of her attacking him? That’s unclear.] She screamed.  The Fire burned and flayed with whips angrier than any desert wind.  She toppled onto the warlock, and they hit the water, sinking under the silky dark shallows.   The fire winked out, but the burn continued on, consuming her nerves, steaming under her skin, scraping her senses raw.  The warlock thrashed under her, and his knee slammed into her thigh.  She gasped and choked.   Focus, Sorcha!  She bit her lip and pushed him down under her into the thick bed of mud and weeds.  He gurgled and struggled against her, hitting her in the ribs with his fists and elbows.  Her lungs tightened for need of air and she pulled him up with her, gasping. [This is a good series of stunts here, but Sorcha has now gasped three times in two paragraphs. See if you can find some other words to describe her reactions.]

He coughed and gasped, [gasp #4] flinging himself away.  She grabbed him [If he just flung himself away, she needs to pursue him first for continuity.] by the hair and punched him hard on the nose.  [What happened to her sword?] Bones cracked under her fist, and blood exploded on his face. He howled and retaliated with a boot to her gut. [A knee would make more sense in a close combat like this. A kick is a long-range attack and Sorcha is right up in his face.]

She doubled over, coughing, and the man hit her on the back, sending her back into the water. Churned mud funneled into her mouth.  Gagging, she pushed herself out of the water, spitting curses.  The warlock ran away, down towards the shore, where a tall strand of slime-covered rocks stood as bulwarks against the sky, and a small skiff bobbed on the breaking waves. 
Cursing, Sorcha ran after him, even though her face and lungs burned, and her back ached, throbbing with a new-made bruise.  She reached for her sword, but came up empty. Fires! She must have dropped it into the mire during the fight. [She should already know she lost her sword when she was forced to punch at him.]

The cursed man had almost reached his ship.  She unbuckled the shield from her arm and yanked out the kris.  She flipped the wooden disk, holding it by the sides. She twisted her body and flung the shield at the fleeing warlock’s back, sending it spinning through the air. [A little redundant here – either she flung it or sent it spinning through the air. You don’t need to say both.]

The edge of the shield hit him between the shoulders and he stumbled.  His head hit the edge of the boat’s gunwale with a dull crack.  He bounced off the wood and crumpled into the sands, the tide washing over him.

[This is an outstanding scene. The combat is crisp and clear, and you keep up a great pace throughout the sequence. Make sure your continuity is solid, especially involving the sword. Also, think carefully about the distances involved in close combat and whether your characters are at close range – “kissing distance”, medium range – “punching distance”, long range – “kicking distance”, or out of range. Other than that, great job!

Thanks for your submission!]

8. Types of Action Scenes: The Fight

December 6th, 2010

 The Fight
or, “Two Men Enter, One Man Leaves.”

A physical contest between two individuals is probably the oldest kind of conflict in human evolution, and forms the cornerstone of all action.  In any violent conflict, if you strip away all the weapons, gadgetry, vehicles, costumes, etc., you’re left with two naked savages trying to overpower each other with brute strength.  It sounds uncivilized, because it is.

Fights can be broken down into three sub-categories: Mano a Mano, the Gang-Up, and the Brawl.

Mano a Mano, Spanish for hand-to-hand, represents the most basic of all action scenes: two characters fighting in close quarters.  This kind of fight can be unarmed, meaning the only weapons the characters use will be their own bodies—like a martial arts duel with punching and kicking—or with melee weapons of any sort.  Little John and Robin Hood dueling with quarterstaves on a log bridge is a Mano a Mano fight.  So is the lightsaber battle between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

When writing a Mano a Mano scene, the narrative can follow one character, either in first-person, third-person close Point of View (POV), or third-person omniscient.  The main kinds of Stunts that will occur in a Mano a Mano scene are:

  1. Flurries of punches, kicks, slaps, or use of melee weapons,
  2. Throwing opponents against, onto, or through parts of the set,
  3. Wrestling and grappling,
  4. Using pieces of the set as improvised weaponry, especially when no other weapons are available, and
  5. Falling, because fighting is treacherous even on flat, solid ground, and most fights aren’t going to take place in the best terrain.

A Mano a Mano scene ends when one character dies, surrenders, or runs away.  This last may lead to another kind of action scene which will be discussed later: The Chase.

The Gang-Up is similar to Mano a Mano, but instead involves one character or a small group fighting with a much larger group.  In a Gang-Up, sides may be intentionally balanced for dramatic purposes, or the underdog may have weapons, abilities, or in some other way be a match for the larger force.  This is most often the case in fiction because in reality, an underdog faced with a vastly superior force is going to wind up so much chum.

Narration in Gang-Ups requires careful planning to avoid headhopping, which is the bane of all fiction and especially the action scene.  If you are using a first-person or third-person close POV, you must take extra care not to narrate things that the POV character cannot know.  For example, if your hero is battling three enemy swordsmen on a staircase in a castle, he can’t know that one of his allies is perched on an adjoining tower, preparing to cast a fireball spell through a window.  All he’ll know is that a blast of flame comes into the stairwell and incinerates the enemy soldiers.  He may be able to draw a conclusion as to what happened, but he can’t know for certain if the narrative is only following him.  You may find an omniscient viewpoint is easier when writing a fight of this type.

Stunts in a Gang-Up will be essentially the same as those used in Mano a Mano, and the scene will end when one side dies, surrenders, or escapes.

The Brawl is the most difficult type of fight to write.  It is a fight between two large groups or a free-for-all between numerous characters with no clear sides.  The difficulty in constructing a Brawl in fiction is how to narrate it.  Most writers automatically pull back to use a third-person omniscient narrative, but in reality, that isn’t usually the best choice.  The problem with third-person omniscient in this case is that there are far too many characters to keep track of.  When writers try to do so, they wind up bogging down the action and interfering with the reader’s association with the narrative focal characters.  It also creates a “Dispassionate Distance,” which makes injuries and deaths meaningless to the reader.  Remember, your stories are about people (or should be), not about events.  A huge fight may be a grandiose spectacle to behold, but the reader wants to know first and foremost what happens to the Hero.

When writing a Brawl, consider approaching it using a third-person close or first person narrative, and make sure you keep the focus upon what the character can see/hear/otherwise experience with his or her senses.  Imagine the confusion of trying to write a bar fight with twenty different characters, four of which are the Heroes.  Now approach that same scene but keep the camera on just one character.  She may be aware of what’s happening off to one side, but she won’t see the big guy sneaking up behind her, until one of her allies clocks him with a beer mug and he hits the floor beside her.

Announcement: Scheduled Workshop 2

December 3rd, 2010

I have another Write Better Action workshop scheduled.  This one will be on Tuesday, Feb. 15 from 6:30-8:30 PM at a location to be determined in Colorado Springs.  This will be a full-length workshop I will do for the Pikes Peak Writers as part of their Write Brain series of monthly workshops.  More information on this as I get it.