Here’s the review from the workshop I conducted for the Pikes Peak Writers!
My computer was down for about a week and I’m still trying to get back into the swing of things. I haven’t forgotten about you here, though! Look for some new material this week.
Also, I have exactly one action scene left in my queue to critique, and after that I’m open. So if you have a scene you’re dying to get analyzed because you’re under a short deadline, now’s the time to submit it.
Stacy reviewed the workshop I conducted this week.
In conjunction with my workshop, I’ve created a worksheet for your use in plotting your action scenes. It’s an .rtf file. You can download it from the link on the top right of the sidebar. I hope you’ll find it a useful tool in planning out your action sequences.
Last minute reminder: I have a workshop today in Colorado Springs at 6:30 PM. Details are in the sidebar. I hope to see you there!
Tyler flopped under the bottom rail of the corral. He crawled through mashed hay, horse droppings and mud mixed with animal piss. He dodged mud-caked hooves. At the gate post, he mopped his face with the sleeve of his jacket, perched his rifle on a fence rail and trained it on the church.
A glimpse caught in the next lightning flash showed Spencer dart from the well to the buildings on the other side of the square. Before the thunder stole it away, Tyler heard the notes of a girl’s voice come from the church.
He lifted himself on his elbows, straining to hear more. Luak, I coming. Every part of the night dripped with shiny rain. Tyler’s fingers reached up and fumbled for the thongs that tied the gate.
The church doors swung open and the outline of a man stepped out onto the portico. A match flared. The man’s hands cupped the flame to a cigarette in his lips.
Dalton Fox puffed his tobacco to life.
Rainwater sloshed from Spencer’s hat.
Fox turned. A column on the portico blocked Spencer’s rifle sights from all but Fox’s legs. Spencer lifted his face from the rifle’s stock and looked across the plaza.
Take the shot, Tyler. End it now.
Tyler let his arm drop from the leather straps that held the gate closed. He raised the Krag rifle a fraction at a time.
Fox leaned against the building. An orange dot glowed at his lips. He stuck one hand out into the stream that spilled from the roof and let the water dance through his fingers.
Tyler’s thumb flipped the safety catch on his rifle. He gritted his teeth and took up the slack on the trigger. Wind- driven rainwater flowed down his forehead into his eyes. Tyler blinked it away.
Spencer rose from his knees to his feet, hugging his face to the corner of the adobe hovel, straining to find a clean shot at Fox. A spear point of electricity sliced the sky.
Caught in the space between the brightness and the thunder’s crash, Spencer glimpsed the man in the bell tower point his rifle at Tyler in the corral.
Spencer threw the Winchester to his shoulder and fired.
White flame flared from the muzzle. Gunshot blended with thunder. Lead slapped the church bell. A ghostly gong vibrated through the air.
Fox dove through the church doors. Spencer’s next shot splintered wood. [I like the writing in this section here, but the pacing feels stilted and choppy because of so many sentence-long paragraphs. Try reading it aloud. Are you pausing briefly after each of those periods/paragraph breaks? If you combined a couple of these sentences into longer paragraphs or multiple-clause sentences, the action would flow smoother and more quickly.]
The rifleman on the roof leaned out of the bell tower, rifle pointing at the flash from Spencer’s gun. Tyler found the man’s back in his sights and jerked the trigger.
Black blood splattered from the man’s shoulders. The rifle pitched from his hands. A lifeless body slumped onto the wet roof tiles. [I might combine this paragraph with the one before as it’s all related to Tyler shooting the man in the bell tower.]
Tyler threw open the gate. Terrified horses scrambled over each other fighting each other to escape through the opening. Globs of mud tossed from hooves filled the air. Tyler grabbed the halter of one of the fleeing horses. The animal jerked him from his feet and dragged him through the rain-drenched streets into the plaza. The Krag slipped from his hand. Tyler let go of the fleeing horse and slid through the mud to the low stone wall at the well. [In contrast to the section above, your pacing here flows very well and the action is described nicely.]
He jerked the Colt from its holster and pointed it at the doors to the church. [Now here is a case where an action rightly deserves its own sentence/paragraph, because this is an important beat.]
“Stay down,” Spencer yelled at Tyler.
Wanting to draw the gunfire of the men in the chapel, he jumped the broken fence that surrounded the little graveyard next to the church. He dove into the mud behind a weathered wooden cross.
The church doors opened. A shotgun blasted. Inches from his face, the top of the cross exploded into an angry swarm of splinters.
Two shots snapped from Tyler’s pistol. The man with the shotgun fell limp on the portico.
Lightning and its thunder came as one. The crash shook the buildings and opened the clouds. Hailstones the size of pistol bullets raked the village.
Tyler leaped from behind the well and charged through the curtain of falling ice for the church. He kicked the shotgun out of the dead man’s hand and threw himself through the doors.
Spencer clawed in the mud to get to his feet. [It wouldn’t go amiss here to share a little of what Spencer’s feeling. Even a single sentence about his fear would help bring the reader closer to the character.]
Above the din of the falling hail, a gunshot split the night. A burst of light pulsed at every window of the church.
Spencer slipped and fell to his knees. “No-o-o, Tyler.”
[Overall, this is a very good scene. You have an excellent sense of the action and I could see it playing out in my mind like a scene from a movie. That being said, make sure you pay attention to your pacing.
The other thing to remember is that this is a book, not a movie, and you don’t have to keep the reader completely external to what’s going on. Give us a little bit more emotional connection to the different narrators. For example, is Tyler angry and Spencer afraid? You don’t need to pepper the scene with literary-fiction-level introspection, but even a single sentence or clause in each section would help to bring us closer to these two men.
Thanks for submitting your scene!]
Pikes Peak Writers has finally found a venue of sufficient size to host me. No, it’s not the Air Force Academy Stadium – at least, not this time. The Writing Better Action workshop will be next Tuesday, February 15, from 6:30 PM-8:30 PM at the following location:
Fire Station #19
2490 Research Parkway
Colorado Springs, CO 80920
I hope to see you there!
Map available here.
Setup: Thomas is demonstrating a new invention called “Megahorse” which is a little like a Star Wars AT-AT except with 8 legs like a spider.
It’s running an illegal steam engine. Thomas is concerned that something is wrong after they fire the cannon for the first time.
[Steampunk. Me likey.]
Master Spencer ran over and pulled open the hatch. “What is the matter? Why did you power down?”
“Something is wrong in the engine,” Thomas shouted. “The cannon shot may have dislodged something.”
“Nonsense, it sounds fine. I want the maneuvering demonstration and I want it now. A cannon is no good if it cannot be moved.”
“Sir! It is not safe—”
“Or I will have your heads!” Spencer closed the latch.
Thomas sighed, replaced his helmet, raised the beast to full height, and turned toward the open field. [I think I might divide this up into two distinct sentences here, the first focusing on Thomas (sighing, replacing his helmet) and the second on the Megahorse (raising to full height and turning). Doing so would be comparable to a closeup camera shot of Thomas, followed by an external shot of the horse. What you’re showing us by doing that is that the most important things, ie: the action, is going to be what the horse does, not necessarily what Thomas as the driver does. Something to consider, at any rate.] Megahorse proceeded down the greensward. At the far end, as was their plan, he turned the machine toward the grandstand and waited, watching for the signal. It was a timed run, a half-mile at top speed. He opened the intake to maximum, and the steam engine chugged at its utmost capacity.
A flag waved near the grandstand. “Here we go! Half-speed ahead.” Thomas pushed the levers to the half-way mark. The legs swiped the ground. Megahorse lurched forward. The rattling increased. “Three quarters!” The legs whipsawed back and forth. The grandstand grew closer. “Full speed!” He jammed the levers far forward. Megahorse surged. [I want to talk a little bit about pacing here. You’re writing a section where the vehicle is accelerating, but you’re using lots of short sentences. Read it aloud. Do you pause for just a moment at every period? Most people will. Short sentences read slower, and longer sentences with multiple clauses read faster. It’s a subtle thing, but if you were to start out with the short sentences and gradually increase to longer, more complex sentences, the reader will subconsciously feel a quickening of the pace.] The ground flew behind him, the engine thundered, the legs clattered, and air roared through the viewports. [This sentence with the multiple clauses reads fast and is the first sense of speed I get in the narrative.] His flight experience estimated the ground speed at 50 knots. “All stop!”
Thomas yanked back on the levers. No response. [Now here, you have a short sentence that I feel you’ve used properly. “No response.” is a very important part of the scene. It’s Han Solo saying “Watch this!”, pulling the hyperdrive levers, and nothing happening. With this short, two-word sentence, you’ve conveyed an important point in a way that the reader will pause-even for a brief moment-and let the idea behind that sentence sink in. Nicely done!] If anything, Megahorse picked up a few knots. He wrestled the levers to no avail. The grandstand drew close, now two hundred yards and closing., directly in their path. He pulled the levers separately in an attempt to turn, and then cut the engine power, but the momentum of the beast carried it forward. “Brace for impact!”
One hundred yards. Fifty. Uniformed men scrambled off the stands which filled the view slit. They clawed each other in a mad attempt to escape. Megahorse slowed, leaning forward, but the front legs impacted the stands, jerking the machine to a stop. Shattered wood flew through the air. Straps cut into Thomas’s body and his crippled leg slammed the wall. He howled, gritting his teeth against the pain. His other charges cried out as well. For minutes, he sucked the air while his fellows gasped in pain.
“What the hell happened,” screamed Spencer, crawling into the cockpit over collapsed beams of the grandstand. Agony stole Thomas’s response. “Two men lay dead! Did you not see the stands?”
Thomas spoke through clenched teeth. “The controls failed. How are my men?”
“I took a risk with you, Putnam, and you have failed me. You are off the project. Get out of my sight!”
“I cannot move, sir.”
“Very well. Sit here and die.”
[This is a different sort of action scene than the ones I’ve critiqued in the past, and I’m glad to see someone has stepped up to submit one where the opponent isn’t another character. In this case, it’s a recalcitrant machine, and the driver is fighting to regain control of it. The scene itself is written well enough, and I don’t have any complaints about the content. If you’re narrating from Thomas’ perspective, I’d really like to see a little more focus on him battling the Megahorse’s controls – straining over the levers, spinning boiler wheels in desperation, smashing a valve open – let’s see him in the fight instead of passively riding the machine to its destruction. Doing so brings us closer to the character, because as cool as a giant steam-powered cannon-armed horse is (and the answer is: it’s extremely cool), the book must be about characters first.
Other than that, try to think more about how you can use sentence length and complexity to dictate the pacing of the scene. And because I happen to know that you’ve had an agent request this one, best of luck to you!
Thanks for submitting your scene!]
Don’t forget! If you’re in the Denver area this coming weekend, I’m presenting an Action! workshop for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. I’d love to see you there!
Date: Sat., Jan. 22, 2011
Time: 1 PM-3PM MST
Location: Lakewood Library
10200 W. 20th Ave.,
Lakewood, CO 80125
Or, “We’re about to enter Hot Pursuit!”
There’s something very primal about a chase scene. It goes all the way back to when humans were still hunter-gatherers and before. We revel in the thrill of the chase, whether it’s from the perspective of the hunter chasing after the prey or from the perspective of the fugitive fleeing before the predator. Either type of scenario gets our blood flowing and witnessing one on film or reading one in a book can have the same kind of cathartic response. The essence of a chase scene is very simple: one character is trying to escape from another. What makes a scene exciting is how that escape attempt happens and whether or not it is successful.
All chase scenes boil down into one of two varieties: the chase can be on foot, or it can be in vehicles.
For a chase scene on foot, your Hero can either be the pursuer or the escapee. Weapons may be utilized during a chase scene on foot, but remember that certain weapons are ineffective to use while running, such as two-handed swords, crossbows, man-portable rocket launchers, etc. A more likely scenario is that the use of weapons will be suspended during the chase and brought to bear if the chase ends by the pursuer catching the potential escapee.
When writing a chase scene, remember that it cannot be a single Stunt. A chase is always an Engagement, with the characters moving through a set piece or series of set pieces. It’s useful to plan the route your characters will take ahead of time, taking care to note any points along the path which present an opportunity for specific stunts or interactions.
Chase scenes can be written in first-person point-of-view, third-person close, or third-person omniscient. This last affords the writer the opportunity to narrate stunts and interactions from perspectives of both the pursuer and the pursued, although it’s imperative to avoid head-hopping.
Typical Stunts that occur during a chase scene on foot include the following:
- Running, jumping, falling, and climbing through portions of the set piece.
- Crashing through solid or apparently-solid parts of the set piece such as walls, doors, windows, floors, and ceilings.
- Knocking set pieces in the way of the pursuer. Think of a typical foot chase scene in a movie. The characters probably run through a hotel kitchen at some point, and there’s always a handy rack of trays or hapless waiter to pull down, presenting an obstacle to the pursuer.
- Firing ranged weapons if possible. Often, this means either the pursuer or pursued has to stop momentarily to fire/shoot/throw a weapon.
- Avoiding dangerous parts of the set pieces such as moving cars, low-flying air-speeders, robotic factory equipment, or any number of traps.
Some excellent examples of movies with great chase scenes on foot include the brilliant opening sequence to Casino Royale (2006 version), the tremendous parkour chases in District B13, and although Jackie Chan has made numerous films with foot chases, one of his best is in the movie Mr. Nice Guy.
Chase scenes in vehicles offer the greatly-increased thrill factor of speed. Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt topped out at about 27.5 miles per hour at his world record sprint, but that’s nothing compared to a high-speed chase down a highway at speeds over a hundred miles per hour, or space opera chases a hundred times faster than that. Even a chase on horseback adds that additional thrill of greater speed (for these purposes, anything the characters are riding counts as a vehicle, even if it’s a creature).
Characters in vehicular chase scenes may be drivers/pilots or passengers. Each has advantages and disadvantages. A driver/pilot must give a significant portion of his or her attention over to guiding the vehicle, which limits the activities that can be performed. A passenger has much more leeway to act independently, but has no direct control over the speed, orientation, and direction of the vehicle.
Combat is more likely to occur between characters in a vehicular chase than in one on foot. This is because although vehicle operation may be strenuous and stressful, the characters don’t generally also have to devote attention to keeping their feet moving as well. There are two types of combat involving vehicles:
- Using weapons, either mounted on the vehicle (such as a tank’s gun or the laser cannons on a starfighter) or handheld by passengers (like the prototypical ‘70s cop hanging his pistol out the window to shoot at somebody’s tires). Related to this is the Fight which takes place on board a moving vehicle, such as a cowboy wrestling with a Sioux warrior over a knife on the roof of a stagecoach.
- Using the vehicle itself as a weapon (such as intentional collisions or running an opponent off the road), which is more common in settings where vehicular weapons aren’t common.
Narration for vehicular chase scenes works best in first-person or third-person close point of view. Third-person omniscient can be used, but it becomes exponentially more difficult to keep track of numerous characters and vehicles.
Stunts in vehicular chase scenes may include:
- Collisions/Ramming (of other vehicles or set pieces which may or may not shatter to permit passage).
- Jumping (cars, motorcycles, boats, horses, etc.), Flying actions (planes, helicopters, spaceships, dragons, etc.)
- Firing weapons and taking fire from opponents.
- Characters transferring from vehicle to vehicle, which generally leads to a Fight. Note: a Fight taking place under these circumstances does not mean the Chase has stopped. It’s an Engagement within another Engagement. High-level stuff. Go for it.
- Avoidance of set pieces, either moving (pedestrians, other vehicles, etc.) or non-moving (fruit stands, towers, bridge abutments).
Some excellent cinematic chases to consider as examples include the horseback guards chasing the wagon in Willow, the amazing freeway sequence in The Matrix: Reloaded, and the TIE fighters chasing the Millenium Falcon through the asteroid belt in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.
A chase scene will end when one side is dead, surrenders, or is caught, which may then lead to a Fight and continuation into a new Engagement (thus creating a complete Sequence).
Things to take into account when writing a chase scene:
Who’s Chasing Who? If the characters are the ones being chased, their goal is simple: escape. If the characters are the pursuers, their goals may be more widespread. Their objective may be to destroy those escaping—the easiest method; to stop (but not necessarily destroy) them from escaping—more difficult, and it requires the opponents to be blocked or disabled; or to capture those escaping—most difficult of all, because the opponents have to not only be blocked or disabled, but each one must be recaptured without too much injury.
Collateral Damage. Chase scenes realistically do enormous amounts of collateral damage to set pieces, bystanders, etc. For writers interested in creating lots of realism, there should be lasting consequences for characters involved in this type of sequence, and it may affect the plot.
This is a special critique I’m doing for my friend Caron Guillo, using an excerpt from her book An Uncommon Crusade, which will be released Tuesday, Jan. 4! If this scene piques your interest, you may want to get yourself a copy. Obviously, this scene is already in print, so any suggested changes I have are going to be academic, but any chance to learn something is a good thing indeed.
Battle Scene 1—An Uncommon Crusade by Caron Guillo (Crusader Hugo during the 5th Crusade, Egypt)
Though the heart of the conflict had shifted eastward, pockets of fighting continued close at hand. A dozen heathens surrounded four knights—on foot and back-to-back—tightening their circle like a noose. Hugo sighed and loped toward another lone horse. The animal shied away, but he snatched the reins and leapt upon its back. He dug his heels into the beast’s flanks and charged the band of Muslims. [I like how you create this setting in so few sentences. It’s like a movie the way it begins with a sweeping vista and pulls in upon the hero.]
They scattered when the destrier plowed into their midst. He turned the animal and took after them again, brandishing his blade while the crusaders made their escape. The horse responded easily to Hugo’s handling, and shivers of exhilaration tingled his scalp.
But an arming sword wasn’t meant for fighting from atop a stallion. He aimed the beast toward the main battle. The animal crashed into the fray. Hugo slid from its back. His feet barely touched the earth before an infidel flew at him and knocked him to the ground, sending his sword careening into the mêlée. The panicked stallion trampled it, snapping the blade. [Excellent, tight action here.]
The two men rolled through the dirt, snarling, grunting, Muslim breath hot upon Hugo’s face. He threw a punch to the man’s ribs, felt spittle hit his cheek. The heathen’s hands found Hugo’s neck. His vision darkened before he pried the enemy’s fingers away, but at last he took a great gulp of air through a raw throat and rolled atop the infidel to slam his fist into the adversary’s face. Twice, thrice, four times it took before the man lay unconscious. [From a writing standpoint, this is well-done. From a realistic combat standpoint, I’m questioning how a supine Hugo pried the Muslim’s fingers away when the other man was in a clearly superior position. It seems to me that an interim stunt is needed here – something to cause the Muslim’s grip to slacken. Maybe it’s something Hugo does – a knee to the cojones or a fistful of dirt flung into his opponent’s eyes – or something that happens as part of the larger battle – the Muslim is jostled by another soldier or gets kicked by the panicking horse.]
For a moment, Hugo heard nothing but his own labored breathing. Blood covered his hands and arms. [Was Hugo injured earlier? Cut when he and the Muslim rolled across the ground? Or did he pummel the Muslim into a bloody pulp? Any of those are acceptable, but I’m a little unclear on the blood’s origin (and if it’s Hugo’s).]
A pair of dueling swordsmen lurched by.
Hugo dove for a mace dropped by some ill-fated soldier and sprang to his feet, smiting the chest of an attacking Muslim. [I might have broken up this sentence into two, putting more emphasis on the smiting by isolating it. BTW, I love the word “smiting”!] The weapon stuck fast for a moment, but Hugo pulled it free and turned to swing it at a passing foe. Unaccustomed to it, he scanned the area for something better.
Men began to yell. “Retreat!”
The handle of a battleaxe rose from the chest of a dead Mohammedan. Hugo salvaged the weapon, swung it high in the air, and brought it down to split a man’s skull. [This is the second time you’ve used the same pattern of Hugo obtaining a weapon, taking an interim action, and then smiting an opponent. In the paragraph above where I commented “Excellent, tight action”, you split the potentially lengthy sentences into shorter ones that each pack a punch. That’s something to consider from a pacing perspective.]
Another stabbed at him. The thrust went wild. The tip of the sword arced across Hugo’s cheek. A sharp sting. He tackled the fellow. [Did his battleaxe stick into the other guy’s skull? I know that was always a risk with heavy, bladed weapons. Just curious here. Also, and again I’m approaching this from a combat standpoint, if the Muslim thrust the sword instead of swung it, and the tip creased Hugo’s cheek, the sword is still essentially between Hugo and the Muslim, making a tackle a risky combat decision. From a writing choice, if the Muslim had swung in a wide circle instead of thrusting, the blade would be off to one side, giving Hugo a better window in which to tackle without impaling himself. Yes, I’m nitpicking. 🙂 ] Wrestled the sword from his grasp. Impaled the dog with his own blade.
A foot soldier grabbed Hugo by the arm. “Get going, man.” [It’s The Dude!]
Hugo growled, but jogged toward the Christian rear.
Blood slicked the ground. The odor of vomit and waste soured the air. A pikeman drove his sword into the heart of a dying comrade. [Strong imagery here. Good stuff.]
A downed man groaned and rolled to his back. Hugo bent to survey his injuries. Probably wouldn’t survive the trip back to Damietta. The fellow cried out when Hugo hoisted him to his shoulders. He pivoted and scanned the enemy line.
The Muslims paced back and forth on their ponies or looted the dead for weapons and equipment, but allowed the Christians to retreat unmolested.
Hugo turned and limped back to Damietta with the others.
[This is overall a very strong scene with an excellent balance of action and description. The stunts are clearly defined and realistic. Things you might want to pay special attention to in future works is sentence length and pacing of an action scene. Remember, longer sentences read faster because we don’t have the tendency to “stop” at a comma like we do at a period. All in all, you’ve got a great sense of writing action.
Now everyone go out and buy Caron’s book!]