Thursday, October 25, 2007

aaaaaaaaand...... ACTION! 2

Action Technique #2:

Break It Down Now: Probably the most common way of showing action in fiction. Also the easiest to screw up.

The basic idea is simple. As the action heats up, our description of it slows down. We break everything into individual steps, stacking them one on top of the other. The reader (hopefully) gets a clear idea of what's going on. The writer gets to spend time getting deep into the most exciting parts of the book.

I think this technique is so popular because it intuitively mimics the effects of adrenalin on the human nervous system. Our time sense distorts. Memory scrambles. Perception sharpens.

"You shouldn't be here," Bob said.
"I know."
Sylvia took a half step closer. Bob felt the heat of her breath curl in the hollow of his throat.
Neither touched. The moment stretched, widened, spun out of control.
They fell together, growling. His hands were strong and knowing. Her tongue was hot and quick, her teeth sharp.

Lee Child may well be the current king of this method. He's certainly a damn sight better than I am. (I tend to be real sparing with this method, so it's not my strong suit.) Pick up any of Child's books, and you'll see the simple act of racking a slide and pulling a trigger, or of throwing a punch, pared down to tiny fractions of a second. Often with long lectures on physics!

Thing is, when *he* does it, it works. :-)

When it doesn't work, it falls flat. Your big action scene lies dead on the floor.

So, how do we make it work?

1. Choose the *right* details. This is the heart of storytelling talent, and it may be the one thing no one can tell you. Best advice I can give is to stay tight in your POV character's head and, no matter how tempting, do not use a detail your character would not notice.

2. Make conscious decisions about sentence length. Short sentences tighten tension. Long ones reales it. Even within an action scene, you need to tighten and release. See As Above, So Below for more on structure.

3. Forget what you know. This is the single biggest falldown I see, especially in fight scenes. Plenty of us out there have done some karate, swordfighting, shooting, etc. Expertise is good, and we all like a feeling of authentic detail when we read.

But. How often have you read an action scene where the 'expertise' gets in the way? I see it too often: Swordfights and fistfights that sound like they were taken out of manuals. Gunfights that read like advertisements for Smith & Wesson. Love scenes that make one think of Tab A and Slot B, barbeque assembly instructions.

Bad enough if your place/time exposition reeks of 'look at all my research!', but heaven help your story if you do this with your action!

Remember, your readers want the emotional experience of action. Make sure every word gives them that experience.

Official Daily Wordcount-o-Meter:

9459 words, every one a struggle


Charles Gramlich said...

Very good points. I tend to like the telescoping time effect, and I always harp about the "telling detail" that brings the reader into the scene.

Your best point, though, is that the reader wants an emotional experience, not a how to manual

Shauna Roberts said...

This is a hole I fall into sometimes. Thanks for the tips for avoiding the overdetailed action scene that drags on and on.

avery said...

I'm echoing Charles; there's nothing more frustrating to read than a fight scene that ping-pongs technical details between the oponents.

Kate S said...

Just did a quick check-in to see how the word count is doing. Still doing great. :)

I'll have to come back and read these action scene posts when I have more time to spend - my new WIP will have some action scenes and I'm a bit nervous about it. Never done that before.

cs harris said...

Another great post.

I have a tendency to overwrite action scenes--fights, chases--in first drafts. Then I have to go back and cut out all the "right hand here, left hand there" bits, or the "first they turned left on 42nd Street, then right of Elm..."

Steve Malley said...

For what it's worth guys, one of the reasons I try to be so sparing is that I go overboard *so* easily. One minute I'm writing along, the next I'm in my third paragraph on the finer points of elbow-blocking!

*sigh* My name's Steve, and I'm a detailaholic...

SzélsőFa said...

Thank you, this was very helpful.
One can easily understand these points and forget about them when writing, just as CS Harris has said.
It is oh so good to be reminded!