Let’s talk scenes full of action and excitement. While I personally think I’m not good at action and fighting scenes, others have said they enjoyed them. So, maybe it’s just my usual habit of declaring everything I do shit. Like most of my dank blog posts, I’m more interested in getting the reader(s) to think about what they’re doing rather than try and assert what’s correct. I’d like to get a counterpoint at some time, have a discussion. It’d be neat. Anyways.
Action scenes. The big fight. Little fights. Harrowing moments. A chase. It’s probably safe to say that most fiction, most novels, have at least one or two parts that involve some kind of action/intense scene that involves a great deal of movement with the purpose of building tension and excitement. Sci-fi can have its epic space battles, fantasy with the clashing of sword and magic, mystery or thriller with a chase and confrontation.
Then there’s romance, which, yes, sex is an action scene, and one that wants to follow the same guidelines as the rest. Lots of movement going on in sex, after all. Unless it’s bad sex and not much is moving or one person is doing all work, which makes for a bad scene. In ‘normal’ action, these elements make for a poor scene in those circumstances, too. How about that?
Now, some genres tend to have certain expectations for fight scenes. A lot of sci-fi and high-fantasy, for example, have long narratives about a scene that goes into detail, sometimes for pages and pages. In my opinion, these are things a writer should avoid. Whenever I’ve come across these long-winded and overblown sequences, my eyes glaze over and I start skimming, or worse, I’ll just skip the entire damn thing.
The reason being is that these scenes tend to violate a critical aspect of the narrative: The plot must always be moving forward. It doesn’t have to be moving at a speedy clip, of course, but it has to at least be shambling, shuffling onwards. When an action scene devolves into hundreds of words about who is shooting who and how ships are moving about, the plot comes to an absolute stand-still. Despite the visual spectacle the author is trying to paint in our imaginations, it’s boring.
Too many words are spent painting the picture. Which, I think, is a sin that can apply to many descriptions in general, by the way. But, again, some people like these overblown sequences. If you’re one of them, feel free to tell me why I’m dumb.
In many respects, it’s a lot like this post. It’s taken over 400 words for me to say: “Long action scenes are boring.”
Guess I’ve violated one of my own commandments. Oops.
Or maybe not. After all, in a general sense, I could say the plot has been advancing. Different ideas surfaced. The reason I bring this up is because a long action scene doesn’t have to be dull. The key is ensuring that the plot is always marching on.
Below is an excerpt from the prologue of Vagabonds, all 1,200 words of it.
“A roar pierced the air, arrowing through air and stone to strike at the hearts of the people. Some trembled, others went stiff, and all her hair and fur stood on end.
They’re safe as they’re going to be, she thought, turning her attention towards the shore where the lion would have touched down. He’s going to need help.
She offered one last word of comfort to the huddled mass before sprinting away on all fours, robe fluttering in the wind over her tail. Each long stride ate up the distance, bringing with it the sounds of battle. Heavy, dull thuds carried through the ground itself. The ringing of metal pricked her ears. Smoke rose in columns, swirling in the air, a beacon with which to home in upon.
Every footfall brought with it another rumble, another spray of dust and smoke.
When she was so close she could taste the lion on the salty sea breeze, the world went deathly still. Her heart leapt to her throat only to be seized and dragged back down by an icy grip.
She turned the last corner.
A dozen buildings flattened, and just as many or more could scarcely be called as such; many no longer possessed four walls. Or even three. A whole section of the city had been flattened, just like that. The fires that had been her beacon were spreading fast across the thatched roofs and wooden frames.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Pantof was backed against a wall, most of his armor tattered and covered in gaping rents. Blood poured from his wounds. One of his front legs was just, just gone, like it’d been ripped off his body, forcing him to lean heavily on his splintered shield for support. He made a few clumsy, futile thrusts at the hulking creature bearing down upon him, for all the good it did—his opponent danced side to side like swaying grass.
It crept towards Pantof on gore-drenched paws, a curious weapon hovering above its back. A spear crossed with an axe whirled about, spun by invisible hands. When the lioness lunged forward, so too did the spear-axe strike with her.
Pantof pivoted and heaved his mighty shield to turn aside the blow, but it could bear no more and shattered. He fell forward, unbalanced, throat outstretched.
The opportunity did not go unnoticed.
Teeth clamped around his neck even as he was mid-fall. Powerful jaws tore through muscle and bone, severing head from neck, teeth coming together in a mushy click.
No, no no no! Help, I need to help! Move, damn you! Sartessorinova commanded of her legs, but all they did was quiver. She couldn’t budge.
Yet for all the damage, life still flowed within the elk-god, body fumbling for its head. The lioness showed no mercy, no respite. With any hope of defense gone, she struck again and again, spear, axe, claw, and tooth stripping flesh and reducing the god to little more than bits of pulpy gristle in the span of heartbeats.
Green eyes fell upon the jackal, releasing her body from the spell placed upon it. Instinct wrested control from her thoughts. Sartessorinova leapt forward, baring fangs for the first time in centuries, but a goddess of battle she was not. The lion was unimpressed. In a display of frightening speed, the lioness darted to the side and forward, axe-spear slashing out at the jackal.
Sartessorinova managed to dodge the brunt of the attack, but the silvery edge still tore a ragged gash across her hip. A howling yelp slipped from her, but her cry was cut short as she had to dodge again—the second time was a success, for she narrowly avoided a cobblestone-shattering blow.
The lioness advanced with unrelenting fury, leaving her no option but to turn tail and run with all her speed. Even faster than she’d run there to begin with. Bricks and cobbles were a blur underneath, familiar streets whishing past her periphery.
Terror blinded her. Deafened her ears to the cries of the people as the buildings they hid within were reduced to rubble and corpses from errant strikes.
Wherever she went, ruin and the lion followed. Other fires started to join in the first. The conflagrations were spreading fast; soon, they would consume whatever the lion did not destroy.
Run! Run! Run!
She’d ran from one shoreline to the next. With open sea in front of her, she had to double back, but the lioness was hot on her heels. The jackal attempted to leap an apartment building to safety, but her wound twitched, sapping strength from her leg. A rear paw caught on the edge of the structure, slamming her onto, and through, the roof.
While Sartessorinova was not nearly as large as the lion or Pantof, she still weighed as much as half a dozen men in her jackal shape.
Her plummet through the roof and second floor left her in a pile of wood and adobe with bits and pieces falling around her. Dizzied and stunned, she slammed into one wall and another in her frenzied attempt to regain her footing.
A young girl cried out, thrusting a shaky finger in her direction.
…No, the girl was pointing under her.
Sartessorinova shook her head to clear the stars. In so doing, she became aware of a warm, slick feeling on her fur. She became aware of the young girl. She was Milonea, one of her granddaughters.
Horror flooded her heart. She forced herself to look down.
Blood dripped from her fur, pooled underneath the half-buried, half-crushed body of one of her sons. The lioness crashed in through a wall.
Her mind blanked and the world went awash in strobing shades of rage and sorrow. Sartessorinova loosed a howl of such keening and volume that the lioness faltered. Instead of the sure blow that would have left the jackal a cripple, her attack was slow, clumsy. Indiscriminate.
The daughter joined her father.
Grief took her, commanded her, chased away the twins of terror and panic. Banished reason. Gave birth to hatred.
She darted like a shadow, bowling the lioness over. Whatever invisible hand wielded the weapon, it lost its grip and the spear-axe spun into the air on lazy cartwheels and crashed into a pile of rubble.
But, whatever advantage Sartessorinova gained in her surprise rush was surmounted by the lion. She recovered, and scrambling to her feet, bolted from the confines of the crumbling building into the open streets. Jackal chased lion.
The pair tumbled and thrashed in a pile of snarls and yelps, tearing through the walls of one building and through two more. Sartessorinova managed a few good strikes. Blood from the lioness had been spilled.
Yet far more of hers than the lion’s drenched the cobbles.
She limped about, a hind leg shredded into uselessness.
The lion circled.
Try as she might, Sartessorinova could not avoid it. Her throat fell between the lion’s teeth.
I hate you I hate you I hate you! Curse you! Disappear from this world! Vanish without a trace! I banish you to oblivion!”
Now, as I read this again, and as I’m sure you will notice, this particular scene does violate the plot rule a little bit. Overall, other than being kind of poorly written, it makes a good effort at ensuring the narrative doesn’t come to a standstill while it waits for the fight to finish. Could I have been much more descriptive? Certainly, but what would it have added to the scene? As it’s written the reader will likely have been able to fill in the missing details through their imagination, and, by keeping things brief as possible, it doesn’t feel like it wears out its welcome. It shouldn’t feel like a chore to get through. In fact, a well-written action scene will leave the reader wanting more, as I’m sure many of you can attest when you’ve read a scene that ensnared you—it keeps you hooked and moving with it because it’s managed to weave plot and action together to build tension and energy.
How do we manage this? Easier said than done!
First, we describe with verbs. Adjectives are great when we’re in a slower pace, but when the stakes are high and things are happening, we need to get through each sentence fast. Adjectives are just extra words to slow us down. Thus, strong verbs must do our describing for us. Where possible, leave descriptions that can’t be made with verbs out. The reader doesn’t need to know (or is going to care) how scratched up a car is or how worn a gun looks. Those are details to present outside the action.
This entwines with adverbs. As I’m sure everyone reading this has read or heard at one point, adverbs are the devil.
She didn’t run fast. She sprinted.
He didn’t slice the dude so deep he spilled his guts, he eviscerated the man.
The storm didn’t rain hard and the winds didn’t blow hard, they howled.
Try to keep the bulk of your sentences short, but also make sure there are longer ones here and there. Varied sentence length is a good way to instill tension and keep the reader’s interest. Something to note is that when people read sentences of the same length over and over, it becomes difficult to keep focus. You’ve probably noticed this when reading, say, textbooks; they have a lot of similar sentence lengths and is one of the reasons why they can be so dry.
Second, as mentioned earlier, the plot must keep moving. For shorter scenes, say a few hundred words, it’s fine to have the plot idle, but it can’t remain so for long. How does the plot move in the excerpt? Well, Pantof dies during the scene. That’s a definite plot moment. Fire and ruin spread throughout the city and Sartessorinova winds up crushing one of her family when she falls through a roof. As the action unfolds, the plot moves on. The reader learns how the lioness fights, how Sartessorinova responds and sets up a few plot points that are covered later in the novel.
In short, things of consequence must occur. Character details and information are revealed. These are plot-relevant details. A minimum of action for the sake of action occurs. Make sense?
Third, and last: Keep dialogue to a minimum. There have been a number of times when, smack dab in the middle of what’s supposed to be a tense and deadly battle for life and death, some characters decide it’s a great time for a conversation. I don’t mean short, barked sentences like an officer giving orders or two characters backed against a wall and they’re all “Shit, what do we do now?” but full-on conversations.
Talk about a way to break any tension that’s built up. This goes for moments of self-reflection and inner thoughts as well. Yes, the character may be in a life-and-death situation that has them all introspective, but if we’re supposed to care about the action at large, please don’t have paragraphs of inner monologue. This ties in with the first point where we want sentences that are to-the-point and focused on what’s going on.
Unless, of course, we’re building tension through dialogue before the fighting breaks out, but that’s something else.
Hopefully this has been useful in some way to all of my reader.
If there’s anything you’d like me to ramble on about, feel free to tweet me or leave a comment.