Thursday, May 13, 2010

Top Tips for Writing Action

Writing action scenes can be downright murderous. A million things are happening at once and we have to tell it all word by word by word, left to right across a blank page. Unlike TV and the big screen, we don’t have music, lighting, camera angles, or audio to delivery our action. We don’t have movement, costumes, or set designs like theatre has. We don’t have differing brush strokes and a palette of colours like the painter. We have words. Words and punctuation, and if we have a magnanimous editor, perhaps the odd bold or italic and maybe even an exclamation mark.
So how can we effective transcribe an action scene?

Tip #1: Use short sentences. I was surprised to learn this. It goes against instinct.

If a million things are happening and everything is quickly changing as one thing is leading to another and then he grabs her and next he throws her onto the bed while her friend runs for help—an author can’t help but want to get it all down without stopping and breathing….

A million things are happening. He grabs her and tosses her to the bed. Agatha runs for help. The short sentences speed up the writing. The periods add punch. There is no doubt in the reader’s mind that this page has action.

Tip #2: Within sentences, write things in the order they occur. What this does is allow readers to form continuous streams of visual images from your words. If the reader has to go back and correct their mental images to add new information, it slows the pace of the story and may become so distracting that readers will abandoned your story.

The lead pencil broke because she was pushing so hard on it.
She pushed so hard on the pencil, the lead broke.

The dog barked and barked and barked as soon as the coyotes started howling.
When the coyotes started howling, the dog began to bark (and bark and bark).

Tip #3: scrap the words “then” “as” “next” “while” to indicate the order of action. If you diligently follow tip #2, this tip will be easy to follow. Readers will get used to your rhythm and understand that things are following chronologically. You therefore don’t need those words.

He grabbed her and then threw her onto the bed after she said, “I don’t love you.” Meanwhile, Agatha ran for help.

“I don’t love you,” she said. He threw her onto the bed. Agatha ran for help.

Tip #4: To keep your writing tight, the action moving, the emotion intense-- watch diligently for repeated words, unnecessary words, “ing words”, and clichés.

He threw her [down] onto the bed. Then bend[ing] [down] over her, he said [as cool as a cucumber], “I don’t love you, either.”

He threw her onto the bed and bent over her. His eyes narrowed. His brows lifted. His lips slowly parted. “I don’t love you, either.”

Tip # 4: Choose your point of view and stick with it—if not for the entire scene, at least for a reasonable amount of time. This will allow your readers to create those continuous visual images and also encourages your readers to connect deeply with the character through which they are experiencing the action.

She stared into his eyes, terrified. He was wondering what he should do next. Agatha was sure the police would arrive to find blood.

Terrified, she stared into his eyes. She thought she saw a flicker of uncertainty behind the blue. Perhaps, she wasn’t going to die.

If you have an action scene as your opening chapter, boy—do you have your work cut out for you!

Coming next…the challenges involved in writing an opening chapter.

Eileen Schuh,Canadian


Timothy Hallinan said...

I think one of the keys to writing action -- if it works in the particular scene -- is to focus on an object and bring it into play in several ways. (Jackie Chan was a genius at this from a comic-action perspective.) I once wrote an action scene in which the main weapon was a sock full of wet sand, and I kept finding different ways to use it, all the way to scrubbing sand into an antagonist's eyes when the sock finally broke. I focused on the sock and the sounds of the fight, and I think it worked better than a bunch of other fights/action scenes I've written.

Eileen Schuh: said...

I like that idea, Tim. The object of focus could be only in one place at a time, doing one thing at a time. That would definitely help a writer set the scene and advance the action.

I've tried to write action scenes by focusing intently through one character. However, humans are able to instantaneously process an incredible amount of information through a variety of senses. As I writer, I struggled to keep up.

A sock of sand, though... Perhaps a weapon of another sort...or a thin wedge of light through which all things must pass in order to be seen (and written about). Perhaps a blind character is the witness. Maybe a jet engine roars while a man is murdered on the tarmac?

Tim, you've got me thinking!

Unknown said...

hi Eileen,
I am writing or attempting to write my first novel called Water in the Blood. It is a supernatural thriller with quite a big back story. Have you any tips on incorporating back story? Did you ever suffer from self doubt while writing. It seems to be a disposition that invades my mind from time to time!

Eileen Schuh: said...

Thanks for reading my blog, Pivory.

Incorporating back story in an entertaining and nondistruptive way, is difficult (for me, anyways.) I've toyed a lot with this issue. In my Back Tracker series, my heroine ages from four to grandmotherhood. With each novel,there's progessively more back story to weave into the plot.

Generally, I've found readers prefer not to be hit with a bunch of back story right off the bat. I suggest introducing the past as it becomes relevant to the action.

Although some pros disagree, I find a prologue, if kept short and sweet, can be a good way to get some basic information to the reader before the 'real' action starts.

Readers prefer being shown something rather than told. Have your characters remember, reminice, discuss, read about, or even discover relevant things about the past.

I'm still struggling with this issue myself, so I suggest we both read some books with a lot of back story and see what we think works best.

Yes, I suffer lots from self doubt. For three years, while I wrote my Back Tracker series, I wouldn't let anyone, and I mean ANYONE, read my stories. I wouldn't even talk about them! I was scared people would think I was crazy. (I mean, what does little old me know about biker gangs and drugs and sex?) My daughter was the first one I let read my stories. Her positive response and encouragement set me on the way to overcoming my shyness.

Aside from the issue of shyness, getting rejection after rejection after rejection from publishers and agents is hard on the ego. Many times I wondered if I was deluding myself into thinking I could write--like some of those dreadful singers on American Idol who think they can warble.

I sought out encouragement from fellow writers, attended workshops & conferences, concentrated on my tiny successes, honed my craft, solicited paid advice, and kept writing...and submitting.

Keep me apprised of the progress of Water in the Blood and thank you for reading my blog.