Thursday, December 1, 2011

Writing Action Scenes.

There's no point in lying: pulling off an action scene well is very hard. I won't say that it's ever been easy, per se, but the fact is that, nowadays, it's probably harder to write a decent action scene than it has been in the past.

And now that you're all thoroughly terrified, just sit back, eat some Haribos, and let's analyse why it's harder.

The answer is very, very simple: the media. Most films that you watch will have some kind of fast-paced or fight scene -- you know, a chase, an escape, a fight... . When constantly presented with a series of images in which we can see every single punch in detail and watch every single twig flash past somebody making a break for it, it becomes a natural reaction and instinct to try to imitate that on paper. This is even more the case now that many books get turned into films. Many writers write as though writing for a film nowadays, or have it lingering in the backs of their minds as they are writing. They can see exactly how this fast-paced, exciting scene works, and they want the reader to be able to see it in the exact same detail, and for it to be just as fast for the reader as they picture it to be in their mind.

There are two keys to writing an action scene: speed and detail. It's always here that writers fall down. It's very hard to separate them into two sections because they both rely so heavily upon each other to work.

Speed and detail:
Get the Sandra Bullock movie out of your head for a bit and give some attention to this.
If you don't get the speed right, then your action scene genuinely IS ruined. Action scenes are almost always fast. If they're not, then they're very tense. You need to make sure that you write them to carry at the same speed as the scene is supposed to be played out.

The best way to portray the speed is by the amount of details that you add in. Too few details and the reader is lost; we can't picture what is going on and, actually, it goes too fast. Too many details and the scene falls COMPLETELY flat. It's not like seeing it in slow-motion if there are lots of details: it's as though we can't imagine it and it becomes very boring.

One of the key things to remember is that, in a situation where you're involved in a fight or running for your life or something, many of your actions will be impulsive and reflexive. You're not necessarily going to be taking in everything that goes on around you, or understanding that your muscles are bunching before you throw a punch. Therefore, to portray an action scene realistically, you need to make sure that you describe the right sorts of things. For example, in a car chase, mentioning swerving violently between a red car and a green car at three hundred miles an hour is a good thing to mention. Mentioning swerving between a red volvo and a green ferrari being drive by a hippie in camos is NOT the right sort of thing. For a start, being able to tell what sort of cars they are when going at that speed would probably mean that you're not human, but describing the driver of an irrelevant car does NOT add to the drama, tension, or general awesomeness of the plot because it distracts from what we want to focus on and actually DESTROYS the tension. Secondly, too much detail, especially distracting detail, slows the action scene down intolerably.

I'm going to use a couple of examples from a fight scene to demonstrate this (snippet and altered snippets from my project Heartburst).

Too little detail (actually, it's a lot harder for me than you might think to attempt to do this badly as a demonstration):

Zora forced himself to run. Suddenly, he heard running footsteps on stone. He looked up and saw the other champion on the steps. He tried to run faster, but the other guy was faster still. Zora raced up the steps, trying to catch up. His feet began to hurt, but he was nearly there now. With a few steps left to go, he flung himself up the stairs and caught hold of the other champion, sending them both flying. They landed on their backs, crashing into a brazier before they hit the floor.

I think you'll agree with me that it just doesn't have much impact as an action scene. We're lost. We don't know exactly what's going on. It might make more sense in context, but it shouldn't have to be put in context to retain most of its powers as an action scene if it's written as a decent action scene. It's hard to visualise because there aren't very many things to latch on to visualise. We don't know why Zora is having to force himself to run (although that could come from context). The introduction of footsteps on stone is too abrupt, and the way that "stone" is introduced without the article suggests that we wouldn't know that there were stones around from the context. There's absolutely no tension on the race; we feel nothing whatsoever. We're told rather than shown that the other person is faster than Zora, but given no detail on this. We don't know if they're practically neck-on-neck or if Zora is a long way behind and on the verge of giving up. We have no idea how long the steps are, which again makes it harder for us to gauge how much of a feat this running might be. There's nothing in the writing to suggest that Zora's moving at speed -- no roar of noise or whipping wind or anything. The bit where they both go flying is a bit abrupt and seems to come from nowhere. At that point, we don't even know how far ahead the other champion is, so in the reader's imagination, Zora could have flung himself up fifty steps or up one, depending upon where the reader wanted Zora to be at that point in time. I could go on, but you get the main points:
1) This scene lacks impact because:
2) It moves too fast and
3) It lacks detail.
Conclusion: it is NOT a good action scene.

Too much detail:

Gritting his straight white teeth together and blotting out the splitting headache that was starting up, Zora reluctantly forced himself to up his pace into an absolute flat-out sprint. The laboured, wheezing breathing -- the exhausted gasping, really -- of his friend Rheydi soon vanished into oblivion, mostly drowned out by the distant, excited screams of the gigantic crowd, but also by the shrieking wind that was hurtling past his ears and stinging his eyes and also by the regular pounding of Zora's feet on the grass. Left, right, left again, right again... .

Then he suddenly heard something that he had been dreading ever since he started to run: the sound of somebody else running up the steps ahead of him. Heavy boots slapped down on the cold stones. Suddenly worried, Zora looked up. He saw that the other champion was already on the steps and climbing fast, arms pumping furiously as he tried to keep his balance.

Zora swore, and, despite his protesting muscles, he forced himself to ignore the lactic acid and breathe deeply to allow more oxygen into her lungs to be transported by red blood cells to the major organs and muscle tissues in his body so that he would be able to run better.

[Blogger's note: *gets bored of overwriting and skips to the bit where Zora knocks the other guy over*]

With only a meagre five steps to go until one or other of them won, Zora hopped, skipped, and then jumped and flung himself at the same time up the steps at the champion. The trajectory of the path for interception of the enemy was a diagonal one, and he hit him dead on. Zora carefully wrapped his arms around the other man and clung on tight as they revolved in the air like a spinning top. He clamped down hard with his fingers, feeling soft silk under his fingertips. They arced through the air, eventually coming down in a smooth curve and crashing into a brazier, which their combined weight knocked over, and they both sprawled on the floor.

I don't think I need to tell you that something's DEFINITELY wrong with your action scene if you, as the writer, decide that it's boring. If you do what I did and bunk off in the middle of the scene because it's boring, the reader will find it boring as well (please don't tell me that you just found that piece rivetting).

The absolute BANE of action scenes is purple prose. Like I said, there's a temptation to put in absolutely everything. Here, there is everything: long, clumsy sentences, detailed description of things that aren't relevant to the fight, too much focus on trivial things that detracts from the tenseness of the important ones, and, above all, TOO MANY ADVERBS AND ADJECTIVES.

So, the main points:
This scene lacks impact because
1) It moved too slowly because
2) There was too much description and too many details and
3) The description drew the attention from what happened and
4) There was just too much to take in and it was too overwhelming.

Striking a balance between details and speed:

I remember when I was back in primary school and we were learning how to sketch the roof tiles on houses. All of us used to meticulously draw out every single tile on the roof and get really frustrated when it looked nothing like the picture we'd been trying to copy. Honestly, this is the exact same thing. The roof where the tiles aren't drawn in is like the version with too little detail. The version with every single tile drawn is the too-detailed version. The version below (the balanced one) is like the version our teacher eventually told us to draw: the balance in the middle where you draw some roof tiles but leave others blank. You hint at them. I'm sure I've mentioned somewhere before that insinuation is far more powerful than outright blatancy, and action scenes, believe it or not, are exactly the same. You have to strike the right balance between the things you describe, economy of language in describing them, the bits that you gloss over to speed things up (e.g. not describing every footstep if your character is sprinting, but saying that their feet pounded over the ground and the world sped by), and the bits that you leave out altogether. Do NOT waste time describing a karate move in detail just because you don't think the reader will not what it is. No. If there is a name for an action, use it. The reader can look it up later. The speed at which something happens in an action scene MUST be reflected in the way that the scene is written, which means not wasting time in describing things. Call a tornado kick a tornado kick; don't give a molecule-by-molecule blowdown of it. Here is a better example of the other two scenes, written with more detail than the first, but less than the second.

Gritting his teeth and trying to ignore the headache that was starting up, Zora forced himself to up his pace to an all-out sprint. Rheydi’s laboured breathing soon vanished into oblivion, drowned out by the distant screams of excitement from the watching crowds and the regular pounding of feet on grass.

Then a sharper sound cut through: boots slapping down on stone. Looking up, Zora saw that the other Champion had already gained the steps.

Pacenexiasde. Muscles screaming in protest, Zora tried to put on an extra spurt, but as soon as the other guy realised that Zora was hot on his tail, he upped his own game.

Fifty steps. I counted them last night. Zora took them two at a time, trying to gain on the other Champion, but it was useless. From afar, he could hear the chanting crowds bellowing out his name and what must have been the name of the other Champion. Zora glared at the man’s back as they reached the last twenty stairs, moving out to the side a little to give him a clearer run so that he wouldn’t be slowed by tripping on the man’s heels or kicked in the head. The balls of his feet were beginning to ache. Ten steps left—first one to cross the line… blast, if I only had enough breath to freeze him in place for just a second… .

With five steps to go, just as the other Champion’s foot left the penultimate one, Zora flung himself diagonally up the stairs, catching hold of the other Champion and half-spinning him in midair. They both went flying into one of the braziers and Zora winced as, yet again, his back took the brunt of the blow as he slammed into the ground.

You just have to make sure that you choose which words you want to use carefully. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs wherever possible. If you can use one word instead of two, use the one word, even if you've used it fifty times. "He sprinted" is better than "he ran fast". Try to find the most powerful word you can -- "he smashed through the wall" is much better than "he went through the wall". If you can find a verb that has the connotations contained by an adverb/adjective and the verb you were initially going to use, then use it.

How to do it right:
1) Concise use of language plus
2) Use of evocative vocabulary plus
3) Minimal use of descriptive words plus
4) Striking a balance between glossing the detail, skipping the detail, and detailing the detail and
5) Making sure that the speed of the action is reflected by the way that something is written.


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