Ask Correia 6: Writing Action

A new writing question for you.  You tend to have really good action sequences that excel at keeping readers riveted, while moving the story forward. How do you approach those and what are some keys to writing a good one? Thanks.-Scott

I love action. I find that I like to write what I like to read, so it is kind of a natural thing for me to insert as much action into a story as possible.  I was junior high age when I discovered fantasy.   I read everything I could get my hands on, but the ones that I always came back to were the ones with the excitement.  Sure, I loved Lord of the Rings, but when there is a hundred pages of poetry and descriptions of trees and then the battle scene consisted of two paragraphs ending with “And Boromir got shot with some arrows, blew his horn, and died”, it was a bit of a let-down for a twelve year old boy.  Next I found Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, and David Eddings, and I realized that fantasy could have lots of very satisfying action. When I was in high school I first read R.A. Salvatore, and it was at the end of one of his forty page fight scenes that I realized that was how I wanted to write.  It was a revelation! You didn’t have to have plot and action, you could have plot during your action!

I also grew up on westerns. Louis L’amour was the single biggest influence that turned me into a young reader.  His action scenes weren’t very long, but he wrote gritty, tough characters. These were hard, unflinching heroes, and that really influenced my idea of what kind of hero I liked to root for. One thing Louis L’amour understood was how fighting actually worked. This was a man who’d been punched in the face many times himself. He understood the feeling. The desperation, the fear, the pain, the excitement.

So how do you write good action?  I’m going to list these as I think of them, but don’t think of these as rules, just suggestions. Remember, rules are stupid. If you break a “rule” but your readers think it is cool, then write it. If something is stupid, but it works, then it ain’t stupid.

Action is just a tool in the tool box. The more you write, the better you’ll understand when you need it, why you want it, and what you’re trying to accomplish with it.

IF IT IS BORING, FIX IT!  This is a tough one, but I always want my Reader Force Alpha to let me know whenever they get bored reading. If they get bored, then I’m failing at my job.  If a large portion of your readers end up skimming a long sequence, then you either need to trim it, spruce it up, or cut it.

A note on Alpha Readers. I have a core group that I love and trust, but I don’t trust any one of them too much. Humans are opinionated. Always analyze what someone gives you as feedback because you, the author, are the ultimate authority on what you’re trying to accomplish. (except for you publisher, because they write the checks, therefore they are always right) Usually what I’m looking for from my group is consensus. If only one person has an issue with something, there might not be anything actually wrong with it. It might just be a personality thing as tastes vary. So take it with a grain of salt.  But if ten people read it, and seven are bored, you know you’ve got problems.

WORDY, BUT NOT TOO WORDY. The difficult part with action is that it takes up a lot of words to describe something that happened in seconds. You can cover hours of other activity in a matter of pages, but if you are too detailed, then a one minute fist fight can go for seven pages.  This may or may not be a bad thing. This is a fine line and depends entirely on the story you are trying to write.  If a big part of the story or character is about the technical aspect of how they fight, then it may be okay, but if that level of detail is ancillary to the plot, then it may be a waste.

If you get too detailed–He threw a left hook. I dodged to the right. We circled. He threw a right jab. I dodged back. I hit him with a left jab—for three pages, that can turn a quick bit of excitement into a giant yawn inducer. Condense it.  Speed it up.

Don’t forget to mix up you verbiage. As Mike and I were wrapping up Dead Six, he joked that there weren’t nearly enough synonyms for Explode. If you scan down the page and see the word Punch thirty times, you may want to change it up a bit.

AVOID THE DREADED CHECKLIST.  Don’t just go through an action scene like you’re reading from a list. It is annoying. It is boring. You’re not writing a story board for the movie.  You do not need to tell the reader every single movement/action the character does. Some things can be safely assumed. This is especially annoying in 1st person. I did this. I did that. Then I did this again. Then I did that. Then I did that other thing.

Excitement in real life isn’t that linear. Action tends to get chaotic.

On the other hand you’ve got Michael Bay movies, where you’ve got no clue what in the hell just happened, where, to who, except that there was lots of explosions.  So walk the line where your reader can clearly understand what is transpiring, but they don’t start to skim.

IT’S EITHER EMOTIONAL, OR IT’S NOT.  I once got a rejection letter from an agent. She thought that my opening action sequence didn’t properly convey how the character felt…  This was the opening bit from MHI with Owen vs. Mr. Huffman.

Okay, here is the thing. In real life, when somebody is actively trying to kill you, you don’t really have time to feel anything over very basic emotions like pain, anger, fear, or “I’m gonna f’ing kill this guy” type determination. Owen is the type of character who is no stranger to getting hurt, and as such it wouldn’t be honest to that character to have the internal monologue that this agent was looking for. Owen is going to get pissed and face punch something to death. That’s how he rolls.

On the other hand, you can have a more calculating character that could have that kind of internal dialog during an action sequence. In Hard Magic, Jake Sullivan is an extremely analytical combatant. There can be some really freaky things going on and Jake is basically running the numbers the whole time.  In the same novel, I’ve got Faye Vierra, who if she was alive today instead of 1932 would probably be on a lot of Ritalin. She’s a fly by the seat of the pants while thinking a-million-miles-an-hour in really long run-on-sentences because her brain basically works three times faster than everybody else’s and it just ain’t fair but it is really helpful when blowing up ninjas! Whew.  So, when I write Faye, there can be more emotional internal dialog. When I write Sullivan, there really isn’t any emotional inflection, except for maybe stubbornness.   

Basically, your character is going to experience the action sequence through the lens of their reality. When the average American gets into a fist fight, it is twenty seconds of awkward flailing and their internal dialog would probably be “AAHHH! My eye! Ouch! Ouch! ****! Balls!”  Meanwhile if you are writing Chuck Liddell, then his internal dialog during a fight would be “I figure I’ll break this dude’s head. Better rip his arm off too. That’ll leave a mark… Heh. What should I have for dinner? Nachos? I do like me some nachos. Wow. That’s a lot of blood.

IT HELPS TO HAVE A CLUE.  When I teach Concealed Carry, one of the things I tell my students is that when you go to court after shooting somebody in self defense is that nobody on your jury has ever been punched in the face. Everything they know about violence they learned on TV. They have no realistic concept of the speed, horror, or sheer violence of an actual encounter.  Anybody who had been punched in the face at some point was dismissed from the jury.

Why? Because having first-hand experience with the terror of having somebody trying to hurt you colors your perceptions. You perceive violence differently after it has happened to you personally, and lawyers don’t like that.  

The fact is, America is a pretty peaceful place. Most of us have never been a in a running gun battle, sword fought a ninja, or wrestled a bear. That said, some of your readers have done all three, and a couple of them have done all three at the same time. You owe it to them to do enough research to not sound like a complete tool when you write an action sequence.

I have violated this myself. I know enough about fighting to not embarrass myself, but that’s about it. I’ve been in many fights, mostly because I grew up in a place where there wasn’t much else to do, my high school was Merced Jr. Gladiator School (thanks California public school system, having all those different gangs sure did help with our “cultural diversity”!) and I got into martial arts, sparring, and fighting in college and enjoyed it, plus if you help your friend, the bouncer at the country bar, drag somebody out by their hair, you get in free next week!  However, when I wrote Owen, I made him far more experienced than I was, specifically in MMA style stuff, and as a result, I had a few astute readers catch that he did and said a few things that were inconsistent for someone of his level of knowledge.

99% of your readers won’t catch something like that, but before I have Owen mention anything related to that world, I know a few very knowledgeable people I’m going to run it past first.  Like I talked about in the post about writing guns in fiction, have your gun-knowledgeable friends proof your gun stuff. There are many thrillers that would be a lot better off with a little bit of checking first. Some of the “great” thriller writers are so mind-bogglingly clueless, that even me, as a cake-eating civilian accountant, knows that their action scenes are utterly full of crap.

So, if we’re clueless ourselves, how do we write convincingly? Pay attention to people who’ve actually Been There-Done That. Listen to them, but then keep in mind that they’re not your characters. Your characters might not be as tough/smart/seasoned/whatever as they are.  

When we finished Dead Six, I sent it to a certain friend who’s job description basically says “the series 24 and the character of Jack Bauer is based on this dude”.  Since D6 was a thriller set in the modern world (sorta, but you’ll see) I wanted the opinion of somebody who’s actually been trained in overthrowing small nations to go over it to see if everything passed the smell test. For the most part, it did, which made me and Mike very happy.

If I ever write a fantasy with sword fighting, you’d better believe that I’m going to learn something about sword fighting first. I may even have my buddy Tailor dress up in his armor and beat me with his padded sword for awhile.  Yes, there is sword play in Grimnoir, but it was written from the point of someone who was as utterly clueless as I am—it was basically here, used this, the pointy end goes in the other guy–so it worked for that scene. If I’m writing somebody who makes their living using pointy things, then I’d better learn as much as I can about how pointy things work.   

IN REAL LIFE, PEOPLE DON’T HAVE HIT POINTS. Okay, this is a minor one, but a pet peeve of mine. I took a wound ballistics class once. It was eight hours of looking at autopsy photos of dead people, starting with handgun wounds (pokes a hole), to rifles (oh… gross), to shotguns (somebody hit that guy with a friggin’ meat hammer!) and then miscellaneous (a broken bottle did that? I will never look at a meat cleaver in the same way. How the hell did they fit the entire crow bar in there?).   Humans are physical constructs that work on some pretty basic principles, and one of those is that your blood goes on the inside, not the outside.

If you are writing something where characters receive physical injuries, bone up a little bit on biology. If you’re writing fantasy, you can cheat and have magical healing. If you’re writing sci-fi, then you can have nano-bots or force fields, but don’t do that damn Hollywood thing where the hero gets shot through the shoulder with an AK-47, grimaces, and carries on.  Or Speed, where he shoots his partner in the femoral artery. I think that police academy needs to give Keanu his money back.  

That said, the one injury that Owen sustained that the most people complained about him shrugging off as unrealistic (road rash) was the only one that I had experienced myself. And I walked home afterwards. So I guess you can’t make everyone happy.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE AN EXPERT, JUST PLAY ONE ON TV.  I’ve known people who didn’t write what they wanted to write, because they were afraid that they lacked first-hand knowledge.  As a writer, you don’t have to be the expert. You don’t have to have lived what your characters have lived in order to be convincing.  

Sure, Ian Fleming was a member of the League of Ungentlemanly Warfare. So when he wrote James Bond, he knew what he was talking about, but for every Ian Fleming sitting behind a typewriter, there are thousands of authors who are pretty boring.  Raymond Chandler was a hard-drinking accountant, not a hard-boiled detective, and he defined a genre.  Tom Clancy was an insurance agent. J.K. Rowling did not go to wizard school. 

However, Lovecraft did in fact commune with the Elder Things… I’m just sayin’.

MIX IT UP. You don’t have to have plot in once scene and action in the other. You can mix the two together. The plot can be furthered during the sequence. The big reveal can happen in the middle of a fight.  Action scenes are a tool for you to use. You can use them to release tension or to build tension. You can further the story, explore a character, or evoke an emotional response from your reader.

You can have humor in the middle of an action sequence. People are funny in real life, and as a rule of thumb, the more dangerous your job, the more likely you are to have a sense of humor about it.  

PRACTICE!  Action scenes are just like anything else. If they’re your weakness, write more of them. Over time you’ll get better.

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