Wednesday Writers Wisdom: Constructing Action by Ell Meadow
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Writing an action scene isn’t as easy as picturing a scene from your favourite action movie and writing something similar. In fact, this is probably the worst way to write an action scene. Your favourite action movie scene has two, no three major problems. The first is that film is a visual medium, and relies on what you see to fill in the blanks. Although you can overcome this with your descriptions, the tendency is to focus on the direct action and not on the scene. This might seem contradictory – you are writing an action scene, you must focus on the action – but you also need to pull your reader in with some description. A list of punches and blows exchanged is not good writing.
The second problem is related to how movies are made. Actors are too valuable to risk getting an accidental punch in the nose, so they are doubled by stuntmen. To hide this fact the director has to do some fancy camera and editing work to disguise the double’s face. This results in short choppy scenes where you can’t really see what is happening. Punches fly left and right, the camera jumps about, and you, the viewer, know something happened, but not what. To use the visuals as guide on writing an action scene results in unrealistic action.
The third problem using the movies as a guide is the fact that movies don’t rely heavily on realism. With few exceptions, you’d be excused for thinking everyone knows some kind of martial art and how to fight really really well. Punches and kicks land where they are supposed to, and every one can do a back flip or flip up from the ground. Bullets miss and bombs don’t kill, maim or injure. Real life isn’t like this. Unless your MC is a trained ninja assassin, don’t let them fight like one.
So how should you construct action?
1. Decide what the purpose of the scene is – is your hero going to show his vulnerable side? Is this to show how bad the bad guy is? Is the scene where your guy learns why he should have taken that offer for training by the mysterious oriental? Or is it the final big fight where the baddie goes down and your guy wins! Whichever it is, before you write a word, decide on the purpose of the scene and bear that in mind the entire time you are writing it. If your MC needs to learn why he has to go spend a year carrying buckets of water in a monastery, you can’t have him land more than one or two lucky punches.
2. How does the scene fit into the story preceding and following – is your hero going to win or run away? Where does it start? Who starts it? Who ends it? Who is going to throw the first punch?
3. Reactions – How is your hero going to react to being hit? Is he scared? Is he pumped up? Or worn out? This is going to change how he moves, thinks, reacts and speaks.
4. Logic – the action must flow logically from action to reaction. A punch is thrown – does it connect or miss? Does the person being punched fall or rock back? Does he run, or hit back? What then? Remember you have to end the scene in the right place to carry on with your story … so start the action in one place and work your way logically through every action and reaction to the conclusion.
5. Weapons – research your weapons well. Not every reader is a buff, but the dedicated action readers are. Unless you want to end up being discussed for how inaccurate you were – either be sufficiently vague so it doesn’t matter, or be very accurate.
6. Pacing – an action scene is like a piece of music. It should go fast and slow, and give your reader a chance to take a breath now and then. Mix it up. Boom, boom, boom, is monotonous and boring. Boom, boom diddy boom boom, aaah, breathe in BOOM! is far more interesting!
And last but not least – dialogue. As hard as it is in writing action – please stay away from cliches. Even though most people have learned their dialogue from the movies – don’t use it. Be realistic, keep it short, no-one has breath for speeches in the middle of a fight, but avoid those cliches where you can.
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