Ready? Action!

Roary and Mei-Ling Action!

This week I had an insight as to why action scenes take a lot of words to write, but before I get to that, I want to alert local NM readers that they will find information about a used book sale to benefit local charity June’s Senior Pet Rescue at the end of this wandering.

As I was working on a major scene in the book I’ve been writing, I became aware of a vague sense of dissatisfaction.  I turned off my computer, wondering why the scene that was so clear in my head wasn’t coming out anything like that on the page.

After what felt like hours (but probably wasn’t more than a single hour), I realized that I was pushing the scene too fast.  Why?  The explanation is sort of twisted.  The scene is fast moving, with a lot happening to six different characters, all of whom have very different tasks to carry out.

So, there I was, “seeing” the story in my head with all six mini-plotline happening at once, but forced to compose it in prose that is linear.  This was making me feel as if I should use as few words as possible, so that if the action had to “line up,” at least the line would be short.  But this was absolutely the worst thing for me to do. 

One of the ironies about writing action is that something that takes seconds in the characters’ experience may need many more times the words.  A conversation can take place in, more or less, “real time.”  That is, if you read it aloud, it would take about the same amount of time as if it really happened. Plus, say five to ten percent additional text (the “he said” and descriptive details).  Even if there is a strong visual subtext—as in what people are looking at or doing as they talk—it usually doesn’t take more time.  So, a ten-minute conversation will take about eleven minutes or less to read aloud.  The action is the conversation.

But in an action scene—a fight, a chase, setting a trap, even solving a puzzle—the action will take far longer to present on the page than it does to happen.  Let’s look at a pretty economically written attack.

Sheena swung her long sword at the lead zombie, impacting just below the ribcage, her razor-edged blade slicing smoothly through the viscous guts.  The blade jolted into the spinal column and stuck.

I timed reading this aloud, and had finished the swing motion within the first half-dozen words, yet the rest—especially the result of this attack—the stuck sword blade—needs to be there.

Another irony about writing action is that a too heavily detailed fight scene will not increase the sense of drama.  Rather than increasing the excitement, too much attention to meticulous detail actually slows the action down.  Unless the reader is an aficionado of sword play or fast driving or lock picking, they’re likely skimming the details, eager to find out two things: What happened and why it happened.

That “why” is the reason to include details at all.  If it’s a foregone conclusion, then an action scene isn’t really needed at all.  Or so I feel.  It’s a definite balance between writing as a poor substitute for film, and writing as more immersive, often more personal way of getting into events.

When I went back to the scene where I’d been dissatisfied, I let myself use more words, while keeping in mind the underlying reason for the scene: what happened, why it happened, and where this scene will lead the next part of the story!

And now for the book sale… 

The Literary Cat Book Sale will be held on Saturday, August 6, 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

7012 Arroyo del Oso NE, Albuquerque.

Proceeds to benefit June’s Senior Cat Rescue.

All books One Dollar Each!!  Several thousand books will be on offer.

Featured books will include SF paperbacks from the 1950’s to 1990’s.  Mysteries.  Thrillers.  Suspense.  General fiction.  Non-Fiction.  Atlases.

Many jazz and blues CDs also $1.00 each.

Sorry.  No children’s books.

6 Responses to “Ready? Action!”

  1. Harried Harry Says:

    As always, your comments are to the point. I enjoy reading good, well developed stories. When an author includes the details it allows the reader to understand what is happening and why it is happening. Currently, I’m reading Julius Stockwin’s series about the Napoleonic Wars (very early 1800’s). The stories are well written and they include a lot of words used in that time. Fortunately for the reader, the author included a short dictionary of the words so you can place them in context and understand the meaning of the words. Since all of the stories are written from the English perspective, it does add a lot to the storyline.

    Enjoy the week, I hope you get some rain (no flooding, please) and I hope you have a great turnout for the Cat Rescue group.

  2. Tanish Shrivastava Says:

    They are difficult, but writing fight scenes is my favorite part, especially single combat with either swords or magic.

    By the way, do you know that you have a TV Tropes page?

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