ERWA Flasher Gallery Editor
Pretty well every story has action scenes.
Action scenes as in action and adventure stories?
Well, yes, obviously. But I meant action scenes in their most general sense. Scenes in which the characters do things the writer needs to describe to the reader.
It could be as simple as picking up a pen, or taking a sip from a drink. Or it could be a rather more complex act, like engaging in fisticuffs, enjoying an amorous engagement, or piloting a space craft which defies the laws of physics through a ludicrously busy asteroid belt.
Think of a scene from a TV drama or a movie. How often do the actors just stand still and talk? They’re usually doing other things, even if that’s only sitting around a table. They might move around while sitting in a chair, turn towards each other, pull faces, pause for a second or two in a conversation. The actors show you more of the story with these actions than their words alone do. Hopefully, it makes the scene more believable to viewers, too.
Actions can also help flesh out a character. A tough guy handling a weapon will seem rather more menacing than one just talking. And your readers already know about that weapon if you want to liven things up for your characters a little later.
In an ideal world, your description of the action will include enough detail to convince your reader that the character did it (or is doing it, if you write in the present tense). It’s one of the times when “show not tell” can really work, even if it’s harder to write. You may have done some top-notch research, but think carefully. You don’t want to bog the story down, or tempt your reader to skip a bit, or worst of all, decide they’ve something else to read which will be far more lively.
For simple things, you can use sneaky little “action tags” to describe what your characters are doing and show who’s talking. These may save you from the dreaded overuse of “said”…
Inspector Jones pulled out a notebook and pen. “What did you see?”
Sophie looked away. “Whatever.”
Gregory turned to his computer. “Let’s see what the CCTV recordings show.”
Where a scene requires more detail, you’ll have to rely on a more conventional mixture of narrative and dialogue to show the action unfolding.
When thinking about a scene I want to write, I often try to imagine I’m watching it, as if it were a scene in a TV drama. Then I try to figure out the “choreography”.
I mean what happens, who does what, when, how, and with which hand or foot, and so on. Then there’s clothing, furniture, other people and objects around them.
Once I’ve got all this straight (or straight-ish), then I’ll try to describe it in writing. And usually realise I need to think about it a bit more…
One thing I’ve come across not infrequently in romance and erotica are confusing descriptions of what the characters are doing.
- If there are two women involved, which “she” or “her” does the writer mean?
- If a couple are getting amorous while sitting in a booth in a diner, how much could they do without removing the table? Likewise cars and steering wheels, or the cramped seats in a typical passenger aircraft.
- A guy cuddling a woman only has one hand free, and that has a limited range of movement.
In any action scene, there’s obviously a balance to be struck between details and the big picture, and keeping the scene moving is an obvious way to go.
One approach I’ve come across for dramatic action scenes is for the character or narrator to be quite matter-of-fact. Len Deighton and Lawrence Block narrate their violence in such a way. Admittedly, with Deighton, it’s more plausible and realistic.
One thing you might find helpful is to remember that unless your character has been very carefully trained, anything sudden and dramatic will be pretty confusing and they’ll probably notice specific details far more clearly than the whole scene.
I’ve read two books which described conventional action scenes in quite different ways. Actually, they were both audiobooks.
Incidentally, if you’re wondering if audiobooks might be a new outlet for your fiction, you may be right. I feel that while the right narrator can really bring a book to life, the wrong one can totally ruin it. I found Rosario Dawson’s performance of Andy Weir’s “Artemis” utterly entrancing. And after getting wound up enough to shout at my car audio system, I’ll avoid anything narrated by the British actor Martin Jarvis like the plague.
Back to my examples…
One was a period story I will refrain from naming. It attempted to be light-hearted and jolly, and the writer appeared to be trying to use a style which “felt” 19th century. There was a particular scene where the main female character was the cause of a major punch-up between two gangs, one protecting her from the other. Despite the furious action, the writer described this character picking her way between the combatants in an almost leisurely fashion, as if the fighting around her was in slow motion. I very nearly gave up on it, but I didn’t have another audiobook to listen to at the time.
The other was “Stay Cool” by Elmore Leonard. There’s a point in the story where the main character is having some difficulties with two lots of gangsters simultaneously. With each unaware of the other’s existence, he manages to engineer them into a well-populated shoot-out in a nightclub, with him right in the middle of it.
So how did Mr Leonard show us this scene of death and mayhem?
The character told his girlfriend about it afterwards.
As first person dialogue, we only had what he chose to relate, and only from his point of view. Like almost any witness giving a statement to the police, he’d be an unreliable narrator. Let’s face it, a noisy, dirty fight like that is going to be really confusing and you’d really want to keep your head well down.
So, say your character is riding a horse, flying an aircraft, driving a tank, involved in a high-speed car chase, parachuting, firing a bow and arrow, or a firearm, fighting, fencing, wearing armour… Not all at the same time, obviously. How can you make your more lively action scenes more engaging and believable to your readers? Or get them to imagine that’s how it feels?
If you know of other people with suitable experiences, you could talk to them, read their accounts in books, watch interviews on TV, and so on.
Or you could find out for yourself.
Have a go at horse-riding, sailing, power-boating, flying, or driving a tank or fast car. Join a paintball game and find out how confusing a multi-party shoot-out can be. A fencing coach, martial arts or self-defence teacher can give you some pointers and hands-on experience. Archery or gun clubs may well let you shoot holes in targets (safely).
So, think about what you want your characters to do, find someone willing to let you do something similar (at a reasonable cost, ideally), and go off and have some fun. Then you can use your experience to help convince the reader that your character’s doing it.
The action, not the fun.
Unless they’re having fun too, of course…