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Let’s Get On With The Action

by | Feb 11, 2018 | Editing Corner, General | 5 comments

Ian Smith

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”.

  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.

  Examples:

  • 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?

  Research.

  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…

About the Author Ian Smith

Ian Smith

I’m a professional scientist with a career spent primarily in health care. I live in the south-west of England with my wife and our modest menagerie, currently two horses, two dogs and three guinea pigs. My wife wants to keep chickens too.

My career has involved writing really exciting and stimulating scientific papers, technical reports and dissertations... Okay, important and worthwhile, but not "me". I started writing general interest factual articles and features, as well as preparing and giving public talks. These allow my butterfly mind and insatiable curiosity to go off and play nicely together.

Then my curiosity turned towards fiction. My first efforts were dire, of course, but I hope I’m starting to get the idea a bit now. I've had several short stories published in anthologies, as well as three novellas. Supportive and encouraging feedback from other contributors to the ERWA “storytime” mailing list has been a huge help.

I’ve always read for relaxation and now I write as a creative hobby. I hope some readers enjoy my efforts.

Joining in the Sunday “flashers” with ERWA has been great fun and exposed me to a wide variety of work by other authors. Their examples and feedback continually help my writing to develop. I felt very flattered when approached about taking a turn as the flasher gallery editor.

And yes, I'd rather like to keep chickens too. Just a bit tricky in a small urban garden with two hyperactive terriers...

My third novella, "From The Top (Merely Players 3)" has just been published by Fireborn.

5 Comments

  1. Great post, Ian!

    You’ve called out two very different uses of “action” – as brief tags to reveal character, and in extended descriptions, to advance the plot.

    I have a scene in one of my books where the heroine and her lover escape from a burning basement. I really agonized over that one!

    Actually, your post reminds me that we authors can cheat a bit, if our characters are directly experiencing the action. As you point out, people in a fast, critical action scene aren’t aware of every detail. First focus is going to be on their own emotions. Then there is a tendency to notice small, possibly irrelevant things. Using these two observations, you can sometimes create believable and coherent action scenes without having to do too much choreography.

  2. Great article! And i must say, you do write a good punch-up.

    So often in action scenes, the devil is in the detail. If I have more than four people in a scene, I try to find a way of keeping two of them ‘busy’ so their movements are accounted for while using 3rd person narration to keep on top of what else is going on. Otherwise it all gets rather busy. I also find it helpful to track down a film or series where a particular kind of sequence takes place and watch that to help me to get the spatial relationships between the characters clear, correct and realistic.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Am still tickled by your maddened response to Martin Jarvis’s audiobook style 😀 😀

  3. Good post, Ian- Important information there.

    Another device to show a sense of what’s happening is the dialog ‘beat’. A ‘beat’ is a little bit of information included with dialog, It’s something similar to what you describe as an ‘action’ tag, but goes a little farther in that atmospheric and visual details can be included to connect the dialog more solidly to the scene. Beware, however of setting up a monotonous or predictable rhythm by utilizing ‘beats’ too often in a similar configuration. There is a wonderful chapter on pros and cons and how to effectively employ dialog beats in “Self-editing for Fiction Writers” by Browne and King.

  4. Thank you, Ian, for a most informative post. As a rank amateur, I sincerely appreciate the helpful tips from all the writing pros at ERWA. Cheers!

  5. Good advice, Ian, though in my case, not very welcome right now. I’m plotting a suspense novel that demands an active hero’s ending, and I’m trying to filter down to the types of scenarios I can convincingly write. I dread research.

    Action doesn’t come naturally, I’m afraid.

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