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Young Writers Society
Adding Dimensions (2) -- Action Sequences
Thu Oct 01, 2009 5:55 am
One of the most common issues I see while critiquing stories is the lack of action in the action scenes. I therefore decided to put together an article on how to actually create the suspense that makes a good action scene so appealing. I write this article as much for my own good as for anyone else's, as although I do know the steps, when they're not anchored in a progressive way, they're much tougher to pull off successfully.
Let's start at the beginning.
The first thing that you need when you want your action scene to succeed is a little background to the story. The purpose of this is that we need to be worried about the outcome of the fight , car-chase, or whatever other action sequence you are creating. If the audience is not worried about the outcome, you've already lost whatever suspense you had in the action scene to start off with.
There are several ways to ensure that we are concerned with the result of the action scene. Let's start with the most common:
Making us really love one of the characters contesting the fight: You can do this through several ways, including giving him the burden of the world to carry, showing him to be caring enough to make us care about him, or give him any other quality that might separate your protagonist from your other characters.
Making us really detest one of the characters involved in the action: This method works particularly well when the person we dislike is the stronger and prevailing party. It's not too difficult to achieve this at all. In a scene of child or woman abuse, we will automatically detest the man or antagonizer unless you have gone to great lengths to make us support him. In other scenes, you can show this character's arrogant attributes, carelessness, and give him whatever other character traits you might want your antagonizer to have.
Let the result of the action sequence impact the world in general, or more specifically the life of another character who the audience loves or hates.
These are the most basic ways to make us really care about an action sequence. There are others, but as a writer it's your job to find and use them as they affect your individual piece.
Usually when writing, it's a good idea to show rather than tell your story. This means putting in vivid description so that the reader can picture the scene in exactly the same way as the writer does. When it comes to writing an action scene, you'll want to forget this little bit of advice as quickly as you learned it.
The action scene is something that you want to allow the reader to picture for himself. It is way too tiring for a reader to sit through a massive load of karate moves or dagger thrusts followed by side-spins followed by round-the-house kicks. You need to simply focus on the main and key moves. Complexity often makes the reader lose track of what's happening and that's the last thing that you want in an action scene. The easier it is for the reader to read it, the more quickly it will go, and therefore, the more effective it will be for him.
You also need to avoid the use of description as much as you possibly can in a fight scene. Remember, the role of a fight scene is to get your reader's blood to race. You can't do this if you're too busy distracting him with the color and design of the car that your point of view character is staging his car chase in. If a bit of description is vital to the action scene, try to spread it out as much as you possibly can over the action scene.
When writing an action scene, it's vital that your word choice appropriately conveys your action. You therefore need to choose your words very carefully in a scene like this. There are two properties that your “action-words” should have:
Brevity: Try choosing words with as few syllables as possible. You want your words themselves to increase the pace of the scene. I'm going to illustrate this with an example:
Tom moved to the side, narrowly avoiding the bullet as it rocketed past his ear.
Using words like “rocketed”, “avoiding”, and “narrowly” and a compounded phrase like “moved to the side” slowed this sentence down considerably. Let's change the word choice and see the effect:
Tom dived, dodging the blast as it flew past his ear.
How effective my sentence is out of context is debatable. Compared to its predecessor, though, it's far superior. As soon as the words chosen are shorter, there's an immediately noticeable increase in pace.
Action itself: The words themselves need to denote action. Let's use our above example to illustrate this:
Tom dived, dodging the blast as it flew past his ear.
These words are on the whole rather dry and depict no real action. Let's change the choice of words and watch the effect:
Tom plunged to his left, skirting the gun-blast that almost grazed his ear.
With a slightly changed choice of words, you can add a whole lot of action into the scene. Every “action-word” must feel as though it has an exaggerated impact of what happened.
The words that you choose are like the special effects in a movie. Special effects are way cooler when they appear slightly and are a driving force to create the scene as a whole. The effect can be enhanced with a rare use of emotive punctuation like an exclamation mark, though be careful to only use this trick rarely. It's one that will lose its effect from overuse.
When there are too many sentences of similar structure, you often lose a lot of the suspense of an action scene. Occasionally, you'll need to correct this by changing word order, or throwing in a sentence conjunction. The scene needs to look as though it flows completely. One action must lead to the next, and each action must help move you forward and advance you to the end of the scene.
This also means that you can throw in one or two fragments to add in suspense. They don't need to be grammatically correct, but they can have great effect. I'll give you an example:
The Porsche skidded off the road. And then he saw it. A wall!
That two word fragment adds a whole lot of suspense into the above scene. We immediately wonder whether he will crash. This can produce great effect.
Sentence and Paragraph Length:
It's a sleek trick that speeds up a lot of action sequences. If you shorten sentences and paragraphs as much as is possible, you'll find that your reader thinks it's all happening a lot faster. You'll also find a lot more tension gets squirted into the words. The briefer your sentences and paragraphs are, the more time your reader needs to pause and take in all the action. This is what gets their pulses racing.
The above tips are all components of a great action scene. None of them should be overused, but all of them should be used. Placed together, you'll find that your action scene feels a lot faster and a lot more like an action scene should!
Have a great one!
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
-- Robert Frost
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I’d heard he had started a fistfight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word “utilize” instead of “use".
— Patrick Rothfuss, A Wise Man's Fear
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