Editorial Maverick: action scenes

Why are action scenes so hard to write?

It might not seem that way when you see the material in published form, but it is quite probable that most of what you’re seeing was once an action salad. I doubt that any two editors help fix such situations in the same way.

Far as I can tell, the most common problem with action scenes is over-familiarity on the author’s part. Think of this: You have been working on a fiction novel for five years. Within the first quarter of the ms, there is a complicated fight scene that starts two new story arcs. You have played this scene out in your mind two dozen times as you have gone over and over your ms. You know what “happened.” You have known it so long you can no longer imagine not knowing it.

Your reader doesn’t know any of it until you tell her. How big was the room? Your first gut response might be: “Uhhhh…big enough for the action.” You probably wouldn’t go with that answer, but it is probably the truest one. Your reader has to be told that, especially if the space constrains the action. She must be told everything that is pertinent–but not too much, because…

The next most common problem is over-description. Too much detail: The living room had old-school 1960s tongue-and-groove paneling with a ceiling fan, a brown leather sofa, two leather recliners, a fireplace, and two lamps on end tables. Could any of those details possibly help your reader through the action? Possibly the fireplace, especially if someone grabs the poker. The fan? Sure, if it constrains the action. The other furniture? Minimally, if it too constrains the action. The sofa’s upholstering probably doesn’t affect the outcome; the fact of a sofa might. Does every stroke and feint and hit matter? No, and trying to include all of them makes excruciating reading. This is overcorrection, and it is much easier to fix than omitted essential details. We can always whittle it down to the basics, a few short descriptive strokes that are just enough to help our reader through fast-paced suspense and action.

She likes that, and we want her to have it. Let’s not forget to think of her. She bought the book! Bless her with a mighty blessing! We begin by thinking of her as wonderful, a customer we very much wish to satisfy. We don’t want her bogged down in detail or confused by events. We want to help her. If she puts the book down in frustration, we lose.

There is a third problem: unrealistic action. Take for example a combat situation involving multiple troop movements and weapon types. Some authors have actually been part of troop movements in battle; most haven’t and are glad of it. Fine. How do we sort this all out so it comes out reading plausible?

When in doubt, I make a miniature wargame. I rough out a map, sketch in some basic rules, and borrow counters (small square cardboard pieces from my wargame library). I designate who is what and how many, decide which side initiates the action, and start walking through the battle. Some are easier. If it’s WWII, for example, my old Avalon Hill Squad Leader game is my friend because I won’t even have to make up rules or use my imagination regarding what the counters represent. I’ve drawn a scene on graph paper and used pennies and nickels for the opposing sides, with different dates to designate that this is Joe, this is Lakeisha, this is José; these others are the thugs, and the 1969 nickel is the one with the pistol; everyone else on that side has a switchblade. Anyone who has ever played role-playing games is well equipped to sketch out a game of an encounter and walk the characters through it. Anyone who has not probably knows someone who has.

Yes, they’re hard to write. They are also hard to edit, but the editing is easier than the guidance. The hardest part is conveying to someone whose brain contains indelible footage of “how it happened” which parts are implausible, which are incomprehensible, and which are illogical (a polite way of saying the character isn’t dumb enough to do what the author has them doing). I came up with another tactic, which I call the readercam.

Put your reader in the room, invisible and non-corporeal; Nothing can interact with her, and she stands in the corner with a ringside view. Now put a video camera on her shoulder and see the action through it. What’s visible through the readercam? Of that which is visible, describe what is germane. Use the readercam to define her perspective and field of vision. When need be, change the camera’s aim. This does not mean adding exhaustive detail of a new wall, for example, but it might mean that new obstacles come into play. If they were already described, those bits of description now pay their way. You see the principle, which is that you focus on what affects the action and you don’t move the vantage without some good reason.

And yet you don’t want to over-describe for one more reason: You will be taking your reader’s fun away. She doesn’t want you to tell her every little detail; she wants to tell the story as her mind sees it. How she does that is purely her choice and business, and you’re there to help her but not do it for her. Your work is not to tell her every detail. It is to give her enough roughed-in information to let her mind animate the action in a plausible and exciting way. This is why authors often won’t clarify the way character names should be pronounced. The pronunciation  likely won’t change events; why not let your reader say it however she likes? Is it LEGG-oh-lass or le-GO-less in Tolkien? Who gives a rip? How the reader pronounces the author’s names is none of the author’s business.

The author has more pressing business, such as writing a decent action scene. If you’re the reader, and you just read a banging action scene that had you in suspense while making you want more, more, more, that scene probably didn’t spring into its current form on first draft. Unless done by an author with a natural intuitive gift, it probably didn’t gel on the fourth or fifth. And the long the ms took, the farther away from novelty went the author’s mind. In time, he forgot not knowing.

If he had a competent editor, of course, that got fixed.

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