I’ve got my party dress on and am ready to dance! Well it’s a virtual party dress and I’m dancing on the inside, but tonight I’m off to the Follow-Swap Blog Hop, hosted by Katherine Amabel at Beyond the Hourglass Bridge.
I am infamous for falling asleep during action scenes. At the cinema. The most notable was during one of the Die Hard movies, when I fell asleep while Bruce Willis and Co. were driving through some underground tunnel as a wall of water was bearing down upon them. It was tense and exciting – so much so that the first thing I asked my husband when I woke up was how did they get out of that one? My husband has been master of the *facepalm* for a long time now…
Now I love a good action scene. I loved when the Hulk dealt to Lokey in The Avengers. Loved the Helm’s Deep siege as Legolas and Gimili kept score while they were fighting. The size and spectacle and special effects in movies such as The Matrix, 300 and Gladiator. But there is a fine line between gratuitous violence and something that is inherent to the story. So what makes a good action scene?
There is nothing worse than action for action’s sake. If you are going to include any sort of action scene there had better be a good reason for it, because if your reader isn’t invested you run a real risk of them skimming the scene or worse, putting the book down. So no random bar-brawls, unless it’s driving the plot.
Patrick Rothfuss, does a good bar-fight towards the end of The Name of the Wind. It’s a solid fight scene, but the real hero of the writing is the silence that comes afterwards as the characters process what the presence of the attacker means. It raises questions, ups the stakes and provides a good dose of foreshadowing.
I would go so far as to say the presence of an enemy at the door isn’t of itself a good enough reason for an action scene. Something needs to be happening within the character’s own story arc. A story about a master sword fighter who wins every fight just isn’t interesting. Look at his (or her) motivations, relationships with other characters – is there a deeper theme that can shine through?
One of my favourite fight scenes to write was where one of my characters had to go out and rescue another character that was making life difficult for everyone else. He didn’t want to be rescued, certainly didn’t like his rescuer and the tension between the two was more interesting to me than the skill with which my hero dispatched the enemy.
The best action scenes are tense. They’ve been building to a peak and we really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Consider the scene from The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf faces the Balrog. Things have been going badly in the Mines of Moria, they are almost to the exit – escape is close and then…
But it was not the trolls that filled the Elf with terror. The ranks of the orcs had opened, and they crowded away as if they themselves were afraid. Something was coming up behind them. What it was could not be seen: it was like a great shadow, in the middle of which was a dark form, of man-shape maybe, yet greater; and a power and a terror seemed to be in it and to go before it…
J.R.R. Tolkien takes time to describe the Balrog and the characters horrified reactions. This part is almost deliberately slow, capturing every reaction but emphasising the action when it finally explodes onto the page.
Action scenes, by definition, need to move. Things happen quickly. Senses are heightened and people tend to act on instinct rather than over think every little thing that happens to them. The problem is, when we write an action scene we are often conscious of choreographing the movement. We often put it together in slow-motion, but need to pick up the pace when we’re writing – so the reader feels their own adrenalin pick up with the character. For example, this passage from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
Five different voices behind him bellowed, ‘REDUCTO!’ Five curses flew in five different directions and the shelves opposite them exploded as they hit; the towering structure swayed as a hundred glass spheres burst apart, pearly-white figures unfurled into the air and floated there, their voices echoing from who knew what long-dead past amid the torrent of crashing glass and splintered wood now raining down upon the floor –
‘RUN! Harry yelled, as the shelves swayed precariously and more glass spheres began to fall from above. He seized a handful of Hermione’s robes and dragged her forwards, holding one arm over his head as chunks of shelf and shards of glass thundered down upon them. A Death Eater lunged forwards though the cloud of dust…
Firstly note the scale. You immediately feel there are a number of people involved. The description is totally focussed on the external; curses, glass, splintered wood, the chaos of the ghostly figures. We aren’t told what the characters are thinking in this scene – they simply react to the environment as the reader sees it. And you see a lot of different things going on. The dialogue is short and choppy, the capitalisation emphasising the urgency.
When you’re writing action, all you need to know is how your character would react in the moment. Don’t slow down the pace by considering every move. There’s plenty of time to unpack it all later.
In fantasy action is often life and death. Sword fighting is lethal. Take a hit with a sword and you’re looking at serious injury or death. So if you want your action scene to be real, let your character feel the bite of the blade, the burn of their muscles and the rush of adrenalin as they misstep. If the stakes are life and death, make sure death is a real possibility. Equally the action might be about establishing a pecking order. In A Game of Thrones, Jon Snow thinks he is better than the rest at sword-play, yet beating untrained combatants actually loses him the respect of his peers. The fight scenes become more about establishing relationships. Other stakes could be freedom, self-respect, protection of others, control.
5. Character and Setting.
Sometimes action is about setting a scene or establishing a character. In any of the Robin Hood stories, you must see early on that this is a man who has fighting skills and is prepared to use them to an end. Our first introduction to Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy is a man set on evading his ‘creditors’ at any cost. In The Lord of the Rings, shadowy Stryder saves the Hobbits – and shows a man attuned to the coming darkness.
Action may also be a mechanism for world-building, to show the realities of the story context. In Braveheart the tradition of the Laird bedding a new bride says more about the politics in one act than any drawn out description.
Your character will expend a lot of energy fighting, and so will your reader if you do your job properly. Don’t drag a fight scene out unnecessarily or the only thing injured might be your story.
Finally, if you’re struggling with writing action scenes find a few of your own favourite writers and see how they do it. It never hurts to get out your favourite action movies and watch how the actors move. But most of all let go when you’re writing and trust your instincts. You never know what might happen.
How about you? What do you think about writing fight / action scenes? What are your most memorable action scenes?
Some days you really need someone to say well done you… So thank you to Katherine Amabel from Beyond the Hourglass Bridge for nominating me for the Reader Appreciation Award. I put my first ever piece of writing up for critique on Katherine’s blog and discovered the earth did not in fact open up and swallow me whole… Kat is querying at the moment and her blog is full of great tips and her quirky sense of humour.
So I’m supposed to share 7 things about me:
1. I once had a passport photo so bad that the border control officer actually laughed when he looked at it. (The photo was taken on a windy day and my hair was sticking up on one side). That was back when passports lasted 10 years. I still can’t believe my mother made me send that photo in…
2. To make matters worse the next photo was very glam (much effort put in to improve it), and border control didn’t believe it was me… *sighs*
3. When I was a child the Doctor Who theme music scared me silly – I used to think I was going to be sucked into the swirling time vortex…
4. I was also afraid of Cookie Monster…
5. I started writing my first book when I was 13 – about aliens landing on our farm. I only wrote about 4 chapters, but I remember it included a packing scene – all the things I needed to pack when the aliens came to take me away. I can’t imagine why it didn’t take off… Actually I suspect the aliens got bored waiting for me.
6. I think Daniel Craig is an awesome James Bond.
7. I believe in happy endings. It doesn’t have to be The Waltons, but a glimmer of hope never goes astray.
And to spread the kudos far and wide – here are some of my favourite bloggers who are worthy of many awards:
- Aimee Salter – Seeking the Write Life. Because her blog has great heart and she taught me how to *facepalm* – a skill I find particularly effective in many situations. Seriously though, good writing tips.
- E.M. Castellan’s blog. Because she writes epic fantasy, reviews great books I’ve never heard of before, and does great author interviews. And has been a regular commenter on this fledgling blog!
- Yensenia Vargas’s blog. A great all-round blog, but I love the Friday Features – where Yesenia does a great weekly round-up on what’s good on the writing blogs. I’ve found many useful nuggets on this site.
- Rob Stroud’s – Mere Inkling. Themed around the Oxford writing group the Inklings (members include C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) this blog always contains something insightful and thought-provoking…
I’ve nominated some of these bloggers for other awards before – but I think they are all worthy of mention, because whether they know it or not they encourage me on my writing journey! There’s no pressure to participate – but I wanted to thank you all for being part of my writing community.
In my post Writing the Ravine: A View from a Rope Bridge, I had in the back of my mind my own habit of writing in circles. For me writing can be a slow and laborious process. Right now I’m about to tip into the second act of my WIP and yet I’ve become bogged down in the details. I feel like I’ve almost hit it – but not quite. So I’ve gone back and added in another POV character (feels better), spent some time fleshing out some back-story (motives now good) and have been tightening up timeframes and cultural identities (tedious and not quite there yet). And yet I still haven’t managed to push past the Act I climax. But then Scott left the following comment on the post which got me thinking:
I think my metaphor for my writing journey is a little different. I think I am the Forrest Gump runner who got up one day and took off. I had something bouncing around in my head that I wanted to write and so I wrote. As I went along a little, I realized that I needed a plan, so I drew myself a map of where I wanted to go (the outline for the rest of the large story I was telling) and I have been running that route ever since, occasionally stopping to check and see if that’s where I still want to go.
I have to say I was a bit envious. I want to write like that. I don’t want to be the girl who is so busy trying to tie her shoes properly that she never gets in the race at all. But it got me thinking, we’re all so different (yes like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates) and that’s really a good thing. I’m stoked that Scott knows who he is as a writer and is following after that with all his heart – because I have the same goal. To tell a good story. And to tell my story I need to tell it my way, and go about it in a way that’s going to work for me.
In the Lord of the Rings, there are a lot of heroes. There are those born to be King (like Stryder / Aragorn); the graceful and elusive Elves – fleet of foot and high of cheekbone (Orlando Bloom… er – I mean Legolas); the resolute dwarves – stocky and pure of heart (Gimili); and of course the short, hairy-footed hobbits who like their food and home comforts much more than running around Middle Earth and saving the world. Yet of all of these heroes the hobbits, the most unlikely of the bunch, were the ones who were able to destroy the One Ring. They didn’t do it by charging into battle in full battle regalia – more often than not they crawled away on their bellies to avoid the fighting because they were small enough to be overlooked.
My point is – you don’t have to be a pantster if you aren’t. You don’t have write 5000 words a day if you can’t. You just need to understand your own style and strengths and do what works for you. Even if it doesn’t look as heroic as you’d like.
Another example of this is the story of David and Goliath. When David fought Goliath he was still an unproved young man charged with tending his father’s sheep. Yet he was able to convince the King to let him face the Philistine champion. The King dressed David in his own tunic, gave him a bronze helmet, armour and a sword. David, however, wasn’t used to wearing all the battle regalia, so he took them off. He preferred to face the giant as he tended the sheep, with smooth stones and a sling-shot. And we all know how the story ended. One stone and one dead giant. But it might have been quite different if he’d tried to fight the battle any other way.
So for me – I’m trusting my gut. I’m an edit as you go kind of girl. It’s the way I write. Sometimes I wish my inner-editor would let me get more words on paper. But I guess then I’d just be proud of my numbers – when it’s the story that counts. The benefits are that I feel better if I’m working from a solid foundation and I won’t need to edit as much later on. So when I suspect I need to tighten and work on back-story I will, even if it means it takes a little longer. And I’m learning not to worry so much.
But there are many, many other ways to write your story. It’s better not to compare, rather to try and glean nuggets from others that might improve your own process. I tip my hat to Scott who sets his goal and runs after it. You might plot, you might pants, you might edit as you go – or not. But find your rhythm, and enjoy your writing journey your way.
What kind of writer are you? Are there things about your writing style that frustrate you? That work really well? How has your writing process changed for the better? I love to hear from you.
Have you ever crossed a rope bridge? A really rickety one, not much more than a few pieces of rope strung across a drop of bone-breaking proportions? Living in New Zealand, I’ve had my fair share of encounters with these no-frills crossings – especially on school camps where they are deliberately built that way to promote confidence. (Not sure it had that effect on me – I could only envisage them scraping up my broken body from the rocks below while our teacher felt terribly guilty apologising to my distraught parents…). But then it occurred to me crossing a rope bridge is a great metaphor for the writing journey.
1. Consider Your Approach.
The last thing you want to do when getting onto a rope bridge is rush the approach. You’d check it was sturdy, evaluate the distance and ease on slowly to make sure it will hold your weight.
It’s much the same with writing a novel. Hopefully you will have given some thought to what you want to achieve, the genre, the theme or an overall goal. I have the greatest respect for pansters, but even if you plan to pants your work the whole way – it pays to have some kind of plan or you can invest a whole lot of time in something that might end up in the trash. (Or the bottom of a ravine.).
2. Balance is the Key.
It doesn’t matter how good your plan might be to walk steadily across the rope bridge without stopping or slowing down; but once you’re on the bridge other things will affect your progress. There might be a slight breeze which requires you shift your weight. Some ‘friend’ might decide to leap off the end and you have to white-knuckle it until the bridge stops swinging. Your foot might slip and it takes time to recover your balance (and your nerve). The truth is when you cross a basic rope bridge every step is a matter of balance. The same is true in the writing journey.
I’ve put many plans in place over the years outlining how I will write my novel. One went something like this: I will write one hour every morning and the cumulative word count will mean I’m finished by X. The problem is life happens. I missed the odd morning, the cumulative words turned out to be cumulatively bad (or unusable) and I felt like a failure. What I’ve come to realise is – I know my goal. So each day I have to work out the best way to move me closer. Take a step, check my footing is good and I’m half-way there. Now I know setting goals is good, I’m all for them and even have another lined up for later this year. But I’ve learned it’s easier if I balance family, work, health, friends and writing each day. I want good words. And I want to enjoy the journey.
3. Start and Keep Going.
What’s the alternative to not crossing the bridge? You could go down and make your way through the rough ravine to get to the other side. You could take the long way around (if there is one). Or you could go back and miss out on what’s on the other side. If you want to write, going across is the equivalent to writing the novel. Not reading about writing, talking about writing, journaling forever… Cross the bridge. Write the novel.
4. Don’t Let Fear Stop You.
If you’ve ever looked down while crossing one of these bridges, (if you’re at all like me) you start to see every jagged rock, every sharp stick or unyielding boulder. If fear gets hold of you the shakes start. You shake. The bridge shakes. All of a sudden there’s a real possibility the whole thing will flip over and the emergency rescue team will be coming for your body.
That doesn’t usually happen (although it might – I am it seems, still a wimp at heart), instead you tend to white-knuckle the sides and freeze. Anyone seeing the correlation here? If you think too hard about what you’re trying to achieve when you’re writing, you may not write anything. I’ve had plenty of times when I’ve thought it’s all a bit much. I’ll never do it. Who am I kidding? But then I take a deep breath. Find my balance. And take the next step.
If we let fear stop us writing, we don’t just stop and that’s it – our dreams are the ones that end up broken in the ravine. And that hurts.
5. Don’t Rock the Bridge.
There is nothing worse when you are on a rope bridge, when someone else decides to rock it. Because they’re not in any danger, they think it’s funny to scare you. I’m sure none of you would ever do this. It’s the same with writing. Don’t pull holes in someone’s writing because you think it isn’t as good as your own. We’re all on the same bridge so to speak, even if some can navigate more easily.
I remember an old Castle episode (well Firefly is gone so at least Nathan Fillion is doing the writer thing), where Castle (rich, famous, best-selling author of a hugely successful series) invited a younger breakthrough writer to his poker game with his other established best-selling author friends. The group pretended to welcome him in, but then preceeded to humiliate him and reinforce his green, new-author-on-the-block status. The younger writer left with his (proverbial) tail between his legs, knowing exactly what his former heroes thought of him. Now Castle as a character has many (mostly) likeable flaws, but this went over the line for me. He was jealous of the youngster and his behaviour was plain mean. I think you get the point.
6. Relax and Enjoy the View.
If you can relax and take the time to look out from a rope bridge, you’ll often find a vista has opened up that you have never seen before. You feel like you’re flying above it all – that you’re part of it. It’s a great feeling. Again it is the same with writing. When I can get my head above the self-doubts I can appreciate what an amazing feeling writing this book has been. Right now, in drafting stage, I’m really the only one who can glimpse the potential of this story – and my own potential as a writer. I’m trying to make the choice to enjoy it.
Only you can walk the rope bridge, one step at a time. Others can watch and cheer you on, but essentially it’s something only you can do. I hope it’s going well for you today. Keep going – I’ll see you on the other side!
Can you relate to this metaphor? Do any of these points resonate with you? How do you keep going?
It actually doesn’t need to be a Tardis (that’s Dr Who’s Time Travelling Police Box for my Mum and Dad who read this blog faithfully), any old time freezing, stretching, cloning sort of device that will allow me to get on top of my life will do. Because over the past few weeks real life has become really hectic (you may have noticed the tumbleweeds blowing through the blog since I last posted) – so time available to write has been significantly reduced.
However one good thing I’ve discovered being under pressure is, I’ve stopped trawling twitter and have been making the most of any writing time I can squeeze in – even if it’s just checking the blogs I follow or daydreaming about the plot. In fact I’ve probably been more focussed this week than when I have great screeds of time to play with. So it was easy to pick one little gem of writerly advice to share with you this week – it stood out – er, like a tardis materialising outside your window. (I’m sad to say I did do an Amy Pond and looked out the window just in case – but I digress). So what was it that managed to catch my attention?
Know what motivates your characters.
Yes, that’s a bit of a given you might say. But I read a blog somewhere this week where the author was talking about knowing the motivation of every character in a scene. Initially I thought it was a bit extreme – really everyone has to have some sort of goal? I’m already writing epic fantasy, so there are a lot of characters getting page time.
But the more I thought about it – I realised the author was right. All of us behave according to a perceived goal or motivation.
For example right now my goal is to write a half-decent blog post in the time I have available. So I’m typing as fast as I can because I know I have to pick my children up soon and still have a whole heap of chores to do. If I was a character, you might note my impatience by the way I’m banging on the keyboard and ignoring the kitten meowing to come in the front door (no I’m not heartless there is an open french door mere metres from where she’s sitting). You might notice I’m leaning forward and my shoulders are slightly hunched (whoops sit up properly) or catch me frowning at the keyboard when I mis-type. If you spoke to me, my answers would probably sound short, or distracted.
Now this isn’t exactly an action packed scene, but it gets the message across – even the least characters in your WIP will have something going on – and at the very least it will impact on the way they carry themselves. Consider how my posture and demeanor would be different on a morning when the sun was shining and I knew I had a few free hours to work.
In my post A Little Light Relief, I wrote about a flirtation between two minor characters – Stellar and Artemis. Stellar is the reason one of my POV characters (Jae) is attending the dedication ceremony at the Sanctuary. Jae being at the Sanctuary is crucial for the plot – but I knew she would never attend unless she had no choice. Stellar is the force against which Jae has no resistance. But I’d never really given any thought as to why Stellar was so insistent she wanted to attend the ceremony. They are outsiders – travellers who aren’t welcome in the city – so why would she be so adamant they go?
If you ask your characters those sorts of questions you might be surprised what comes up. In this case it was a beautiful, if somewhat tragic experience of the younger Stellar. All of a sudden the character became much clearer, her motivations became clearer – even her attitude towards Artemis started to make sense. But best of all I was able to re-work the scene and it ties in much better with the bigger storyline.
Now I’m not suggesting you write a whole backstory for every character that walks across a page of your novel, but at least know why they’re there. Are they tired, impatient, focussed on something else, hungry, angry or in a hurry? It will help make your story world more vivid, as you see them wriggling in their seats, staring out the window or pushing food around their plate. Every little bit of attention you can give to a character can only make your work stronger.
Postscript: It’s never a good idea to do something in a hurry. I just came back to check the post and realised I’d somehow deleted half of the first paragraph and the whole thing didn’t make much sense. Now if I only had a tardis I could have gone back and fixed that before anyone saw it…
So do any of you need a tardis? What are you favourite time travel stories? (Have you noticed all efforts to cheat this way usually end badly)? Do you know what motivates all of your characters?