Into the Action

Into the Action: Don’t Look Too Close, It’s Just A War! a.k.a. Major Conflicts As Background

Hey folks!  So, the most recent chapter I had to write included a massive action scene, involving a large number of characters in an extended fight scene.  The big thing is there really was only one or two major characters whose actions and fates were vital to the conclusion of the plot.  I sat back and took an hour to ponder the best way to go about this and I came to the epiphany that this was much like writing about a character in a war.

I know it sounds crazy but writing about one character’s fate in a war is much like writing about a person in a disaster when the primary conflict is not man vs. nature.  The disaster is not quite the focus of the situation but at the same time constantly effects the actions of the character.  In essence, a war or major conflict acts in much the same way: a continual background radiation that permeates the scene, no matter the focus.

So when you write this focused scene, you concentrate on what is in front of the character’s face.  This giant conflict raging around becomes your background.  It must be described and it must make its impact on the scene as anything given narrative time must, but the only parts of that background that should eat up your direct writing real estate should be the enemies and conditions in the character’s personal sphere.

In this way, you can have your cake and eat it too.  You can have the gravitas of the conflict but only deal with the slices of it that you actually need to.  It prevents the huge battle or big fight from overwhelming the important plot points you need to convey in the scene.  The important thing is to keep your camera locked on that main character, just don’t be afraid to pull out your focus to get a glimpse of the bigger picture from time to time before focusing back in on what is vital!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Everyone Take a Turn a.k.a. Multiple Character Action!

Hey folks!  Time to take a moment from the busy review and writing schedule to take another trip Into the Action.  Today’s article is going to look at writing action scenes (DUH!) but, more specifically, writing action scenes involving multiple characters.  When I mean multiples, I mean groups, gaggles, crowds, clutters, mobs, and more!

At first blush, this seems pretty straight forward.  It’s just like writing any other action scene but, you know, with more people.  Simple, right?  Well … no.  No, not at all.

Obviously, the basics of action are the same.  Reasonable conflict, proper fast pacing, and keeping by all your usual rules for building dramatic tension are all just as important to writing these larger scenes.  However, there’s an added layer of complexity once you introduce more than one protagonist and one antagonist.  It may, in fact, seem very intimidating to deal with a many sided engagement but there’s some basic rules of thumb that can help you sort it all out.

First, do not mess with your chosen ‘point of view’ and writing style.  There could be a strong temptation to shift viewpoints to get a better wide view of a large-scale fight scene, especially if you’re working in a limited point of view like first person.  Do NOT do this!  It’s much like breaking any other established rules of your book, fictional or otherwise.  Once you break them, you start to lose the trust and interest of the leader.  Remember, keep to your guns and keep your focus.

Second, make sure to keep track of all parties in an action scene.  It is hard but you need to evoke a sense of presence in your actors, even if they aren’t constantly referenced.  Creating that sense of being will add to the reality of the situation for your readers, allowing them to better visualize and follow the action.  If your readers know where the actors in a scene are, they also won’t be taken off-guard when they do perform actions.  It won’t have a sense of feeling ‘out of place’.  It will flow easily.

Third, avoid falling into the ‘turn based combat’ trap.  Quite often, a writer faced with the challenge of a scene with many participants is to simply describe what they do in the scene one-by-one as if all of the characters were in a turn-based board game or RPG.  Everyone dutifully does their thing in order with no one character’s actions seeming to interact with the other.  Though this is rarely intended, it’s easy to have happen, especially if you confine each character’s actions to their own paragraphs.  The fact is that in a real action situation, people are going to be acting or starting to act in the same time frames and you need to impress upon the reader that sense of simultaneous action, even if there is an order of operations you want to follow.

Those are the top three tips that can be used to help sort out large-scale action scenes.  There are undoubtedly plenty more so feel free to share your own in the comments below!

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Dressing To Impress And Hopefully Not Die!

Today’s writing article will be a brief one.  No, not because I’m too busy (though I am) but because this topic is so common-sense and so straight forward that there is really little room to say anything other than the point itself.  So, what action-related topic is up for grabs today?  Well, I’m glad you asked!

Today, we are looking at costuming vs. action.  I use the word ‘costuming’ but I mean, of course, whatever your characters are wearing in an action scene.  Though often related to the characters themselves, it is still, essentially, ‘costuming’ as you, the author, have final control over it.  However you want to look at it, what a character is wearing in an action scene can greatly alter the course of said action scene.

All it takes is a little forethought and common sense to understand how this can be important.  High-heel shoes are horrible for movement and any kind of fighting.  Baggy clothes may be easy to move in, but also present loose folds that can be grabbed or manipulated.  Armor can have any manner of effects beyond raw protection: light armor is easier to move in but far less durable, heavier armors might be more protective but can be heavy and fatiguing to wear.  Powered armor, like Iron Man, may be amazingly powerful but subject to energy concerns, bulkiness when unpowered, and vulnerabilities to anything that disrupts electronics.  Masks can protect one’s identity or have built-in protective lenses but, depending on how they are worn and attached, can ruin peripheral vision and be easily manipulated to obscure vision further.  Let’s not even start to talk about capes!

The point is that these are all possible factors you should consider in an action scene when describing your characters’ clothing.  Not only can it provide all manner of hooks and sequences you can add to spice up your action but it can speak volumes about a character and their familiarity with a situation.  An ex-military woman who has come to expect trouble around every corner won’t be wearing a tight dress and high-heels unless it’s a special occasion, for example.  A laborer who is caught in a firefight will probably still be able to be physical, as he will be in sturdy work clothes designed for movement.  A fantasy knight will be clad in head-to-foot armor when expecting trouble and probably still be in tough leathers or a mail coat in other situations, regardless of gender.

So, remember, the clothes do sometimes make the man.  Remember to tailor your characters’ wardrobes to them and the situation and never forget how you can use what they do wear to add new twists to an action scene.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: Clean Up Aisle Five! a.k.a. Action’s Aftermath

Oi, I feel like a million miles of bad road.  This starving author has just spent one hour too many on late night writing binges.

But that’s not YOUR problem, dear reader, and so the show must go on!  Today, for your edification and entertainment, let’s touch back on an article series that’s been gathering dust for a bit.  That’s right, it’s time to get back Into the Action.  For today’s episode, let’s touch on something that can be an issue in writing action adventure tales: what happens *after* the action concludes.

This may sound like a no-brainer.  The action ends, the plot continues, life goes on.  That may be true, but I’m trying to steer us into looking at all the collateral effects of an average action sequence and how those things should be included into and woven into the story.  This includes the big stuff (damage property, crimes committed, injuries given and taken) and the little stuff (aches, pains, fatigue, getting a new shirt to replace the blood-stained one).

Now, you could simply take a page from the action movie genre and pay lip service to these things and then brush them off.  A short dramatic scene of patching up a wound, daring to show the character actually reload a gun, or a scene as the protagonists dust the debris off themselves from an explosion and walk away, we’ve all seen things like this in movies and either just accepted it as part of movie reality or been put off by it.  It would certainly be valid to use the tropes of the action genre to explain the aftermath away with a few sweeps of the pen.

The problem is that literature and movies are two different forms of media.  Those media carry different thoughts and expectations as well have radical differences in how information is delivered.  What may work for, say, an ’80s action movie may not work for your book and, in fact, I’d wager it won’t.  However, at the same time, dealing with the effects of a major action sequence in a fully realistic fashion could take more research and pages of your book than the actual action did.

The key, as with most things in literature, is to strive for a balance based on the level of realism in the world of your story.  If you are going to have people bouncing back from broken bones and bullet wounds, make sure there’s support for that in your fictional world.  Advanced medical technology, superhuman powers, magic, mutations … all sorts of things could be imployed in a universe-by-universe basis.   Even in a mostly realistic world, you can still employ some of that movie magic, just apply a lighter brush.

The fact is that humans can be scarily resilient at times and also that other real world systems are prone to breakdowns and mistakes.  Why aren’t the cops chasing down the protagonists after they were part of a high-speed chase?  Maybe they couldn’t positively ID them.  Maybe the pursuing officers were too focused on the chase and never got the license plates.  Maybe there’s just a breakdown in the system and red tape keeps an APB from being issued.

I suppose what this boils down to is that you can deal with all of the problems a big action sequence would incur in the real world in ways that won’t cripple your plot, but will also help the reader keep a healthy suspension of disbelief.  We’ll believe the action hero can shrug off a bullet wound in his/her shoulder so long as there’s blood, treatment, and reminders of that wound impairing his/her ability for the rest of the story.  Remember, as in all things writing, the devil AND the angel is in the details.

Good luck and good writing!

Into the Action: The Art of King of Street Kombat II

Having just finished reviewing the latest action sequence in my current writing project, I decided today’s Into the Action should take a look at the art of writing fight scenes in a novel.  Now, obviously, this won’t be a huge topic of interest for all of my followers but, as someone whose own writing delves into this regularly, I’d be doing authors like me a disservice if I didn’t take some time to look at it.    Deciding how to go about writing scenes involving direct physical conflict is not something to take lightly, as it can determine a lot about the flow, pacing, and message of your works.

The first thing I want to emphasize in this article is the need to ensure that combat is not trivialized when it is written about.  I don’t mean in terms of writing style exactly or space set aside for it.  What I mean is that any scene with physical violence should have repercussions.  As with any other kind of action, violent action should never be added simply to be there.  It should have meaning, it should either advance the plot or provide important characterization, and it should have after effects appropriate to the violence.  It can be tempting, at times, to take a modern action movie approach to an action scene with characters walking through a hail of bullets and gunning down mooks without blinking an eye.  In certain styles of writing, this can be appropriate and even necessary, but those should be rarities, not the norm.

The point of that screed really comes down to the idea that violence, like any other plot point, should have weight and dramatic heft to it.  Even sports combat has dangers and stakes and, if used, should be held in the same serious regard.  Boxing and MMA are painful and dangerous activites.  Even the purely for-entertainment matches in televised professional wrestling carry high physical costs.  I’m not advocating bending the rules if your works are more cinematic in nature.  Just don’t forget them entirely.

Now, with that in mind, how much or how little detail should you put into a fight scene?  Well, that’s really an a question without any one answer.  The obvious consideration is that the more detail you put into a fight scene, the more important you make that scene.  It’s like any other type of scene you could write: the length and detail should be somehow connected to the scene’s importance in the plot and characterization.  No matter how well written it might be, the reader doesn’t want to see an extremely detailed one-on-one fight with, say, a faceless minion of your main villain.  No matter your inclination, don’t be afraid to be brief with combat when necessary.

Something that goes hand in hand with detail is clarity.  In fact, there can be a struggle at times between these two things.  Going into greater detail in a fight scene can sometimes lead to description that is intricate enough to lead to confusion among the average reader.  Make sure to carefully read over your fight sequences to ensure they retain a clear flow of action regardless of what details you include.  If you don’t think you can adequately describe a sequence of maneuvers, don’t try.  Rethink either that part of the fight scene or try to simplify it to the essence of the action.

For example, if I write a sequence of two combatants engaging in a series of technical holds and counter-holds, citing very specific martial arts techniques, that ends with one throwing the other, I could look up and detail each of those maneuvers, but it would probably lose any reader who didn’t have extensive knowledge of the martial arts in question.  Instead, I could simplify it by concentrating on broad motions or simply stating something like ‘Emi and Rogers came together, each trying to find an advantage in their grapple.  Hold met counter-hold and throw met with reversal until, finally, Emi got a solid grip on Roger’s lapels and hurled him over her shoulder onto the concrete floor.’

I understand this article may seem a little jumpy in focus and perhaps rambling, so let me try to summarize the basic points to be this:

  1. Length and detail of your fight scenes should match the importance of the fight to the plot or characterization.
  2. All fight scenes, no matter the importance, must have a clear flow of action and be understandable by your target audience of readers.
  3. When in doubt, let clarity trump detail in all situations

Questions?  Comments?  Input?  Suggestions?  Add them below!

Into the Action – Hanging off the Cliff

It’s been a bit since I talked about action, which I should say is a gaff on my part.  I mean, my primary works are bathed in the essence of the action/adventure piece so you would think I’d have more to say on it.  So, today’s Into the Action will look at that tried and true plot device, the Cliffhanger.

To be precise, a Cliffhanger is the story technique where characters are set up in a dangerous or dramatically tense situation at the cusp of resolution then ending the chapter or scene right at that point.  Later on in the book, or perhaps in the sequel, the situation will usually be picked back up and resolved.  Sometimes, this resolution happens ‘off-camera’ and the scene is resumed with the characters dealing with the aftermath of the situation.

The purpose of the Cliffhanger is to build dramatic tension first and foremost.  With the resolution of a situation hanging in the air, the reader is pulled along the story to find out how the situation plays out.  Especially in a serial work, this technique can keep readers coming back for installment after installment, eager to find out how the latest near-death situation was averted … or who died.

Just like any other plot device or story technique, Cliffhangers can be used poorly.  Most often this is the case when there is no dramatic tension built up in the scene in the first place.  If the reader has no investment in the drama of the situation, he/she won’t care how it concludes, so the timing of the conclusion doesn’t matter one bit to them.  A Cliffhanger should only be used after there is a solid investment in the action as it is.

Another way to cheapen the effect of a Cliffhanger is to invoke one in a situation that, while dramatic, has no real consequences to ‘failure’.  If there is no danger, no matter how invested the reader is or how dramatic the scene may be, there isn’t much need for a Cliffhanger.  Note that danger constitutes more than physical harm.  There are plenty of emotional and spiritual dangers out there, and all could be turned into a workable Cliffhanger.  The one way an inconsequential Cliffhanger might work is in a comedy piece, using the pointless Cliffhanger as a bit of a spoof of the action/adventure genre.  For the most part, though, stick to the danger.

Can you overuse Cliffhangers?  Certainly.  The truth is that you can overdo just about any kind of plot device, no matter how cunningly wrought.  As someone who loves to use them, there are definitely times where they are unnecessary, no matter how dramatic the situation.  Sometimes, it’s best just to resolve things and keep a traditional narrative flow.  It will make the Cliffhangers ‘pop’ all the more when shown in comparison to a normal resolution.

What do you think?  Do you like to incorporate the Cliffhanger structure into your works?  Outside of raw action sequences, how can Cliffhangers be put to good use?  Comment and discuss below!