This post arose out of my review of Six of Crows. I complained that many action sequences were problematic. I didn’t provide examples, to avoid spoilers and in fairness to Bardugo, but I think this subject deserves a full post. There were a few scenes in the novel, more than a passing oversight, where the action ejected me from the story with a thought of “This is impossible, as every student of Euclid should see”. The aim of this post is to
ruin it for other readers give fellow authors a perspective in thinking and writing action scenes.
Quite a lot of fiction (at least the kind that I read) contains action scenes. It doesn’t matter if it’s fantasy (swords & sorcery), science fiction (imperial stormtroopers), thrillers (covert agents) or whatnot. Authors like to involve their characters in high-adrenaline, quick moving action scenes because
the readers like to see the characters get beat up it makes for a more engaging read.
Now, not everyone is like Donnie Yen above (one of the greatest living martial arts actors), but the human body still moves in finite ways. There’s always – always – things like physics (plain geometry) and body mechanics that get in the way of trashing the opposition.
Here’s what I mean…
I’ll provide a couple of examples from books I’ve read, though I’ll not name which came from where as the books were otherwise excellent. First, let’s start with an over an top example:
The protagonist, holding a surprised captive in one hand and a whip holding his crony in the other jumps over the cliff dragging everyone away from enemy fire. On the way to the river below, he stuffs a special water-breathing apparatus into his captive’s mouth and then flicks the whip to release his crony before they all hit all the water.
The fall, I presume, was long enough, the captive surprised enough not to resist or bite him, and we’ll assume that the whip flicked correctly in mid-air. However, I don’t recall him having three hands (at least), as that’s what it would take to perform all the actions in the order given (hold whip, hold captive, get pill and stuff it into surprised captive’s mouth — all in free-fall in the dark). While over-the-top might be fine for that climax scene, just a bit of better sequencing and setting up could have resulted in a more logical progression that fits the human anatomy.
A somewhat more mundane scene I’ve read had an attacker coming at the protagonist to choke him. The valiant and merciful hero whipped out his gun from its holster and knocked the assailant unconscious with a blow to the back of the head.
Let’s ignore that back-of-head-is-an-off-switch movie trope. If someone is coming at you to choke you, they are facing you with arms up. Unless you are Mr Fantastic with his stretchy arms, you won’t reach the back of their heads. You can knock them down by pistol-whipping their jaw, you can stop them with a kick to the groin (and as they crumple forward their back-of-head is a prime target for a potentially lethal rabbit punch), or even a fancy swipe at their hands and side-step à la the talented Donnie Yen above to place you to the side of the opponent.
In both cases (and both by talented authors), I believe the fault is that the author has a clear idea of what needs to happen, but not a visual sequence of exactly how it plays out. In the first example, the characters needed to be flushed away by the river below; in the second, they protagonist needed a man rendered unconscious. The authors understood that, and just wrote the necessary actions to achieve their goal. But looking at a list of actions, is not the same as watching an action sequence.
When studying martial arts, teaching someone to punch (and, for example, break a board) is easy. Teaching them how to fight – the timing, the angles, the sequencing of individual actions, and the necessary mental frame – takes long years.
What you can do about it
Luckily for authors, you don’t need long years of martial arts experience to write an action sequence. Besides, watching Jackie Chan do 10 minutes of acrobatic punch-ups with mere theatrical grunts for dialogue is great fun, but reading 20 pages of the same is not.
Consider that you are not in the fight, under stress and short of time. Just like actors take days to practice a minute worth of screen-time action, breaking it slowly and learning it by rote, you have the time to plan things.
First, in terms of general high-action movement, you just need a bit of visual imagination to play it in your head like a movie scene. This is where some visual aids can help you keep track of who does what to whom. A set of desktop drawing mannequins you can manipulate to simulate body mechanics will help with character movements, and some D&D miniatures atop a sketched layout will help keep track of angles and ranges. It’s then easy to see what each character is doing and how they need to move to achieve their goals.
Consider where your characters start, and where they need to end up. Sketch up the environment, and place miniatures or markers for your characters. Consider at any point what they can see and react to, and how fast they can move. Then start by listing the action sequence, before going to write. Do consider that everyone (including antagonists) moves at the same time as your POV character. Even though writing is linear with one thing happening after another, real life is a lot messier – so remember to account for shooting and being shot at, and that things happen which your POV character would not see until they have a moment’s respite. Once you have the list of sequence action, play it out carefully in your head again. When you’re satisfied, go ahead and describe it prose, with plenty of adjectives and adverbs to torment your editor.
Pro tip: making sentences either very short or very long dramatically changes the pace in the scene. Both are appropriate for action: short ones for clipped rapid actions, long ones to leave the reader mentally breathless.
When it comes specifically to fighting, the top thing that you need to consider is context – what weapons and armour are available to the characters. These are always in sync, as economic conditions and technological advances made some things obsolete or new things preferable. These had the tendency to spread quickly, as cultures at war copied what worked and discarded what didn’t, or died in the process. (With the notable exception of the “Space Wizards with Magic Swords” franchise, where the completely and utterly useless blaster rifle was the weapon of choice for armies who apparently didn’t want to hit each other).
Next, you should educate yourself in the fighting style of the particular era you are writing about, and then go watch any number of YouTube videos. You don’t need to be a fencing champion to understand the basic terminology. You don’t need a black belt for anything but holding your pants up, as you look at self-defence videos. Go watch a video of what a gun with silencer really sounds like. As an example, using shield together with the sword is more complicated than “block with shield, hit with sword” – you could cover your sword hand (both to protect and block visibility), and hit the other’s shield with yours to create an opening for a sword strike.
Again, start by visualise the area the action sequence is happening. Remember that the environment plays a bit role is what freedom the characters have to move, and what weapons they can effectively use. Sketch it out, to help. Position your mannequins, so you can see who can see and reach where. Plan your move by move sequence for all participants, and list them out. Then adapt the list to the subset that follows the POV character. With that you can dive in and describe the fights in spurts of focused exchanges, with the occasional glance to see and describe what else is happening around.
Pro tip: describe the action in broad strokes that convey the sequence but keep the pace fast, and the reader’s imagination will fill up the details. Don’t over describe, even though you went to all that effort to ensure the sequence is logical. You’ve done that to avoid mistakes and improbably (or impossible) actions, to avoid ejecting the reader with a “how in hell did that happen”, not to eject them with a snore.
Is the effort worth it? Well, for starters you wouldn’t have readers like me whinge at you for unrealistic action in your writing. (You’ll still have plenty of readers whinge at you, because that’s what readers do). But more than that, it’s potentially an area of growth as an author. I know I need to
pander for the prurient zombies who mumble “showww don’t tellll” work on emotional characterisation more. I do, and I blog about it too. Action scenes are one area which I think I’m pretty good at and am in a position to offer critique and advice. I want to be the best author I can be, which means improving on multiple aspects of writer-craft.
What do you work on to improve your writing style? How do you ensure the pace keeps clicking and your readers stay in the story?