Monday, July 25, 2016

Fast Reads = Better Stories 4 - Action scenes that add zip

When it comes to action scenes, how can you miss? What could be more page-turning than a chase or fighting a fire or piloting a spacecraft through a meteor storm? Most action scenes, by their nature, have specific, tangible goals. Often these are connected with basic character needs we can identify with, whether it be surviving an attack by a bear or winning the basketball game for your school.

In addition, action is visual. We can see it happening. And a good action scene actually makes our brains think we are participants to the point where our muscles respond to a hero throwing (or taking) a punch.

Sadly, many writers still mess this up. The visceral action gets swamped out by a variety of problems including:
  • Point of view changes. We can really only participate as one character in an action scene, so even a subtle shift to what someone else is experiencing takes away from the reading. Action scenes (and let’s include love scenes) require deep point of view.
  • Too much description or reflection. Every sentence that does not convey the action risks taking the reader out of the scene. Yes. A sentence here or there during the action sequence can help to ground it and provide reminders of the emotional stakes. But too much of this destroys the physical response to what is being presented.
  • Lack of identification. This is the problem with MANY amateur works. They start out with action before we have any idea who the character is or what the stakes are. It happens a lot at the beginnings of manuscripts can also can confuse and bore readers further into the book. Why? Because we want to be fully involved in cheering for the hero and feeling the joy of success and the heartbreak of failure. It's harder to care for strangers.
  • Too much or too little moment-to-moment. In the first draft, it is often valuable to record every detail of an action scene. Writers need to fully imagine what is going on in the story. But readers don't need to be presented with everything. Leave the interesting things. Hang onto the minimum of the rest that is needed to avoid being confusion. Get rid of the rest.
  • Lack of purpose. While a good set piece can be excused (occasionally), the best scenes need to have an arc. They need to move the story forward, and readers need to know how the story will be changed by a success or failure. Action just for actions sake is cheap and gratuitous — sort of like pornography. 
  • Not playing fair. I just read a fight scene where the hero grabbed a chain and used it against the villain. Huh? Where did that chain come from? Sometimes the writer is so eager to get to the action he or she forgets to describe the setting. And when important details show up later, it's a cheat. Special skill and powers, essential knowledge, and weaknesses also need to be set up ahead of time. (It can be acceptable to have surprises that make things tougher for your hero, like having a villain pull a gun.) Give the reader the chance to be a full participant.
The scenes that read fastest are those we are immersed in, both in terms of our senses and in terms of our emotions. They are free of any distractions -- no unfair surprises or excess verbiage. 

That's what not to do. So what do you, as a writer do
  • Make sure the purpose of the scene and the challenges (including beats) are clear. This may require setting things up ahead of time, before the action begins. 
  • While some reflection cues are valuable, we should actually be able to guess what the point of view character is thinking at any time during the scene. So make description and reflection barebones
  • Cut anything that is not needed. 
  • Stay in the present, making sure things happen in real time and are understood as they happen. And edit this down as well so that not every decision and action is described. 
  • Use compression. A producer once explained this to me. If an athlete is preparing for a game, it isn’t necessary to show him putting all his gear on in real time. Pulling the jersey out of his locker, and then cutting to him tying his shoe, conveys all that’s needed.
  • Choose the RIGHT action. Consider extreme responses. Don’t make it reasonable if you don’t have to. An action scene is not a task, it’s a challenge. 
  • Begin as late as possible, end as early as possible.
  • Make it desperate.
  • Include (fair) surprises.
  • Payoff (emotion, values, clues) what you’ve set up, but don’t be afraid to make things harder on your character, even if he has prepared fully.
  • Set the scene and put the action in an interesting location. It should stress the main character, have meaning, and be intriguing.
One more thing to consider is dialogue. While dialogue usually speeds a read, it slows things down in action scenes. I often will imagine how the whole scene would play out as part of a silent movie. It forces a discipline that trims the action down to the essentials and allows it to proceed with limited use of dialogue (and reflection). Once I have that, I work to make sure that whatever characters say is quotable.

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