Tag Archives: the action scene

Pacing and the Function of the Action Scene #amwriting

I love writing action scenes. Even though the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture, it is fun to write because of the action and events.

ScenesHowever, (cue the danger theme music), once I have set it aside for a while, I will have to begin the revision process. That is when writing becomes work. This is the moment I discover the child of my heart isn’t perfect – my action scenes are a little … confusing.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene, we don’t worry about the details when we are in the zone and writing the first draft. We just write it as quickly as possible and get the story’s basics down before we forget the good ideas we had while we were at the store.

It’s a little terrifying how many things I find in my early drafts that must be changed to enable a reader to see the story the way I envision it.

I think of a story as being like an ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links events and transitions. Now we are going to look at how each action scene flows.

Our raw manuscript has a beginning, middle, and ending. We have linked our scenes with transitions, but our manuscript is not ready for a reader. We still need to flesh that skeleton out.

The functions of the action scene are:

  • to propel the plot forward,
  • to provide stumbling blocks to happiness,
  • to force change and growth on the characters.
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Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons and Google Art Project, PD|100

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot. Scenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as deliberately as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

Arguments and confrontations in real life are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read.

Readers want to see the logic behind a book’s plot. So, we must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

  • Book- onstruction-sign copyWhat motivated the action?
  • Why was the action justified in the character’s mind?
  • What could they have done differently?

Clarity is crucial. Threats can’t be nebulous. Whatever you have the characters do, their reasoning, even if it is flawed, must be made clear to the reader at the outset.

Vague threats mean nothing in real life other than causing us to worry about something that will never happen.

I look for info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words. These telling passages are codes for me, laid down in the first draft. They are signs that a section needs rewriting to make it visual rather than telling. Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.

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Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts, 1888. PD|100

So, did the knowledge our characters and readers require emerge gradually with each action and transition sequence? Did each clue and vital piece of knowledge fall at the right point in the arc of the scene?

Once you understand the ultimate threat to our characters’ survival, you can dole out the necessary information in small increments, teasers to keep the readers reading, and the plot moving along.

Rumors and vague threats should be the harbinger of future events. But they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Once the inciting incident has occurred, hold the solution just out of reach for the rest of the narrative until the final confrontation. Every time our protagonists nearly have it fixed, they don’t, and things get worse.

I use a spreadsheet to design action sequences, which takes a little time. You can use any way that works for you, but I suggest you do it on a separate sheet and save it in your outtakes file with a name specifying what that page details. HG_Tor_vs_dragon_.docx (It signifies: High Gate scene, Torvald vs. dragon. I use MS Word, so its file extension is .docx).

When I put action into a scene, I hope the reader doesn’t say, “She wouldn’t do that.” Random gore and violence muddy the story. Nothing should be random; everything must fall into place as if the next event is inevitable based on what has gone before.

The arc of an action scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the story arc than when it started.

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Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this scene necessary, or am I desperate? Am I trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  • What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  • Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  • What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  • Why was this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex are often featured in the most profoundly moving stories I have read. However, those scenes only worked for me because they occurred for a reason. They were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

Action scenes are not only about violence and chaotic events. They can convey the setting and mood and offer information about relationships without bloated exposition. Scenes of quiet action can change everything and still act as transition scenes.

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Here we have a character who wants no part of anything remotely hinting at romance. Yet, there is an attraction that must be shown. We have the warning that significant events will occur later, forcing them to work together. However, in the meantime, one character is standoffish.

I get the most mileage from transitions when I make them scenes of action and information, and I have less of a tendency to dump information – my personal curse.

Large, violent events demand a purpose. Scenes of nonviolent action used as transitions can provide the characters and reader with the reasons for that action.

That ebb and flow of upheaval and relative calm that occurs over the arc of the story is pacing.

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Layers of a scene: Action #amwriting

Scenes are often comprised of people talking, a little action, and then more talking. Sometimes the action is minor, taking the characters from one place to another. Two characters talking in a coffee shop would have minimal action, but a lot of dialogue.

Other times the dialogue is minimal, and the action is violence. It can be sudden, as in a car wreck, or planned as in a battle.

At the outset of any story, our characters are in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray, beginning the real story.

Once they recover from the first obstacle, they realize they must do or find something important. Only a certain object or person will resolve the situation. To acquire what they need, the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances.

They must struggle and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation. This is where the action comes into the story.

I have read books were the author was so involved in setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost. The author failed to entertain me.

Action scenes must fulfil several requirements:

  • They must entertain the reader.
  • They must create new circumstances.
  • They must force the character to grow and change.

The events the protagonist experiences must push the plot forward. In the process, the action should force the characters involved in it to become greater than they were, to find something within themselves they didn’t know existed.

I’m just going to get this out into the open: long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

So many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how the combatants were dressed, who hacked, who slashed, and so on. Scenes involving fighting should be written as controlled chaos. They must be logical and real and must give the impression of a chaotic event. Just as if the physical dispute were a dance, we choreograph it.

We all know the common fundamentals of the fight scene:

  1. Physical violence/weapons
  2. Shouting/screaming/other loud noises
  3. Damage to the immediate environment
  4. Injuries/death

Those are part of the elements that comprise the “push” of the action—the chaos. It takes time, but over the course of several hours, you can put the skeleton of your fight scene on paper. What is physically possible and what is not?

But what of a non-violent action scene? Perhaps the characters are sneaking into a room or attempting to board a crowded train. What furnishings does the immediate environment contain, and how does that affect their movements? What hinders the characters moving within their space? What aids them?

For much of the morning they rode in silence. The path climbed more steeply than Alf had imagined a fully laden cart or wagon could manage. The vertical wall of the Escarpment on the left side of the trail and a waist-high stone barrier with a terrible drop on the right made him jittery. It occurred to him that the low wall was little more than a robust fence, knee high to his horse.

The next step, after the action is laid down, is fine tuning it, so the reactions and responses of your characters are natural and real. If the scene is about dialogue, insert the action so it is minimal. It can be a slight buzz in the background that serves as a speech tag:

He forced himself to loosen his grip on the reins. “I suspect the little barrier is there mainly to keep the wagons from sliding over the edge in the winter. It does provide some comfort to know that, while I would be launched amazingly far, my horse would likely be saved.”

Dex looked at him sharply. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights. This is nothing compared to what we’ll deal with when we leave Hemsteck.”

After the push, comes the “glide” where the characters assess what just happened, tend to their injuries, and decide what to do next. They must catch their breath and figure out where they went wrong.

Every now and then a manuscript comes to me that is impossible to navigate because the author is afraid to let their characters rest and regroup, and it basically becomes a nonstop beating for the protagonist. The author may fear that the reader will find it boring if he pauses the action for any reason. That continual pressure on the protagonist is exhausting to me as a reader.

If you don’t allow your characters to process the violence they just experienced, the story gets lost in the chaos. Once the reader can no longer suspend their disbelief, you have lost them.

Most of us understand verbal disputes and how they are constructed. But if physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, you may wish to consult someone who is and have them look at your scene. They will tell you what is physically possible and what is not.

Once I have a fight scene choreographed, I run it past my writing friends, Dave and Lee, both of whom will point out the areas where it is no longer believable.

To wind this post up, a constant assault of random action, scene after scene, makes no sense unless you allow the reader to put the events into perspective. Scenes inserted for shock value and with no pause for rest and reflection don’t allow the protagonist to demonstrate personal growth.

As a reader, I will put that book down, unfinished.


Credits and Attributions:

Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

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