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.
However, (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.
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.
- What 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.
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.
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.
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.