Hello, writers. This week I've been working on the things I do worst. Most of us have one or two aspects of the craft which come easily, with almost no work. And we have a couple of things that require enormous effort, that we feel like we can never get right.
One of the latter, for me, is action scenes. I've talked in the past about action scenes and how to write them. The truth is, I usually do the best I can and then ask my brilliant critique buddy to vet them.
(If you don't have a brilliant critique buddy, get one.)
Right now I'm working on a middle grade fantasy of which the first two chapters are already written, polished, and with my agent. For the rest, I've been drafting frantically. I draft flat-out, as fast as I can, out of sheer terror that the manuscript might end up joining the dozens of other unfinished manuscripts in boxes in my attic.
(Some are in boxes. Some are on the hard-drives of long-dead computers.)
Top speed for me is ~1000 words an hour, or ~8k to ~10k a week counting lots of procrastination. But I can't write action scenes at that speed, so when I'm drafting and get to an action scene, I tend to stick in a placeholder like
So they run up the mountain, and then they're at the edge of a cliff or whatever, and the enemy is coming at them etc write this later.Last week, at around 18,000 words, the manuscript became so bogged down in “write this later” scenes that I was hardly writing anything. So I stopped.
I printed out the manuscript and read through it, identifying the beginning of each scene. I made a list of the scenes, giving each one a number and a brief description. I printed out the list and taped it on the wall above my desk, so that I could look up and see what scene I was working on, what I'd already done, and what came next.
There are 23 scenes on the list. I check off each one after I rework it. I just finished reworking Scene 14.
Some of the scenes just need a little polishing. Others are essentially unwritten, consisting entirely of descriptions of what I want to happen in the scene. Nearly all of the latter are action scenes. Scene 14 was one of these. In scene 14 the characters rush from one disaster to another... none of which disasters I'd actually written until this morning.
So I've been writing action scenes for the last several days. I don't do this at 1000k words an hour. I don't do it at half that speed. Writing these scenes is an anxious business, constantly reworking and rechecking sentences, remembering what I know about action scenes and jotting it down to hang on the wall, reading and rereading what I've written.
Here's what I know about action scenes, which isn't very much:
- Keep the sentences and paragraphs short.
- Don't rush through the action. Instead, draw it out to increase the tension. (As a writer I know puts it: “Make fast scenes slow and slow scenes fast.”)
- Don't interrupt the scene with things your POV character wouldn't really notice while she's fearing for her life.
- Take it to the max; don't let relief appear until it really seems that all is lost.
- Show your POV character's feelings; don't just describe movement.
I think part of my problem with action scenes is that I don't believe them. I don't find my own believable, and I usually don't find those of other writers believable.
Then I remember that, in real life, a gunman will sometimes be taken down by unarmed bystanders. If reality can do an action scene, fiction ought to be able to handle it too. Our job is to make the action believable.
Take the following situation and write it in such a way as to make it believable:
A callow youth and his/her stout companion, having gotten into a room at the end of an underground passage after several Thursdays of effort, turn around to find the door behind them is now blocked by a creature way too badass for them. (Dragon, troll, solicitress.)
There is no other exit from the room. Nonetheless, they manage to escape. Show us how, and make it believable.
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