Technique Wreckingball: Why Your Action Sequences Suck…

…Because they probably do. If there is just one thing (and trust me, there isn’t) that really annoys me, but seems people just cannot help themselves, it’s terribly flat action in fiction. Maybe it’s my predilection to Asian cinema, or, my enjoyment of pulp adventures, or maybe, just maybe, I like to read stories that aren’t terrible, but I expect action sequences to be fun, tense, and to have…action. I have written this guide in hopes that I can share some good rules of thumb, and some decent mechanics for writing action so that people I’d otherwise have to kill for writing such refuse can continue living.

Let’s get on with ‘er, eh?

Zip-Pow-Bam

The four-color sound effects made popular by classic comic books and Adam West’s Batman worked because those were visual mediums. They weren’t just black words on a white page. The viewer didn’t need any extra written context to understand what was going on in those panels or scenes. In writing it is (or it should be) completely different. We have no visuals to give more meaning to the action.

Therefore, we should all pay attention to that little Maxim Miss Granola taught us all for third grade creative writing: “show, don’t tell.”

Miss Granola – despite being a bit too into Shakespearean tragedies and smelling vaguely like week old douche – had a point.

In no other time than during action is showing so important. Don’t just tell me Zero-n punched Mr. Miraclepants. How did he punch him? Did he ball his fists together, smashing them down across Mr. MP’s spine like a wreckingball through stale concrete? How did Mr. MP react? Don’t tell me he feel to his knees in pain. Tell me that his back splintered like balsa wood, empty cracks exploding at his knees as he buckled to the ground. Give me something real, something with flavor.

Now, some writers will argue that we should hold back, instead letting our readers imagine a sequence, us, simply guiding them where to embellish. Do not do this. Most readers aren’t bright enough to imagine anything more than “a punch was thrown.” You needn’t paint them the Mona Lisa, but at least, color in the lines.

However, it’s not simply the reader’s imagination that sucks harder than a Dyson (look at me, showing restraint), it’s oftentimes the writer’s as well. Most writer’s don’t properly understand what a punch is, instead what they know is a punch is a balled fist to the face, gut, or, if you want to win, the testicles. That’s the extent of thought ever invested in what a punch is.

There are ways to improve this, however:

  • Take martial arts classes (you’ll drop the gut also).
  • If you can’t do that, at least study fighting styles as best you can. It will help you understand the difference between a punch or an uppercut, all the better to help you describe it.
  • Watch films with decent action sequences. Pause, rewind, add garlic where needed. Take notes.
  • Buy an anatomy book or two. Knowing muscles is important to understanding how to script muscles in motion.
  • Act it out. You’ll look retarded, but the cute barista at Starbucks will never know (unless your roommate has a webcam).
  • Illustrate it. Storyboards are good, and sometimes describing something is easier than fabricating it. Sadly, stick figures won’t get you anywhere.
  • Add potpourri. Saturate with extra visuals and color, then remove to taste.

If you can do these exercises, it may put more thought into what you’re writing. It may also give a reader more thought into what they’re reading. Description is key.

One last thing to note, is, just because you know what a kick is, or what an uppercut is, and you’re sure your reader does too, you may want to still take some time to describe it.

Furthermore, this of course, extends to other types of action, not just combat. Want to write explosions? Much as I hate the guy, throw in a Michael Bay film.

We don’t talk about Fight Club

But we DO feel it, smell it, see it, hear it, taste it. And know that it has cause and effect.

Just because it’s action, and we’re intent on making it ‘completely badass’ doesn’t give use carte blanche to leave our brains at home. Remember your senses: How would a nose being shattered under a fist feel? A bit like glass shattering under a thin film of flesh? How does it smell? Does it smell? Would the attacker smell sweet victory like a fragrance of cotton candy? Would the victim smell it? Would the aroma of the world choke and die under the pungency of rust? Would it join the strong vinegar taste now in his mouth? How does it sound? Does it sound like a punctured tire, exploding free from rim?

Maybe not, or maybe, but don’t ignore it. Even if there’s an absence of senses – hand grenade going off nearby, maybe – don’t forget to note that.

Also, don’t forget that it takes two to tango. It’s okay to ignore the protagonist, describe the antagonist’s senses. Maybe joining the pain of a victim would help it resonate with a reader also.

Speaking of dancing…

It’s pretty much like dancing

Successful action sequences, like dancing or playing the drums are all about rhythm. Action sequences in film pretty much have a few things in common. They’re usually very tense, quickly moving from titillating sequence to another and killer soundtracks. We don’t have any drum and bass at our disposal (the best we have are talking birthday cards), but we can keep things tense, pushing the action from one high-def moment to another, shoving adrenaline enemas into every unsuspecting reader.

As much as I rambled on above about filling out – like all the girls coming back from summer vacation, sophomore year – you CAN overdo it and kill the mood. So, do your best Barry White, sing a little action sequence, and keep the honeys salivating.

Confused? Fair enough. If, during action sequences, you fall too in love with your newly accumulated exposition, sentences will all start to run-on, and that tension you’d like to build up dies a cruel death. As much as description helps, the tension and excitement is more important.

That doesn’t mean, slip a “he punched,” (zzzz…) in there, but do mix it up. Take a long sentence and follow it up with a fragment, something short, but still vivid.

I’m convinced that you can’t write good action without breaking a whole buncha grammar rules.

It’s okay.

In action, you might want to think of yourself more like a movie director. Be less conscious of the fact that you’re using words and there’s syntax for that and more conscious of the fact that you can control what your readers read and how they do it. Like I said, use fragments; use one word sentences, hell, one word paragraphs. Use a big paragraph full of choppy, short sentences to propel a reader through action at breakneck pace, then, use several one word paragraphs to build anticipation before sliding into more mayhem.

If you want to make the action move along even quicker, try rhyming, consonance, assonance, write in Spanish, anything that helps the words roll off the tongue even faster.

Build your pace, your rhythm. If you don’t, your readers can’t. Give it a few dry runs, too. Like any good singer, there’s rehearsal.

The youthful beauty flashed a subdued, harmlessly sensual smile before disappearing into darkness down the narrow channel. Ammunition peppered the spot where the girl had been.

Her slight frame wafted gently down to the next level below much like a feather. The lead chopper were much quicker and swooped down to meet her nose-to-nose. Bullets wrenched by – invisible under the spotlight bath – leaving scars all around their prey in the building behind. The young girl smiled and charged directly into the din.

Her muscles tensed and popped, her joints chambered; her lithe motions carved a path toward the attacking chopper. Her feet crested the edge, tension exploded free, she fired across the gap. The bath of light melted down her skin like hot wax, her skin crackled and burned; outstretched wingspan narrowed; yearning fingers wrangled the steel mask across the spotlight face. Girl and lamp pivoted, metal agonized, shrieked and tried to shake its dangling tormentor loose toward the bloodlust asphalt beneath.

The young girl pitched her legs up to her chest and heaved the heavy light back and forth.

She waited. Just a little longer. The timing had to be perfect.

Pounding footfalls of the trail chopper marched closer.

Now.

She heaved one last time, hinged her knees on the chopper’s landing strut and pinned the spotlight to the belly of the craft. With a curt tug sideways the spotlight ripped through the thick cloak of night and tore into the dark flesh of the advancing trail chopper.

Confusion pierced the whirlybird, it yawed sidelong.

Muffled frantic blather crackled through two-way static and the heavy whips of binary propeller blades.

The trail chopper careened imperfectly toward the girl.

Her lips fanned, displaying her perfectly white, girlish teeth. She released her hold on the spotlight.

From A2: Onitsuka Lola – ‘Edifice People’

3 thoughts on “Technique Wreckingball: Why Your Action Sequences Suck…

  1. Pingback: empty steel drums | Digg hot tags

  2. Nice post about action sequences and your observations on how to approach writing them were very well thought out.

    I’m always amused at the number of writers I know (and you probably know a few of them yourself) who maintain they like to write action but can’t pull it off very well.

    Your method of using short choppy paragraphs and sentences in action sequences is one I’ve been using for years. By doing so, you force the reader’s eyes to move faster, thereby creating the illusion of speeded up action. The thicker, longer paragraphs and longer sentences force the reader to slow down, letting them know subconsciously that the kiss kiss bang bang is over.

    ReplyReply
  3. @Derrick:

    Yeah, this was something I knew I wanted to post about as soon as the blog went live. At times, I feel as though action is the only thing I’m good at, and that, yeah it’s pretty strong.

    Also, (referring to the pool of writers we both know) it’s something too many people aren’t good at.

    Which, maybe it is a whole different skill set, but, it’s always amazed me how poorly action is written. It’s not that hard.

    So, yeah, I just went about giving some failproof suggestions.

    It’s completely true that I will approach sequences (even non-action) like a director allowing me to have a better concept of my pace (which happens to shine more during action).

    Yeah, there’s no doubt I’ve noticed the quicker, choppier sentences in your work. A few others, too. It just makes plain old sense in action and works like a charm, don’t it?

    ReplyReply

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