Sunday, September 13, 2009

How to Write Action Scenes

by James Scott Bell

Recently I participated in a panel discussion with some fellow thriller writers. During the Q & A we got this question from the floor: How can I learn to write a good action scene?

I answered first. I told the questioner to take advantage of all the elements of fiction writing ­­–- dialogue, internal thoughts, description and action -- and use them to show us what's happening inside and outside the viewpoint character.

I recommended he read how Dean Koontz does it, especially in what is considered his breakout bestseller, Whispers (1980). There Koontz has an action scene (an attempted rape) that lasts 17 pages (that's right, 17 pages!) all taking place within the close confines of a house.

Another panelist protested (in a good natured and professional manner). He said action needs to be "realistic." For instance, when a gunshot is fired nobody has time to think. It all happens too fast. If they're shot, the pain comes, and they will not be reflecting on anything. They'll just be in pain.

This was grist for a great discussion. I licked my chops but, unfortunately, we were at the end of the panel and time was called. I never got a chance to respond. Now I do.

I would have said, first, that a gunshot does not cover the wide spectrum of action. In the Koontz scene from Whispers we have someone stalking the Lead. No guns. So that example is of limited value.

But further, and even more important: fiction is not reality! Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for an emotional effect.

That's so important I'll say it again: Fiction is the stylized rendition of reality for an emotional effect.

Reality is boring. Reality is not drama. Reality is to be avoided at all costs ("We must stay drunk on writing," Ray Bradbury once said, "so reality does not destroy us.")

Hitchcock's Axiom holds that a great story is life with the dull parts taken out. Reality has dull parts. Lots of them. Fiction, if it works, does not.

A thriller writer wants the reader to believe he or she is vicariously experiencing the story. We use techniques to engage the reader's emotions all along the way. If there is no emotional hook, there is no thrill, no matter how "real" the writing seems.

Let's have a look at a couple of clips from Whispers. Hilary Thomas, a successful screenwriter, comes home to discover that Bruno Frye, someone she'd met once, is waiting for her, and not for a game of cribbage.

She cleared her throat nervously. "What are you doing here?"

"Came to see you."

"Why?"

"Just had to see you again."

"About what?"

He was still grinning. He had a tense, predatory look. His was the smile of the wolf just before it closed its hungry jaws on the cornered rabbit.

Koontz breaks into the dialogue exchange for some description. The effect is like slow motion, which is another key to a good action scene. In essence, you slow down "real time" to create the feeling and tone you desire.

He took a step toward her.

She knew then, beyond doubt, what he wanted. But it was crazy, unthinkable. Why would a wealthy man of his high social position travel hundreds of miles to risk his fortune, reputation, and freedom for one brief violent moment of forced sex?

Now Koontz inserts a thought. In real time, when a rapist takes a step toward a victim, there would probably be no reflection, no pondering. But fiction enhances moments like this. Koontz is stretching the tension. He wants the reader taut while furiously flipping pages.

But 17 of them? Is Koontz insane? Or is he one of the best selling writers in history for a reason?

In fact, Koontz is a consummate pro who knows exactly what he's doing. He even names it a couple of pages in:

Abruptly, the world was a slow-motion movie. Each second seemed like a minute. She watched him approach as if he were a creature in a nightmare, as if the atmosphere had suddenly become thick as syrup.

That, my friends, is stylization for emotional effect. If you'd like to grumble about that –– complain that it isn't "like reality" –– you may send your objections directly to Dean Koontz, who gives his address in the back of his books.

Let me know what he says.

Meanwhile, if you're looking to sell your fiction, learn to use the tools. Especially in actions scenes.

So what about you? Any writers you think do action particularly well? What makes an action scene work for you?

16 comments:

  1. The first thing I thought of was reading material critique that has an action scene. The writer speeds through the action at break-neck speed, using a lot of short sentences and finishing in half a page. He thinks it's exciting, and I think it falls flat.

    I'm writing in omniscient viewpoint for my current WIP (one of the reasons being the action scenes, which have four characters). I found that it I tried to oversee all the characters at once, I tended to get distance. So I ended up making sure I followed one character throughout the scene. I have an action scene coming up, so I'll be thinking about this post.

    Linda Adams
    http://garridon.wordpress.com/

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  2. Linda, I think that's absolutely the right choice. Readers need to bond with someone in the scene, and keeping the POV limited and warm is the way to go.

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  3. I may read action scenes through the first time at breakneck speed, because I must, but (especially with Koontz) I go back and try to study the detail and depth and pacing the author uses. Koontz is a master.

    Great post, Sir James. I've printed this one out.

    Thanks.

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  4. Thank you for this excellent advice. It was so helpful, and the Koontz example was dead-on.
    Isn't it interesting that when people are living through a sudden traumatic event, like a car crash, time often does this same thing - - slows down until it's almost not moving forward? So when we write, we should be recreating THAT sensation for readers, instead of putting them on the high-octane bullet train to tragedy.
    Thank you again for this thoughtful advice.

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  5. Terrific post, Jim. I was in the audience for that panel, and I, too, thought that the "reality" comment was off the mark--not just in a literary sense, but in a literal one. Back during my fire service decades, I logged a few life-threatening moments, and to this day, I remember even the smallest details with excrutiating clarity. I heard a medical doctor lecture one time on the human fight-or-flight mechanism--one of the few true human instincts--and that clarity of detail, the sense of the world slowing down, is part of it. The body's entire chemistry shifts to handle lethal threats, allowing the brain to process far more information in a shorter period of time. As I heard the doctor speak, it occurred to me that there's a great analogy slow motion in film, which is achieved by over-cranking the camera and then playing the result at normal speed.

    On the craft side of things, the final chapters of my books tend to be extended action sequences. My latest, NO MERCY, features simultaneous assaults in a sequence that lasts for 77 pages (even longer if you count the build-up and preparation). The trick to pulling off that much action over an extended is just as Linda and you suggest: to tell each section of the sequence from the point of view of single characters. That way, the reader has a continuing emotional investment in what is going on.

    John Gilstrap
    www.johngilstrap.com

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  6. Terrific post! I often will write my action scenes way too fast not taking the time to stretch the tension as I should. That's okay for a rough draft, but I MUST go back and expound to create anything worth reading. Great reminder, Jim. I'm learning that to write action scenes, I must slow things way down.

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  7. Great comments, all. Sibella and John, thanks for confirming that physiological reality. Having read John's books, I can add his name to the list of exemplars, right up there with the Dean. Study these examples, and others. And when you've got the elements of a great action scene, stretch out that tension for all it's worth.

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  8. I have a number of action scenes in my WIP. I'm learning a lot from your post and the other people's comments. Thanks.

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  9. Good for you, Bob. I know that will give your fiction a jolt. Don't you just love jolts?

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  10. I think the thing that grabs my attention the most when reading an action scene is the way the scene is described. If it is a well researched descriptive scene, I get sucked in. If it is vague, I don't get into it. A good example would be the action scenes described in Heath Daniels'
    latest book "Three Kisses." The author’s insight to the places in the book makes it so much more real- really held my attention.

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  11. I need action I can see, not be told about. That's my big bugaboo - when the author stops all the forward momentum to TELL me something. Nice post, Jim!

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  12. Sorry I'm late to this post, but...

    I had the opportunity to interview thriller master David Morrell a couple years ago and we discussed topic. One of the things David said, and I agree completely, is that it's a bad thing when writing action to depend on physical description totally. What David likes to do, and I remember the scene, although I don't remember which book it's from, is to make sure he's utilizing the senses. So in one of his books his two professional killers find themselves in a pitch-black room, dependent totally on sound, vibration, and touch, maybe even smell, to figure out where their opponent is. It's a remarkable scene and a lesson for all of us.

    For anyone who's either been in a fight, whether accidentally or via some martial art, or been in some sort of violent situation knows, your senses get heightened and narrow all at the same time. If I'm sparring in karate, I practically get tunnel vision (not a good thing) so I barely notice outside things, but I might notice a lot of odd details with the people I'm sparring with.

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  13. First time I had a gun pointed at me I remember seeing the details of individual hairs on the dude's head. I also remember the tingly sensation in my bowels and the distinct impression of foot prints in the gravel even though it was dark. Lot's of detail in the time-stretched moment of panic.

    btw - luckily, gun-dude was on my side...just a mistaken identity on a dark night

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  14. JT, thanks for stopping by, you action maven, you.

    Mark--Morrell really is a master at this, another one to study.

    Basil--tingly sensation in the bowels. Now there's a sensory detail worth writing home about.

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  15. Great blog post. I love how you provide good, practical advice. Thanks! As for action, T.L. Hines (WAKING LARARUS, among others) writes a pretty good action scene. Dan Brown, Eric Van Lustbader (The Bourne Betrayal, among others), too. Koontz, of course, is probably my favorite. To echo some others, action comes alive when we immerse readers in the sensory details of the action, when we narrow the focus to one person's limited perspective (the one most in danger, the one we care about the most, the one who stands to lose the most). It's this intimate visceral experience readers crave.

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  16. You could always turn to the man Koontz thinks is the master of suspense. I forget the authors name, but he mentions it in his book on writing, written in the 70s. I think he mentions it on his website as well.

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