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Good Advice For Great Action Scenes

Addison

Auror
While reading my newest book on writing I've found an interesting and helpful section on writing action sequences. The author, Deborah Chester, assigned the class to write two different scenes. One intended to excite and keep the attention, the other to bore and boo. When the time was up and students read their scenes, almost every single reading turned out the same.

The scene they wrote to excite BORED the class, while the scene to get Booed held their ATTENTION. Yeah, I read that twice. But the reason why was founded.

In their efforts to make the scenes exciting the students threw a lot of action, next to zero description and no details to engage the audience's mind. While when writing the "boring" scene they slowed down, took the time to make the details, describe character and setting.

I guess that's why in an article I found the first tip to revising a first draft was "Slow Down". Take a breath and look over the scene for the details. Even if you're writing a bloody sword fight, details are important.
 
Funny thing, I decided to check out Chester's writing, and popped open the intro to two books and:

Line 1: clouds scudded

Other book,

Line 2: clouds scudding

I found that oddly amusing. NOW! What would make this extra special is if in her book on writing she recommends against weather openings, heh heh.
 
While reading my newest book on writing I've found an interesting and helpful section on writing action sequences. The author, Deborah Chester, assigned the class to write two different scenes. One intended to excite and keep the attention, the other to bore and boo. When the time was up and students read their scenes, almost every single reading turned out the same.

The scene they wrote to excite BORED the class, while the scene to get Booed held their ATTENTION. Yeah, I read that twice. But the reason why was founded.

In their efforts to make the scenes exciting the students threw a lot of action, next to zero description and no details to engage the audience's mind. While when writing the "boring" scene they slowed down, took the time to make the details, describe character and setting.

I guess that's why in an article I found the first tip to revising a first draft was "Slow Down". Take a breath and look over the scene for the details. Even if you're writing a bloody sword fight, details are important.

Huh.

I don't dispute the conclusion, necessarily, but I do dispute the experiment and the reasoning that led to it.

A single scene is really different than a full story. In a full story, there are big spaces between the action where character, setting, etc. is developed. Where readers find out about the characters, where the stakes are laid, where the setting is developed. Not saying these things CAN'T happen in an action scene (they definitely can, and in fact, should.) But a story is longer. The things the readers care about are built up for a long time. Then, in an action scene, readers are tense, waiting to see what happens to the characters they love.

In a single scene, there's not time to develop the characters, the stakes, or anything. The readers would have to get to know the characters and care about them just through that one glimpse. In a lean, trimmed, sparsely detailed scene...readers would have nothing. All the focus is on the action, so we don't really know who the characters are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, or why to give a damn. In a fuller, more richly detailed scene, readers would learn more about the characters, and understand and know them better, and have more reason to care.

Nothing bores me faster than an opening full of flashy action but no character development. I just don't care if there's no one i know well enough to care about.

So it makes sense that the 'boring' scene was more interesting to the students than the 'exciting' scene. But I'm unconvinced that this translates to novel (or even short story) writing. I mean, in a novel, you can have the characters, their goals, the stakes, etc...already established before you plunge into an action scene. Extra detail filled in during the action mightn't be necessary.

Or maybe I'm saying all this because I like my action scenes fast paced, partly because I prefer to write those quieter scenes I was talking about where characters interact and converse and are developed that way, and kinda want to get the action over with.

Or maybe my opinion about how action scenes should be fast paced, is causing my dislike of writing action scenes...

Huh. Maybe there's something to this, then.
 
@DOTA:

You seem to be saying that the novel has the luxury of time to build up character, milieu, stakes, unlike a single scene with no other context, and this means that a novel permits a spare action scene with little description and detail.

Thus, the result of that experiment was skewed. Of course the scenes with more detail were viewed as exciting—the details could provide glimpses of character, milieu, stakes—and the scenes without that detail were viewed as boring.

There's probably some truth in that. However, for me it's not a 0 vs 100 dichotomy. The context provided by a novel might make a spare action scene more exciting for a reader than these experimental, spare scenes in isolation, but that same scene in the novel might be made even better with more detail.

But as they say, the devil's in the details. The types of details given, and how they are given, make the difference.

I think the issue is really about vividness and immersion. I wouldn't sell details short; in fact, I think this is one area where beginning and mediocre authors fall short themselves, heh.

In a single scene, there's not time to develop the characters, the stakes, or anything.

So...Yes and no. I think we can establish a connection to what's happening in a scene if we choose the right details even if the bigger picture (heh, the character's life history, the whole world milieu, the primary stakes in the whole plot/story) is not given. I recently watched an America's Got Talent performance that blew me away, of a 12-year-old boy named Merrick Hanna doing a 90-sec dance that told a story in a very compelling, emotionally charged way. Before the dance, I knew little about the kid, about the characters of the story, the song he used; but, in 90 seconds, a strong connection to the story was built. (Link.) Naturally, my reaction might not be everyone's reaction, heh. But I think that with the right details, the right triggers/tropes/whatever, an engaged interest with whatever's happening can be built.

Also, I often find that some new/mediocre writers depend far too much on that magical cloud of "engagement with the character." For me this is a bit like that issue with lures vs hooks that has cropped up in another thread:

In the same way some writers might offer up an exciting, unusual opening line as a putative "hook" but then think, hook now out of the way, the reader will automatically stay engaged for the next however many pages, some writers assume that establishment of interest in a character will automatically make any action scene involving that character interesting.

Well, it might. I wouldn't sell short emotional engagement with a character, either. :D But I don't think the job stops there.
 
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Follow-up to this ^.

Comparing storytelling in visual media and written media is interesting to me.

One might say that the visual and musical cues in that dance I linked made the difference. But for me, this signals the importance of details and description in written fiction. Similarly, a movie's action scene will have lots of visual cues, musical cues, camera work; we see the struggle in the actor's face, maybe his suffering, his scanning of the environment to find an advantage, and so forth. These cues tell us something about the stakes of that fight—the stakes of any given decision or action also!—and the character's emotional, mental, and physical condition.

Without the magic of the camera, what would be left? The riposte might be: Yeah, but I see BIG EXPLOSIONS and CGI all the time in very boring action scenes in movies. Yep. But the problem in that case is the way the cues are being used, or not used well to immerse the viewer.

But the advantage that written prose has is the way a reader will automatically fill in blanks, build a picture in his own imagination as he's reading—and a direct line to a character's thoughts blow-by-blow, feint and parry, wound and mistake.
 
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While when writing the "boring" scene they slowed down, took the time to make the details, describe character and setting.

This reminded me of this Writing Excuses podcast: Writing Excuses 9.6: The Experience of Time | Writing Excuses

Long story short: In moments of high tension, stress, high stakes, time will often seem to slow down, lots of details might be seen in a matter of real-time moments.

I've read action scenes that had lots of detail but didn't seem to slow down the pace or lose a sense of tension and still seemed to happen in a short time frame.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
One technique I use is the same one recommended for writing descriptions. Don't just describe the setting, describe what your MC would notice about the setting.

Same goes for combat. I try to think what this particular character would see (people get tunnel vision in stress situations), what they would feel, smell, hear.

Veterans around here may be getting tired of hearing me say this, but read Tolstoy's account of the Battle of Borodino. We do see large-scale framing narrative, even from Napoleon's POV, but the compelling bits for me were Prince Andrey falling on the battlefield, and poor Pierre at the cannons.
 
@ Fifthview, you might say authors are the directors of their work :)

Heh, and maybe cinematographer also.

I've been contemplating a separate thread relating to this and other recent topics. The basic idea is to keep the reader in mind, write for the reader. I'm thinking that's first and foremost what we should have in mind, although this may only be my own peculiar way of looking at things.

So for instance, in action scenes we could add elements that the character would see, hear, taste, feel, but in truth we are adding elements for the reader to experience. A character in theory could be focused on the sword coming at him; or, instead, while being aware of the sword he could hear the children whimpering behind him where they are huddling next to the wagon. He could taste the dust that's coating his mouth. Hear a hawk's screech overhead. Basically, as director and cinematographer, we get to decide the details we'll put into the scene, according to the effect we want.

Obviously, with a limited POV, either third or first, we do have some basic constraints. But for me, it's never so much about deciding the details on the basis of what the character would see as it is a decision about what we want to put into the scene for an effect. This can be done through the lens of the character's POV, once we've decided on those elements. So reader engagement, interest, experience of tension, and the like are not so much a result of tunnel vision through the character's senses but is a reaction to the whole scene that we've built.
 
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T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
Lot's of different ways to skin a cat, I suppose.

In my opinion, you'll get more bang for your buck in writing action scenes if you focus less on what happens in the scene and more on the emotional toll the action takes on characters.

Action without impact means nothing to me as a reader (or viewer for that matter), but if you can show what the action is doing to a character (beyond just the physical), well now you've got something that pulls me in deep.

In, short...
Less choreography. More feels.
 
Such a fine balance, to really get an action scene to play well. A technical fight scene can be interesting, but they grow old fast.

In movies, banter carries this torch: imagine the Princess Bride fight scenes without the jibber jabber, LOL. But there is a place for relatively pure action segments, too. But kept balanced

Lot's of different ways to skin a cat, I suppose.

In my opinion, you'll get more bang for your buck in writing action scenes if you focus less on what happens in the scene and more on the emotional toll the action takes on characters.

Action without impact means nothing to me as a reader (or viewer for that matter), but if you can show what the action is doing to a character (beyond just the physical), well now you've got something that pulls me in deep.

In, short...
Less choreography. More feels.
 

T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
A paragraph?

I thought we were discussing action scenes.

But, sure, a paragraph of pure action is probably even necessary at times. When it comes to scenes though, there needs to be so much more, and usually what I find lacking is the emotional connection. Emotion gives meaning.
 
The only bad action scenes I can remember reading were bad for reasons only somewhat related to a lack of detail.

The first: action scenes where what is happening, who is doing what, etc., becomes unclear. This is pretty much my biggest pet peeve when it comes to action scenes.

The second: the Mary Sue variety, where the heroes come in and quickly dispatch the foe. It's basically already a fait accompli, and for me it feels like going through the motions.

The first does suffer from a lack of detail, but that's clarifying detail, not what we've been talking about. (I think?)

The second suffers from a lack of detail insofar as having a real fight would require more words, heh, and I'm sure more details would accidentally, if not purposely, need to be added.

There are a great number of action scenes that are merely serviceable, don't fall into either of those two categories, that I'm usually fine with if I like the rest of the book and story. But many of these could have been better. But what can't be made better, heh?

Edit: I suppose I should clarify that I'm talking about fights of one sort or another. I seem to have a bias in thinking of "action scenes" as being "fight/battle scenes." Maybe I need to give a little more thought to other types of action scene. Also, I'm betting that my memory is off, since bad or boring action scenes I've read might have easily slipped into the void of forgetting.
 
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T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
I suppose I should clarify that I'm talking about fights of one sort or another. I seem to have a bias in thinking of "action scenes" as being "fight/battle scenes." Maybe I need to give a little more thought to other types of action scene.
A love scene, or maybe I should say a sex scene, can be an action scene.

If you think about it that way, what's important to the character? If it's no more than the pure physical sensation and "moves" (for the lack of a better word), then it's just porn. However, if there's emotion involved (and that emotion doesn't have to be the high school puppy love variety. There are many emotions that might be experienced in a sex scene, depending on character and context) then the sex may actually mean something.

That to me is far more interesting than a relaying of what happened.
 
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That's a great example.

Just before you'd posted that, I was reading over the Paul Atreides vs Jamis duel in Dune. It's a great example of what I like in a fight scene. Unfortunately, it's too long to post here. The book's in omniscient, head-hopping, so as the fight's about to begin, we have Paul analyzing what to expect. (He's not Fremen, is used to the body shield, etc.) But then much of the fight moves into his mother's perspective while she watches what happens. A lot of her thoughts and fears for her son. There's also the great cultural divide: This is a fight to the death, Paul's never killed before. Jessica realizes this. After drawing first blood, Paul asks if Jamis will yield, prompting Stilgar to call a pause while he tells Paul that it's a fight to the death, no yielding. There are angry murmurs from the crowd also as things progress. They think Paul's toying with Jamis, whereas Paul is hesitant to kill. Stilgar says as much. Etc. Lots going on besides the mere movements of the two combatants.

Edit: But I'm very cautious in thinking "What's important to the character" is the most important question. What's important to the reader is a better question. What the characters feel and think may be important to the reader, heh. But these details we give are for the reader, to help build the whole scene for the reader. This may seem like a fine line, and I suppose that writing from the perspective of "What is important to the character," "What does the character see, hear, feel," and so forth will often naturally lead to the inclusion of details that will also interest the reader, gain the reader's attention.

A love scene, or maybe I should say a sex scene, can be an action scene.

If you think about it that way, what's important to the character? If it's no more than the pure physical sensation and "moves" (for the lack of a better word), then it's just erotica. However, if there's emotion involved (and that emotion doesn't have to be the high school puppy love variety. There are many emotions that might be experienced in a sex scene, depending on character and context) then the sex may actually mean something.

That to me is far more interesting than a relaying of what happened.
 
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T.Allen.Smith

Staff
Moderator
That's a great example.

Just before you'd posted that, I was reading over the Paul Atreides vs Jamis duel in Dune. It's a great example of what I like in a fight scene. Unfortunately, it's too long to post here. The book's in omniscient, head-hopping, so as the fight's about to begin, we have Paul analyzing what to expect. (He's not Fremen, is used to the body shield, etc.) But then much of the fight moves into his mother's perspective while she watches what happens. A lot of her thoughts and fears for her son. There's also the great cultural divide: This is a fight to the death, Paul's never killed before. Jessica realizes this. After drawing first blood, Paul asks if Jamis will yield, prompting Stilgar to call a pause while he tells Paul that it's a fight to the death, no yielding. There are angry murmurs from the crowd also as things progress. They think Paul's toying with Jamis, whereas Paul is hesitant to kill. Stilgar says as much. Etc. Lots going on besides the mere movements of the two combatants.

Yes, exactly. You provide a fine example.

I remember that scene from reading it long ago. It stuck with me, and writing like that is one of the reason's that Herbert's story has stood the test of time, even written in an uncommon (for modern standards) POV choice like omniscient.

Why?

Because it invoked emotion.
 
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