Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fists of Fury: Writing Action Scenes That Take Your Breath Away

I just got back from the Alaska Young Writer's Conference where I presented a workshop on the title of this blog. Wow, were those kids awesome. So much talent in their teenage minds I was inspired. There were a couple who I am certain will be household names in the not too distant future. What follows is the text of the handouts with notes and tools I hope you find useful.

Action scenes serve a powerful function in your fiction. A surprise phone call, an unexpected visit, or an ill-timed delay will force your character to respond quickly (rather than reflect), and allows you to advance the plot without miring it in long descriptive passages and explanations.

While physical contact, combat, fights etc are what comes to mind when we think of action scenes that is not the only kind of action scene that can become heart thumping. Action scenes can be any from those types, to a verbal argument between characters, a person struggling to climb a mountain, a car chase, someone hiding from the bad guys. 

The key to writing action scenes is to make sure that something happens that impels your protagonist to act, reveals their capacity to deal with problems, and affects future events in the story. “The only requirement of an action scene is that it rely in part upon physical movement through the space you’ve created, and evoke a sense of time passing,” says Jordan E. Rosenfeld, author of Make a Scene. To make your reader feel like he is part of the action, try these techniques from the book:

•Ensure that the events unfold in “real time,” allowing the reader to feel he is participating in the events of the scene.
• Make the pace quick, and include some kind of physical movement.

•Force the protagonist to make quick decisions or react—to run on instinct rather than intellect.

•Create unexpected consequences for the protagonist to heighten the drama.

The Rules For a Good Fight Scene
1. Have competent opponents. It won't be a very enjoyable read if your hero is a far better fighter than his opponents. A respected opponent makes for a good fight. Mindless minions getting mowed down gets boring, fast. Have the opponent pull surprises. This holds true for verbal altercations as well. 
  • If the enemy does come in seemingly endless waves, show the effect on the protagonists. The constant fighting is wearing them down, they're low on ammo, they're injured, etc.

2. Make it real. Real fighters don't stop to make speeches. In real life, while the adrenaline is pumping, people won't have the energy to compose devious and witty lines. Instead there will be grunts, growls and expletives. Swearing is common, instinctive and often violent. When someone gets kicked in the jaw, or hit with a headbutt, they're not likely to just shrug it off as though nothing has happened. When your hero gets hit, make sure your readers can "feel" the hit.

3. Word Choice. Consider carefully the effect that your words have on the reader when it comes to perceptions.
  • Long detailed sentences slow the pace and can make a death-match sound like a pillow fight. 
  • Short sentences with little extraneous detail create a faster, more frantic tempo. With short choppy lines you can make a reader breath to the rhythm of the battle, make them actually physically affected by what they're reading.
  • Let the reader use their imagination to visualize the scene. Less description and more action.

4. Spice up your verbs.
  • Verbs are the bread and butter of every action scene. After all, action scenes need action words. or some similar site is a wonderful tool for this.
  • If you just used the word block, try using “parry” next. Make use of energetic like “streaked”, “slammed”, or “punched.”

5. Show the effect of the fight once it is over
  • After the fight, is your hero injured? Is he bleeding? Did he break an arm? What about the other combatants? 
  • If your fighter walks away afterwards as though nothing has happened, then he is either a robot, or you are missing some detail.

Here is a sample scene from my novel MIDNIGHT SUN.

   Leka charged from behind, knife in hand. His ears ringing wildly, Warner barely heard the thump of boots on floor. He attempted to roll away from Leka's powerful hammer hands a moment too late. Warner's arm flew up to deflect the knife thrust. The blade came fast, slicing muscle and sinew between the radius and ulna. Warner let out a bellowing roar and jammed the butt of his pistol into the muscular Kosovar's skull. Leka roared back and hammered his fist into Warner's forehead, smacking the agent into the wall and jarring his pistol loose. It spun across the floor with a clatter.

   Leka jabbed a fist toward Warner's gut, and the agent raised his leg to deflect the blow. Leka’s knuckles cracked against Warner's knee. Both men shouted in pain-filled fury. Grunting back the agony in his arm, the knife had wedged solidly between the bones of his forearm, Warner grabbed Leka's shirt and used the man's own body weight to leverage him across and away. Leka countered by grabbing Warner's clothes. The two men toppled to the ground in a seething mass of grappling and growling like a cage-fight death match. Their faces pressed against each other, grinding jawbones into each other like weapons, using every part of their anatomy as a tool of inflicting pain. Fingernails gouged into skin. Knees pressed to thigh muscles and groin. Elbows dug into ribs. Warner bit Leka's ear, drawing blood and eliciting a howl. Leka grabbed the knife handle protruding from the other's arm. Warner let out a scream and drove a thumb into Leka's eye, then repeatedly jammed a knee into his groin. Leka reacted to the testicle blow, loosening his grip enough for Warner to roll into the upper position and drive an elbow into Leka's solar plexus.

So, with these tools now in hand it's your turn to give it a try. In the comments below post a fight scene, just a paragraph or two and let's see if you can make my heart thump faster.


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Friday, October 11, 2013

The #1 Rule for Writers

Now that we know some of the basics of getting the layout of the story it’s time to actually start writing the story itself. Way back in 2006 I wrote my first novel, Karl’s Last Flight. I was excited. I knew I had achieved the dream and was going to make millions when it sold, which would of course be immediately. I started submitting it to agents and publishers and got nothing but dozens of rejections. I couldn’t figure out why. Then one agent, who had requested the manuscript to read got back to me with the most confusing statement I’d ever heard.

“Learn show, don’t tell.”

As writers we tend to like to describe things with words. Flowery descriptions of beautiful landscapes, or character’s bodies, or the scene in a room seem to sound natural to us. When reading classical literature, or even modern ‘literary works’ (more on the difference between literary & commercial fiction in another post), we often find ourselves stepping into such descriptive texts.

The problem with overly describing a scene is that we are taking the reader out of the story and sitting them in a lecture hall. We are telling them what they are seeing, instead of letting them see it by engaging the visual part of their imagination.

Here’s an example of Telling:

Stressed from a long day at the office Bill opened the door and cringed at the sound of the hinges creaking as it swung inward. He thought about the need to fix that awful noise as he stepped into the house. The hallway was long and straight, stretching all the way to the other end of the house where he could see through the back screen door into the yard where his kids bounced on the backyard trampoline. Next to the door stood a tall wooden coat rack with a hat and an umbrella on the other hooks. He took off his coat and hung it on the nearest hook. Next to the coat rack was a dark wood table with a scratched surface on which he put his keys next to a china vase filled with porcelain replicas of roses. He stepped down the hallway, shoes clicking on the marble tiled surface as he made his way toward the kitchen. The smell of his wife’s cooking filled the air around him causing his stomach to gurgle in hunger.

And here’s the same story being Shown:

Bill cringed at the creaky hinges of his front door. The wrinkles in his brow deepened.

Gotta get that fixed.

He dropped his jacket on the empty hook of the old-fashioned coat rack between the hat and the umbrella that kept it company. A flick of the wrist and his keys skidded across the nearby wooden table adding a couple new scars to the surface as they chinked to a stop against a china vase, the vibration eliciting a tinkly song from the porcelain roses packed into it. A draft snaked down the long hall from the screen door at the opposite end, snatching the scent of his wife’s cooking from the kitchen and sending it swirling around his head. Reflected shadows rose and on the polished marble floor as the lowering sun back lit his kids’ wild bouncing. Their gleeful laughter vibrated the length of the house, erasing the stress that followed him home from the office. That trampoline was the best thing he’d ever bought.

See the difference? The key to writing a story people can get immersed in is letting their imagination build the pictures by showing action rather than describing the scene. This is something that takes a lot of time and practice to learn, but as you get it down it becomes the natural way to write.

There are many great resources out there that can help you get a really solid grip on how to do it, such as those written by my friends James Scott Bell and Jodie Renner that can help immensely. The biggest and best tool though is to read good authors who make it zing. Some of my favorite examples of well written fiction that hits the mark are the works of Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, Louis L’Amour, and Nelson Demille. Oh, and how could I forget the inestimable Terry Pratchett? Pratchett is able to paint wonderful pictures with actions of his characters that will have you alternately in awe and rolling on the floor laughing.

What about you? What authors have you found that hit the style that paints the pictures best in your mind?
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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The End of All Things: Getting from the middle to the end, and closing your story.

Over the past few weeks I’ve brought up the two of the three basic components of a story: The Beginning, and The Middle. Today we’re going to wrap up the storytelling trifecta discussing the words all writers are aiming for… The End.

There are two ways to look at endings. First would be the ending of a standalone story. Second is the dual ending that indicates a series. We’ll step into some detail about both of these types of writing.

Whether it’s a novel, a short story, or even a flash fiction piece like those from last week’s competition. Standalone stories are those that are told from start to finish in a single book. They are stories that need to be wrapped up satisfactorily such that the reader feels like the story is indeed over. These stories may be part of a series, but can still be classed as standalones in that each book does not require a previous story be read to get to know the characters. Examples of basic standalone novels would be Stephen King’s or Sandra Brown’s books. Standalone series writers include folks like Lee Child, whose Reacher series or Ian Fleming’s Bond books. Those can be picked up at any point in the series and read as individual stories on their own merit, or read in any order without ruining the story line.

Having a good ending in paramount in any novel. Notice: Good Ending does not necessarily equal Happy Ending. This is an important distinction to remember depending upon the format, the audience, and the genre of the story.

Format is important because depending on the length of the story (novel, novella, short, flash, etc) you may or may not have room to build a happy ending. But an ending that leaves most of the closure to the imagination, preferably in an easy to imagine way, can be just as satisfying.  Not all genres demand a happy ending either. Quite often thrillers, horror and crime stories end with a good, but decidedly unhappy ending where the good guys are badly injured or perhaps even die, the town is destroyed, etc. The old Twilight Zone episodes were terrific for this type of satisfying but not very happy ending where the viewer was left with the knowledge that rather than things going nicely for the hero of the story he/she ends up going mad instead and being carted away in a straightjacket. The classic William Shatner Episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” is a perfect example of this.

One the other hand some books in those same genres are perfectly good with happy endings. It all depends on the preferences and style of the author, and what you want your audience to feel when then put the book down at the end. The point here is that you don’t have to end with everyone smiling and hugging and rainbows in the sky for it to be a satisfying ending. One of my favourite books of all time, and probably the closest thing to a romance I’ll ever admit to reading, is The Thorn Birds. No spoilers here, but that book had one of the least happy, yet most satisfying endings I’ve ever enjoyed.

Ongoing Series

Now, for series books the rules above apply, but there is the additional aspect that the story does not end at the end of the first book. The reader is left with that ever popular dilemma know as … Duh, Duh, Duuuhnnn … The Cliffhanger!

Ongoing series books are those that carry a single story, and usually multiple side stories, from one book to the next building on each preceding story usually with the characters growing or otherwise changing throughout the series. Great examples of this type of building series include writers like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, or Ken Follet’s Centuries Series where we watch the characters grow from young to old over the course of three, four, or more books. One of my favorite historical fiction writers, Bernard Cornwell, took twenty one books to lead Richard Sharpe from being an illiterate private in Wellington’s Army in India to retiring as a highly literate Colonel after the Napoleanic Wars. In each book Sharpe grew older, wiser and stronger. But each individual book in the series also had to have some sort of ending that closed that story satisfactorily.

The key with keeping an ongoing series running yet having that good ending to each book is to have multiple simultaneous endings for each title.  This also means having multiple plot lines for each book. One plot line would be the main theme that carries on throughout the entire series, in Sharpe’s case watching him grown from slum kid to famous soldier and wondering how he will survive each thing as he moves through, this will be the cliffhanger that makes the reader want to learn more about the character of your story.

In addition to that main theme there has to be a more urgent plot line that runs through only the one book and has all of the ups and down and twists of a standalone book. This theme, it could also be multiple themes, should have closure by the end of the book.  For example the first book of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has three minor theme endings:

1. Robb becomes King of the North

2. John ‘takes the black’ and joins The Wall

3.  Daenerys becomes The Mother of Dragons

Those minor endings each close out the book with a sense of satisfaction, while still allowing the cliffhanger that will introduce the next books…still in the making.

So, there you have it. Endings are uber-important.

Whether your books are individual episodes with no expectation of ever meeting those characters again, or if they are ongoing series that will pull readers back time and again, you have to end each book with a bang that signals the party is over.

Next week …. How to make your stories seem alive AKA… “Show Don’t Tell”.

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