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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