Action Writing

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rlago
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Action Writing

Postby rlago » Mon Nov 06, 2017 9:45 am

Hello there everybody,

I am interested in writing down some "action scenes" in my (very amateurish) sci-fi novel. That might sound funny, but the main problem is that... I don't read that many sci-fi novels myself, and I have no knowledge of any "reputable action writer".

I've tried to come up with my own "style" for the action scenes, and as a result, I get machine-gunned with "you're full of coma splices/run-on sentences." The problem is that I often describe many things happening at once, and splitting the sentences ruin the sense of simultaneity. A general format would be:
"He did X, Y and Z [describes something or someone's reaction to Z]."
A more concrete example:
"Jhon drew his blade, dodged her attack and lurched towards her at such a speed that Jane could scarcely follow his moves."
Sometimes, I use present participle instead:
"Jhon drew his blade while dodging her attack and lurching towards her; his speed was such that Jane could scarcely follow his moves."

Notice that those sentences are describing slightly different things: in the first sentence, the "at such speed (...)" refers to the "lurch" action, whereas in the second, it refers to "his speed" in general. Sometimes I cannot "convert" from the first to the second, or vice-versa.

I've asked some people (in person) how to write this kind of complex scene, with many things happening at once, potentially with multiple actors. Usually the reply is something on the lines "just don't!" But that's not much answering the question, now, is it? :P I'm open to suggestions. Also, if someone could recommend me an author who writes this kind of action novels, I'd be glad!
Slainte!

T.A.Rodgers
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Re: Action Writing

Postby T.A.Rodgers » Mon Nov 06, 2017 10:33 am

You answered your own question in your first paragraph. If you are writing sci-fi, you need to read sci-fi. You need to read at least 100 novels in the genre you want to write in before you start to understand the layout of that genre.

Forget the semi colons.

Look up bestselling authors of sci-fi. Look up the best 100 sci-fi novels ever written. Get to reading. :)

rlago
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Re: Action Writing

Postby rlago » Mon Nov 06, 2017 10:41 am

This question in specific doesn't have much to do with sci-fi. Its more related to action. The sample I wrote is actually related to swords, which are hardly sci-fi-specific. On the other side, I'm an avid fantasy/historical novels reader (Conn Igulden, Bernard Cornwell, Tolkien) but those usually do not describe the action scenes in rich details. They focus on the outcome of the actions, rather than the actions themselves.

Which brings us to the last sentence of my original post :P

Just picking up random stuff would be dangerous. I tend to like bad writers.

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ostarella
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Re: Action Writing

Postby ostarella » Mon Nov 06, 2017 11:52 am

I've written quite a few action scenes (ie, fight scenes) and the first thing to understand is that normal sentence structure is generally counter-productive. You don't want to "describe" the actions taken - you want to grab the reader by the throat and drag them into the action. Don't narrate it - experience it. Actions count but what are the characters thinking, feeling? Describing the motions makes the reader a spectator - you want them to be a participant. Use short sentences and sentence fragments, saving those more "normal" sentences for the "take a deep breath before diving back in" moments.

"Jhon drew his blade, dodged her attack and lurched towards her at such a speed that Jane could scarcely follow his moves."

The pacing of that sentence is very, very slow. He doesn't draw his blade and then dodge the attack - it's either the reverse or, more likely, simultaneous. How did he dodge the attack? Stepped aside or rolled under her thrust? His "lurch" toward her is over before the reader gets to the end of the sentence. And does he actually "lurch" or is it a deliberate counter-attack?

Pacing is everything. You want the reader out of breath and exhilarated (or exhausted) at the end of the scene. That's when you can slow down and give characters and readers both a chance to regroup.

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Re: Action Writing

Postby RobTheThird » Mon Nov 06, 2017 1:24 pm

OK, so instead of taking the advice, or not, you're going to argue.

Look, I'm not trying to be argumentative right back at you. I'm trying to point out that you asked for help. You really have two choices, and only two. Accept the help offered, or don't. Trying to correct someone else's attempt to help you is a form of not accepting. AND it likely won't get you what you want.

> I've asked some people (in person) how to write this kind of complex scene, with many things happening at once, potentially with multiple actors. Usually the reply is something on the lines "just don't!"
> But that's not much answering the question, now, is it?

Isn't it? I think it is.

Look, actions scenes are hard. And HOW you write them is critical.

Compound sentences tend to slow down the flow of a scene. That could be good for introspection moments, or romance. For action? What do you think? Long, compound, complex sentences that, perhaps, engage a reader's mind? Or rapid-fire, staccato sentences that come across more visceral?

> Jane desperately parried Jhon's sword. Steel striking steel rang down to her core. She swung her blade, screaming her rage. But Jhon was already out of reach. Too late, she found her back exposed to him.

The feel is different. It's... less intellectual. Less emotional. More instinctive, isn't it? This is why martial arts engage in so much repetition. By the time a warrior THINKS about a sword strike, the opponent has already struck. It's something that action readers know without realizing that they know it.

Sword fights and martial activity can't be about "developing" your characters or thought. And if you read the fantasy authors with the best sword fights, you see them go with that. Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Elizabeth Moon (she's actually served in the US Marine Corps). David Drake writes some EXCELLENT military science fiction. Even though his "Hammer's Slammers" operate fusion-powered tanks, you can FEEL the way a plasma round rips men apart, and smell blood mixed with oil.

In order to write an action scene, I have to reach down inside, to the primal feeling of DANGER, to that fight-or-flight instinct, and realize that I don't think, I don't consider. I act (and react) from instinct, reflexively. I want my writing to reflect that. I can't do that with "literary" writing.

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Re: Action Writing

Postby Crono91 » Mon Nov 06, 2017 3:55 pm

Action scenes are tough, but they aren't impossible to figure out. And, as something you said above, action--as well as writing in general--is all about your personal style.

I write action stories, so I have a lot of practice in it. However, when I first started writing entirely novels, I was naturally new at it, and used a sort of template. I used the Percy Jackson series as a way to mimic for my first novel. I wasn't a huge fan of the way he did his action, so I morphed the foundation into the way I write.

For me, I write action the way one might write a song. There's ebb and flow. Short, choppy sentences make it harder for the reader to breathe. It let's them take in a lot of information in a short period of time.

"I poised my blade for his chest. He blocked the spinning blades. I didn't let up."

Those three short sentences could easily be drawn out into much longer ones, detailing the movements and such. But at that moment, I chose to go quicker. Then, when the reader needs a moment to breath, I make the sentences a little longer.

"I threw my hand out, concentrating on my palm, and drew forth energy. I watched it spiral between my fingers, increasing in speed as the power hissed."

Almost like highlighting, it gives the reader something to focus on for a second. Allows them to see what's happening. I equate this to action scenes in movies where the camera pulls out and gives you a better image of the environment.

Then there's something that Ostarella said, that is incredibly important to action, and something a lot of people forget: emotion.

Again, almost like a song, I insert dialogue at key points in the action, to break up all the sensory overload. It brings emotion to what's happening. At certain scenes, I provide internal dialogue of sort, to give what the character is feeling. I detail the pain, the sweat, the delirium. One rule of action I strictly follow, that I read many years ago: if there's no point to the action story-wise, then it shouldn't be there. Meaning, there should be a story within your action. If it's just a shootout in a hallway to get to the next point, consider reconstructing your story. By having your action have story, then it becomes second nature to include dialogue and emotion within the action. (Think of the Terminator series. Amazing movies. So much fun. However, the action has zero story within it, which is really, to me, the main reason why the series has such a hard time picking up. Yet, if you think of the best movie in the series, T2, the young boy brought a lot of emotion and character to his action scenes, which lends to popularity. If you don't give your action meaning, then it becomes meaningless. It sounds obvious, until you analyze a lot of movies that have meaningless action.)

A song isn't just the beat, but it's so much more. The timing, the words, the rhyming, the bridge, the chorus. Just how there are many ways to write a song, there are many ways to write action. That said, like songs, there are genres.

My action is over the top. Powers, large scale set pieces, emotional strife. This lends me to a certain kind of action. That's why it's wise to know what genre your action is, and read into it, just as another user mentioned. For instance, the action in Hunger Games is very different from the action in Percy Jackson, or the action in the Sci-Fi novel Sphere. They're written very different.

---

The sentence you provided isn't really wrong. You could take a single line from any song and it'd be impossible to say if it's wrong or right; however, within the flow of the entire song, the sentence could be out of place.

Jane angled her blade for Jhon's neck. No time to think. He drew his blade, dodged her attack, and lurched toward her. The speed made it impossible for Jane to follow. Only dust swirled in the air as Jane collapsed to the ground.

Jhon took in a deep breath, his chest inflating in exaggeration. "Don't get up."

Jane covered her fingers in blood as she patted the wound on her chest. "I..." Her hand fell to her side. "I can't let you have it."

Jane pulled out a shiny object. If it wasn't for the glare of the sun, Jhon would had noticed that it was a gun in time...

---

This is an example of the flow of action.

On a personal note, I don't like writing action that involves lack of reaction time. Jane couldn't follow his movements. While that can be easily portrayed in visual media, it's really hard to stay true to that element in writing, because it can come off confusing. If Jane can't follow his movements, then she can't really react to the act, and then the reader has a hard time knowing there was an attack.

There's ways around it. I write in first person, which remedies a lot of confusion. Third person is a really hard POV to write in general, let alone intense action. I honestly can't think off the top of my head any good third person action writers. I know they're out there, but since I write first person, I don't typically read third person (except some of the amazing Michael Crichton books). So I can't entirely help there.

I guess, to summarize. When you think of writing books, think of music. It helps a lot. (If you even look at the way I wrote my entire post, you'll notice a sort of ebb and flow between how I wrote my sentences, and even separated my paragraphs.)
Last edited by Crono91 on Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:11 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Brien Sz
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Re: Action Writing

Postby Brien Sz » Mon Nov 06, 2017 3:56 pm

As an exercise you can try this: Find an action scene you like from a movie, sci-fi, whatever... write that scene in prose. Can you make it exciting like you see it on the screen?

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Crono91
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Re: Action Writing

Postby Crono91 » Mon Nov 06, 2017 4:31 pm

RobTheThird wrote:

>
> The feel is different. It's... less intellectual. Less emotional. More
> instinctive, isn't it? This is why martial arts engage in so much repetition. By
> the time a warrior THINKS about a sword strike, the opponent has already struck.
> It's something that action readers know without realizing that they know it.
>
> Sword fights and martial activity can't be about "developing" your
> characters or thought. And if you read the fantasy authors with the best sword
> fights, you see them go with that. Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Elizabeth
> Moon (she's actually served in the US Marine Corps). David Drake writes some
> EXCELLENT military science fiction. Even though his "Hammer's Slammers"
> operate fusion-powered tanks, you can FEEL the way a plasma round rips men apart, and
> smell blood mixed with oil.
>
> In order to write an action scene, I have to reach down inside, to the primal feeling
> of DANGER, to that fight-or-flight instinct, and realize that I don't think, I don't
> consider. I act (and react) from instinct, reflexively. I want my writing to
> reflect that. I can't do that with "literary" writing.

This is an example of a genre of action. The military action is a lot like the Terminator series that I mentioned. Because it typically lacks story (a bunch of men at war going crazy), your mission is to over compensate with the feel (like neural plasticity).

Yet, compare this to action in Lord of the Rings, and it'll be entirely different. There, there is intellect and thought, because the story is wrapped up in the action. Readers of these books don't necessarily want a bunch of short sentences. They want to see what's happening between the fight of wizards. What one is thinking in reference to the story. The feeling of their thoughts. So on.

As this poster said above, to know how to write action, you must read in the genre that you're writing. And sci-fy does have it's own kind of action. It's actually relies more on intellectual than it does on visceral. It's almost the opposite of military action stories. If your story is a mixture of sci-fy and medieval swords as you said, then you probably have to know both to write both together.
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RobTheThird
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Re: Action Writing

Postby RobTheThird » Mon Nov 06, 2017 5:56 pm

Crono91 wrote:
>
> This is an example of a genre of action. The military action is a lot like the
> Terminator series that I mentioned. Because it typically lacks story (a bunch of men
> at war going crazy), your mission is to over compensate with the feel (like neural
> plasticity).
>
> Yet, compare this to action in Lord of the Rings, and it'll be entirely different.
> There, there is intellect and thought, because the story is wrapped up in the action.
> Readers of these books don't necessarily want a bunch of short sentences. They want
> to see what's happening between the fight of wizards. What one is thinking in
> reference to the story. The feeling of their thoughts. So on.
>
> As this poster said above, to know how to write action, you must read in the genre
> that you're writing. And sci-fy does have it's own kind of action. It's actually
> relies more on intellectual than it does on visceral. It's almost the opposite of
> military action stories. If your story is a mixture of sci-fy and medieval swords as
> you said, then you probably have to know both to write both together.
I think we have a different definition of action. Remember, the example given in the OP was a sword fight.

You're exactly right about Lord Of The Rings (LOTR). But where that comes in is not in the immediate battle. The sword fight with an Uruk-Hai, or the Balrog. Those are still moments of physicality.

Sword in hand, as in the sample sentences in the OP, that's immediate, in the moment. Generally, not in the head.

NOTE: I can't think of a single "rule" of writing that has no exceptions. But in order to move outside the box, one should be familiar with the box.

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Crono91
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Re: Action Writing

Postby Crono91 » Mon Nov 06, 2017 6:12 pm

RobTheThird wrote:

> You're exactly right about Lord Of The Rings (LOTR). But where that comes in is not
> in the immediate battle. The sword fight with an Uruk-Hai, or the Balrog. Those are
> still moments of physicality.
>
> Sword in hand, as in the sample sentences in the OP, that's immediate, in the moment.
> Generally, not in the head.
>
> NOTE: I can't think of a single "rule" of writing that has no exceptions.
> But in order to move outside the box, one should be familiar with the box.

Yup. Well, in my original post, I broke down the different elements of an action scene, one being quick sentences like that.

My reply to you was more of an example of how different genres use different amounts of different elements. With military-esk stories using more short, visceral sentences. LOTR using more intellectual sentences. All should, to be good writing, use most all elements in general.
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