Six impossible things


A lot of my friends have trouble writing action scenes. Not on the sentence-by-sentence level – they know all the tricks and tips – but on a more general level. They know that their first-person viewpoint character is only going to have a close-up, confused picture of the battle, and they don’t know how to get the bigger picture across, or they have a bunch of mini-scenes in mind that would have to come from all sorts of viewpoints that haven’t ever been part of the story. They know exactly what happens to their viewpoint character, but they have such a tight focus on him/her that they’ve never bothered to work out what everyone else is doing, how other people get into position to do what the POV sees them doing, or how the battle gets won or lost in the end.

Over the years, I have noticed that most of these folks have one thing in common: they’re starting with the small picture, with what their viewpoint character sees and experiences. This is not necessarily a bad thing (for a character-centered writer, it is the obvious, logical, most comfortable way to do it), but the folks who have the most difficulty seem to me to be the ones who really don’t want to consider the larger picture at all. They’re so focused on what happens to Jane or John and how it affects them physically and emotionally that they don’t want to think about practical aspects like the choreography of a fight scene or the strategy and tactics of a battle.

And choreography is exactly what it is. Action scenes in a story are among the least random scenes one can write. They have to be, precisely because they often involve a larger-than-usual cast of characters, a bigger-than-normal amount of space, and a lot of confusion and many possible outcomes.

When you have six characters sitting around a table in a bar and talking, the rest of the bar and the patrons and bartender are background – they’re present, but they’re a sort of shadowy backdrop to what’s important in the scene. The minute one of those six characters throws a punch and knocks one of the other characters over the next table, all the rest of the space in the bar and the other people in it become important, because their actions and reactions are going to have as much impact on the way the rest of the scene develops as the actions of the six characters you started with. You can’t have a character jump off a balcony if you don’t know the balcony is there to begin with.

There are a lot of things one needs to know in order to choreograph an action scene, some of which won’t actually get into the story at all. The first thing that comes to mind is where the scene takes place, and under what conditions. If your main character is on a broad plain on a clear day, the action will play out very differently that it would if she’s in the dank network of caves under the city, whether the action is a chase, a fight, a battle, or an attempt to sneak past a sentry.

The writer also probably needs to have some idea what the action scene is about, how many other people are involved, and how many of the people involved are actually going to interact with the main character. If Janet is running through a string of deserted back alleys, being chased by two city guards, what the action is and how it’s presented will be very different from a scene where George is one of two thousand archers defending the city walls against the invaders’ army.

This is one of the spots where people go wrong. They think that they don’t need to know any more about what’s going on than their viewpoint character does. The trouble is that if the author wants the dragon to come swooping unexpectedly out of the mist in front of the viewpoint character, he/she has to have some idea how that dragon found and followed that character in all that fog, and whether it’s plausible that a large, reasonably intelligent flying creature would go swooping around in a forest or city when it can’t see where obstacles or the ground is. (If the dragon has the kind of sonar bats do, fine…but if the author doesn’t think about it, there are likely to be inconsistencies over the course of the story that undermine the author’s credibility with the reader.)

Planning and choreographing an action scene doesn’t have to be done in a lot of detail, except for the bits that directly affect the viewpoint character. You want more than “The invaders attack and are beaten back,” but you don’t necessarily need every detail of the fire-fight that takes place around the main city gates if George is stationed on the opposite side of the city.

It’s especially important for writers who are deeply character-centered and seriously focused on their characters’ interior experiences to figure out what the exterior, physical environment is like and what the actual physical moves are that the character makes, and then make sure that enough of that gets into the scene. It is far too easy to write something like “George looked on in anguish as the king died” without bothering to mention that the king has just had his head cut off by the ogre that George’s arrow missed a few seconds earlier (hence George’s extra anguish and guilt about it).

Once you have a good idea how things go and what’s happening overall, you have the problem of presenting it to the reader. For big, sweeping, complicated things like battles, one common method is for the author to drop into an omniscient narrative summary, especially if the viewpoint character is an officer or commander who’d presumably have to be aware of the overall sweep of events. The obvious alternative is to stick to the confusing man-in-the-front-lines viewpoint for the main fight, and fill in the Big Picture stuff after everything is over, as the viewpoint character finds out from other people that the reason the reinforcements were late was because of the explosion that took out a section of the eastern wall. In a novel, especially if there are multiple viewpoints, authors often cut back and forth between various viewpoint character moments and an omniscient overview of the way the whole battle is going.

The fewer characters who are involved in an action scene and the smaller the space in which it takes place, the less useful the omniscient narrative summary technique becomes, because the fewer the characters and the smaller the space, the easier it is for the viewpoint character (and the reader) to comprehend all of the action at once. A scene in which two sailors struggle to keep a small boat from capsizing in a violent storm can be as gripping an action scene as a major battle, but the boat scene is more likely to be clear and comprehensible to the reader without the writer having to back off and explain the Big Picture.

  1. I have this problem sometimes, especially if I’m writing in first person. I usually have to make sure that my action scenes take place in small enough settings that my main character can at least see what’s going on around her. It’s still hard though, especially when she’s fighting her own battle simultaneously.

  2. I have read far too many books where viewpoint characters suddenly becomes aware of events they had no contact with. This post made me recognize that this writing gaffe usually occurs in action scenes.

  3. “You can’t have a character jump off a balcony if you don’t know the balcony is there to begin with.”:

    “I thought I was holding my own, but then the bouncer threw me off the balcony. I didn’t even know there was a balcony. I thought I was on the first floor. No one ever said anything about the gully out back. I mean, Terranceville is pretty flat. It seems awfully convenient to me. That bastard.” — bruised and aggrieved viewpoint character (And would that be bouncer bastard or author bastard?)

    I wonder if the viewpoint issue is related to the Eight Deadly Words. If the people do not seem connected to the world (no strategic viewpoint), then I am far less likely to care what happens to them.

    Tolkien used the lack of knowledge nicely in LOTR in “The Battle of Pelennor Fields” when the ships come. They are black-sailed and there is panic that the Corsairs of Umbar have come. Then Aragorn’s standard is revealed, and the panic is gone.

    I just finished _Dealing with Dragons_. It was great! I am now onto the next. I love what you did with the princess and dragon trope.

  4. I’m just about to embark on a chase sequence in my WIP. I’m feeling somewhat intimidated. I think some of your pointers will help. Namely, figuring out exactly where the character being chased goes, and what exactly he does. My POV character is the one chasing after him. I’ve been dragging my heels. Now I know why: need to pin down more details. Thanks!

  5. J.M., maybe, I have stated this here before, but I will do it again.

    When I was DMing Dungeons & Dragons, I would always go one more level of detail than I actively needed. That level of detail might not be fully developed, but it was enough to make the other levels make sense.

    (This also makes sense with other planning, too. Think one level more, and it helps firm up the plan.)

    As applied to your chase scene, that would mean making a map of some sort. If your POV character knows the area, then he can make conclusions such as, “Ha! He’s on Long Street. There are no crossroads for a quarter mile.” If he does not, he can get puzzled: “She got away. How? I do not see any way off this street.”, but there is a hidden path behind a fence or an old building has a conveniently unlatched door.

    What level of detail? Just enough to make the next level make sense unless you need that detail for something else.

    Maybe, the area the suspect is being chased through is a city neighbourhood of small shops with apartments above. Maybe, it matters that Guido’s Pizza and Subs is a mob-operated business. Maybe, it matters that Guido’s P&S manager has a grudge against the chaser or chasee.

    Whatever detail you determine, then keep the detail for future use.

    I do not know how many like to do this, but I like using novel’s maps to follow the action. Or, if the author is using real-life locations, I follow them on Google Maps. (Ilona Andrews’s Kate Daniels series is fun for this. There are no maps so her changes are hard to locate, but any old streets are there.) I wish that novel maps had all of the streets, areas, and other locations named in the story on the map. And a direction indicator and a scale. Pony optional.

  6. I did a story once in which my tight-third viewpoint character was being led through an underground necropolis with streets between the massive tombs. She mentally mapped the streets of her home town on the place, and was able to realize that she was being led around in circles, and then when she was being led onward; so that when the time to escape came, she could make an almost straight-line run for it. Although I did not have to make a map of the place (even for myself), I gave all the streets hometown names. It worked; it sold. 🙂

  7. all the rest of the space in the bar and the other people in it become important, because their actions and reactions are going to have as much impact on the way the rest of the scene develops as the actions of the six characters you started with.

    Such a simple rule-of-thumb, and a good one to keep in mind. And not just for action scenes – it helps to remember this for stories in general: where your characters are, and who else is around, matters. It helped me to shift my sense of ‘the story’ away from the character interaction (six characters sitting and talking: have you been going through my drafts again?) towards what those characters _do_. And if I think about detail and setting from the start, the characters have things to do other than sit around and talk, talk, talk… (or think, if they’re on their own…)

  8. Update: wrote the first 1200 words of my chase scene this morning after figuring out *exactly* what the chasee was doing, where he was going, and why. So Ms. Wrede’s advice was spot on! (Thank you!)

    Not only is the scene going really well, but some of the details that I “discovered” during my “research” caused me to adjust future plot points. The overall arc of my story is going to be *much better* because of the changes. I’m excited and can’t wait to write tomorrow!

    @Gene Totally agree with your strategy of creating more detail than is needed, although judiciously so. (Don’t want to do so much world building that I never get to my story! :D)

    In this case, I already had a good-enough map of the city. What I lacked (but didn’t realize I lacked) was precision about the actions of my chasee. What’s he doing? Running! Why? To get get away from his pursuer! Um. No. There was a lot more to it than that. In fact, it’s the least of his concerns. Which I knew. I just hadn’t bothered to work out that after he visited the bazaar for glue, he visited two aeromancer colleagues, *then* sprinted for the aerodrome on his self-appointed rescue mission. (My POV character *thinks* his quarry is a villain. He is wrong!)

  9. Patricia:

    You will note that I have been posting here about my reading of your books. It is maybe not the best use of your blog comment area as it is somewhat off-topic. What should I be doing instead? I do have some questions about some book events. Where should I post such questions?

  10. Of course, it’s also possible to overdo the description of action. Whereas the writer should always know exactly how a particular sequence came about, detailing it to the reader may just bog things down.

    In one story, I briefly described how the protag had almost accidentally managed to get into the saddle of his horse as it ran by him—and the universal response of everyone in my writers group was that they didn’t care about the how, they just wanted to know the what.

    It’s hard for the author to know what will stop the story dead because s/he knows just how things are supposed to play out—that’s why we have first readers.

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