Six impossible things

Actions speak loudly

The term “action,” like many terms in writing, covers a lot of ground. Some is obvious: a chase scene is action; so is a boxing match, a brawl, a battle, a gunfight. The scene where one guy is clinging to the railroad trestle and the other guy goes out to rescue him doesn’t leap instantly to mind, but as soon as it does, it’s obviously action. The scene where the survivors of the airplane crash build the barricade that they hope will keep the starving wolf pack from eating them takes a little more thought, but I’d call it action. That final slalom run down the Olympic ski course that will determine whether Our Hero(ine) wins the gold medal, the pioneer teacher attempting to lead her students to town through a sudden blizzard in white-out conditions, the massive argument between the teenager and the overprotective parent (even though it doesn’t actually erupt into violence), the EMTs in the back of the ambulance struggling to keep the patient alive long enough to reach the hospital…all are “action” of one sort or another.

What these all have in common is that the characters are doing something…something physical, something involving movement. They aren’t sitting on the couch or staring into the campfire, thinking. Stuff is happening outside their head that they have to pay attention to; if they don’t Bad Things Will Happen. They’ll lose the competition, they’ll get caught or shot or eaten, they’ll wander into the blizzard and freeze to death. Or somebody else will be hurt or killed, and they’ll have to live with having let that happen.

Actions, you see, have consequences…but so does inaction. In a typical action scene, whether it’s a gun battle or a dying patient arriving at a trauma center, the consequences of not doing something are usually obvious. Either the situation is one for which any reasonable person can predict the consequences – if somebody doesn’t rescue that guy from the railroad bridge, he’s going to fall off and die – or the writer has laid out the consequences in advance, during the setup for the scene (by the time the villain pulls out his gun and takes a shot at the hero, the reader should have no doubt whatever that this guy is shooting to kill; the hero can run or shoot back, but standing there and ignoring the guy is clearly not going to work).

Actions also affect the world around the viewpoint character…and are affected by it. A writer whose characters are moving through a non-specific world has very little to work with. The characters are, in essence, standing in thick gray fog. The hero can’t grab the sword that’s hanging over the fireplace or the granite paperweight from the desk, because the writer (and therefore the character) does not realize there’s a desk there. The butler will not open the doorway, step in behind the villain with the gun, and brain him neatly with the silver tea service because the writer hasn’t thought about the butler, has no idea whether it’s time for tea (or, indeed, whether tea would be served at all in this house), and doesn’t know where the villain is standing in relation to the door. The bystanders will not interfere (or be held hostage), because it hasn’t occurred to the writer that there are bystanders.

Of course, the writer may have deliberately chosen to have the villain confront the hero in a deserted house, where there are no bystanders (or butler, or tea, for that matter). The problem occurs when the emptiness of the house is a result of the writer’s inattention, rather than a conscious decision.

The other fundamental problem that many writers seem to have with action is that they lose track of one side of their character or the other. That is, either they are so focused on getting their viewpoint character’s internal, emotional state down on the page that they forget to make clear what is actually happening out there in the world where the actions are going on, or else they concentrate so hard on describing every tiny motion the characters make that they forget to mention what is going on in the character’s head, and the character goes briefly flat.

Writers who forget about what their characters are doing, in favor of describing what they are feeling and thinking, are often the sort who immerse themselves totally in a first-person or tight-third-person viewpoint character. They become so accustomed to experiencing the world through that character’s eyes and emotions that they find it difficult to back up and think about exactly what that character is doing. The character’s actions become so comfortable and obvious to the writer that they get ignored, just as in real life I don’t notice myself chewing on my pens and pencils while I think, until one morning I pick one up to write with and discover teeth marks all up and down the middle. The writer concentrates on writing “the hard stuff,” i.e., the character’s emotions and internal reactions, not realizing that they haven’t shown what the character is reacting to or emoting about.

Writers who forget about what their characters are feeling and thinking, in favor of describing every motion the character makes, are frequently very visually oriented, and as a result are trying to over-determine the mental “picture” they expect their words to create for their readers. They’re trying to duplicate the effect of a photo or a movie…but ten seconds of a movie sword fight can easily take up ten pages in a book, if the author is too focused on giving the reader every detail. And frankly, if the author tells me that much about every twitch of the swords, I’m probably going to start skimming, because it’s supposed to be an action scene and I want to find out what happens.

The trick in both cases is to find the balance. The character’s thoughts and emotions have more impact on the reader when the reader can see what the character is reacting to and why. Giving the reader the right detail about the character’s actions and then supporting that detail with his/her internal reactions, even if only in a brief phrase, makes the action feel more vivid and real and makes the readers remember it more clearly than they would recall ten pages of twitch-by-twitch description.

  1. I wonder if there’s any correlation between writers who give too much physical detail, and whether the writer has ever been in a fight themselves — even a controlled and artificial “fight” such as sparring in a martial arts class? One thing you pick up pretty quickly in those situations is that people rarely notice every twitch and motion while they’re in the middle of it. Usually there’s a few flashes that stand out clearly, but the rest is a blur because the instincts are doing most of the work, without consulting the slower conscious mind. And the flashes are not necessarily the most significant moves. It’s not at all uncommon for observers to comment on some impressive-looking blow given or received that the fighter doesn’t even remember happening.

  2. I had to write a fight scene once (broadsword and shield, not fists). I went to an experienced Knight of the SCA and she gave me some lessons. Then I wrote the scene — rather than describing every sword blow, I used metaphors, as if the fighters were speaking to each other. Then I ran it by the Knight again, and made a few tweaks at her suggestion. It seems to have worked.

  3. I remember a duo by Paul Zimmer where I recall the fighting being far too (imo) detailed as far as blows struck etc. While there was a decent story there, the excessive detail on that detracted.
    Some years later I heard he was a very good SCA fighter. A data point, FWIW. Certainly, as reader I’d rather not get a blow by blow because that’s not what the story is about. That’s technical details. I want what affects the character and plot and worldbuilding, etc.

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