Six impossible things

Lights, camera…Part II

So how do you build an action scene? There are a lot of things to consider. Some of them will be dictated by decisions the writer has made earlier in the story, and the first and most important of these is viewpoint, which frequently implies level.

Action can be “seen” by the reader from lots of different levels. A bird’s eye view is a Big Picture description that is most often employed when describing a full-scale battle (but it can work quite well for smaller fights); a general’s view is closer in, but still fairly Big Picture, and allows for more surprises because the general can’t see everything the way a bird could. A participant’s view is restricted to his/her own experiences, but it can make the action feel more personal and involving. If the writer is telling a story in omniscient viewpoint, as a memoir written long after the fact, or in multiple tight-third, she can think about which of these levels to employ and when, and how to mix them to get the best effect.

(Georgette Heyer’s description of the Battle of Waterloo in her novel An Infamous Armyis primarily an omniscient Big Picture description of the action, but she occasionally drops into a closer, more personal view of characters we’ve heard of or met earlier in the novel. The result is a masterpiece, which was actually used at Sandhurst Military Academy in England to teach the Battle of Waterloo. It is also an excellent example for writers to study.)

Except for omniscient, memoir, or multiple-tight-third-person, the viewpoint the writer is using for the story pretty much determines the level from which the action is going to be described. A first person narrator who is telling the story as it happens is not likely to know anything that is happening on the other side of a battle unless he’s an observer with binoculars rather than a participant; the same goes for a single tight-third-person viewpoint. The writer, however, quite often needs to know the whole Big Picture, whether we’re talking about a full-scale battle, a smallish bandit attack, or a one-on-one duel.

Which brings us to my next point, planning. The larger the scale of the action, the more planning is a good idea for most writers. (Note that “most”; this is yet another area where personal process trumps how-to-write advice. Some people just can’t plan ahead, because it wrecks their ability to continue on. These folks have to “plan” in retrospect, working out how the close-up scenes they’ve written can be retro-fitted into a Big Picture that makes sense.)

Anyway, for the rest of us: Even if your hero or heroine is only going to see one small part of a battle, it’s usually a good idea to have some idea of the overall strategy for each side, and how their specific plans do or don’t work out in practice. The flanking move by the enemy cavalry on the other side of the hill may make things suddenly more intense around your heroine, even if she doesn’t know why. The return of the foraging party may be enough to route the bandits, though your hero doesn’t immediately know why they’ve started running. And I have personally found it exceedingly helpful to go through parts of a fight in slow motion with a colleague who knows something about martial arts, so that I can find out in advance whether particular moves I have in mind will work as I envision them (and so I can get ideas for even better things to happen).

Plans should be flexible. (“The writer should always reserve the right to have a better idea.” – Lois McMaster Bujold) Action scenes are often most effective when the things that happen are as unexpected as they would be in a real battle or fight or chase, and a writer who has managed to surprise herself has a greater chance of surprising the reader than she otherwise would. I’m not talking about big surprises here, though that can happen; I’m talking about little things that may or may not change the outcome of the action: the horse that throws a shoe, the gun that jams, the opponent who drops his knife and bites…the things that come up without warning during the process of putting words down on the page. (If that’s not how it works for you, don’t worry about it. It’s not something you can train or force; it’s just how some – some, not all – writers’ heads work.)

At this point, it’s time to really start talking about nuts and bolts…and I’m out of space for today. Looks like this will be a three-parter, at least.

  1. Thanks for the post 🙂 I have a problem with making my climax fight scenes too easy, or not realistic enough. I think I do that because it is not as important to me as character development and such. Do you have any advice for making fights more believable while still letting the outnumbered good guys win?

    • Brynn – If the good guys are outnumbered, then logically they need better skills, better weapons, better strategy, or better luck in order to win. Better luck is usually highly unsatisfactory for the reader and writer both. Since you are a character-centered writer, try concentrating on the skills and strategy aspects, as those are more character-based. I’m going to do another post or two on the actual nitty-gritty techniques over the next week or so; if none of them help, ask again and I’ll try to do something that’s more specifically aimed at what you need/want to know.

      green_knight – My best advice on planning a battle, if you don’t know anything about battles, is to head to a library and check out some books on military history and military strategy from the children’s section. When I was writing my first battle, I knew nothing at all, and I found that the books for adults presumed a bunch of background information that I didn’t have.

      Alex – What you said.

  2. In Part 1 you said The writer is describing movement which helped me to work out what I need to progress on the Swamp Thing (it got long enough that I wrote it up in my own blog).

    While the current segment is not a battle as such (just some very subtle confrontation between my characters and Faerie) the general concept is the same – I can’t move on with ‘what happens’ because too many things happen in too many corners, and I need to create a map before I can plot a route through it.

    Am awaiting further posts on how, exactly, to plan and maneuvre through a battlefield.

  3. Even in non-battle-sized action scenes, I find surprising myself a great way to write. For example just the other day in a physical fight for a crown one of the two combatants through something flaming at the other and suddenly they’re having to fight and escape from a burning building, which gave me a great reason to send the heroine out the second story window and leave her bloody and bruised at the beginning of the next scene. 😉

  4. I’m not interested in actual battles right now, but I want to know how to navigate a battlefield full of dramatic events in order to build a good scene from it.

    (It’s an archaeological expedition. Lots of things are happening, Faerie is being uncooperative, and my protag has a particular arc that she needs to go through. Coming from linear scenes, I find that I’m getting lost in this – I need to pick the right details and guide the narrative through them.)

  5. Thanks for this topic. I find suspense a lot easier to write than action, but all the suspense has to LEAD UP to something- and that’s where I get stuck. 🙂

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