Six impossible things

Lights, camera…Part III

I thought I was going to get to the nitty-gritty of technique today, but it seems I have a bit more to say about the nitty-gritty of planning.

What you need to know up front (unless you are a total “surprise me” writer, who can’t know anything up front) is 1) what the setting is like, 2)who the actors are in the scene, 3) where each of them is at any given time and what each of them is doing, 4) what you (and they) expect to get out of this, and 5) how all this interacts with the larger picture, at least to some extent.

The setting determines what you (and your characters) have available to work with. If your action scene is a car chase through San Francisco, you have different options that you would if it’s a chase on skis through the Alps; if it’s a brawl in a bar, you have different options than if your characters a dueling with lightsabers on a spaceship. 

Knowing who the actors are means knowing who all is present and watching, as well as knowing which characters are actually going to be doing the punching, running, shooting, or whatever. It should be pretty obvious why you need to know who is supposed to be actively involved – which characters are acting determines what skills, weapons, etc. they’ll use , and to a large extent how they will approach what they’re doing (as well as the details of what they’ll do).

Bystanders, on the other hand, are not so obvious.  They’re also not as necessary to know about in advance, though I find it often helps a lot. Sometimes bystanders will pitch in as opportunity presents itself, or do or say something that accidentally (or on purpose) affects the main action, so it’s good to know who’s watching. This is also an area where surprise frequently comes in – someone the writer didn’t expect shows up, and it changes the way the action plays.

Where each character is and what each character does during an action scene are inextricably intertwined. If A is sitting behind a desk and B is leaning against the wall by the fireplace, neither is in position to suddenly haul off and slug the other. On the other hand, B is perfectly placed to grab the antique sword hanging over the fireplace and charge…but if you don’t know he’s standing beside a fireplace, you won’t think of the sword.

Choreographing an action scene can be done in a bunch of ways. You can get a bunch of friends together and actually role-play the whole thing (which I find a bit extreme, but which I know has been done to very good effect by a number of writers). Or you can act out the whole scene yourself, playing all the parts in turn (this is particularly helpful for writers who are strongly kinesthetic and need to feel the way the characters move and stand). You can get some action figures and play out the movement of the scene. Or you can diagram it on paper, like a series of football plays, with circles and crosses and little arrows to show who is supposed to be moving where, and maybe asterisks to show thrusts or punches and figure 8s to show tripping over barrels, or whatever diagram codes you come up with. Storyboarding (drawing a series of sketches to illustrate the action) works well for some artistically inclined writers (and even for some who can only draw stick figures).

What your characters want out of the scene, and what you want out of it, determines where it’s going. You need to know both; if your characters want to capture the traitor, but you need him to escape in order to move the plot to the next phase, then you arrange the choreography so the bad guy escapes, even though the good guys are trying really hard. If you need the traitor to be captured, you stack the deck in favor of the heroes.

The fifth thing the writer usually needs to know is what the Big Picture is and how all the local, character-on-character action fits in. If we’re talking about a battle scene, the writer often plans out the overall battle first, then figures out which characters will be there and what will happen to them based on the ebb and flow of the larger battle (even though the reader may not find out how the larger battle went until a chapter or two after the big action scene. Sometimes, though, the writer knows he wants the hero run down during an enemy cavalry charge, so the big battle has to be planned so that there is an enemy cavalry charge that makes tactical and strategic sense.

In other words, very little of this has to be done in any particular order (though it’s a little hard to figure out what your characters are doing if you don’t already know which of them are in the scene).  And none of it is set in stone. If you get a better idea, jump on it, even if it means junking your last two hours of work.

Finally, if you look at your action plan, and it just looks too easy for one side or the other, there are two things to remember: “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” and Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will. Murphy is a writer’s best friend; bad luck and other people messing up (and consequently derailing the plan) are always more plausible in fiction than good luck and everything going right.

And a final reminder: some writers can’t plan in advance; if you are one of them, you’ll probably need to do at least some of this stuff in revision, retro-fitting your battle to fit your action scene, for instance. If you can’t plan without destroying your need to write, don’t worry about it. But don’t kid yourself, either; if it’s just that you don’t want to plan…tough. Nobody said this job was going to be easy.

10 Comments
  1. I’ve had swordfights with my sons in order to choreograph fight scenes. Not only does it help figure out what went where, but it’s good exercise.

    • Deborah – If I were anything like as athletic as my characters, I’d do more of that myself!

  2. I admit, the kids nearly kill me (asthma) but it’s so much fun it’s worth it.

    Oh, and “Pirates of the Caribbean” *has* to be playing in the background. It’s a law… or something.

  3. The diagram idea sounds like good advice. More important, it made me realize I’m going to need to map my castle, in which the brawling takes place.

  4. I will be coming back to this post. Thanks for Murphy’s Law, too! I will write it down and keep it close by 😀
    And action music totally helps… 🙂

  5. Snap.

    I knew you’d come up with something extraordinarily useful.

    The reminder that, in order to navigate the territory, I need to map the territory first is a timely one. (The fact that the map is a temporal one is neither here nor there.)

    The other is your mentioning of ‘football plays diagrams’ because that seems to be the level of detail I need. I wasn’t familiar with them, but they’re exactly what I needed.

    Thank you!

    • green-knight – Um – it suddenly occurs to me that I meant American football, not UK football…but if they have the same kinds of diagrams for plays, or if whatever they do have works for you, it’s all good.

  6. I haven’t seen the kind of diagram you refer to in soccer, which is why they never occurred to me, but thanks to the correct terminology, I was able to google them, and yes, that.

    Storyboarding is more likely to help visual writers, I think – see it work as a film – whereas this kind of thing – move figures around in space – appeals to me.

    Of course, one could vaccuum the cat properly by first casting and painting one’s miniature figures…

    • green_knight – …after first having spent weeks scouring the stores for the exact right models, molds, and colors of paint. 🙂

  7. Of course.

    The idea of a dedicated table upon which to build landscapes and settings appeals to me. A lot. One could spend several lifetimes vacuuming _that_ cat. (And I know at least one Fantasy Writer who has wargamed campaigns for their books.)

    I think I shall stick to either diagrams or my computer. Either way, it means I need to fix my world in much greater detail which is probably the scariest part of it.

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