Six impossible things

Lights, camera…part IV

So after rambling on for three posts, I’m finally getting down to the nuts and bolts of writing action scenes.  One of the first pieces of action-writing advice you find is usually “Use short sentences and sentence fragments,” because they pick up the pace, and an action scene has to be fast-paced, right?

People who think this have obviously never been to one of those martial arts movies where half the action scenes are filmed in slow motion…and still work perfectly well (sometimes brilliantly).

Now, using mainly short sentences, sentence fragments, and short paragraphs is very often an effective technique for writing action scenes. They do read fast, and they tend to be focused and physical because there isn’t room for more than the basic subject-verb-object if the sentence is to stay short. So using a lot of short sentences, etc. forces the writer to stay focused on the action – who did what – which is often very useful.

Unfortunately, too many writers take the short-sentence thing much too far. They’ll have a page of one-short-sentence paragraphs:  The soldier leaped./Max ducked./The bomb exploded./A huge bang!/Max fell back./As debris rained down./The soldier screamed. (This is closely based on a real example, BTW, but I didn’t feel right holding the poor beginner up to ridicule directly, so I changed the topic.) And it doesn’t work, because it’s too much.

Any technique wears out very quickly if it is the only one you use. Even as a single paragraph, the above list feels choppy and rushed, rather than fast and immediate; as a page of one-line paragraphs…well. What works with action, as with pretty much anything else in writing, is variation. You can see the variation trying to come out in the above sentences – by the time the sequence gets to “The bomb exploded,” the writer is feeling the need for a longer sentence (“The bomb exploded with a huge bang!”) but forces him/herself to slavishly follow the “short sentences, short paragraphs, sentence fragments” dictum. It’s even more obvious that “Max fell back as debris rained down” wants to be a single, complete sentence…and the whole sequence would read more smoothly if the writer had trusted his/her instincts and just written it that way.

Matching the sentence length to the action itself is a sneaky writer trick that few people notice consciously, but it often works really, really well. By this I mean using short sentences when the action is snappy or abrupt, then moving to longer sentences when something falls into a longer rhythm:  She struck once. Twice. A third time, and her opponent fell. She kicked him away and spun like a dancer, looking for another victim. The first two sentences (OK, sentence and fragment) are short, and thus give the impression that she’s moving fast. The longer third sentence mirrors the fact that the opponent is out of the fight and falling over, which takes longer than a couple of jabs; the last sentence is much longer, and the way it flows is supposed to imitate the smoothness and grace of the protagonist’s movements. It also gives both protagonist and reader a moment of breathing space before everything starts moving fast again.

Grammar and punctuation are excruciatingly important in action scenes. Mistakes stick out more (at least, they do for me) when things are supposed to be moving fast. Random Comma Syndrome seems particularly prevalent among writers who use lots of sentence fragments, possibly because they can’t figure out proper comma placement without the structure of a full sentence.

Reversing causality can be a useful technique for heightening drama, but it’s another thing that too many people overdo without thinking about it enough. What I’m talking about are things like “He screamed in pain. The sword entered his side, and he fell.”  The cause – getting wounded by the sword – comes after the effect (screaming in pain), instead of before, the way it ought to. This can be tricky to spot, because “He screamed in terror” would work fine (he’s presumably afraid of the sword), which means that it’s not always clear whether “He screamed. The sword entered his side…” has cause and effect reversed or not.

The next question is what to describe. More than any other type of description, action lives or dies by the telling detail…the right telling detail. Some writers concentrate so hard on being clear about exactly what is happening that they describe every fleck of paint falling off the wall the hero has just been thrown into; others, in the interest of giving the reader a close-up-and-personal “feel” for the action, provide no details at all (save perhaps generalities about what was going on in the character’s head – Pain! Fear! She felt confused, and she’d lost track of George. Something slammed into her shoulder. OW!). The sweet spot is usually somewhere in the middle – exactly where will depend largely on the writer’s personal style and on the chosen narrator. A cool-headed, highly trained, experienced soldier will likely notice a lot more key details than a sheltered, confused, and inexperienced babysitter.

The minimum you need to describe are those details that a) are necessary to current action (“He tripped over the ottoman” is rather different from “He tripped over the dead cat”) or b) you want in order to set something up for a few paragraphs later (i.e., you need to mention the gun on the mantelpiece if one of the characters is going to grab it in a few more lines). Most action scenes work best if the verbal “camera” is at a middle distance – not so close that all the reader “sees” are flying fists and blurred scenery, but not so far away that a lot of distracting and irrelevant detail is visible. You usually do want some additional detail, though – enough so your characters aren’t running or sneaking or fighting in an unvisualized fog.

It all sounds horribly difficult when you break it down like this, but so does riding a bicycle. Most writers get the balance right via instinct and practice, but I do think it helps to look at the different parts of the juggling act if one knows there’s something off about the scene.

  1. I loved this one! I totally agree. About the short sentences. They pull the reader. Out of what the writer. Is trying to say.

    • Brynn – Especially if. The periods. Are. Inserted. Totally at. Random. 🙂

  2. I first noticed the use of short sentences to speed up action when I was in junior high reading the _Black Stallion_ books. During race scenes, Walter Farley would gradually shorten his sentences as the horse sped up until you were gasping for breath along with the horse. Done correctly, that control of sentence length can be very exciting for the reader.

    • LinC – That’s another really great example of matching the sentence length to the action. I just wish more people would, as you say, do it correctly!

  3. What excellent advice! Now I need to go back over all my action scenes and use it!
    (I think I picked up the habit, probably from translating too much Vergil, that piling up clauses is a good way to make the reader breathless. Not from too many periods, but too long desperately waiting for the end of the sentence!)

    • Cara – You’re right; piling up clauses is another technique for this. I overlooked it in this post because it’s MUCH more commonly used in dialog. But it’s the same as the short-sentence thing – and much easier to take to an extreme.

  4. One of my first-draft problems is writing most sentences the same length, so when doing an edit, I extract the sentences into Excel to count words and then play with sentence length that way. It really helps break the (unconscious) monotony of sentence structure.

    • Alex – That’s really interesting. I get twitchy if I have too many similar sentences in a row, so the variation thing came fairly naturally to me. As a result, I haven’t thought a lot about how people who don’t do it by instinct would have to make it work.

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