There is a special balancing act to be accomplished when writing action scenes. Think of a teeter-totter and put Clarity on one seat and Pacing on the other. Generally speaking, the faster the action occurs, the more you have to slow it down to make it work on the page. But you can slow it down too much or put the emphasis in the wrong place in an effort to make the action clear. On the other hand, if you favor of the fast pace, you risk writing a confusing blur, instead of conveying the sensation of a blur.
Let’s start this week’s discussion with an example of a fight scene. See how many flaws you can identify in this piece.
Norman puts his hands out and grabs Larry, then shakes him by the shoulders. “Don’t come to work. Ever. You got me? Don’t ever come to work again, you freak!” He shoves Larry. Larry stumbles backwards, tripping over something. His own feet maybe. The contents inside his refrigerator clink and rattle when he slams into it. As Norman turns to leave, he stops and bends over to pick up the scroll with his left hand. He tucks it under his right arm. “Come on, Sarah.” He turns her gently toward the door, placing his left hand on his wife’s back. She moves toward the door, but keeps looking at her brother, staring over her left shoulder.
Larry scrambles onto his hands and knees, then pushes himself off of the floor and launches at Norman. He grabs the scroll and tugs it out of Norman’s grasp. Norman spins around and reaches out his right hand. He is grabbing the back of his shirt and yanking hard. Norman is a man who knows how to fight. He remembers before he met his wife, bar brawls and baseball diamond brawls and even one at his brother’s wedding. In his defense, he was saving a bridesmaid from a drunk who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Of course, Norman was just as drunk, but he at least remembered how to be a gentleman. Though he gave up brawling when he married Sarah—what a real man won’t do for love—he finds the movements are reflexive, his instincts in tact after all these years. He draws back his right arm as he releases Larry’s shirt from his left hand. Larry is off-balance, stumbling as he turns. Norman swings his right fist and puts his weight behind the punch, using his back and shoulders, spreading his feet to stabilize him even as he is twisting on the follow-through.
Did you identify all of the flaws? Good.
Now let’s talk about them.
I often see writing where the author is so focused on the mechanical staging of which body part is doing what where when that the scene becomes weighed down by descriptives and the pacing is ruined. Roger put his right foot behind him and shifted his weight to it while slightly bending his knee. Once his weight had been carefully transferred to that right foot, he lifted his left foot imperceptibly and made a sweeping motion with his leg, so it looked like his left big toe might be drawing an arc in the sawdust on the floor. Meanwhile, his right hand was raised in a gesture of stopping attack…
Every scene needs to convey action, whether that action is eating dinner or stopping a runaway train. That said, if your scene is intended to get anyone’s adrenaline pumping—character and/or reader—do not suddenly divert the action, leading your poor reader into a flashback or editorial piece. Jill commented on how lovely it was to have the gondola all to themselves, a surprise given how many people there were at the base of the mountain. She didn’t know Jack had arranged it that way, at no small expense in the height of tourist season, but he wanted his proposal to be perfect. While Jill gazed out into the Alps, he pulled a bottle of champagne from his pack and a small velvet box…With the question popped, it was time to pop the champagne. Jill held the glasses expectantly while Jack pushed at the cork with both of his thumbs. The popping sound was much louder than it should have been, loud and metallic. The gondola rocked suddenly. Champagne overflowed into the carriage. A jolt sent Jill crashing into the side of the car and the champagne flute smashed, cutting her left hand. It occurred to her that now when she posted photos of her engagement ring to Facebook and Tumblr, she’d have a bandage on her hand and that would be unsightly. Blood began to gush as the carriage swayed more violently. What would be worse would be if Jill had a scar. A scar on her hand would be for the rest of her life, but with her wedding only 9 – 12 months away, a scar would still be pink, raised, and unsightly! Maybe she could find a wedding dress with lace mits to cover the back of her hand. And of course her flowers would be pink and purple. There was screaming coming from the other cars and a horrible grinding noise overhead.
(Did I get a little carried away with that?)
Sometimes the writer loses the reader when he can’t see the forest for the trees. Is that metaphor (yes, yes, it’s a cliche) unclear? Just imagine our heroine is fleeing from bandits, racing through a forest, her hair streaming behind her, her skirts held up in her hands as she bounds over rocks and logs. Got it? Good. Here’s how it’s written when the author can’t see the forest for the trees: Jalinda leapt nimbly over the fallen trunk of a cedar. The tree had fallen at least twenty years ago, based on the amount of decay to the wood. A badger had hollowed out a space to the left of the trail and made its home there for the last two winters. It was not home when Jalinda made her hasty retreat from the evil Merkur. A squirrel, however, about to run the length of the deadwood was scared enough by the flash of golden silk skirts and soft thump of Jalinda’s slippered feet to drop its acorn and scamper away.
Some of you remember my blog post “To Be or Not To Be.” In it, I make a case for avoiding use of “was” and all its variations, and especially “was + -ing,” because was is a flat, uninteresting, passive verb. A wonderful, useful, critical little word, but not when there’s an alternative. When you write an action (any) scene, put “was” (or is/are/were) in your word search box and see how many of the buggers get highlighted on a page. Now change as many of those as possible. Shoot for removing 95% of them. I put plenty of “wases” in the examples above. I hope you noticed and flagged them already.
How to fix these issues:
1. Highlight and replace “was.”
2. Judiciously prune your scene. “Right” and “left” are seldom necessary. Keep your focus on the action of the scene. Remember who your POV character is.
3. Know when it’s okay to leave the action for a detour and when it’s not. In my Jack and Jill example, if I were writing a satire piece, that might work as is. But if I want the reader to care about Jack and Jill’s impending doom, not so much. A well-placed and relevant aside can work well in an action scene, but keep it brief.
Often it doesn’t take that much work to fix an action scene, just a good sense of balance!
By the way, if you’re thinking you’re going to write the ultimate “time stands still” story, it’s been done. Sorry, folks. Check out Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.”
*Note: All of my examples are made up. If they seem over the top or tongue in cheek, well…maybe they are.
**Also note: I’m not singling anyone out. I decided to write about this, because it is a common problem.
Finally, if you’d like to see that fight scene again the way I actually wrote it, here it is.
This excerpt is from “Creatures,” which appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Summer 2013. Note: this story is multiple POV, though the scene is almost entirely in Norman’s perspective.
Norman shakes Larry and his head rocks on his shoulders. “Don’t come to work. Ever. You got me? Don’t ever come to work again, you fucking freak!” He shoves Larry, releasing him so that he slams into his refrigerator and the contents inside clink and rattle. As Norman turns to leave, he picks up the scroll and tucks it under his arm. “Come on, Sarah.” He turns her gently toward the door, though she keeps looking at her brother, staring over her shoulder even as she steps away.
Larry scrambles off the floor and launches at Norman. He grabs the scroll and tugs it out of Norman’s grasp. Norman spins and reaches. He connects with Larry, grabbing the back of his shirt and yanking. Norman is a man who knows how to fight. Though he gave up brawling when he married Sarah, he finds the movements are reflexive, his instincts in tact after all these years. He draws back his right arm as he releases Larry’s shirt from his left hand. Larry is off-balance, stumbling as he turns. Norman puts his weight behind the punch, using his back and shoulders, twisting on the follow-through. Larry’s eyes are small with a downward turn at the outside corners. The stubble on his cheek grazes Norman’s knuckles like coarse sandpaper as he connects with the jaw. Larry’s cleft chin folds in on itself as his face is reshaped by the punch. His mouth opens, his teeth cutting Norman’s hand. One of them is knocked loose. When he lands on his back, the wind and a small yellow tooth are knocked out of him.
Norman draws his arm back for a second go, but Sarah steps in front of him, her face terrified. He can barely see her even though she is right there, begging him. He feels like the blood is draining from his head and he hears her, feels her touch on his arm. He looks at Larry lying on the floor, his paper clutched to him, and he knows if he doesn’t go with Sarah right now he will do something bad. He lets her lead him through the door and up the concrete steps to the sidewalk.
Please leave your questions and comments below.
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