Monday, June 6, 2016

Call to Action

Writing an action scene can be kind of tricky for some of us. Our first inclination is to write it just like the rest of a book, commas and all, but such is not the case. If you want your reader to feel the action along with your characters, you need to let go of some of those commas and long sentences and start clipping and chipping away at your words.

Let’s say you’re writing a chase scene. Put yourself in the driver’s seat. If you were chasing someone, or heaven forbid, being chased by someone, how likely is it you’d be carrying on a conversation with your passenger? Not likely at all.

Your passenger, on the other hand, might have plenty to say – or not. Grace and her mother were out for a quiet Sunday drive when she looked in her rearview mirror. An ax murderer had threatened her life and he was in the car behind her. He had one hand on the wheel and held up an ax with the other.

Does Grace say, “Mother, check your seatbelt and make sure it’s securely fastened. I’ll be driving rather fast and I don’t know what the outcome will be. We’re being chased by a man with an ax, who just happened to threaten my life.”

More likely, the action scene would be something like the following:

“Hang on!” Grace yelled. Her foot pressed metal to the pedal.
“What? What are you doing? Why are you driving so fast? What’s the matter with you, Grace?”
“Behind us,” she said. Her eyes traveled between the rearview mirror and the road. “Ax.”
Her mother looked over her shoulder. “Hit it!” she screamed.
There was no more conversation. Grace slipped in and out of traffic. On to the freeway. Check the speedometer. Eighty. Ninety.
He followed closely.
Tires squealed.
Horns honked.
Mother hyperventilated.
Lights flashed behind Grace. She breathed a sigh of relief, pulling over.
The ax murderer waved his weapon at her while he slowed and passed her.

Notice that in most of this chase scene, sentences are short and clipped. That denotes action. Asking her mother about her seatbelt and explaining the situation doesn’t. Keep it short, keep it clipped and keep it simple for the best action. Sometimes a one word sentence can tell most of the story.

Let’s say Grace and her friend, Thelma, are being chased and they’re on foot. Is it likely they’re going to be able to talk while they’re running? No. It’s more likely they’d be out of breath and panting, and maybe pointing at a place to hide, or a shortcut to lose the ax murderer. When they do stop running, they’re going to continue panting and try to catch their breath, not discussing the madman who’s chasing them.

Grace finally catches her breath. “Did you see where he went?”
            Thelma shakes her head, panting.
            “Right behind you, lady,” the madman says breathlessly. His shaky, ax-wielding hand drops to his side.

The point to all of this is that when you’re writing action, write so it feels like action. Let the reader (mentally) run right behind the chase and feel they’re a part of it. Keep it short. Keep it brisk. Keep it lively. Keep it real. Let yourself imagine what it would feel like if you were in your character’s shoes.

Actually, since we’re talking about an ax murderer, I’d rather not be in Grace’s shoes. But, really, he’d sure make people move to action.

Also, remember that for the most part this same thing would apply to a fight scene, whether it’s verbal or physical. (Yes, people can become winded if they’re yelling.)

One more thought. Sometimes when things are becoming dicey in a story, but it’s not an action scene, commas can slow down a sentence just as well as they can in the action scene. “I think we’re in real trouble. Let’s get out of here.” vs. “I think we’re in real trouble, so we’d better be moving and get out of here.” It’s subtle, but there is a difference.

Until next time, I sincerely hope you don’t find yourself mixed up in a real life action scene unless you’re running in a foot race for charity. Have a great week, and enjoy a chocolate bar, my cure-all for everything.

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  1. And an important reminder to all of us, Marja, to "keep it real" when we write.

    1. Thank you, Pat! Sometimes I need to remember to take my own advice. Thank you so much for commenting!

  2. Always good to hear from a writer who has the answers to good craft. Wonderful post.

    1. Thank you, Elaine! I'm certainly no expert, but I know what grabs me in the books I read. Thank you so much for commenting!

  3. Good examples, Marja. Those short sentences have punch and put the reader in the scene.

    1. You're so right, J.R. I enjoy a book that pulls me in with the action scenes. Thank you so much for commenting!

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  4. Marja, thanks for some great tips.

    1. You're welcome, Maggie, and thank you so much for commenting!

  5. Good advice, Marja. I love your humorous example.

    1. Thank you, Jean! Sometimes a little humor makes things more memorable. : ) Thank you so much for commenting!

  6. Great advice! Great examples!

    1. Thank you, Pat, and thank you for commenting!