Friday, July 1, 2016

The Anatomy of The Action Scene

I was going to call this post "Five Tips To Write Action Scenes That Will Melt Your Face... And You Won't Believe What Happens Next! What He Does Is So Perfect"but then I remembered I am not the scum of the earth. So no listacles and no clickbait titles here. Just some good old fashioned advice on something near and dear to my heart.

Writing action scenes.

So, I present to you a list of important ideas to keep in mind writing an action scene. You'll never guess number five!

1. Characters

No brainer right? You have to have some characters. Quite often this is a protagonist and an antagonist. Could be your main character and a main villain, or your main character and some villainous henchmen. But, hey, it could be two of your protagonists duking it out over something. But the characters in an action scene might also be a collapsing building, cars on a busy street or your protagonists demon possessed left hand.

You dirty bastards. Give him back his hand!

A character in an action scene is any force that is active, has some independence and is a danger to other characters. If an evil wizard and a stalwart hero are fighting and the wizard casts a spell to bring down huge slabs of stone from the temple ceiling to crush the hero, the ceiling isn't independent. It is being used by the evil wizard. It's a weapon. Is the temple old and the hero's pet zebra has set C4 around its foundations and not its collapsing around everybody? Then it's independent. It isn't aiming at anybody, it's just coming down everywhere and on everyone. It's active in the scene and a threat. The falling temple is a character.

When it comes to using characters in an action scene, there's two things you need to do. Firstly, give them a name. Especially if you've got Zack McHeroPants, the stalwart hero of your story, fighting nameless, throw away gangsters wielding blackjacks. Writing Zack McHeroPants kicks the "gangster in his nads" three times is going to get confusing and dull. So even for throw away goons like these, give them names. They don't have to be actual names. In fact, I'd say it's better if the name is some brief descriptor of that character. Maybe Zack McHeroPants looks at them and they're described as one rotund gangster, one gangster thin as a twig and the other with a nose like a pig's arse. Zack McHero might even remark with a laugh "Okay, so it's Fatso, Twiggy and Pig-Face. Bring it on. I'll beat you all with one eye tied behind my back and my laser gun in my mouth." Or he might not. Either way, you can now refer to Fatso, Twiggy and Pig-Face through the scene and the readers will know who you mean and where everybody is. Also, you've just made it that little bit more vivid for the audience. Go you!

Finally, remember that everybody moves differently. A fighter trained in Muay Thai is not going to fight the same way as somebody trained in Krav Maga, or somebody trained in Ying Jow Pai. A body builder and a couch potato and an Olympic sprinter have different body types and in the heat of the moment, they will move in ways most comfortable and natural to them. By creating a consistent and vivid sense of how a character moves in an action scene, how he faces a physical opposition of some kind, you develop that character further in the reader's mind. This way, an action beat isn't just about page turning, edge of the seat excitement, it says something about the character.

2. Terrain

Sometimes the terrain will be a character, as I said. Sometimes, however, it won't. But that doesn't mean it isn't there and you can't use it. Don't treat you action scenes as though they're happening in an empty white box between a bunch of naked people. While the characters fight, run, climb, shoot, tango, aggressively throw down their poker cards and swig their whiskey, there are things around them, there are doors and tables and walls and chairs and whiskey bottles.

As a very basic example, let's pretend that Zack McHeroPants is asleep in his bed and five red suited ninjas break into his house. Red is the best camouflage, of course, and it helps to distinguish them from the turquoise ninjas he fought in chapter 325. Ooo, too bands of ninjas after Zack McHeroPants? The plot thickens!

Now obviously Zack McHeroPants is going to win. He is faster, stronger, better looking and sleeps in black stealth pyjamas. Now Zack McHeroPants, on hearing the ninjas break in, could stand up and go one by one through the ninjas and punch them in the throat and then go back to sleep. Efficient, but not the most exciting. Or he could wait beside the kitchen door, wait for a ninja to step through, then use his leather belt to grab the ninja around the neck, then kick his legs out so he can't stand and choke the ninja into submission. A silent take down! The next ninja comes through swinging his sword and Zack McHero Pants dodges out of the way behind a chair. Of course! Ninjas are powerless against chairs! While that ninja struggles to overcome the chair, another bursts into the room and throws some shuriken. Zack McHeroPants leaps over his table and upturns it to shield him from the shurkien. Then he uses his Super-Blazing-Phoenix-Kick to slide the upturned table across the room and slam the shurkien ninja into the wall, sandwiched between it and the table. That's two down and one stuck behind a chair, but still two more somewhere. Zack McHeroPants knows that if he fights for too long, he won't be able to make it to the Waffle House by breakfast and without bacon, his heart will stop. (That's right, WITHOUT bacon, Zack McHeroPants has a heart attack and dies. Amazing!) Zack McHeroPants isn't sure where the others are hiding, though, so he grabs the chair stuck ninja by his neck and his crotch, thrusts him high into the air and throws him through the kitchen window. This sets off the alarm and immediately police sirens can be heard in the distance. The police never respond faster than when local legend Zack McHeroPants needs help! Plus, he can now escape through the window and rush to the waffle house for his life saving bacon treatment.

Using the environment to hide, to protect, to attack makes your action scene more interesting and, again, gives the reader a better image of where the characters are and what they're doing.

3. Stakes

A basic action scene will be something like this. Party A wants a thing, Party B wants to keep the thing from Party A. This thing is what is at stake. Now Party A might be the Cult of Mr Whippy, Party B might be Zack McHeroPants and the thing might be Zack's life. Simple. But problematically, this results in a pretty binary result. Either Zack lives or dies. Now binary sometimes works and more often than not you can still use a binary result like that to progress things. Is the story about Zack McHeroPant's escape from the afterlife back to Earth to stop the Cult of Mr Whippy? The the villains winning in this fight and Zack McHeroPants dying is a failure, but it works. Or perhaps this is the first time we've seen the Cult of Mr Whippy. Zack wins and lives but this new knowledge of dangerous ice cream zealots pushes the plot forward. Exposition, new goals, new threats, new mystery.

But what if Zack only thinks they're after his life?  What if what they really want is his pet zebras's third tooth from the right? What if the zebra's tooth is the key to the Fountain Of Youth? While Zack fights to save his life, one Mr Whippy cultist sneaks around him, sedates his zebra and steals its tooth. Zack still wins the fight but he was fighting for the wrong thing and now the cult has the zebra tooth!

Zack's life sure is weird.

Every group in an action scene or (or any scene with conflict, which is the vast majority of scenes) has a goal which is in opposition to one or all other groups in the scene. By making those goals unclear to the POV character (and thus the reader,) by making those goals multitude, by making them farther reaching than that scene and by giving those goals more than one outcome, you open your scene up to more interesting and variable resolutions. What if the cultists got the wrong tooth but nobody knew? What if they couldn't get the tooth out and took the whole zebra? These answers to the scene have potential drama and twists further down the line that you can and should exploit.

4. Escalation

Finally, escalation. Escalation comes in two forms.

First is an escalation of stakes. Why does the Cult of My Whippy want the zebra tooth? To open the gates to the Fountain of Youth so their leader can drink it and become immortal and begin his conquest of all ice cream across the world, soft serve or otherwise. But Zack doesn't know that. When the cult attacks him, the stakes are his life. It sounds big but, honestly, Zack McHeroPants is fighting for his life every other hour. Plus, we know he's usually fine. For this kind of story, the drama is on the low end of the scale. But once the cult takes his zebra buddy so they can extract his tooth, in the following action scenes he is fighting for the life of his best friend in the whole world. Stakes escalated! As we get closer to the story's climax, Zack fights to keep the Fountain of Youth out of the hands of evil. Then, finally, in the ultimate battle of good and evil, Zack McHeroPants fights an immortal cult leader for the very soul of the world's ice cream supply.

This is an escalation of the stakes. It happens with each significant turning point in the story. It creates excitement and gives the reader a growing and changing investment in each action beat. It remains interesting to read when there is more to fight for.

Finally, there's escalation of the action itself. If your story begins with a few guys brawling in a bar, it had damn well better end with a big fiery explosion! The scope of the action should not stay where it is. It should build.

Zack's first fight against the Mr Whippy cultists in his home escalates to a car chase in the next scene, and then to a dog fight above a lake full of crocodiles, and then to a fight against the biggest and meanest cultist of them all, while surrounded by watching cultists ready to pounce the moment things go badly for the big mean friend, then to fighting a dragon, then to fighting a crocodile on the back of a dragon while it flies over a lake full of the biggest meanest cultists and finally, at the end, Zack McHeroPants must fight the biggest meanest half-cultist half-crocodile leader of the cult who has achieved immortality and is using his evil magic to bring down the underwater temple in which they're fighting while his zebra friend uses C4 to destroy the dragon because it will arrive any second now with an army of red ninjas and Zack is armed only with his leather belt which means his pants are falling down, plus if doesn't eat bacon in 3.25 seconds he will have a heart attack and all the world's ice cream will be lost!



That is some fucking escalation right there!

Now, as a caveat, escalating action can have peaks and valleys. In fact, in a full length novel or series, it has to. Escalation that is always going up is hard to sustain as a writer and can be hard to comprehend as a reader. It risks getting farcical. So escalate and escalate until you reach a big scene, an important turning point in the plot, then let it fall again. Take a break from the action, have some low key scenes and then begin to build again with your next action scene. This time peak a little higher, then drop. Do this until you reach the story's climax when you have the highest peak.

And that, my friends, is what you need to know about writing an action scene.

Take care.

See you next time.

I need to go lie down after that...