Mainstream fiction and every writing genre often present readers with action scenes where many things seem to happen at once. The authors of war, espionage and police novels seem to write such scenes effortlessly. But, it’s not as easy as it looks.
Emerging authors, especially those who focus on the issues of everyday people in everyday life are often stumped when they need one of these everything-happens-at-once scenes. Why? For one thing, authors who are used to conversation, description and interior monologue to tell a story about coming of age issues, love and betrayal, raising families and going to work, and other domestic plots, seldom have to worry about fast-paced fighting scenes, much less the realities of describing weapons and tactics accurately and realistically.
When we were kids, we often joked about whether a person could walk and chew gum at the same time. When authors look at their first action scene, they discover their characters can’t think, talk and fight at the same time. No matter what the authors do, their characters seem clumsy, scenes that should happen fast drag out in long paragraphs, and hanging over the whole process is the sense that maybe real-life bullets, kicks and fists can’t do what they’re doing in the story.
Every once in a while, I run out of books to read and end up picking up a paperback at the grocery store to tide me over until the next shipment arrives from Amazon or I have time to drive to the Barnes & Noble store on the far side of town. Since the grocery store shelves are filled with romances and spy novels, I end up bring home the spy novels. The latest was Into the Fire, a recent addition to the series of counter espionage/counter terrorism stories in the Op-Center series created (but not written by) Tom Clancy.
Reading Action Novels is Good Research
Those who want to write fiction are told to read a lot. The trouble is, many authors read the kinds of books they like to write. If so, they have little or no exposure to action scenes. Clancy has often been accused of having no style or voice; a similar criticism has been leveled at those inspired by him, including the authors of the Op-Center series. When reading an espionage novel for the first time, you’ll notice:
- The chapters and other sections are short and jump between multiple good guy and bad guy points of view. This not only gives the reader a large-scale view of the action, adds intrigue by disclosing information the primary good guys don’t yet know, and keeps up the pace by handling slower-paced actions “off camera.”
- The characters and authors know a lot about weapons, weapons systems, defense community and military protocols, ships and aircraft, and supposedly the military/espionage/political styles of the counties involved. Of course, readers of these books like weapons and systems and often ask such questions as “Will weapon ABC beat weapon XYZ.” If the good guys are outgunned, that adds tension and intrigue as they figure out how to make do. Chains of command and weapons capabilities, while complex to the first-time reader of an Op-Center-style novel, also confine the kinds of action likely to occur in the book. This reduces ambiguity and indecisive events, both of which are scene killers in an action novel.
- Even within a concise scene, the primary characters don’t have to worry about how certain people or hardware arrived on the scene. The real-life drudgery of pulling all that together is glossed over. The protagonist either expects people in his command and other commands to do their duty or notes as the action unfolds that, say, a U.S. drone with hell fire missiles has appeared overhead to help his out-numbered crew defeat the enemy commandos. Meanwhile, the protagonist is also provided with a great deal of information in short snippets that has taken teams of people (“off camera”) a lot of time to figure out.
- Worst case, such novels can appear like video games where the stakes and odds are high, where the bad guys fire thousands of rounds and never hit anybody, and where new resources appear as needed due to the dedication of people other than the main character. Best case, the developing story seems believable enough to actually happen. In these novels, the protagonist is not only on the hot seat in the main action scenes, but has used his/her wisdom, knowledge and intelligence to simultaneously orchestrate the non-action-oriented material.
What Can You Take Away From Reading Such a Book?
Obviously, we aren’t going to write in our own way, switch to a Tom Clancy approach for the action scene, and then back to our own style as soon as the action ends. What we take away from an action novel is an appreciation for what is skipped over, left off camera (so to speak) or otherwise would bog down the action scenes themselves.
During a fight scene, the thoughts of the protagonist in that scene or chapter are not shown in detail. There is little or no interior monologue. There’s no time for it. A character who, let’s say, is surprised by the inept or surprising actions of others, is more likely to briskly think “What the hell are those clowns thinking” than to sandwich in a lot of interior chatter about “those clowns” while s/he’s running from room to room firing a AK-47.
If you’ve ever watched an old song-and dance musical with Fred Astaire or Gene Kelley, you’ve seen amazing sequences on the screen. What you don’t see is all the practice it took to make those sequences amazing. That’s all off camera. Your action scenes have to look like that. You can’t show the practice, the characters’ baggage, the irrelevant activities of characters or events that have no direct impact on the moment before the reader, or much (if any) description of the features in the scene which have nothing to do with the action focus. If a character hides behind a couch, he hides behind a couch, not a couch with a particular kind of color, fabric or style. None of that matters.
When bad guys bust in the front door with guns blazing, the primary action-oriented responses will be to fight, run, hide and call for help. At this point, having the characters think about or talk about the motivation of the bad guys will only slow down the action. Motivation may become relevant later.
Since it’s not possible to sum all these ideas up in one blog post, my thoughts are these. If you’re already the author of action-oriented novels, keep doing what you’re doing and work toward making it better with each new book. If you’re the author of non-action-oriented novels and you need an action scene, study a few of those scenes in a popular police or espionage thriller and look at how the characters, talk and move and what you need to say about it and what you don’t.
The main problem with a badly written action scene is usually this: the author has said too much.