At least half of all writing calls for an action sequence of some kind. We’re not just talking about a knock-down-drag-out slug fest here, anything from two kids chasing each other through the house to a particularly heated argument with fists banged on table tops and people pacing back and forth are opportunities for “action” sequences. With the right kind of writing a cross country race is not just a slog across back roads, it’s a gripping series of events that keeps the reader invested in what is happening to your characters.
If you’ve been to the movies on a regular basis in the last few years odds are you’ve seen a lot of action sequences so you already know that they have a lot of parts to them and can be done a lot of different ways. The construction of an action sequence is a big enough of a topic that I want to take two weeks to break it down, so this week we’re going to start with what an action sequence needs.
Action sequences all need a few basic building blocks:
- A character or thing that is taking action. You can’t have an action sequence based on a bunch of rocks baking in the summer sun. Ideally there will be a relatable character at the center of an action sequence, particularly if it’s early in the story, but compelling action sequences can also be built around an object or objects, like a coin being weighed and tossed about by the mechanisms inside a ridiculously complex vending machine. Or even better, a Rube Goldberg sequence that starts with that coin and ends with a bag of salted peanuts. While this sounds like a visual thing don’t underestimate how much a sequence of odd cause and effect events can interest readers, as well.
- A goal of some sort that everything will eventually lead to. Even if the whole point of the slip of paper making it’s way through 39 steps from the secretary who takes the message to it’s recipient is to introduce Luther Pendleton, Clockworker Supreme, when he picks it up out of his inbox, make sure all this action gets the readers somewhere. Action with no point comes across as frantic and quickly gets annoying.
- Things for the character (or thing) to react to. This usually comes in the form of an obstacle but can involve the character finding something unexpected and helpful, like a skateboard to use in the middle of a chase sequence. Remember, walking is an action. It doesn’t really become interesting until someone slips on a banana peel. Without something to react to, there’s no action.
- A sense of place. Where action takes place is as much a part of the action as what is going on. If you have any doubts about this I refer you to the clock tower sequence of The Great Mouse Detective. Your place doesn’t have to be quite thaaaat dramatic, but obviously you need something.
- A sense of timing. Just as with humor, in the action sequence timing is everything. You can’t just go from zero to hero in a couple of paragraphs or a few seconds of camerawork. Exactly how long is up to you but the ideal action sequence has something like fifteen to thirty ‘beats’ in it. (These are much like the beats in a beat outline, except each beat is a much smaller unit of time.) Like a plot as a whole your beats should ebb and surge, always building to the climax of your action scene.
On a very basic level, a plot is something happening. While it doesn’t necessarily follow that an action sequence, where more things happen than usual, equals more plot in a single scene it is true that people expect things to happen during a story. Unless, of course, your audience is the most elite of the literati, in which case things happening are probably actually a negative in your book. But for everyone else, a certain level of things happening is a must, and action sequences are a good way meet those expectations in a very attention getting fashion. Tune in next week and we’ll look at how to keep your audience invested in an action sequence.