Investment Levels

A man and his wife are sitting in their living room, on a sofa in front of the coffee table. An argument commences in the way most arguments start – with little warning about something that’s probably not important. After a few minutes the man stands up a bit too fast and bangs his shins on the coffee table. Cursing, he limps into the kitchen and pours himself a glass of wine as his wife straightens the coffee table out and gets it back in its proper place. The two are yelling at each other all the while. The man walks back into the living room, sipping his wine, the cupboard door standing open behind him.

The woman gets up and stalks past him, closing the cupboard door, while he turns his back and walks to the window, shaking his head in frustration. There’s a moment of silence as she checks the kitchen for messes and he stares out the window. They meet back at the sofa for round two. As things ramp back up again he moves to slam his glass down on the coffee table, she grabs his hand before it gets half way and gently takes the wine from him.

Aggravated, he lays in harder, gesturing wildly. She grows still, quietly answering each point until finally he traps her and triumphantly calls her out on a stupid discrepancy. She fumes for a moment, then flings the glass on the floor and storms out, leaving her surprised husband with wine and glass all over the floor, the sofa and his pants.

This is part two of a two part set. Part one is here. We’re talking about action scenes, what they look like and how to do them. What you see above is the outline of an action scene. No, it’s not a traditional action scene with chases, explosions or fisticuffs, but it’s still an action scene. It’s not that long, although with dialog it might be longer than you think, but then action scenes don’t need to be long, just engaging.

The most important thing here, at least in my opinion, is the viewpoint. It’s a third person story and that’s part of what makes it work. While we could spend all our time in the heads of one of these characters the way they’re arguing would steal much of the action – it’s the point/counterpoint of their actions, leading up to the twist when the orderly woman finally looses it and makes a mess, that gives the action drive, purpose and timing. Change the point of view to first person with either character and you get a very different scene, and one that would probably be much harder to play with the same sense of immediacy and drive that being a fly on the wall would give you.

We often think of first person as the most immediate and engaging point of view. This is not always the case, however. If you look at the scene that opens this post from the first person point of view you find that it looses a lot of the action. The characters aren’t looking at each other during most of the action and their thoughts about their circumstances and how the other person is acting are going to slow down the pacing.

The climax of this scene is where the woman, who has been obsessively keeping the room meat, finally breaks down and makes a mess. There’s wonderful symbolism about the state of their relationship tied up in that moment. But it’s not going to come through unless we’ve seen the full interplay between both characters, and for that we need a detached third perspective.

Have you ever been to one of those movies that uses a constantly jostling, tumbling camera perspective to try and create the feeling that you’re right there, in the action? Ever notice how it’s mostly just nauseating and makes the action harder to follow? Writing action from the wrong perspective can be like that. Not to say action from the first person is impossible – it can and has been done. But like with all writing choices you have to keep your audience and the ultimate goal of your writing in mind.

First person gives us an investment in the person telling the story, but third person transfers the emphasis to what is going on – and that’s the heart of the action sequence. Even some first person stories find ways to tell action from the third person point of view, that way the audience is invested in what is going on and how it will affect the characters they care about, not what the characters are thinking or feeling. There’s often very little time for either in the heart of unfolding events, so it’s better to unpack that later anyways.

It’s much better to show than tell, so some books with well written action scenes that I would recommend include The Horse And His Boy by C. S. Lewis (pay particular attention to the battle scene at the end), Madhouse by Rob Thurman (the Sawney Bean fights), Moon Over SoHo by Ben Aaronovitch (chasing the Pale Lady and Peter’s first meeting with the Faceless Man) and any of the Cobra books by Timothy Zahn for gravity defying parkour at its best. Can you think of any I’ve missed? Be sure to let me know!

And Action!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.