“And… Action!” the director orders.
The actors, already in position and waiting, begin to play out they parts in the scene. Perhaps they are fleeing for their lives, preparing to engage in hand-to-hand combat or in a steamy, passionate, heart-stopping kiss. A good director will shoot a scene over and over, coaching the actors until it plays just the want he or she wants it. The movements, the facial expressions, the gestures all have to be absolutely perfect for the scene to ring true, to be authentic. The very same principles can be applied to creating the action scenes in the written form. An author must visualize –watch the scene unfold in the imagination– then write. What works? What reads awkwardly?
In writing, we talk about SHOW versus TELL. In other words, don’t just say “Mary made a cup of tea.” Show Mary filling the kettle, lighting the stove, spooning tea leaves into the pot… and so forth. It makes for much more interesting reading because all these little actions help the reader “see” what the characters are doing. The best way to illustrate is by example, so let’s practice, shall we?
Instead of saying: Brad punched Kerry in the nose….
Brad stood staring Kerry down, his fists clenched at his side. Kerry just didn’t know when to shut up. Insinuating that Brad’s intentions toward Maya were less than honorable was the last straw. And now he was laughing about it. Brad pivoted, putting most of his weight on his right foot. When his arm shot out, Kerry didn’t have time to react. As the clenched fist connected, Kerry felt as well as heard the crunch of bone, tasted blood in his mouth. His head spun as his neck whipped around from the impact and he stumbled. He grabbed the back of the chair to keep from falling when the next blow landed. All the air was sucked out of his lungs with the punch to the gut. The blood was pouring from his nose now. He was choking on it. He raised a hand in surrender. “Please,” he managed in a hoarse whisper.
Ok, that’s enough. You get the idea. Not my best writing, but good enough for our purposes. The point is that action sequences have to have, well, action. There has to be movement. Describe smells, tastes, textures and sounds: the taste of blood, the crunch of bone, for example. The reader can visualize the scene because of the detail the writer has provided. I know that some writers actually make up story boards for action scenes. It helps because it breaks a scene into its component parts. A caution — don’t get all listy. By that I mean, don’t list the components of a scene like: First, Brad put all his weight on his right foot, then he pivoted, then he threw the first punch and then… Get it? Listy – not good.
You might even want to watch a fight scene from film or TV to find some inspiration. The same would be true of a car chase, an attack by aliens or giant radioactive monsters… (All of which I may address in future posts. I know — you can’t wait.) Nevertheless, the principles apply.
Now let’s go to the complete other end of the spectrum to an example of a smaller, more subtle kind of action.
Instead of saying: Brad kissed Maya tenderly…
Tears streamed down Maya’s cheeks and it broke his heart. Brad crossed the room in three strides and took her in his arms. “Maya,” he whispered, framing her face with his hands. With his thumbs, he gently swept away the last of her tears. Her blue eyes were bottomless pools and he found himself sinking into them. With his heart thudding in his chest, he lowered his lips to hers, softly at first. Tentatively, he deepened the kiss as she responded. She sighed against him, parting her lips slightly, letting him in. She tasted like the salt of her tears but he didn’t mind. He teased with his tongue, slowly, languidly as if he could make this kiss last forever…
Ok, romantic drivel, I know. Sorry, dudes. There are things to consider when writing the perfect kiss. What are the kissers doing with their hands? Is it a chaste, first-time kiss or a passionate kiss between long time lovers? Do they angle their heads one way or another? (The nose gets in the way, after all!) How long does it go on? They may be out of breath when they finally break apart.
Speaking of breath, I know we don’t like to talk about it, but is it minty fresh, taste like cigarette smoke, coffee or the shot of whiskey he or she just tossed back? Think about textures again: his soft flannel shirt, her silky blouse, his rough and calloused hands, her glossy, swollen lips, his strong arms, her lustrous hair, blah, blah, blah.
You see what I’m saying, though, right? You, the reader, have the movie of the scene playing in your head while your eyes scan those words. Every time you write action, think about how the five senses are impacted. That is how you SHOW action, instead of just TELLing us that it happened.
I hope you found this to be useful. Now go write something!