Action scenes are tough to write. We writers try to put things into one long sentence to show the speed at which they happen. That tends to make the reader have to think about it more, slowing things down. Our brain needs it to come to us in smaller, choppier sentences so it can digest them faster. It usually reads better that way, but only for action scenes. Chop it up and it will read better. (It will look a little odd to you, but we readers know you don’t write everything that way.)
(We recently talked about writing better dialog HERE)
There are different styles employed for different sections of your story.)
A friend recently created an action scene with some sentences that wouldn’t be bad in normal writing, but that were a bit long for an action scene.
One car gets hit by another car, goes out of control, down a river bank, and into the water. That’s what’s going on as we analyze the upcoming sentences. I told it to you that way just now to get it processing in your head and not let you get too involved in the action of the scene. Here’s how the lines unfolded in the original manuscript:
“The SUV backed off but hit her again at an angle, and she lost control of the wheel. Her car crossed the oncoming traffic lane and down an embankment leading to a river. It bounced over the land while she tried in vain to stop it.”
It reads pretty good, right?
But does it read as action? Or as description?
Hard to tell without context. So let’s add some. Right before the cars hit, they were speeding. And not just speeding, but going very fast on a curvy road. The woman doesn’t know why the other car is hitting hers.
Obviously, she’s a little tense. And we as readers are, too. She’s gripping the steering wheel and we’re gripping the Kindle or whatever we’re reading on.
But again, does it read as action? Or as description?
My author friend has done this before, so I asked about why she did it again. Turns out there was a Dean Koontz book she read that over-utilized the short choppy sentence technique for action scenes, and she disliked how that particular book read. Fair enough.
Don’t let what Dean Koontz did in one book throw you too far in the other direction as far as action scenes.
Sentences that are too long will end up tamping down the action because you pack three or four things into one sentence. That’s being antiKoontzian for no good reason. Besides, you aren’t doing what he did. Your style and his are different.
Don’t make absolute mistakes in one direction just to avoid a possible mistake in the other direction.
An excited reader is going fast – and will miss the fact that the most important thing in the compound sentence is the last thing you mentioned – so don’t do that. It did this then that and then finally the other thing. Yes, yes, as we write it, it goes very quickly, doesn’t it?
Now read it, as though your brain were seeing it for the first time.
We get the first one, half the second one, and almost none of the third one, (because it’s now a list) – which is where you might stick the most important thing in the sentence because you were building up to it, right? The crescendo! Bang the cymbals!
I admit to being a lazy reader, so for me these things are particularly flagrant because I do miss stuff when you make big huge sentences at a time when there is action going on. But the main reason not to write action in long sentences is: it doesn’t read well. It’s grammatically and technically correct but literarily boring. (Not literally, literarily.) We readers are excited in an action sequence, so we’re reading fast; give us short sentences to easily digest so we can stay immersed in your story.
I’ll give you an example of how to mentally picture it, and then a solution.
You’re driving on the highway. Are the road signs very length or very short? Short as hell. “Airport Next Right.” At that speed, we need it as brief as possible TO DIGEST IT QUICKLY.
A reader digesting quickly keeps moving quickly. A driver that has to slow down to read the sign, or stop and back up to fully comprehend the information, has done what you don’t want: un-immersed themselves from the story, right in the middle of the action.
So what do you do?
Help yourself see the problem areas.
Write your scene however you have to write it, and then go back and highlight in yellow the action areas. It might be just a few lines or it might be 300 of the 400 sentences in your scene, but if you have a lot it just means you’ll be well practiced when you’re finished.
Look at each of the action areas – a paragraph or maybe just even a sentence. Then break down that sentence into is smallest components ONLY for the action area.
If you want to go on and on about the rolling hills of Tuscany, ramble on about it for as long as your little heart desires; it’s a relaxed theme you’re conveying, and readers will relax as it unfolds. A car bouncing down a hillside? Keep it short. The readers get it. They’ll allow it. It’s a style thing. The car crashes. The occupants bounce around. Then they start talking again and we readers take a collective breath and realize that they’re all right.
See how I did that? Look at what I did starting at Tuscany and ending with the car crash. Looooooong sentence versus short, short, short. Sure, you noticed, but did it distract or did it enhance? (Keep in mind, this information you are reading is NOT immersed in the middle of an action scene, it’s an instructional piece, so the reader is by default in first gear driving verrrrry slow.)
Think style. You’re stylish, aren’t you? A painting of all one color is boring. So is a painting of all equal brush lengths. Your stories are your paintings, your sentences are you brush strokes.
They occasionally need to be choppy to heighten the scene.
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.