How To Write Better Stories: Action

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Chapter 9, 10 & 11 of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets teaches us a lot about great storytelling – and I was no J.K. Rowling fan when this started!


Chapter 9

Chapter 8 ends and chapter 9 begins pretty much at the same place, so it’s a break for drama, not for the end of the scene. Again, my editor doesn’t let me get away with stuff like that. I may have to rethink it. Or rethink editors.

But I agree with my editor, it’s a cheap stunt – I just happen to like that particular cheap stunt!

End of 8: there’s a dead cat. Start of 9: same place, dead cat – and the cat’s owner shows up.

There’s some good action descriptions in chapter 10, during the Quidditch match. Harry has to dodge the blodgers and escape from Malfoy…

It reads as though someone recorded somebody else talking and then just wrote it down. I mean that in a good way. It’s like a transcription; very natural sounding. That’ll serves as a great example of HOW to write an action scene – because most writers don’t do it well.

Writing An Action Scene

Most people who have trouble writing action scenes are trying to write them. There’s a blank page or blank screen, and they are putting the words down for the first time, the same way they’d write other parts of a story. That doesn’t really work for me. Action scenes are different from what we usually write. Here are some tips on how to do it.

First, maybe it’s better to map out – in your head, on paper, in a separate Word file, somewhere – lay out the broad strokes of what happens. Say you have a speeding car roll over down a hill. Make a little outline of the main things that need to be shown to  the reader: 

The car gets hit, rolls down a hill, bursts into flames.

Then you might sit down with a video recorder or tape recorder or your cell phone recording you, and describe out loud to yourself what you’d see – in any order, as you think of it.

Oh, and they were speeding. And Johnny was in the trunk. And there were drugs in the glove compartment. And the car rolled over and over sideways down the hill to the rocky riverbed below.

See? Go on and on, trying to add detail wherever you can. What do you imagine it to look like, in general?

It was a grassy hillside. It was Fall, so the grass was brown and the trees were bare, no leaves. The water in the river would be cold.

Then I would write that down and arrange it, leave in what’s relevant (it might not all be). Brown grass? Maybe. Trees with no leaves? Probably not, so bring in the leafless tree info before or after the action scene if it’s relevant, but leave it out of the action part of this scene. And the color of the grass is only gonna be relevant if we have to refer to the grass at all as the car rolls down it; otherwise it may not be needed.

Now, see what you have. See how it reads. Read it out loud and then add in whatever else is needed. Usually, you’ll be adding in descriptions about stuff we don’t see all the time – like HOW a car rolls over and over down a hill. I don’t see that every day; I may need a little assistance in visualizing it. A car driving down the street, I can get that on my own. The action scene is probably not the place to talk about the color of the protagonist’s blouse.

One thing for sure, you can take extra words to flesh out things that aren’t obvious, and it doesn’t slow down the action. In Harry Potter, when people realize somebody is speeding on a broom towards the ground at a fast rate of speed, we all understand what might happen. So we all tend to go along with the tension.

That will be the case in your story, too. Spend words showing us the car smashing through the the guard rail, flipping over and over as it turns up the grass and throws it into the air, the passenger door flopping open and shut with each flip, that sort of stuff.

Then, trim your action scene for punctuation and pace. Shorter sentences, not run on sentences. Show what’s happening as much as possible. Put us in that car and bounce us off the ceiling when it rolls over. Have all the crap in your console flying around: pens, McDonald’s napkins, loose change… Get it? Whatever you think of – but do it in layers. Don’t try to write it in one pass like you would other stuff. Map it out the big stuff, then the medium stuff, then the really small stuff – because the lose change and napkins, you all went Aha! when I said that, didn’t you? So will your readers.

Back to Harry.

Many many chapters after he disappeared, Dobby reappears – and reminds Harry of his dire warning.

This Dobby character is annoying enough to read about; I don’t even want to know what he does in the movie. I’m not much into self abuse. Did I mention he sounds like Rain Man? I’m waiting for him to have a fit about having to go on an airplane and then start whacking himself in the head. Although he’s already whacked himself in the head…

At the end of chapter 10, through another little bit of information, the biggest powers that be at the school are now also speaking in the affirmative of the chamber of secrets – and the mysteries that are unfolding as a result of it.

That’s a good bit of tension to end the chapter.

A real cliffhanger.

With the head of the school now confirming the chamber of secrets is open, the reader is compelled to plow forward into the next chapter. See how that works? Do that in your stuff. It’s a Dun dun dunnn moment without announcing it with Dun dun dunnn.

Chapter 11

Considering the whodunit can only be characters in the book, and we’re pretty sure it’s not our three main characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione… And probably not Albus Dumbledore or Hagrid, we can eliminate most of the characters who weren’t bad guys in the first book. We can also throw in the suspect list some of the new characters and possibly some of the other ones. So now we’re just trying to figure out who has a good alibi or a good motive or whatever.

It’s very much and Agatha Christie story for kids unfolding before our very eyes. And of course we have our three detectives who are hot to crack the case.

A mystery story and a detective story. Not too shabby. Both are popular genres. The Hardy boys working with Nancy Drew, plus magic.

This, though, is cheating. “Conjuring up portable waterproof orange was a specialty of Hermione’s.” Since when? First I’ve heard of it, one and a half books in.

We need a fix so here it is. Boo.

On the other hand, another action scene is done – and done well – in three sentences. Check it out:

“Goyle’s potion exploded, showering the whole class. People shrieked as splashes of the Swelling Solution hit them. Malfoy got a face full and his nose began to swell like a balloon; Goyle blundered around, his hands over his eyes, which had expanded to the size of a dinner plate – Snape was trying to restore calm and find out what had happened.

Paints a pretty hectic scene and does it in three – basically four – sentences. Not bad. You get the full impact of the pandemonium and you get it quickly with plenty left to your imagination to fill in the gaps.

At this point in the story we have a few red herrings – vital stuff to mysteries.

I think we already had one. The person we think is non-magical is probably not who ordered the magic lessons. Lockhart continues to either pretend or screw up, so he is probably not magical either.

And they’re pushing Draco Malfoy too hard at us to be the villain who unlock the chamber of secrets, so my guess is it’s not Malfoy. I vote for Lockhart.

Why? We’ll have to read on…

See how mysteries pull you in??? Damn!

The dueling class has lots of potential to really engage readers’ imaginations, especially young readers. I can foresee all kinds of fun things happening with that, especially in a movie. Assume a duel will be coming later in the story!

Oh, and the possibility of Harry being a long lost relative of Slitherin house, that is raised again, too.

That one, I like.

I kind of want that to be true.

Like… how Luke Skywalker turned out to be Darth Vader’s son, Harry Potter could turn out to be a great great great grandson of a really bad guy. Another Star Wars rip off? We’ll have to read on to find out.

And the chapter ends with more people being petrified and Harry getting blamed.    A standard and unoriginal ploy – the hero getting wrongly blamed – but so what? We believe Harry innocent so we wanna know who’s framing him.

That’s more mystery.

And more great storytelling.

8 thoughts on “How To Write Better Stories: Action

  1. It’s so fascinating to hear how you’re interpreting the mystery and the various characters from a fresh perspective. I’ve read the books twice, I think (although it’s been a while) and watched all the movies. Knowing how things turn out in the end, it’s hard to remember how everything must have seemed to me early on in the book. I had forgotten how much misdirection there was, which now I’m really starting to appreciate in these books. Maybe I should go back and read them again myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was one of the main reasons to post this stuff instead of just having it be my notes. If you know what happens, you’re reading this and thinking, what’s he going on about? Then you see some of it was meant by the author as misdirection, and some was just creative minds doing what creative minds do – trying to solve the puzzle – and getting it wrong!

      Liked by 1 person

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