Part 3: Other Parts Of An Action Scene + The Writing Technique
(We started discussing action scenes yesterday. Click HERE to see what you missed. It was a lot.)
For action scenes, you don’t want a sentence to go on too long.
I prefer shorter sentences but simply break up the different things you are saying in your segment with punctuation. Commas are fine depending on what you’re trying to say.
Finally, remember that the way you are writing the action scene (and loves scenes, by the way) is different from how you write other scenes. If you were talking about a tree you might slow down your pace and really use flowery language. In an action scene, you want to increase your pace and really use the most intense verbs you can think of. So instead of saying “stabbed” you might say “plunged his rusty metal blade into.” Things like that. But don’t worry about that on your first or second pass, just make a note that you need to do it.
Then, as mentioned, you send it over to a trusted friend to read, and give them a few hundred or 1000 words that occur before your action scene and a few hundred after the action scene – so they can get the impact of the battle in context.
Almost no matter what your action scene is, you simply break it down into manageable parts.
Don’t worry about how long or how many words it takes you to describe something. A car rolling down a hill takes time to roll down the hill. It only takes two seconds to read “car rolling down a hill” but it might take 30 seconds for that to happen. So if you want to elaborate about it rolling over and over or a door flying open and shut with each turn or grass been kicked in the air by the frame as it rolls, you can do that – because the reader understands this particular thing takes time to happen.
Your action scenes will read differently from your other scenes because you will be focusing on being intense or fast-paced. And your reader will see that and appreciate it.
They’re different than what we usually write so we need to spend a little more time on them – but if you spend that time and make a few drafts and show it to other authors whose input you trust, it will turn out well.
Layering In A Car Chase Or Any Action Scene
Again, it’s best 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.
Easy, right! Okay, so far so good.
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 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…
Whatever you think of, write down – 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.
Why Short Sentences?
We writers get excited and 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 (or more commas) 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.)
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.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!
Available in paperback and audio book, too!