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The Trouble With Action

I don’t like action scenes. There, I said it. Feels good to get that off of my chest.

I’m referring to the ones in books. I mean, I just caught the last episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, and WHOA! Now that was some awesome action. So I suppose action scenes in movies and TV are often exceptions to my rule. And even in books it can depend on how you define “action.” I’m not talking about commonplace actions, like driving to the store or folding laundry—though those can be dreary, too. I’m talking about fight scenes, battle scenes, chase scenes, etcetera. I feel like I should like ‘em, but I usually don’t. Heck, even an Indiana Jones-like tunnel-to-cliff-to-river-rapids “who’s-got-the-stolen-sacred-relic?” type scene can tempt me to start skimming. And the older I get, the more I skim ‘em.

Of course it’s an exaggeration to say that I dislike all action scenes. I occasionally find my pulse rate rising and my page button clicking faster while reading an action scene. But it’s rare. And it seems to be getting rarer. I hear readers praising authors’ action scenes and action-writing capabilities often, so I just might be in a minority. Perhaps it says more about me than the current state of literature.

And of course I write action sequences myself, and hope that readers enjoy them. (Does that make me a writerly hypocrite?)

But I’ve come to feel that my taste as a reader in this matter provides writer-me with some guidance, so I thought I’d share. Perhaps you’ll find it useful.

On the Edge of Our Seats

Does this sound crazy to you? A fantasy writer who doesn’t like action scenes? I mean, we writers are supposed to make things happen on the page, right?

I remember when I first started writing, I LOVED writing action sequences. I would put on dramatic music and oh, how things played out so cinematically in my head as I poured my swashbuckling action out onto the page. I would get so pumped up—physically and mentally—as I opened the spigot on a fount of minutia that I presumed would make my scenes cinematic for others, often adding ever more detail with each editing pass.

I think it was from my longtime mentor, WU’s own Cathy Yardley [1], that I first heard the phrase “It had me falling asleep at the edge of my seat.” I still love that phrase (it was you, wasn’t it, Coach?). And yep, you guessed it—she was talking about those meticulously-crafted action sequences of mine. I can see it in hindsight. Readers read to find out what happens (as in results), not to research specifically how an elaborate event unfolds.

No one cares if my hero grips his saddle pommel with his left hand, with the wind whistling through his helm, so that he can lean to his right and, starting from over his shoulder, bring his broadsword down in a roundhouse swing, utilizing his mount’s momentum. They just want to know if he hits anything, and if so, how it affects the fight. More to the point, they want to get to the outcome.

Turns out all of my attention to detail wasn’t so cinematic after all. Even if writing my action scenes puts me at the edge of my seat, it doesn’t mean I’m not putting my poor readers to sleep on the edge of theirs.

But, but… Stuff’s gotta happen, right?

By now I’m guessing many of you are thinking, “Sure, but we can’t just skip the action and leap to the outcome.” Those of you who are, of course you’re right.

As our craft-gurus so often remind us, stories aren’t about what happens, they’re about how what happens affects our characters. On the flip side, if nothing happens, there is no effect. So yes—stuff’s gotta happen. And some of the best story-stuff is rooted in dramatic action. Plus, certain types of action are vital to certain genres. A thriller’s gotta thrill, right? What’s a murder mystery without a murder? And then there’s my genre, epic fantasy. Many, if not most, epic fantasy readers consider some sort of battle action to be essential to a truly epic tale. I mean, can you imagine The Lord of the Rings without The Battle of Pelennor Fields? Or A Song of Ice and Fire without The Battle of the Blackwater? I sure can’t.

I’m not advocating doing away with action scenes. Rather, writer-me is seeking a way to make them skim-proof, even for the likes of reader-me.

Striving for Skim-Proof Action

I confess, I’m not certain I’ve slayed this particular page-dragon. It’s an effort in progress. I still write my action sequences from the edge of my seat (with movie soundtracks blaring, mock blade near to hand, et al). I still tend to overwrite them. But that’s first draft stuff. There’s nothing to clean up till we pour out the ink, right?

Even a few of my favorite fantasy authors write action scenes that practically beg reader-me to skim. But some still manage to keep the ever crankier reader-me riveted throughout. I’ve been studying those that work, and I’ve made some observations.

*Detail: It’s About Quality, not Quantity—We’ve all heard about the importance of utilizing details in capturing authenticity. It’s true, but here’s where we can so easily make readers’ eyes glaze over. If you’ve ever read, or written (as I admittedly have), a fight scene where the writer takes note of which hand, or foot, is doing what, you know what I’m talking about. Or how about the mention of wounds that don’t hurt yet? (If it doesn’t hurt yet, why mention it?) One tip that helps me with this: keep it tight to your POV character. You can convey that lots of other stuff is happening with just a few words or phrases.

*Make those fewer details count—Well-placed details can really make an action scene come to life. But it’s not just having too many details that slows a scene. It can also be the inclusion of clichéd details (my “wind whistling through the helm” example above springs to mind). I’ve noticed some of my favorite authors add unique details that pertain not just to the setting, but to the characters. This is especially effective if those pertinent details are triggers to your POV character’s goals, motives, inner conflicts, or fears (Indiana Jones’s line, “Why does it always have to be snakes?” springs to mind).

*It’s okay to summarize—As I said, I tend to overwrite my action scenes. I feel like I have to justify how every little thing happens. How did my character end up over on that side of the battlefield? Where’d his opponent’s horse go when he fell off? In most instances, no one cares! So unless such details are vital to the reader’s suspension of disbelief, or somehow weigh on the outcome, I remind myself not to bother justifying them. Instead I tell myself that it’s okay to summarize a series of actions.

*Don’t disregard feelings… with a caveat—I think knowing how POV characters feel during an action sequence can help to keep the scene riveting. But dwelling on their feelings throughout an action scene can really bog it down. After all, most everyone in a fight for their life is angry, exhilarated, terrified, and so on. Also, I’ve noticed that descriptions of a character’s physical state (as in, gasping for breath, heart hammering, mouth dry, etcetera) can knock me out of the fictive trance. Once again, make your sparing inclusions as unique to your character as possible. As with most elements in fiction writing, when it comes to feelings in action scenes I try for a mixture of showing and telling.

[An Added Note: Since writing this essay, I’m fresh from the Donald Maass [2] workshop, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. I can see that many of my ideas here sprouted from the fertile soils of his teachings. Don’s workshop particularly reminded me that there are many effective ways to evoke your characters’ feelings without naming them. If you’re like me, and looking to enhance this aspect of your craft, I highly recommend getting yourself to Don’s workshop, or getting the book. Or better yet, both!]

Getting to the Effects

As I study my own skimming tendencies, I can see that the temptation grows when the sequence of events becomes mundane or predictable in any way. If it’s true that stories are not about what happens but about how what happens affects characters, then as a reader I’m trying to get to the effects. In other words, I’m always seeking the core of the story.

Have you heard the theory that there are only seven stories? Well, if that’s true, it’s the way our characters are affected that’s central to what makes our stories uniquely ours. If we don’t make the action itself unique to our characters, and keep it free of cliché and predictability, there’s a danger the well-versed readers of our genres will find it skim-inducing.

So take action. Make the effort to ensure your next action sequence is riveting even to a reader like me–one who doesn’t (often) like action scenes.

How about you? Are you ever tempted to skim action scenes? Do you write them on the edge of your seat? Do you seek to make yours skim-proof? Please share your tips and your favorite action-scene authors.

Image: A Boring Read, by Laszlo Bartha at Flickr [3]

About Vaughn Roycroft [4]

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days polishing his epic fantasy trilogy.