The Balancing Act – Specificity in Action Scenes

Very recently, I took part in a workshop with twenty or so other aspiring novelists in the SF and Fantasy genres, and one of the most common problems I ran across was in writing action scenes. Often the scenes came out jumbled and confusing, or the writer simply skipped it. Writing action can be intimidating. It was for me. My first action scene, I confess, was first written by a friend of mine. He did the draft, and I had to fiddle with it until I figured out how it worked.

For me, action scenes have myriad issues that make it difficult to navigate. Here I’m going to focus on one of those issues – the difficult balancing act of how much detail to include. Too much description is much the same as too little; both will leave the reader confused.

The lack of description, I think, is at least partially based on the fact that we hear, again and again, how too much description slows the pacing down. In most cases this is correct, most description is unnecessary because the reader can assume certain things.

Example: He parked and went into the building.

I don’t put in the step by step detail about navigating the parking lot or getting out of the car- putting his foot on the break, turning off the ignition, unlatching his seat belt, opening the door, getting out, and closing the door behind him. Most people know how to get out of a car, so the detail is unnecessary.

Let’s look at the same idea put into an action scene. Take this example I saw recently: I lunged. He landed on the ground with a heavy thud, and I got back to my feet.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have no idea what just happened. What made the other guy fall? When did the narrator end up on the floor and why? The detail is now a true necessity for the reader to experience what they are reading.

That’s the irony. While, in another type of scene, description can be problematic, it’s necessary for action scenes. Quite simply, most people don’t know what it’s like to be in a gun or sword fight, a space battle, a horse charge, or a kung fu brawl. They don’t have the experience to fill in the gaps, and so the writer has to do the heavy lifting.

The problem comes when the writer moves too far in the other direction. As I said above, too much is just as bad as too little. Get too detailed, and the reader might lose the focus of the scene in all the minutia and become confused anyway.

The way out of this is to be specific rather than wordy. Slamming to the ground, for instance, implies something very different from hitting the ground or slipping to the ground. Also, words that mimic what’s going on can help cut down the word count while still keeping the pacing going. Hard consonants can help a reader hear a gun fight in their heads. Short, concise words echo the pace of a fast moving chase.

Another good thing to remember is the use of paragraphing – shorter paragraphs that describe only one character’s actions can keep what’s going on clear to the reader. Get too long, or put more than one character’s actions in a paragraph, and things start getting muddled again.

So, while finding the right balance can be difficult, it’s by no means impossible. There are plenty of ways to counteract the need for the additional description an action scene requires. The key is to keep the action simple and clear.

An Idea is Never Truly ‘Finished’

I am guessing this has happened to many of you:

I began work on a novel about two years ago. The process began with the spark of an idea, nurturing it through plenty of world-building into the semblance of a flame. After a couple months of kicking this idea around in my head, November was coming around, and with it NaNoWriMo. I decided to go to town on this new idea, working with some pretty robust world building and a very loose outline, and managed to hit the 50,000 words, but was only about halfway through the story as I envisioned it in my head.

After November, work on the novel inevitably slowed, and that passionate month of writing began to resemble the opening act of a romantic relationship; I was enamored with the idea in November, it was lovely and infallible. Afterwards, glaring imperfections began to surface and the idea wasn’t so flawless anymore. It needed work. I put it on the back burner to simmer. There were aspects I needed to reconsider.

I worked on it off and on the following year, considering new ideas and beginning new projects all the while, but I always seemed to come back to the original; indeed, I never stopped developing the world, or my ideas on how the outline should play out.

I will tell you a bit about it so I can make a point later. I will try to be pretty general rather than get locked down in specific details. The setting was a jungle type environment, something I had never seen before as the prime location in a fantasy story, and one that I was really excited to work with. Within the jungle lived a single tribe with a terrifying history. Some time ago, perhaps hundreds of years, the world was locked in eternal war, human blood spilled constantly and endlessly. The earth was forced to drink this blood, and with enough of it, a terrible evil quickened beneath the crust, giving rise to a malicious jungle. Most of the population was wiped out as the vegetation sprung up overnight, choking with vines, stabbing with roots, cutting with razor sharp leaves, what have you; quickened through decades of violence, this villainous jungle craved human blood to fuel its growth.

Humans fled as the jungle took root, and the few survivors were able to convene and establish a horribly burned and scarred track of land where nothing whatsoever would grow. And so they were safe from the onslaught of the jungle, and in time, were able to form a community and begin to slowly grow the human population.

Those are about all the details necessary. The point is, I worked with this idea for some time, beginning work on the actual novel with interruptions here and there for more world building about what the society was like, how their struggle for survival would play out.

But I began to feel limited. I was working with a relatively small population, in a relatively cramped and concentrated pocket of the world. The society itself was nowhere near as complex or established enough for me to tie it allegorically to problems in modern society, which I very badly wanted to do. What was once a spark, then a fire, eventually dulled and burned out; development ceased and I was unable to overcome these glaring problems with the established world-building.

Recently, a few weeks ago, that unmistakable spark hit me again, and I began to solve my problems. I had new, vaster ideas; ideas that took all the work I had done into its fold and established something larger. Suddenly, the old idea was but a facet of the new. The world, and the story, grew in scope and complexity and have become much more relatable, much easier to work with.

I have heard it say that many works of art – poems, paintings, songs, and novels – are never truly finished. The artist eventually has to pick a point and sort of walk away, presenting it to the world in its current state. This makes more sense to me now than it ever has before. How many of you have experienced the same: an idea that never stops growing, that always becomes richer and more refined. An idea that will grow over several days, then months, and eventually years.

It is clear to me that an idea for a world and a story is never “finished’ and ready to write. It is true, at some point we will be forced to take what we have and run with it or else it will never see life, but I am sure many of us could sit and incubate a single idea for the entirety of our lives – I can only wonder how imaginative and complex these could grow.

As for me, I am more excited than ever for November to roll around, to give my newly reborn idea another shot at NaNoWriMo and see if it is finally ready to take its first steps into life.

Maximise Your Potential

Through most of last year, I kept a spreadsheet of my writing progress (yeah, I know – you’re surprised, right?). I tracked the dates I wrote and my word count and I’ve discovered some interesting facts about myself.

I have a full time day job and work the usual Monday to Friday with weekends off. My spreadsheets shows:

* I tend to write for four days in a row and then take a day or two off.

* Sunday is always my most productive day.

* Surprisingly, Monday is my most productive evening. (Who ever expects productivity on a Monday?)

* Tuesdays and Fridays are my least productive days.

* On work days, I am more productive if I get up early (5am) to write, rather than trying to write in the evening.

Now that I’m more aware of these habits, I have been taking note of how I feel – mentally and physically – on different days. And, unsurprisingly, my energy levels correlate with my writing habits:

* Mondays I feel fresh and enthusiastic.

* By Tuesday, I am somewhat tired and less enthusiastic. The weekend is a fading memory and Friday’s not yet in sight.

* On Wednesday, energy and optimism is on the rise again.

* By Friday, I am tired and looking forward to the weekend.

* Saturday is often filled with running errands, catching up on neglected housework, and doing all the things I had intended to do during the week.

* Sunday is my last chance to get in some quality writing time before the work week starts again. I push myself to finish the writing I had intended for that week before it’s time to set goals for the next week.

So now that I’m aware of this, how can I make best use of my time? In looking at my writing habits through last year, there is no point pushing myself to write on a Tuesday. I rarely achieve more than 150 words per hour on Tuesday so let’s leave that as an evening to refresh. Clearly, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday are my best options for writing productivity so I should ensure my schedule includes some solid writing time on those days. I should schedule all the other things that need to happen during the week, like housework, walking the dogs and going to the gym, on my non-writing days, thus maximising both my writing time and my energy levels. And obviously I should make more effort to be out of bed at 5am on a work day. Now that the nights are warmer and the sun is rising earlier, this should be easier than it was a few weeks ago.

Take a look at your own writing habits. What do you notice? Is there a particular day or time when you are at your most productive?

What inspires you?

Why do you keep writing, month after month? Why do you persist at honing your craft when encouragement is little or non-existent? What is your dream?

Me, I want it all. I want the New York Times bestseller (even though I know the NYT generally ignores genre writers and so doesn’t actually reflect the highest-selling books). I want to walk into a bookstore or a library and see my precious manuscript on a shelf, printed and bound and shiny. I want to be able to write full time. But more than all of that, I want to share my stories with the world.

Trying to break into the publishing world is a long slog, isn’t it? I have friends who are self-publishing. I don’t intend this post to be about the benefits or otherwise or self-publishing, so I’ll just say that it’s not for me. The publishing world is changing at a rapid pace. Some predictions are dire. E-books are apparently on the verge of taking over the world. Bookstores are closing. Some people say we will barely recognise the publishing industry in a few years. And yet still we push on.

So why do we do it to ourselves? Is it arrogance? A belief that although the world doesn’t yet recognise our genius, it will in time? Is it stubbornness? An unwillingness to let go of the dream just because it seems so far out of reach? I’ve been thinking about this over the last few months and the only answer I can come up with is from my “want” list: I want to share my stories. I don’t have a crystal ball so I don’t know whether perhaps the day might come when the dream dies and I pack away my thesaurus, dictionary, index cards and assorted coloured pens and highlighters. Perhaps that will happen but maybe – just maybe – I will persist until I actually break through.

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you two quotes I have pinned on the wall in front of my writing space. One is from Stephen King’s ON WRITING and likely most aspiring writers will recognise it:

It’s about the pumpkin.

Don’t know what it means? Get a copy of ON WRITING and read it. Seriously, if you intend to make a career out of writing, you should be familiar with this book. Buy or borrow it, read it, and take note of the story about the farmer and his pumpkins.

The second one is on a cardboard star. I have no idea where it came from. It’s about two inches big and is green and silver. It says:

 Dream Big

That says it all, doesn’t it? This is what the aspiring writer does. Perhaps your dream is different to mine. Perhaps not. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that we all have the same goal: we are all dreaming big.

What do you keep in your writing space to inspire you?