Category Archives: Action & Adventure

Don’t You Just Love the Metaphor?

Ever have one of those moments where you’re character gets lost in the turmoil of their own head – arguing themselves into circles that are vaguely reminiscent of filthy water swirling down a drain? Nothing ever gets resolved, and the character just looks like they’re passively wallowing in their own little “woe is me” pity party. I have. On more than one occasion. It was not pretty.

Sure, I could have put someone else in the scene for the character to talk to. Two people sitting around talking about their problems could be interesting if they have different views, but let’s face it, while talking it out might be healthy, it’s can also be boring.

One of my favorite ways to keep this from happening is to take that personal, internal conflict and externalize it.

Enter the metaphor.

As you can imagine, I’m not talking about the typical use your English teacher might bring up where a woman’s smile is a sunrise. I’m talking about when a brawl stops being just a knock-down drag-out between a protagonist and antagonist and becomes an argument between the two sides of the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

This is most easily seen in film, where internal conflict has to be externalized since we don’t get any of that nifty expository internal narrative that we do from books. Instead, we get Hellboy fighting an elemental for ten minutes without taking a scratch, but starts bleeding when one of those normal people he just saved throws a rock at his face and calls him a freak. The elemental was a fun night out, but the guy with a rock cuts to his desperate desire to fit into a world he pretty much knows he never will. That one action stands in for the argument.

I was watching the new Daredevil and reached the inner conflict that seems part and parcel with any super-hero – that of staying a good person when faced with the need to do violence. The struggle to retain one’s humanity when faced with inhuman circumstances, and the aftermath of facing that struggle, might be one of the oldest internal conflicts in literature and shows up in every genre we have devised. So, how do we keep a tried and true conflict from sounding old and stale? We come up with a nifty metaphor to stand in for one guy talking to himself or his best friend. In a fantasy, the hero might find it difficult to use his sword, even at the possible cost of losing those he loves. In SF, maybe it’s a heated argument about purchasing a worn-out old spaceship. The possibilities are endless.

Not only does this get the character out of their own heads, and liven the argument (so to speak), but also has the effect of giving those action scenes that keep the story moving more depth and meaning. Sure, the pacing might be slow at that one point in the middle of the book, but while just slapping a fight scene in there might get things moving, it would have so much more impact if it pressed a button somewhere inside the character, putting pressure on an already tense situation eating away at them.

Of course, I’m not saying that every conflict within a story should harken back to some internal argument the character is having with him or herself. Some conflicts are by necessity strictly plot driven, but I’m one of those writers who sincerely believes that character is where the story lies. The more you can infuse the characters into the fights they get into, the arguments they have, the hard  decisions they face, the better off the story is.

MYST: The Game that Had it All

MYSTLong before Portal or Portal 2, there was MYST, played exclusively on the pc. I know Portal can be played in other formats. In fact, it’s probably preferable, but we never got around to graduating our Nintendo any higher than a Wii, so when my kids and I played Portal it was like the old days, on our pc. Watching my son’s fingers pounce around on the little plastic keys brought back memories. As much as I love Portal, especially the cake song at the end, I think MYST was better. It had EVERYTHING, and I think that’s a bit of a writing lesson:

Mystery: No info-dumping in MYST. You start out relatively clueless, with just enough information to draw you in, so you want to know more, and you want to solve the mystery. Most of the game was spent figuring  out puzzles, but the goal  pulled you on, because you had to find out what had happened in the world and you wanted each clue in order to put the pieces together and reach the end goal.

Point: Our novels need to hook our readers, give a sense of mystery, and excite the passion for discovery  in order to pull our readers from one chapter to the next.

Intelligence: MYST wasn’t some Sudoku or Word Find. The puzzles were hard and varied. It stretched my brain. For some people, that made it too much. They couldn’t figure out the solutions and so they gave up. My husband and I used to play the game together in our early married years–it constituted many of our date nights–and, I admit, we cheated a couple of times. But often, the puzzles would use our different skills. I remember one where we had to match the pitches to sounds on some other part of the island we were exploring. My husband figured out the pattern related to the problem, but I identified the sounds to find the right pitch. Good fun.

Point: Challenging our readers intellectually can actually make them more invested in the story, but push it too far and we might lose readers. We need to find the balance that gives us the widest audience.

Setting: Speaking of the puzzles, the music, and the island; the setting for MYST was incredible. Up until that time, at least to my knowledge, there had been nothing that compared. You’d step into a world and every color, line, and shape told you about the new environment.  Eerie creaks and groans added to the sense of mystery. Sometimes, I could almost imagine that I smelled certain things, the details were so complete. When I stepped into the game, I stepped into another world.

Point: We need to immerse our readers into the world we create, whether it be contemporary, fantastical, or far-future. The details need to paint such a complete picture that our readers taste, see, and fully experience that sensation of having stepped into another place.

Story: There’s more I could say but I don’t want to make a ten-page long post, so we’ll end with story. In the past, most games I played, I played to win. With MYST, it wasn’t about winning, it was about completing the story, finding the conclusion, and finally understanding how it all came together.

Point: It’s important that we set up our readers expectations right to begin with, so they have some idea of the type of journey they’re undertaking and where it will take them, and then we need to fulfill those expectations with a satisfying conclusion.

MYST series

The best part: After playing a couple of versions of MYST, I discovered they’d taken the game and turned the whole thing into a series of books. I don’t know if they were widely read, but I  loved them.  When my oldest son discovered the series, somewhere around 3rd grade (when the school wouldn’t let him read Harry Potter) he jumped to an adult reading level within weeks, all because he fell in love with those books. From that point on he couldn’t be held back. He voraciously read every fantasy book he could get his hands on. MYST not only made an awesome game, it translated well into an interesting book series. That game, had game.

Just as a side note, anybody else think it’s time for some Portal books…and maybe a movie?


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.