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Action Scenes

One of the many yardsticks by which I've been trying to measure my growth as a writer is my ability to effectively write an action scene.  Other folks are going to have to let me know where I stand, though.  This particular yardstick is hard to read from where I'm standing, metaphorically speaking.

The challenge is that action is a visual element.  In something like a movie, which is 90% visual, action is easy.  You just fill the frame with kinetic energy.  You can get away with framing your shots in all kinds of nifty ways and you'll still get the point across. In a book, you don't get that same leeway.  Books are logical and verbal, not visual.

So, sure, a scene in which somebody repeatedly roundhouse-kicks a bad guy into submission is a lot of fun to watch, but to read?  It's tedious.

And then John Corbett did a roundhouse kick.  And he hit the bad guy in the head.  And then he did another kick in the head.  And the he did another kick in the head.  The bad guy's head really hurt.

When I first tried to put any action into my writing many, many years ago, I think I was so caught up in the visualization of movement that I tried to mechanically spell out every single thing that happened.  It wouldn't be enough for me to say, "Jason shot at the bad guy while diving over the banister."  I'd lump on so much detail that I might as well have just drawn a diagram:

Jason ran parallel to the banister for three feet while shooting with the gun in his right hand.  Using his left hand, he pushed against the banister and launched himself in the air, but kept his torso vertical so he could maintain a clear trace on the bad guy and keep shooting with his right hand.  The first four bullets missed, but then the fifth and sixth bullet hit the bad guy while he was halfway up the stairs. Then the bad guy fell backward, with his left foot one step higher than his right foot, and his head beneath both of them on the landing below him.

As of late, I've come to the conclusion that the specific details are not so important.  What really matters are stakes before the action, rising tension as a consequence, some amount of cleverness in what's happening, and good pacing throughout. If you're worried about whether or not Jason is going to kill the bad guy, then your brain will fill in a lot of the pieces surrounding the specific moment he shoots him.  The memorable part isn't when Jason pulls the trigger - it's the part where the bad guy's friends hear the gunfire and barge into the room, then shoot Jason in the spine.  In other words, it's about what comes next and being amazed to find out.

But I'm worried I still regress into detail diarrhea.  Bitter People Without Souls has a climactic fight scene that goes on for 2-3 pages.  I know some amount of that is spent on the specifics of the action - who's doing what, where they are in the scene, etc.  I wonder now if I should have excised that for the sake of simplicity.  Is it more or less tense to boil it down to pure cause and effect?

I've similarly just finished writing an in-depth action scene for my post-apocalyptic comedy book.  This sequence fills out virtually an entire chapter and takes place in an abandoned hardware store.  I like the scene as it plays out in my head.  Trust me - what I'm seeing is awesome.  What you'll see when you read it?  I don't know.  I hope it's good.  I'm just worried that you'll see more of the "and then they did this with a gun while somebody else did this with their fist and then this guy died" blather.

Come to think of it, this might go a long way to explain why I don't often write thrillers.