Action Scenes: Keeping the Story Moving

Ask the Authors (Round 2)

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This week the Ask the Authors panel is discussing writing action scenes and pacing the story. We’ve got a great group of authors on the author panel and I want to thank them all for going the extra mile and getting their answers to me on a very short deadline. Our author panel this week consists of Tom Johnson, DeAnna Knippling, Mark Shaw, Cynthia Vespia, Lilly Rayman, RA Winter, Ashley Fontainne, and Jordan Elizabeth. 

A story where nothing happens isn’t much of a story. Action is what makes the story and each individual scene move forward. But, pacing also has a lot to do with it, and if an action scene moves too fast, we take a chance of losing the readers, and if it moves too slow, we may put them to sleep. Our ultimate goal is to allow readers to follow the story and want to read more, so let’s see how our panel members go about doing that.

What tips do you have for writing fight scenes, or car chases, where a blow by blow description might get boring?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture My fight scenes and car chases tend to be quicker than most. I’ve read books where a fight scene or car chase will play out over six or more pages. Real fight scenes and car chases don’t normally run that long in reality. Something will usually happen to bring both to an end. It looks good on movie screens, but it doesn’t happen that way, believe me. And I want my scenes to be quick.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak The more structured you can make an action scene, the better, I think.  This doesn’t mean you have to plan everything out beforehand, but that you stick to a pattern of beginnings, middles with separate beats, and endings fairly strictly.
–The beginning of any action scene should establish the location that the action will occur in.  I’ve been studying some film techniques on this, literally if you look up “establishing shot,” you’ll get a lot of useful information on how to do this.
–The middle should have beats, in which one character tries to do something new, and then we see the results of the same.  Each action the character takes should be opposed by something–and that thing should be different every time.  In a fight scene, for example, one character might try hitting the other, who dodges.  Then the character tries to hit the other again, and they run away.  And so on.  No action by any fighter should be an unqualified success, although you can certainly kill off some characters who aren’t too important.  No major character should completely succeed or fail until the end of the action scene–any success or failure will likely be followed by some twist before the end of the scene.
–The end of any big chunk of action scene should tell us what’s happening next, for example, the characters are leaving a warehouse and running out along a narrow sidewalk near a canal, and we see the characters each leaving the warehouse and going out onto the sidewalk.  Usually this happens when you move the characters from one place to another.  You want to make absolutely sure the reader can follow the physical layout of the action.
–The end of any action scene should wrap up the results of the action and how the character feels about it.
I’ve found that breakdowns of action scenes in films are pretty helpful here.  Here’s an example:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUu8u5PcK3s
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy Fight scenes! Now we’re talking!! I actually ran a hands-on workshop to teach exactly that. The tips I always give are to act out the motions yourself. Whether that means blocking it out like a choreographer does for a movie fight or using action figures to give yourself a sense of placement, do whatever strikes all your sensory details.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Oh, this is a tough question! I visualise the scene and I try to give an impression of the fight where the finer details are not necessary. Here is an example from a work in progress of the fight being witnessed by another character within the room.

Horus recovered from being thrown across the room before he hit the tiled floor and was in a fighter’s stance as soon as Seth was on his feet. Hathor watched the pair as they silently stalked each other in a circle. Seth was unarmed, but a far superior warrior than his much younger nephew. It was of little surprise to Hathor that Seth was the first to move in and engage Horus. He darted inside of Horus’ reach, knocking the blade from his hand before grappling with him.

The wash of testosterone and anger pheromones filled the chamber, making Hathor dizzy with the fight against her vampiric nature. She had always been more controlled than the rest of her brethren, yet at this moment, she found herself wanting to sink her teeth into Seth and drain him of his life force. In an attempt to anchor herself, her fingers dug so deeply into the column that hid her from few that she felt the stone crumble under her fingers.

Horus and Seth were still grappling with each other, using their knees and feet to try and strike a blow on their opponent whilst trying to be the one to throw the other to the ground. Both had something to gain by winning this fight, and everything to lose if they didn’t.

Horus was the first to break through his uncle’s balance and the pair crashed to the floor, the sound of their half-naked bodies slapping against the tiles overly loud in Hathor’s ears. Seth was swift to roll the pair over until he was towering above his nephew. His knees pinned against Horus’ elbows, knocking Horus’ hold against Seth away. Seth locked his ankles in tight against the younger man’s body, sitting down on his stomach and using his greater weight to help pin Horus to the floor.

Ashley Fontainne
Ashley Fontainne I find the best way is to give simultaneous descriptions from the viewpoint of several characters involved in the scene.
Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I try to keep my sentences short.  Heavy paragraphs weigh down the action and can take away from the impact of a fight scene.

Scenes with a lot of action are exciting and fun and can keep the story moving, but if there is a lot going on, it’s important that we don’t lose the reader in the mayhem, causing them to drift away.

How do you write action sequences clearly, so as not to confuse readers when there is a lot going on, like on a battle field or a chase scene? Any secrets?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture In a battlefield you want to concentrate on a person, what they are doing while the action takes place around them. Ever notice in the movies when a soldier is killed, the action and sounds around him cease as his buddies bend over him. No more explosions, gunfire, loud noise until the scene is over, then boom! Here comes all the noise again. They want the audience to feel his buddy’s sadness for his death. We need to do the same thing. Slow the action, stop the noise, play the scene out, then go back to the battle.

I’ve been in real battles, and here’s what really angers me about combat scenes in fiction. The sergeant and his men are in a firefight with the enemy, and the sergeant is thinking about his girlfriend and the sex he had last night. Let me tell you, when you are in a firefight, you’re not thinking about sex or girlfriends, you’re only wanting to concentrate your fire on the enemy. Forget sex. Forget everything else. Concentrate on the enemy.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Once you have everything set up and you’re in the actual beats of action, only have two characters fighting or one character vs. one other assorted danger at a time.  Even when it would be reasonable for two conflicts to be going on at one time, just show one conflict at a time.  One character can fight off a group of attackers, but those attackers have to strike separately and be dealt with separately, or they have to strike in unison, and be dealt with in unison.  People’s ability to deal with real-life emergencies and fights is just proverbially bad.  You have to break things up artificially in units–very short units, so the reader isn’t aware that you’re feeding them information very, very carefully.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy You focus on your viewpoint character. There may be a huge battle, with alot going on around your character, but whoever’s story is being told at that point in the story you write what they see. Then, if you need to get information across about a specific incident happening in the fight elsewhere, simply cut to another character. But if we go back to writing about POV make sure you’re giving them their own chapter breaks, or emphasize that there’s a new character focus within the same chapter rather than bouncing from head-to-head. This keeps the action clear for the reader.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman It’s much the same as when writing a multiple character conversation, where you ensure that rather than dialogue tags that identify the actioner of the fight, you still use some sort of identifiable information. As the author you need to be clear in your own mind who is doing what, and then relay that same information to the reader. Of course, you want to be careful to avoid too much repetition of the character names, and try and use other monikers, as in my last answers example:

Seth was swift to roll the pair over until he was towering above his nephew. His knees pinned against Horus’ elbows, knocking Horus’ hold against Seth away. Seth locked his ankles in tight against the younger man’s body, sitting down on his stomach and using his greater weight to help pin Horus to the floor.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne Secrets? No. Once the scene is written I go back and review numerous times and read out loud, making sure the flow makes sense and is easy to follow.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I keep action scenes short.  To keep up the impact of the action, you don’t want to bog it down or make it go on for too many pages.


Show, don’t tell. I’ve heard that from the time I first started writing. More than likely we all have. It’s pretty common writing advice, and it really is important advice to heed. When a story tells the reader what happens, rather than showing, I call it the omnipotent reader voice, where the narrator sees all and knows all, and proceeds to tell us about it. While there are places where this voice can work and even be the best way to tell the story, in most cases, it’s much better to place the reader in the middle of the action and let the story unfold.

What tricks do you use to ensure you do more showing than telling?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Sadly, good writers often forget to show instead of telling. One author left the bad guy to be killed off stage. We read through the whole story, then the bad guy escapes to France and the story basically comes to an end. But the hero gets word that the bad guy was killed in his hotel room by a bellhop with a knife. No fare. That should have been a main scene in the book where the bad guy gets killed. Why the author did it this way I’ll never know. But we, as authors, must realize that important scenes can’t be left to be heard and not seen. I don’t use tricks I just keep my characters in action. They’re not going to leave an important unfinished.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak Make sure any backstory essential to the scene is handled before the scene.  Do the overall description of the setting at the beginning of the scene.   Then put any telling that’s not setting description in dialogue, and make the person saying use their words as an attack.  “I slept with your girlfriend!” is both telling rather than showing, and a verbal attack.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy Focus on the five senses. He tasted blood. Her ears rang from the strike. Etc.

RA Winter

RA Winter I like to add in my descriptions in an active way.  I use each of the five senses to define the scene and go into a deeper point of view while using the tone of the story to drive the showing.  Does that make sense? Also, I use a lot of descriptions in odd ways, like this (pre-edit) passage from Twisted.

The air burst into a kaleidoscope of colored shards that twinkled. Whirling into a mini tornado, pieces broke off and a puzzle began. Steely white skin, firm breasts, long dark hair, piercing blue eyes, luscious red lips…

Everyone knows what a tornado and a puzzle look like and hopefully, you can imagine the scene.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman This example gives the reader a more in-depth sensation of the fight, than just being told. I’m trying to invoke the sounds of the fight with the reader and not just dictating the movements.

Horus was the first to break through his uncle’s balance and the pair crashed to the floor, the sound of their half-naked bodies slapping against the tiles overly loud in Hathor’s ears.

Jordan Elizabeth
Jordan I try to include a lot of sounds and smells.  Adding in extra senses helps to show what’s going on without telling.

Of course we want exciting action scenes, but we need to keep it real. If you mess up a fight scene by saying a blow caused an injury which in life never would happen, there’s a martial arts expert somewhere who will read your story and call you on it. If you say a driver flipped a car end over end, landed it on it’s wheels and took off, readers will start dropping off because that wouldn’t really happen. We are told to write what we know for this reason, but nobody knows everything and there will be times when we have to write about experiences that we don’t have first hand knowledge of.

Have you ever taken lessons or sought out experts to learn how a fight might play out, or how a particular weapon operates, or perhaps how a person would react to a particular poison? Anything like that? If so, why was it necessary and do you feel your writing benefitted from it?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Actually, I was involved in Judo and Karate for six years, and studied come-along holds. Plus, as a cop I was involved in many car chases, so I knew what I was doing, and even though I quit practicing judo and karate, I was pretty well trained, and remember the moves even today, so my fight scenes come from my studies, and car chases from my experience.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I took karate lessons with my daughter when she was younger, have taken a class on guns (in which I was able to fire lots of different types), and have done research on poisons and a ton of other things.  I’ve been getting into studying strategic thinking too, so I can write some battle scenes.  I don’t know if it’s necessary, but it’s fun.

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy As I mentioned, I ran a workshop myself that taught writers how to make fight scenes more believable. I’m a certified personal trainer and I’ve practiced different forms of martial arts so I know how the body moves very well. My workshop is a hands-on because it allows those attending the benefit of feeling what a strike is like. By that I mean I use focus mitts and gloves and I absorb the hit. To be clear, No one is ever struck in class. Its just an exercise in movement.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Google is every authors best friend to identify whether a certain injury would make blood trickle from the mouth or not.

My husband is a great source of knowledge on firearms and how to use a weapon safely and the sounds that you would expect to hear when you load the gun for example.

I also have some personal experience in practicing a martial art, and use that knowledge to help me when I am writing a fighting sequence using that martial art. I also still have contact with my old Sensei and I have him review my scenes to make sure that I have worded my sequence correctly.

Ashley Fontainne

Ashley Fontainne I contacted a herpetological society to discuss a venomous snake and how the poison reacts inside the human body to glean correct information. I also conferred several times with a forensic DNA specialist to understand the process of testing and proper vernacular.

Margareth Stewart 

Margareth Stewart Yes, by all means! I need all kinds of information to get the correct showing of the story. So I use immersion into the character world. To do that, I use “Google” research, ethnology, interviews, visiting the place if possible, looking at photos, and I read diaries, too; so I can understand that context through multiple perspective. Then, I write. But, I only write when all that date has been immersed inside me, so it becomes part of me and the character can easily have access to that to make everything real, and it is real. This is how it works for me, and even after the book is over, everything seems real. This happens with my novel Open/Pierre´s journey after war, available at web-e-books.com, a novel about WWII. When I came to visit the WW2 Museum in New Orleans and I read all the real stories of men who had fought into war, I realized Pierre´s story was not fictional, it was real, I had captured the whole essence of it, and it is all there in the book.


Plots must move forward, but different stories move at different paces. The pacing in the story can set the tone, and keep the pages moving, but a story that moves too fast may leave the reader behind, or worse yet lost. A story that moves too slow loses readers to sleep or boredom. But not all stories are paced the same, nor should they be. Dialogue is one tool which can be used to slow things down, by breaking up fast paced action and allowing readers to catch their breath, or speed things up by informing readers of information needed before the story can move forward.

In what ways do you use dialogue to affect the pacing of the story?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture Use the dialog to help pace the story. You can’t have all dialog, or all description, or all action, you have to let each move the story to the next level. In my story, Carnival of Death there is a big fight scene towards the end of the story, where the two opponents face off before a fight to the death, and they do this is dialog. They don’t just go into the fight, they move into the fight through dialog. The deadly fight will be fast, and only one will survive. One boasts while the other watches with her eyes as they talk. It’s a good fight scene.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak I often use action to break up dialog.  (My characters can get talky.)  But in a fight scene, I’ll use dialog to break up action.  Anything to break up a continuous pattern helps the reader’s brain go, “Ah!  I know what’s going on.”

Cynthia Vespia

colorheadshot - Copy I don’t tend to use a lot of dialog. Let’s face it, unless you’re trash talking someone like a WWE superstar you’re not going to be doing alot of jaw-jacking during a fight in real life.

RA Winter

RA Winter Dialog is a great tool to move things along or slow things down depending on what’s going to happen next.  I like to keep dialog on every page.  Too much prose may be pretty, but it slows the reader down and might bog down your writing creating a saggy part.   I also love to write the interactions between to warring MC’s.  It brings out the humor in my writing.

Mark Shaw
MarkAtSFTS (1) Even with non-fiction, using dialogue can be quite valuable especially since conversations between the biographical subject and those that knew her or him really can move the story along, keep the pacing with the story you are trying to tell. This has been especially helpful in both The Reporter Who Knew Too Much about Dorothy Kilgallen and the upcoming Denial of Justice to be released Nov. 20. Using primary sources to reflect what Dorothy said provides credibility, the dialogue important to bring her story alive.

Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Sometimes it’s needed to slow down an action scene, maybe a break in a fight to allow the reader to catch their breath by having the fighters stop, wipe away blood, throw a couple of taunts at each other before they launch back in against each other.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan Dialogue can help break up thick paragraphs of text.  Sometimes I have my characters talk about what’s going on so that I don’t have to tell it to the reader.  It flows better coming from a character.

Margareth Stewart

 Margareth Stewart I tend to use lots of dialogues within my stories and I do believe they are very useful tools not only to give voice to characters but also to place rhythm and dynamics into it. They increase the story’s pace and move it forward in a more three-dimensional way. I also find dialogues much more amusing than description and I have been focusing on them lately in my story. Sometimes, there is so much that can be said in a simple sentence. These are one of my favorite ones from Mademoiselle-Sur-Seine which will be published soon.

“Mind if I smoke?”

“No, not really.”

“Would you like one?”

“Oh, no sorry, I do not smoke, thanks.”

Louise did not really mind. It was just a cigarette and that would not make any difference. Louise was wrong.”

Excerpt from Mademoiselle-Sur-Seine.


What other methods do you use to control and /or maintain your pacing?

Tom Johnson

Tom's Back Cover Picture You have to make sure your readers know there is a story here. I give any book fifty pages, and if it hasn’t caught my attention by then it goes in the trash. So don’t drag the story. Keep it moving while you are introducing your characters. Please. No sex on the first page. That’s not the kind of action I’m looking for. I want to know your characters. No, I want to be one of your characters. Make them interesting, and make me want to be like one of them. You don’t need to kill someone on the first page, either. There are many ways to create action to introduce your characters. Remember The New Avengers on TV? When we are introduced to Mike Gambit he is on the judo mat with an opponent, and we see him in action. Emma Peel was always in action even if she was powdering her face. These were characters born for action. That’s what we want readers to think about our characters. Don’t blink, something is going to happen if you do.

DeAnna Knippling

deannak That’s a whole discussion on its own.  I did a whole blog series on pacing, which you can find here.  To sum up:  Pacing is how you make the reader feel the way the characters are feeling.  A laborious sentence feels laborious; it feels like a lot of work to read. Making the sentences, paragraphs, words, scenes, etc., feel the same way the character feels makes them seem alive to the reader.
Handling the information in a story is somewhat separate from pacing; in general, put the explainey bits at the beginning of a scene, and only the explainey bits that you need to understand that one scene.  Beginnings of scenes are usually slower, so you don’t need to worry about the explainey bits dragging too much.  As long as the explainey bits are given in the character’s opinion, then they’ll be fun to read.  Stephen King is great at handling information setup; check out the beginning of any of his novels and you’ll see that he tends to dedicate a lot of words to explaining what’s going on before he writes any kind of action, no matter how tame.  He has a few stories that are exceptions (he’ll still have a few hundred words of setup before things get started, but not entire chapters), but he also makes sure the reader doesn’t actually need to know much before the action begins.
Cynthia Vespia
colorheadshot - Copy This is a technique I actually teach in my workshop. It has to do with using very short, impactful sentences rather than long strings of description.
RA Winter
RA Winter There are a few key pieces to every plot. I mix together a romantic plot with fantasy or magical realism undertones then line them up on Scrivner.  Each section needs a purpose, clarity and a tad of fluffing. Keep on plot, don’t drag it out endlessly.  A good dilemma or a scene, sequel plot sequence helps too.  And most importantly, listen to alpha or beta readers.
Lilly Rayman

L Rayman Oh, another curly question! You avoid the slowest paces by avoiding too many unnecessary details – such as the fact the reader doesn’t really need to know the ins and outs of the main characters showering habits. You only need to include the shower if there is anything going to happen whilst the character is in the shower – such as an intruder will attack them with a knife, or maybe a love interest slips in and initiates an intimate scene.

You also try and keep your pace moving along swiftly where it needs to, a car chase should be over in a matter of paragraphs, cars move at speed after all, you really don’t need to drag a fast-paced action out with heaps of unnecessary descriptors or needless conversation.

You want a page turner that keeps the reader engaged, but with enough of a pause between action sequences, that the readers can get their breath. Visualise the slower moments between the fast paces like a full stop at the end of the sentence.

Jordan Elizabeth

Jordan I keep the action scenes fast and like to add in moments of self-reflection.  Those moments help to slow the pace down and give the reader a break.

Margareth Stewart

Margareth Stewart Pacing is the timing of the narrative. This time is directly related to the emotions, plot, POV of the story. Pacing is the watch of the story. If the story is about a fugitive who has 24-hour to hide—this needs one kind of pacing. If it is related to the reminiscences of memory, it may go into a more descriptive tone and read longer. As Einstein once said time is relative, and so is the pacing in the stories we read. If the story is good, and the pace is correct – reading time flies; otherwise, it may sound boring. To keep the right track, every single detail needs to match perfectly. Time is the thread that sews the story; and pacing is how fast or slow the sewer goes. There is no right or wrong in having slow narratives and faster ones. I also use flashbacks, foreshadows and withholding the suspense – to keep the story intriguing. Besides, I love working with various narratives in different time zones (for instance: one in the past and another one in the present), and intertwine them.


Every story has action, and it’s up to us to find the right pace for the idividual tale. No matter what methods we use to move the story along, the ultimate goal is to keep readers’ eyes glued to the page, or their fannies on the edges of their seats.  Dialogue can be used to break up the action and help control the pacing. Other tools might be short, quick sentences, or using a slower set up and then jumping into the action so things can move along at a faster pace, foreshadowing and/or flashbacks .

Action should be written with identifying traits or characteristics that make it clear who is doing what, may be intentionally paced faster, and they must be accurate and believable. Just as dialogue can be used to break up the action, action can be used to break up dialog and speed things up.

I want to again thank our author panel for the timely replies and for their willingness to share with us here today. I hope you will all join us next Monday, when our panel members will discuss the editing and revision process on Ask the Authors.


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Dialogue: Talking in Subtext

dialog

A good way to learn to write good dialog is to become an observer of people, watching and listening to the conversations around you when in public. You must both watch and listen because dialog doesn’t come just in words. Dialog also contains subtext. You know,  body language, tone of voice, etc… You can have whole scenes where no words are spoken, yet a conversation occurs between two people in the subtext of their body language. Everyone in the real world talks in subtext. If you want to have believable dialog for your characters, they must talk with subtext, too.

Whether you’re an author or a screenwriter, it’s an important concept to master. Subtext is the message that lies beneath the message. It’s what people, or characters, are really saying. It is indicated in actions, movements, change in pitch of the voice. A character may say, “I’m happy for you”, but if it were said through gritted teeth, the reader may get the idea that there’s some underlying resentment with the characters words, lending a very different meaning to the scene. The same dialog would take on a whole other meaning, that the words are not spoken sincerely, if the character rolls her eyes as she says it.

subtext

We humans are funny creatures. Many of us have some type of mental block that prevents us from saying what we mean outright. It may be the fatal flaw of mankind in the communication realm, although I suspect it may be easier to speak honestly in the digital world, where you talk with people without being face to face. Regardless, if you want your characters’ dialogue to be believable,they will have to speak in subtexts, offering readers the subtle clues necessary to figure out what is really going on.

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Karen said, tapping her newly painted nails on the table top. “I’m perfectly calm.”

What can you tell from the dialog above? The character says she’s not upset, but do you think she is? Rather you get the idea that she is upset from the tapping of her nails on the table, which is not a calm behavior, even though her words claim different.

The example above is pretty clear for illustration purposes. In real life, and in good fiction, it’s not always so easy to discern between words and actions. As authors, we must offer good clues, in the form of subtext, so readers can see the whole picture we’re trying to paint with our words. You see what I mean?

Don't LookIf your character is angry, you might have him clench his fists or stomp his foot. If the scene is a breakup, your character may hold back her tears and swallow the lump in her throat to avoid revealing how much she is really hurting. Or maybe she is trembling although trying to appear brave to her friends.

It’s the way real people talk. It’s the way our characters need to talk if we want our dialogue to be convincing. In many cases, the old adage is true, especially in fiction and screenwriting- “Actions speak louder than words.”

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