For the past two weeks, I’ve been writing about descriptive passages and Vernor’s Law, trying to make clear that a description is most powerful and most effective when it does more than just describe. These passages should also reinforce character, backstory, narrative, etc. Character descriptions should tell us as much about the character doing the describing as about the character being described. Descriptions of setting should reinforce all those other story elements that we’ve mentioned. And I’ve been quite dogmatic in saying that in order to keep your book from languishing you must be doing several things at once (character development, plot advancement, background deepening) with all your scenes. I’m about to contradict pretty much all of that.
First, let me refer you to a series of excellent posts A.J. wrote about battle scenes nearly a year ago. The three posts can be found here, here, and here. Faith has also touched on battle/action scenes a couple of times and I just spent about 15 minutes looking through her posts going back to December 2008, and I couldn’t find them. But trust me: she has. Very well, in fact. What I’m writing about today isn’t so much about writing action, but rather handling the descriptive elements of those action scenes. A fine distinction, I know. Bear with me….
Let’s go back to what I said a moment ago, because you’re probably thinking, “Now, wait a minute, Coe. You’ve been blathering on about Vernor’s Law for two weeks, and now you’re going back on all that stuff?” To which I say, “Well . . . Yeah, that’s about right.”
I would argue that action sequences are the one part of a book or story where trying to do too much at one time can actually undermine the intent of the scenes. Action scenes need to move. They should be intense, exhilarating, terrifying, and utterly in the moment. If your POV character is fighting an enraged orc who is intent on cleaving him in two, or holding off a vamp whose teeth are so close to her neck that she can feel the brush of said vamp’s hair, the action should be the focus of the scene. Taking time in those passages to reflect on how the character’s grandfather once told him stories of orcs from the old wars, and that these tales really were a formative element of his youth and gave him a sense of purpose in life that steered him to this one defining mom– Whomp!! Sorry, time’s up! That was the sound of your hero being sliced in two.
Action scenes ought to be the payoff for all the other work you’ve done in scenes better suited to following Vernor’s Law. If you’ve been keeping things moving on several fronts through your other scenes, then your action sequences should work just fine on their own. In the end, it’s all about being true to your characters — when things are calm, we as people can realistically be expected to make those connections that make Vernor’s Law work. In these quieter moments, the confluence of character, backstory, narrative, and setting makes sense. But in the action scenes it’s all about survival. A character in those situations will be utterly focused on the battle, the struggle to keep breathing — just like any normal person being attacked by an orc….
And so our descriptive elements in those action scenes should reflect that reality. Let me illustrate this, first with a passage that defies this reasoning completely. This comes from Bonds of Vengeance, book III of Winds of the Forelands. Cadel is an assassin who has, in the course of this third volume, decided that he no longer wishes to kill. Predictably, he finds that extricating himself from his lifestyle is impossible, and at the end he has no hope that he can escape his own past. And so, in a fight with a young man intent on killing him, he finally gives in to the inevitable.
Even knowing the attack would come, even having resigned himself to his own death, Cadel was caught off guard by the speed with which the boy struck at him, the grace with which Tavis stood and spun. He held himself perfectly still, wondering that he should feel so calm, noting the way water ran off the gleaming steel, like small rivers flowing off the steppe. He saw rage and hate and bloodlust in Tavis’s eyes, in the fierce, feral grin on his face. And he watched the blade accelerate until it became little more than an arc of silver light, like a ghost sweeping through the rain.
Only then, marking the trajectory of the young lord’s sword, knowing where it would meet his flesh, did Cadel Nistaad close his eyes. At the end, he was aware only of the storm around him, and of Kalida’s anguished cry.
Under any other narrative circumstance, I would never write an action scene with such elaborate description. The reference to the steppe connects with a theme from early in Cadel’s life and contrasts with the ghost analogy. The storm around him is a reference to his life as well as an actual storm. In short, Vernor’s Law is all over this passage, and it is, I believe, some of the best writing I did in the entire Forelands series. But it only works in this particular action scene because in a way this is not an action scene. He’s not fighting back. He is passively accepting his fate. That passivity makes the slow pace of the writing work.
Most of the time, we want our action scenes to read at a far more frenzied pace. In part this means short, staccato phrasing, as both Faith and A.J. mention in their posts on action scenes. But in part it also refers to the directed focus these scenes need to have. Let’s try one from Thieftaker. The only thing you need to know here is that whenever Ethan (or anyone else) conjures, he has to speak his spells in Latin.
“Dormite omnes, evocatum–” Slumber, all of them, conjured–
The phrasing slowed him down, made him stumble over the Latin. Not a lot, but enough. It was the difference between putting one man to sleep and putting all of them to sleep. And somehow Sephira knew this. Even as he spoke, he heard her cry out. Whirling, Ethan saw Nigel raise his pistol. He dove to the side, just as he heard a loud report echo across the Common. He hit the cobblestones hard, scraping his hands, bruising his knees and elbows. He felt a burning pain in his upper arm. Looking down, he saw blood spreading over his coat sleeve and glistening in the glow of the fire.
That is far more typical of how I write action scenes. There is enough there to keep us in the moment and the setting — “the Common,” “cobblestones,” “glow of the fire.” It’s evening, we’re very much in Boston in some distant past. But in every other way this is immediate, fast-moving, sensual in the truest sense of the word. The descriptions are focused on what he feels and sees and hears in the moment. Ethan cares only about staying alive and getting away from his attackers. There is nothing about his background, or his growth as a human being. That can wait. This is plot, pure and simple. And I would argue that this is exactly as it should be.
Now, if you go back and read that first post of A.J.’s you’ll see that he speaks about the importance of POV and voice and making certain that the action is in keeping with who his character is. Nothing I’m saying here should be construed as disagreeing with that. As I say above, it should all be about being true to your character and how his/her mind is working at that moment. Everything Ethan does in this scene is in keeping with his character. Rather than trying to kill every one of Sephira’s men, he just wants to put them to sleep and get away. That’s who he is. I’m not saying that in action scenes we should abandon character or backstory. I’m merely saying that these passages are not necessarily the places to deepen them.
Vernor’s Law is essential to effective writing. So are strong, heart-pounding action sequences. The two can coexist quite well. But they don’t necessarily go together.
Do you have short (100 words or fewer) action scenes that you’re working on? Care to share?David B. Coe