Descriptive Passages, Part III: Action

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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
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net

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44 comments to Descriptive Passages, Part III: Action

  • I’ll leave the sharing of the action scenes to the regular MW readers and just add my agreement with you about this, David. It is the exception to the rule and you’ve described it exceptionally well. I think the simple truth is that the speed of the scene, the speed of the action, the speed of the thinking, has to mirror reality or else the reader will reject it as false. Or boring. Or both. And nobody wants that.

  • A great instance of the dialogue that makes this site work, David. Thanks for the references to my previous posts. I agree, that everything you say is in keeping with them, but your modulation of the character/action binary is new and helpful. Thanks. I particularly like the difference between the two scenes you present, where one is all about the feelings of the character (beautifully written, by the way) and the other is all verbs so we see what is happening from outside. Great stuff.

  • All true and well presented, David. Don’t forget, though, that you can actually use both techniques within the same action scene. During a massive battle, for example, you can slow down one strike of a weapon to enter the thoughts of a character to highlight a moment — like using slow motion in a film — and then return to the furious pace of the battle. I’d warn our readers that it’s an advanced technique that requires a good ear and a good sense of pacing to pull off, but it can be very effective. You also must approach such a technique like spices in food — a little is great, a lot spoils the dish.

  • David> Awesome stuff! That first passage of yours almost made me cry.

    Here are two of mine…

    The first, Thomas (whose description in this scene I gave last week) is trying to kill Father John, a priest. He’s never killed before and doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    Panting, Thomas swung back around in time for Father John’s right hook to connect with his chin. Pinwheeling, Thomas fell back into the altar, his head hitting the candelabra and knocking it over backwards. Above him, the flame’s glow fluttered across the ceiling and went out. Bracing himself against the table, he pulled both his knees up and slammed the forward into the charging priest. The blow knocked the old man back and he stumbled.
    Grabbing the candlestick, Thomas charged forward, brandishing it above his head. He swung it hard, connecting with the old man’s temple, and Father John staggered sideways and toppled backwards to the floor.

    This is a scene from the end when Mary is fighting Sami on her several-headed dragon (at Dragon Con in the lobby of a Con hotel, beneath a huge sculpture)

    She spun to her right and blasted as much heat as she possibly could at the base of the sculpture, her anger feeding the flames. Fire licked up the base and burned, white hot. The great pedestal creaked and moaned as the steel heated up, turning glossy and then red until it burned its way to white.
    “Get her!” Sami screamed and the beast surged forward, heads snapping over and around the base. Mary shoved her body into the base, ignoring the gaping maws, the white heat of her skin making the steel hiss at her touch.
    The groaning of steel turned into a loud crack as the massive sculpture tottered and fell. Screams of the con-goers echoed through the lobby as they shoved out of the way. Maybe the hellfire couldn’t kill the dragon, but hundreds of pounds of steel and glass ought to slow it down.

  • David, I actualy remember that scene with Cadel. When I first read it, I stopped. Went back, read the preceeding paras. And reread it again. It was excellent. It stopped my heart.

    I adore that scene with Ethan. I cannot wait to get to that scene.

    As the series of posts I wrote that are Word Choice Part One, Two, and Three, which I digressed all over the place. Here’s part two:
    http://www.magicalwords.net/faith-hunter/word-choice-part-2/

  • Your work with Cadel and his whole story arc is one of my favorite parts of the Forelands series. The ending was painful for me but done masterfully.

    Anywho… here is a sample action scene of mine. It is amateurish I know.

    ###
    A scream of demonic rage brought Justin’s attention back to the Draugr. The demon charged at him. Within mere breaths Justin dropped his shotgun and grabbed two of his iron rods from the slits in his coat. In a flash, he had two incredibly sharp iron blades formed in his hands.

    The blades sung in the air as Justin swung them at the charging Draugr. The creature deftly evaded both blades and slashed out with its razor sharp claws. Justin’s left arm erupted in burning pain as the claws ripped into his flesh. He made a slash at the Draugr with his right arm and landed a glancing blow. It’s blue skin smoked and sizzled as it burned from the iron’s touch. The Draugr broke off its attack and ran down the street towards the park.

    “Crap…”

    Justin slid one blade back into his coat and reached down to grab the shotgun near his feet. He took off running after the creature and was only about 50 feet behind him when he raised the gun and pulled the trigger. The blast wouldn’t do much to kill it, but it may just do enough to slow him down.

    ###

  • Thanks, Ed. I think that the point of authenticity is one I should have dealt with more explicitly in the post. I kind of danced around it. But you’re right. If the action scenes ring false, they just fall flat; not what you want in the climactic moments of your book.

    A.J., thank you. It was very helpful to go back and read your posts on the battles — something our readers should keep in mind is that the MW archive is a tremendous resource. I’m actually not that sure I’ve added too much to your observations from last April. But I wanted to touch on action description in the context of this series of posts.

    Stuart, I think that’s a great point. You can do just what you say, particularly in a large, multi-POV battle scene (I think I attempted something of the sort, with mixed results, in the Forelands finale). And you’re also right to say that you don’t want to do it much. Once or two such interludes in a book is enough to be effective without overdoing it. More than that and I think the technique loses effectiveness.

    Emily, thanks — glad you liked the passage. Your two action scenes read well, especially the second, which has a lot of action and visual imagery. Thanks for sharing them. If I can presume to offer a mini-critique: Watch the repetition of “as”. It’s something that I do, too. When we choreograph, we want to convey the simultaneity of certain events. We have to trust the brevity of action to get it across, so that instead of relying on “just as” (one of my favorites) or something of the sort, we just let the action speak for itself. “The groaning of steel was punctuated by a loud crack, and the massive sculpture tottered and fell. Screaming con-goers shoved their way toward the exits.” I think the first passage could use a bit of a rewrite — the first four sentences all begin the same way structurally — “Panting,…” “Pinwheeling,…” “Above him,…” “Bracing himself against the table,…” I think you need more direct declarative sentences to break it up. Also, Father John is knocked back and he stumbles. Later he is staggered sideways and then topples backwards. Vary that a bit more, I think. Make the effect of the blows more immediate, more violent.

  • Faith, thank you. the scene with Ethan needed a bit of reworking here — remember that what you’re reading is the uncorrected revised draft. Hasn’t even been CE’ed. And thanks for the link to your posts, which I remember as being wonderful.

    Mark, thanks for the kind words about Cadel, and for sharing your passage. I like it a lot, and find much of the action very compelling. I’d offer the same bit of advice I just gave to Emily. Sometimes, less on the timing of the action actually makes it seem more immediate. For instance, I would cut “Within mere breaths” from the third sentence, and just start it with “Justin dropped…” And then I would eliminate the “as” instances in the second graph. “He swung the blades at the charging Draugr, iron singing in the air.” Later, “Claws ripped into his left arm. Pain erupted, lava-hot.” And still later, “The touch of iron made the Draugr’s blue skin smoke and sizzle.” Or something along those lines.

  • Razziecat

    I love the scene with Cadel. It’s intense and moving, and I held my breath waiting for the sword to connect. I enjoy writing fight scenes; they have a way of making me concentrate on what’s essential to the scene, and I usually try to get all the senses engaged (with varying success, no doubt). The following is a rough draft from a story that’s still simmering in my backbrain.

    From the hillside above them, a voice called out, and hooves beat in response, coming toward them.

    “Melekh, they are coming back,” Khalyr hissed. “Can you stand? Better yet, can you run?”

    He tried, but his legs buckled at the first step. Khalyr caught him, supporting him as they went, but they were too slow. He heard a shout behind them, looked back to see the rider bearing down, a naked sword in his hand.

    Khalyr pushed Dushara off of the path and threw himself flat as the sword swept down. Dushara came to his hands and knees. The blade swung up, a silver arc with a line of blood flowing from its tip, spattering Dushara’s face.

    “Khalyr!”

    Horse and rider turned at his cry, the sword flashing toward him. Dushara ducked aside, rose again and flung a handful of dirt into the rider’s face. The man cursed, shaking his head, and a dark shape leapt up behind him, seized the knife at his hip and plunged it into his neck. He grunted, a soft, startled sound, and slumped forward, reins going slack.

    Khalyr dropped to earth, staggering, and slapped the horse’s flank. It bolted down the trail, its rider sprawling over its back. The crashing of its hooves through the brush faded away.

    “My lord! The blood–”

    “It’s yours, not mine.”

    “Thank the gods,” said Khalyr, and collapsed at Dushara’s feet.

  • I should add that there are a couple of “as” phrases in my Thieftaker sample above and I would probably rewrite to eliminate at least the second one, so that the sentence would read: “He dove to the side, heard a loud report echo across the Common.” And I would also rewrite to make it so that there are fewer sentences starting “He…” This is not easy to do, and it’s always easiest to see the issues in someone else’s work. Fresh eyes and all that.

    Here’s a rewrite: “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, heard a loud report echo across the Common. He hit the cobblestones hard, scraping his hands, bruising his knees and elbows. Pain burned white hot in his upper arm. Looking down, he saw blood spreading over his coat sleeve and glistening in the glow of the fire.”

  • Razz, that’s a terrific scene. The dialogue pulls it along beautifully and the action works very well. Good job. And thanks for the kind words about the Cadel scene.

  • David, great examples. Now I really have to read those books! I agree that in the action scenes, it’s hard to do too much description. I do like A.J.’s suggestion of slowing down small parts to bring focus.

    Here’s a few snippets of mine. In this first one, my character witnesses the monsters that are plaguing a village:
    But as I settle into bed, pulling the blanket close against this chilly mountain night, I hear a keening. The noise, like the twisted wail of some unearthly spirit, causes me to sit up and open the shutters once more.

    Through the streets of the town, a scaly grey beast twice the girth of Hush lumbers, turning its head this way and that as if searching for something. Every few moments, it stops, letting out another horrid shriek.

    Soon, a hound answers, barking with the anger of any dutiful guard dog. It runs into the street, and though the beast is easily four times its size, it snarls as if rabid. The lizard sits up on its hind legs, emitting its screech in response.

    Then it gives chase.

    I cannot look away as the creature makes short work of its canine prey. In just a few short breaths, the hound has been torn to shreds in the lizard’s foul jaws.
    In this one, when one of the bad guys attacks:
    Loys brandishes a knife—Brennant’s lost dagger. The Marmon seal is unmistakable in the pre-dawn light. Pinning my arms behind me with his free hand, he holds the blade to my throat.

    “One word and you’re dead—”

    His threat goes unfinished; just as swiftly as he captured me, he tosses me to the ground. The gravel scrapes my palms and chin.

    Winded, I look up to see Brennant striding forward.

    Are you well, my lady? Hush lopes to my side. She nudges me with her nose. When I have caught my breath, I roll up, wincing as I wrap one arm around her back and get to my feet. That hurt.
    Okay, so I understand keeping action scenes to a quick tempo, to keep the reader’s heart racing as much as the character’s is. But I’ve heard it said that dialogue is action, too. That’s the part where I’m having trouble inserting details and description—it just feels like it bogs down the dialogue. Any recommendations?

  • Oops. Bad html, there. I hope that’s legible.

  • Thanks, Laura. I like both passages very much. I might cut “Soon” and just have it begin, “A hound answers…” to lend a bit more immediacy, but I like the descriptive work.

    To answer your question, I see dialogue as different from action, in that the pacing is not necessarily as frenzied. There is time in writing a good conversation to linger over certain details — one person’s nervous habits: peeling the label from his beer bottle or balling up the straw wrapper; or another person’s facial quirks: the way she says something and then frowns at her own words. Those are the types of details that you can put in amid the dialogue to give a sense of each character’s emotions, personality, etc. Does that help at all?

  • I think so. I’m having trouble in two areas: I’m finding it hard to avoid using the same turn of phrase when they do (smiled, frowned, etc); and there are times, when the dialogue is going quickly (e.g. an argument) that I find it hard to insert the extra details. This is probably just something I have to focus on when I finish these revisions and do another pass. Thank you!

  • Ah, yes: “smiled” “frowned” “laughed” — some of my favorite crutches. I put a lot of them in, and then, when the manuscript is done, I do a universal search and get rid of at least half of them. I find, doing it this way, that I come up with better alternatives in rewrites, rather than slowing down and trying to do it as I write. As for those moments when the conversation is moving more quickly, I think your instincts are correct — less is more in those moments. Maybe one or two pauses at key moments to focus on a small detail — a gesture or a facial expression — but otherwise trust yourself and the substance of the conversation to carry the moment.

  • Razziecat

    David, thank you for the praise, it means a lot to me. I want to thank all of you on Magical Words for your willingness to read our bits & pieces and offer truly constructive criticism and advice. I love this site.

  • Lance Barron

    Razziecat is right. Great site. And all of you are very generous with your time. The contrast between the two scenes is very helpful. Would you comment on fight scenes where the action appears to slow to a crawl for the POV character?

  • Razz, thanks. As I said in one of comments above, in reading through passages from people on this site, I realized I was critiquing people for things that I had done in my second sample. Hence the rewrite in that same comment. My point is, we get something out of this. Talking about writing helps us write better, and that holds true for pros as well as aspiring writers. We are all trying to improve our craft. That never stops; at least it shouldn’t. But again, thank you.

    Lance, thanks to you, too. Your question is a good one, because I’ve read scenes like that and I’ve had trouble relating to them. You hear about athletes for whom the game (whatever game they happen to play) slows down — they see everything and can react faster because of it. Not being a world class athlete, I have trouble relating to that. And maybe that’s the point, at least for me. I tend to write characters who are fairly ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances. My lead character in Thieftaker is a sorcerer, which makes him special. He’s clever, and somewhat courageous. But he’s not a trained warrior. When the action starts, he’s often taken aback by the speed of it, just as I would be. Most of my characters are that way. I think most of my readers probably are, too. So that’s how I write the action — my characters feel overwhelmed, like they’re constantly struggling to stay ahead of events, and thus keep themselves alive. It makes for breakneck pacing and breathless suspense, which I like. I think the time-slowing-to-a-crawl thing can work with the right character and in the hands of a good writer. And time does slow down for Cadel in that scene in the post. He IS a trained professional — a hired killer. So that would be how he experienced most of his kills. In this case it’s how he experiences his own death. But most of my characters aren’t right for that approach. If I were to write that kind of action for my characters it would feel false and unrealistic, and I think it would rob my action scenes of their best qualities. Does that make sense, or am I being unclear?

  • Julia

    David — this was another great post for me. Thanks for juxtaposing the two passages. It’s helpful to see how the two styles accomplish such different effects.

    I’m pasting in an action sequence that occurs quite early in my book. I’ve struggled with it somewhat, because it also has to reveal a number of rather unusual aspects of the world. There’s a profound cultural taboo against violence, my protagonist hears emotion and life-energy as music, and he’s been trained in isolation because of this sensitivity. That said, I want the reader’s primary experience to be with action — not worldbuilding. I’d love feedback and suggestions.

    ****

    The Reaver honed in on its prey: a trainee, heading back from the privy. Alverai cut through the center of the compound, stirring up pebbles as he cornered fast. “Damien,” he yelled.

    The man spun around, his body dropping instinctively into readiness. Alverai didn’t have time to explain. He met the motion and extended it, using Damien’s own momentum to tackle him. The other man tumbled, cursing as the hit the ground.

    “Stay down,” Alverai said. He pressed one hand against Damien’s chest, then jerked back as the contact drove music into his head. Shards of sound slivered into his mind, from the intimacy of touch.

    Then the Reaver dove, sleek and sharp against the darkness. Though it was forbidden, Alverai palmed the little eating knife from his belt. He slashed his palm, drawing blood. A prayer ghosted over his lips: Aya, please. Then he threw. A whisper of Gift shaped its flight.

    The blade whirled, striking the creature at the base of its neck, near the shoulder. The wings unfurled suddenly, breaking the supple dive. The Reaver screamed.

  • ajp88

    Cadel was the man. One of my favorite, most memorable characters; his ending made me like him even more.

    Here’s my action scene:

    A Dolunian with a fool’s grin ran out to meet him at the base of one such lesser building. From this distance, the damage to the dam was plain to see just east of the residential area. Dolna noticed jagged cracks in its walls before the soldier was on him.

    His foe swung a blow at Dolna’s side but with arms that had grown clumsy with inaction. It was easily parried and then Dolna swung his arms back across his body, striking the man across the chin with his hilt. Teeth cracked and blood ran down his neck.

    Dolna savored the sight of it. He swung his blade and tore into an exposed knee. The Dolunian attacked feebly as he slumped to his good knee and this, too, was cast aside. Dolna slashed, screaming her name again as he gave the man two grins, both bloody.

  • Lance Barron

    David, your discussion is perfectly clear. I’m with you on the struggling to keep up. Very helpful perspective. Once again it has to fit the character that is providing the POV. Before your last post, I was thinking that the action may have slowed down because Cadel was in that mental state that is written about for people committing ritual suicide. James Clavell describes that very well in Shogun. Thanks for the explanation. How Cadel faces his death rings true.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Two comments if I may:

    First to Julia, whose passage, to my ear, reads very nicely, very smooth and professional. However, you say that there is a strong taboo against violence, but the smoothness of the passage makes it sound like your character is well trained in violence. Maybe it’s another kind of training that lets him accomplish what he does (I see how it seems magic makes his throw more accurate) but he’s got no wasted motions here, which seems to imply a certain comfort level. Maybe that’s what you intend, but I just thought I’d point it out.

    Also, I’d like to add my two cents to the time-slowing down issue/effect. I’ve had experiences in martial-arts classes where my first thought was, why am I on the ground? I’ve also been kicked in the head during practice drills (so supposedly I was aware of the general situation) and my first thought was, why does my face hurt? I’m not highly trained in martial arts, but it is more believable to me that MOST people, even well trained ones, experience a lot of action as very sudden. My instructor can anticipate most attacks, but he doesn’t have super-fast senses, he just has a LOT of experience reading body language and following peoples patterns of attack. That being said, I HAVE experienced time slowing down, and my husband says he has before too. I fell off a trampoline and my brain said: turn over or you’ll break your leg. I don’t know WHY I was able to think fast enough in THAT situation, but it CAN happen to a person in odd moments.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Sorry for the clutter, but for completeness I wanted to add:
    A lot of fighting reflexes, such as blocks and some counter attacks, really are reflexes and happen with little to no conscious thought. That’s why fighters spend so much time training.

  • Julia, I like your passage, too. I think Hep’s point is well-taken, and one you ought to consider as you go forward. I would also suggest a couple of small tweaks to the wording: “The man spun, dropping instinctively into readiness.” Or something of the sort. I’d also suggest cutting the line “..from the intimacy of touch.” It’s very clear from the rest of what you’ve written. Trust yourself; trust your reader. Otherwise, very well done.

    AJP, thank you. Glad you liked Cadel. Sorry he had to die…. I like your passage, but I’m going to presume to suggest some tightening in the second paragraph: “His foe swung clumsily at Dolna’s side. Dolna parried easily and swung back across his body, striking the man’s chin with his hilt. Teeth cracked and blood ran down the soldier’s neck.” The “inaction” line struck me as a POV issue — how could Dolna know he had been inactive? Plus it’s superfluous info in this moment. The rest was just for a tighter, more active read. Obviously you need to use your own words. But these are the types of changes I would suggest.

    Lance, good. Glad it made sense to you. I have always wanted to read Shogun. Need to get it on my TBR pile.

    Hep, thanks for the insightful comment to Julia. And thanks as well for the unique perspective on the “time-slowing-down” thing. As I say, I know it happens for some people. And I can even relate to what you’re talking about. Years ago I was out running and hit a sidewalk edge. I started to fall and had time to think “tuck your shoulder!” and also time to do just that. I rolled hard, but I rolled, saving myself from what would have been a nasty spill. I’ll have to remember that for future scenes. Again, thanks.

  • Hep, a good point. You can teach instinct. And I that’s sort of what I meant before when I said that people who are trained fighters (or highly trained athletes) can experience that slowing of time, too. If you’re working on honed instincts of that sort, I would imagine that things seem to happen at a more relaxed pace in high-stress situations. There’s no need to think “Block that fist!” By the time your mind forms the thought, your body is already doing it. I could use a similar instinct but one that stops my mouth before it speaks. “Block that stupid remark…!” Yeah, that would be something to train for….

  • ajp88

    I should have added some context but this is essentially the first time the battle has been brought so close to the dam in question. You’re right however, probably doesn’t need to be said in the passage.

  • Julia

    Hepseba — thanks for the compliments on the prose and the comment about my character seeming well-trained in violence. I really appreciate it.

    My main character has been well-trained in magic and with blades, but his culture sharply limits how and in what ways he can use either. He breaks that taboo here, on instinct. After the action is over, he reacts emotionally to what he’s done.

    I’ve been debating whether the scene needs more reaction in real time, as it were. David’s post led me to revisit the question. I’ve written it both ways — and I think slowing the action down in the middle of the scene to reveal emotion and deliberation kills the momentum. But I want to make it clear that the act of violence matters deeply.

    Here’s the next few lines:

    Alverai clenched his jaw against the sound. The demon flashed forward once and Damien’s fear spiked through him. Then the creature twisted, like a kite speared on the branch of a tree. It lunged again, furious, but its body had begun to come undone. It curled in on itself, escaping into shadow. The Reaver’s music lost its edges and slipped into the symphony of night.

    “It’s gone,” Alverai said.

    Damien was very close. The sound and scent of the other man thundered in his head. Alverai pushed himself away, then recovered the blade. It lay an arm’s length from Damien, on the grass. There was no blood. No sign that anything had happened.

    “Alverai?” Damien’s voice shook on the first syllable.

    Alverai couldn’t answer. He held the knife in his hand. Trying not to recall how easy it had been to break the Way.

  • Ajp, or maybe it does need to be in there. Your story, your choice. I was merely making a suggestion based on the snippet that I read. And, as with all things I write and say, you should consider the very real possibility that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about…. Thanks for sharing your passage with us, for the kind comments.

    Julia, I like these next passages, too. I think putting in the emotional reaction after the fact works very well, and is quite natural. We react, and then later are forced to deal with the consequences and implications of that reaction. Thanks to you, too, for being willing to share your work. There are a lot of very good writers reading this blog….

  • Julia

    David, thank you very much. The edits are great and they make the prose cleaner. I’m glad it’s clear.

    Thanks again for doing this. It’s extremely helpful and very encouraging.

  • David – thanks so much for this series of posts, and especially this one on action. I really loved the two contrasting scenes as excellent examples of how to make both types work.

    The following excerpt is from the same untitle shapechanger story I blurbed for Faith’s pitch exercise. The MC enters this scene as a dog….

    I cowered in the shadows, tail between my legs, as the men tied the woman up and began to ransack the camp. They pawed through the woman’s bags, tossing mine aside. One of them pulled a leg from the still-cooking rabbit and stuffed it into his mouth. I had to bite my tongue to keep from whimpering as I watched grease drip down his chin.
    A cheerful shout pulled my attention away from the man eating my, well, her rabbit. One of the men had found the horses. He began untying my mare.
    Oh, no you don’t! A violent shift fueled by indignant rage jolted me.
    I was an angry wild sow when I charged, angling toward the bandit taking my horse. I slammed into him, tossed my head and shredded his leg with my tusk. He screamed and fell, dropping my horse’s lead.
    A harsh shout caught my attention and I spun toward the other men, still filled with a sow’s indignant rage. I lowered my head and charged again. A sword flashed, arcing toward me. Panic prompted another shift.
    In the space of a heartbeat, I was a mouse. The sword slammed into the ground behind me. I raced up that man’s leg and bit – hard. He cursed and slapped me. My ears rang and I was tumbling through the air.
    Pain shifted me into a wolf before I hit the ground. I snarled. The scent of blood from the man I’d gored filled the air. Slap me, will you? Slap this! Growling, I lunged and bore him to the ground, my jaws snapping for his throat.
    A sharp pain pierced my side. I yelped, rolled away and shifted again. This time I didn’t know what I was, and I didn’t care. I was big! And I roared!
    The man with the shredded leg screamed. The other two decided they weren’t going to stay and fight the new me. Dropping their weapons, they ran.
    I chased after them but my size wasn’t made for galumphing through the woods. While I struggled to unwedge myself from between a couple of trees, they got away.
    I slumped to the ground, ignoring the sullen shudder of another shift. I was exhausted and my side hurt. I didn’t care what I was. I was tired. I was hungry. I was – oh, thank you! – human again.

  • The whole chapter this bit is from is action.
    ***
    The hideous amalgam of corpses that formed the monster’s face watched his approach with what might have been amusement. Vanadian leapt feet first at the awful mockery of life. The monster reacted so quickly he didn’t see its arms move. His legs were caught in one brutally strong hand and in the same movement the creature turned with Vanadian’s momentum and slammed him into the gate, knocking the breath from his lungs. Stars danced before his eyes and a roaring noise filled his ears. In the back of his mind he knew he had broken more than one rib and his right arm hurt so badly he hoped it hadn’t been torn free.

  • Unicorn

    Brilliant post, David. I always have trouble writing action scenes, probably because I can see them so clearly in my head – kind of like a movie – and I keep working too much detail into them.
    Here is a scene from my WIP. Falcon and his horse, Sparrowhawk, are facing the Auryon, a cow-sized, lion-shaped beast. Stag is the blacksmith that forged Falcon’s armour.

    The Auryon stopped and reared up on his hindlegs, claws slashing out at Falcon. He couldn’t stop a brief yelp of terror. He dropped his lance and drew his sword in a flash of silver. Claws bit into his shield and scraped down his arm, but the armour held and Falcon thanked Stag in his head; he saw an unprotected shoulder and plunged his sword into it. The Auryon staggered backwards and fell onto his side. Sparrowhawk saw her chance, reared and trampled him with her forefeet. He squirmed out of her reach and hauled himself to his paws. Sparrowhawk neighed defiantly, spun around and launched a two-hoofed kick that smashed into the Auryon’s chest.

    Sorry for being late… you don’t want to know the full story (including three extremely sick cows and three calves being born in the space of 24 hours).
    Unicorn

  • Mikaela

    Sorry for being late :) But here is a snippet from my WIP:

    I wish Razael was here. Or that I had my trusty can of hairspray. Kate continued down the streets. She had only walked a couple of feet when she heard the growl again.
    She whirled around, searching for the source. Fear rose up inside her when she saw the glowing, blood red eyes staring at her from the shadows.
    Kate gave into the fear and panic and started to run. The sound of claws against stone, told her they were following her.
    Stupid, she scolded herself. How many times haven’t you heard that you shouldn’t run from a predator.
    The street were dark around her, but she thought she was near her apartment.
    If I can get inside, I’ll be safe. The thought trummed inside her mind.
    Kate stumbled and hit the pavement.
    The breath was knocked out from her lungs, not for long but long enough for them to catch up. Hot breath, filled with the stench of blood and meat washed over her.
    Gagging, Kate raised her head. She stared at the large dogs.
    Hellhounds. Didn’t Razael say this area was free from them?

  • Julia, glad to know it helped. Thanks again for sharing.

    Lyn, what a fun passage! I love the shape-shifts. The descriptive sections work very well, and the action moves at a nice clip. Very well done. And thanks — glad you liked the post.

    Unicorn, thank you. Sorry to hear about the sick cows. Your action sequence reads well. One point that wasn’t clear to me — does Sparrowhawk trample the Auryon or miss? You say that she did, but then seem to imply that she didn’t. It made me pause (which you don’t want your readers doing in an action scene). Something to clarify in rewrites. Otherwise, I like it.

    Mikaela, thanks for sharing a passage with us. There’s some very nice imagery here and a real sense of panic. Visceral. Well done. If I can suggest a couple of ways to tighten it: I would try to be more immediate with your descriptions — for instance: “She whirled around, searching for the source. Glowing, blood red eyes stared out at her from the shadows. Panic rose up inside her and she started to run…” I also think you should consider less internal dialogue and more immediate thought. For instance, “The streets were dark around her, but she thought she was near her apartment. If she could just get inside . . . She stumbled and hit the pavement.” Or something like that. As I say, I like the imagery, but I think the action could be even more breathless than it already is. Again, thanks for letting us read this.

  • Mikaela

    Thank you for the feedback, David! I am in the ” this draft sucks”- stage, so nice words help :)

  • I hate that stage, Mikaela, and know it all too well. Don’t lose faith in your work. You clearly have some great ideas and good sense of how to turn them into compelling narrative. Keep at it.

  • Thanks for the kind words, David. Makes me feel like I’m actually doing something right! I’m having a blast writing this! Maintaining the balance between humor and tension is driving me nuts, though. Maybe a topic for a future post?? Anyone??

  • The balance between humor and tension? If we spell it “humour” A.J. might be willing to give it a go…. All kidding aside, he’d be the perfect person to write it.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, David, it’s so helpful to have someone look at my work – I would never have picked up on that. I was actually worried that the action in this excerpt was a little too fast, since I’ve been trying to concentrate so hard on not embellishing action with too much description. Thanks for these “Descriptive Passages” posts – they’re very informative.
    Unicorn
    P. S. The cows are all well on the road to recovery.

  • Glad to help, Unicorn. And glad to know the cows are on the mend.

  • AJ? Please read David’s post above. I’ll even spell it humour if I have to!

    Please? Please?? Please????

  • Young_Writer

    Thanks you, this is really good information. I love writing action scenes, and hopefully they’ll get better since I’ve read this.

  • Glad you found it helpful, Alexa. Best of luck with your action sequences.