In today’s tutorial, we’ll be examining:
- Why action needs to be justified in order to work as part of a larger story
- How to build-up tension
- Why you need to be aware of your writing’s pace
The golden rules of action
In the previous tutorial, we discussed how description, when used effectively, can inform and immerse the reader in your story. Action sequences, and their all-important build-ups, epitomise the need to keep tight control over your description.
There are three important points to remember in order to write effective action:
- Firstly, you have to justify any serious action set-pieces.
- Secondly, you need to build-up to those action set-pieces.
- Thirdly, ANY action-related description needs to be kept tight and waffle-free.
Let’s take a moment to define exactly what we mean by ‘action’. From a Tomb Raider perspective, it seems pretty easy to define! We usually think of explosions, chases, fights, and death-defying escapes. While it’s true that these are classic, Hollywood-inspired examples of what constitutes action, we can easily make a case that anything our characters do can be considered action of one kind or another. In other words, rather than exclusively focusing on daredevil stunts, you should be able to take and apply the guidance in this article to your writing whether your characters are fighting mercenaries or eating breakfast.
We have already discussed why you should be aware of your story’s pacing, and how to reflect this in your writing. In summary:
- It is generally accepted that action involves moving too quickly to indulge in long and detailed descriptive paragraphs!
- Strong engagement with the senses can provide immersive description without the need for lots of ‘passive’ description.
- Less is more. Overloading on description slows the pace down, or can stop it completely.
We’ll examine how these guidelines apply to ‘classic’ action scenarios and set-pieces in a moment. Before that, let’s look at how we can apply them to a fairly ordinary scene:
“With a grunt, Lara tossed the now quiescent mobile phone across the table.
I haven’t got time for this, she thought. Her temples ached abominably. The chink of the jug against glass sounded unnaturally loud. The water was tepid and tasted of the library’s ever-present dust. Her hands were shaking, but she pushed the discomfort aside. Got to focus, girl!
Books and scrawled notes smothered every flat surface. Her pencil skittered and scratched across paper. Cross checking references. Scribbling amendments. Tick-tock went the antique casement clock.
Soft footfalls made her pause. She would have recognised Winston’s tread anywhere. The door opened and a waft of savoury air made her breathe deeply. Onions. Bacon. Beans. And, oh… hot buttered toast. Her stomach pinched spitefully, and she let out an involuntary groan.
“Dammit,” she hissed, lowering her pencil. “Playing dirty, are we?””
Here, there is no death-defying helicopter chase or angry Egyptian mummy to contend with. But we still get a sense that Lara is doing critical research. Its importance is portrayed by the way she’s obviously been working intensely for a long time – long enough for her water to be ‘tepid’ and taste stale. Her hands are shaking and she has a strong reaction to the smell of food, both of which suggest that she hasn’t taken a break. She turns off her phone and ‘tosses’ it across the table, as though she doesn’t care about it compared to her work. Instead of being calm and organised, her workspace is ‘smothered’ by books and notes are ‘scrawled’. Her pencil ‘skitters’, ‘scratches’, and ‘scribbles’, which imply that she’s furiously taking down information. The reference to a clock ticking reinforces the sense of time running short.
This paragraph uses quite short sentences and strong sensory impressions to build an emotional (empathic) picture, not simply a physical one. Details are kept to a minimum; we do not need to know the colours of the books, what Lara is wearing, or details of the room (at least not for this scene). Although this example text is short and has none of the car-chases and horrifying monsters that we expect from a Tomb Raider setting, it still gives us a sense of urgency and of doing things.
So how do we go about creating effective action set-pieces?
Action set-pieces – a case study
Let’s take a step away from written prose for a moment to briefly examine an example from film. The first scene in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider demonstrates the three steps of effective action we mentioned at the start of this article.
It is justified because it provides a good introduction to Lara Croft’s character and some of her trademark abilities. Our first view is not of Lara with her guns blazing, but of her hanging from the ceiling – silent and watchful. We then get treated to shots of Lara prowling closer to her goal, ever-alert to her surroundings. Tomb – check. Shiny thing as our goal – check. Lara acting her usual sexy, bad-ass self – check. Yep, this is Tomb Raider through and through.
It builds up tension before unleashing the action. Little hints, for example the way Lara pauses as though listening, little tremors, musical cues, and falling dust, are the signs that something big is going to happen at any moment. These hints employ the same principle as Chekhov’s Gun; our attention is deliberately drawn to them because they all lead to something important.
The action is kept tight and avoids unnecessary ‘waffle’. When S.I.M.O.N finally bursts into view, the editor and director shorten each camera shot and switch the focus onto the only things that matter – Lara, her guns, the robot, a critical pillar, etc. – thus avoiding unnecessary ‘waffle’ shots of passing clouds or the glint of sunlight on windows.
Creating action in your writing
So that’s how the three rules of effective action work on film. Let’s look at how these apply to your stories.
Action needs to be justified in order to blend seamlessly into your story. If the artefact of Lara’s interest is guarded by a terrifying monster, then you have got a legitimate reason to include an exciting fight scene. However, if Lara is having a quiet conversation with a wheelchair-bound professor, it’s unlikely that this scene will involve them swinging from the ceiling à la bungee ballet-style and engaging in a sword fight. Granted, strange things can happen in the Tomb Raider universe, but your readers will still wonder what the heck is going on if they spot an action set-piece that serves no legitimate purpose. Ask yourself why Lara is driving her jeep at breakneck speeds down a mountain pass, or why skeletons are suddenly appearing to attack our heroine. If an action sequence is only there because you got bored and wanted a quick gunfight or monster to liven things up, you need to seriously rethink your plot!
Action set-pieces also depend on a build-up of some kind. The classic example is the final battle trope, whose build-up typically incorporates the whole story! However, there are plenty of other action set-pieces from the Tomb Raider universe. Here are some examples:
- Lara’s battle with the centaurs in the Tomb of Tihocan (Tomb Raider (1996) and Tomb Raider: Anniversary)
Build-up: entering the tomb, seeing the prominent statues (Chekhov’s gun); finding the empty sarcophagus; threatening lighting and ambient music.
- Lara’s battle with and escape from Set (Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation)
Build-up: the slow descent into the moonlit cavern; the menacing ambient music; fitting each piece of Armour onto the statue; witnessing Horus’ spirit descending from the stars.
- The Pagoda Battle from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life
Build-up: Lara and Sheridan talking while they look outside the window, watchful and waiting for the exchange to take place.
- Lara defeats the Serpent inside King Arthur’s Tomb (Tomb Raider: Legend)
Build-up: entering King Arthur’s tomb; swimming across the underground lake; hearing monstrous groans in the distance; increasingly menacing ambient music.
- Lara defeats Mathias (Tomb Raider (2013))
Build-up: Lara and her surviving friends journey upriver; she warns them to stay and pick off anyone who tries to go after her; creeping past the ranks of Queen’s Guard to get to the ziggurat; seeing the ominous lighting and hearing screams coming from the top of the mountain.
Build-ups can be long or short, but they all aim to build tension that culminates in the explosive release of the main action sequence. You can have great fun dropping little clues and hints of what is to come. Dialogue, objects, locations, characters, and other descriptive tools can all help create a sense that something huge and important is about to take place. By the time you unleash a tyrannosaurus or throw us into plane crash, your reader should already be on the edge of their seat and itching to enjoy the fun!
Good hints need to be subtle. If Lara is stalking quietly through a seemingly-deserted tomb, then making her absently brush some dust off of her shoulder will make your reader – consciously or not – think that something else is in the chamber with her to have dislodged that dust. Don’t forget to engage all of the senses. A faint smell or barely-audible humming sound is enough to make your reader sit up and take notice because you have taken the trouble to describe it, Chekhov’s Gun-style.
In the last article we discussed the importance of pace in your description. This applies just as equally to creating effective action as it does in avoiding unnecessary descriptive waffle. In action settings, you must balance the need to talk your reader through each step (you don’t want them to wander off and get lost), against the need to keep the pace flowing briskly. This is a good place to remember our old friend, cause and effect (a.k.a stimulus and response). For every action, there needs to be some kind of reaction (though not necessarily equal and opposite!). Don’t just have a villain swing a punch and then stagger away with a bloody nose – you need to show that Lara ducked the punch and swung her foot around in a nose-breaking arc straight at her adversary’s face. Action sequences like this highlight the need for absolute clarity in your writing. If you have an effect but no cause, or a cause and no effect, then go back and restore what is missing.
Another factor governing pace in your writing is punctuation and sentence length. Try reading your work aloud, pausing at each comma and full-stop (period). In action especially, it’s important to make your words to flow as smoothly as possible, without too many bumps and pauses. It’s equally important to avoid weighing your reader down with long, unbroken passages of text. If you run out of breath before finishing a sentence, then that sentence probably needs restructuring or a comma!
Key points for Creating Action:
- Action is concerned with all of your characters’ activities, not just Hollywood-style set-pieces.
- Good action must be justified by the story.
- Action set-pieces require a build-up.
- Appreciate pace and use tight description to get the maximum impact from your action.
Next time – Part 6: Creating characters – part 1
Fanfiction Writing Tutorials – Part 5: Creating Action by J. R. Milward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.