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Take My Epic Battle - Please!

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Jan. 14th, 2008 | 10:45 am
mood: chipperchipper

Of late, I have been working on what will likely be the second-to-last chapter of my fourth novel. (Well, technically my third novel is a novella, but I still tend to lay claim to four.) I'm quite excited, but on the other hand . . .
. . . action scenes.

I'd like to note here that, despite being a fantasy writer, I do not write all that many action scenes. Of course, the term is a little vague, lending itself to an "I know it when I see it" definition: I write many scenes in which actions are taken. Pretty much all of my scenes, in fact, include someone doing something. I would venture to say that most scenes by most writers include something of the sort, even if it is just action tags between lines of dialogue: "He sipped his tea." Most people would probably agree that "he sipped his tea" is not the stuff of action scenes. What about scenes wherein people are acting with great haste and under great stress? Is it "action" to pick a lock if getting through the locked door is your only way to escape from an angry leopard? What if you remove the leopard, and you are picking the same lock in a leisurely manner just to see what is on the other side of the door? My own definition of an action scene is generally danger-based, and might be something like: "Participation in or strenuous avoidance of a dangerous [usually violent] situation."

Right. So, now that we have a definition of an action scene, we are left with my limited knowledge of what makes a good action scene. I don't read a lot of thrillers or even watch a lot of action movies - not that that would necessarily help, anyway - and to top it off, I really do not like writing actual people-getting-hurt violence. Well, that's not entirely true. I can deal with people getting hurt, but I cannot kill off characters - even nameless ones. What this probably means is that I should avoid epic battle scenes. In the case of my current work, however, I did not write *checks* seventy-four thousand and some words so far just to bow out of the scene that needs to happen - or finish happening - in the second-to-last chapter. So, based on what I have gathered from reading action scenes, reading about action scenes, and writing a few of them in the past, I should:

- Use shorter sentences. "Shorter" meaning "as opposed to the ones in non-action scenes." This is largely to serve the purposes of the next two commandments, but it also gives a tenser, more actiony feel.

- Take care not confuse the reader. This has got to be the most important one, but is also fairly general-sounding. It means to keep prose clean and also, very importantly, to make it clear where everything physically is with respect to everything else. It is important to be able to picture everything that happens in the scene, and then to write it in such a way that it makes the reader picture it. Ideally, the two pictures will bear some similarity.

- Leave out things that aren't important, relatively speaking. This is one for me to watch carefully, as I do like my detail. One simply has to weigh the importance of that detail, metaphor, or internal monologue against what else is going on in the scene. In terms of point of view, would the POV character notice the tassels on the armchair onto which she has just leapt to dodge a pouncing leopard? It might not be too much to say: "She leapt onto a tasseled armchair," especially if the tassels will be important in some way; even if not, it does provide a subtle but interesting glimpse of the decor. It would be too much to say: "She leapt onto an armchair with beaded golden tassels hanging from its sham covering." Unless one is going for comic effect (say, "she" is an interior designer and has been noticing every detail about the furnishings in the house so far, which could be tedious, but could probably be done in a successfully humorous manner), "she" would not notice this. Also, think of the poor reader! He wonders how important the tassels are, will look for them to appear again in the scene, cannot understand why they were mentioned. He has nearly forgotten the leopard. ("She leapt onto an armchair with beaded golden tassels hanging from its sham covering like the tails of shining horses, reminding her of the pony she had always wanted," is not to be even considered.)

- Use active and precise, but not silly, verbs. Again, someone who is going for comic effect (which I often am, but not in this particular scene) can certainly get away with "silly." Consider the following:
"She went down the hallway to the window. She opened it, got onto the sill, and jumped through. The leopard followed."
"She dashed down the hallway to the window. She pushed it open, climbed onto the sill, and jumped. The leopard hurtled after her."
"She pitter-pattered down the hallway to the window. She threw the window open, bounded onto the sill, and launched herself through it. The leopard rocketed out after her."

Well, there you have it, for the moment anyway: what I know, or think I know, about writing action scenes. I ought to get back to actually writing said scene now, but sometimes this kind of reflection on and reinforcement of what I need to do helps me out. It's why I read writing magazines, and it may be why you're reading this. Regardless, I hope it's informative, or at least entertaining.
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