Saturday, October 14, 2017


I’ve got a confession to make.
I hate writing action scenes.
Well . . . maybe hate is too strong a word, at least these days. I’ve written so many different books – horror, fantasy, tie-ins, novelizations – that writing action as gotten easier for me. And I’ve gotten fairly decent at it. One of the reasons my editor at Titan Books asked me to write the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle was because she thought I was good at writing action. And who am I to argue with an editor? Especially when she says nice things about me.
Recently, I posted about the Kingsman novelization on Facebook, and the wonderful literary dark fantasy writer Jeffrey Ford commented that I could probably give some useful tips on writing action scenes. I thought, “Hmm . . . a potential blog post idea!” And now that I have a new novel to promote – an action-filled sea-monsters-attack book called Teeth of the Sea – it seemed like a good idea to dive into the subject (see what I did there?). So let’s cut to the action.
I usually don’t listen to music when I write, especially music with lyrics. I find the words of the songs get in the way of the words I’m trying to write. But fast-faced music, often with a hard edge, helps me write action scenes. Not only does it get me in the proper mindset to write action, it inspires me to put the same kind of frenetic energy into the prose. I used Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” when writing the Kingsman novelization because I knew from the script that the song was going to be used in the film. When writing Teeth of the Sea, I listened to something a little different: Themes from Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, which features music from the giant-monsters-attack movies Tarantula and the Deadly Mantis, among others. Movie soundtracks work great, too. They can help inspire you to bring a cinematic feel to your action scenes.
Something else I do to prepare for writing action scenes is to watch action movies, and I also read action-adventure novels. I want to immerse myself in action sequences, both visual and written, so I have an action mindset when I sit down to write.
I first encountered this technique at SF conventions, where panelists would talk about how it was THE key to writing effective, saleable fiction. They all mentioned one book: Techniques of the Selling Writing by Dwight V. Swain. After the con, I hauled ass to the bookstore and snagged a copy. You can Google “scene and sequel writing” or “scene and sequel fiction” to learn more about this technique (and I encourage you all to do so), but here’s the short version. Fiction can be divided into two basic units. a SCENE, in which a character takes active steps to achieve a small goal that helps him or her make progress toward the larger story goal, and a SEQUEL, in which that character processes the outcome of the scene and decides on his or her next move, which leads directly into the next SCENE, and so on, until the story is finished.
One day while writing an action scene for a novel, I realized that action scenes were nothing but a fast-moving chain of Scenes and Sequels. For example: Bob wants to get out of a burning building, but his arch nemesis Jim is determined to keep him inside so they’ll both burn to death. SCENE: Bob wants to reach the front door, so he starts running. Jim tackles him and they both fall to the floor. SEQUEL: (which can be an instinctive reaction instead of a well thought-out plan) Jim is lying atop Bob, so Bob decides to slam his head back into Bob’s face. SCENE: Bob does so, stunning Jim, who rolls off Bob’s back. SEQUEL: Bob is now free to move, so he will. SCENE: Bob gets to his feet and starts heading for the door once more. Jim has a baseball in his pocket. (Why, I don’t know – just go with it). He pulls out the baseball and throws it at Bob. It hits Bob in the back of the head. SEQUEL: Bob: “Ow!” The pain of the impact causes Bob to stagger, slowing him down. He fights through the pain and dizziness because he needs to get to that door. SCENE: Bob continues toward the door, staggering and weaving, moving slower now. And so on.
Using Scene and Sequel allows you to choreograph a fight scene – especially when you remember that each character has his or her own chain of Scenes and Sequels. In order to determine Bob’s actions and reactions, I also had to know what Jim’s were. Scene and Sequel also helps you remain anchored firmly in the present action so you don’t rush it. (More on this later.)
In the above example of Bob, I focused on one goal: Bob wants to get the hell out of the burning building. Jim may be his arch enemy, but Bob doesn’t have time to settle old scores, no matter how satisfying that might be. He has to get out or he’ll burn to death. Everything in the action sequence needs to be focused on Bob trying to escape, and Jim trying to keep him from doing so. If physical action won’t work, maybe Bob will try to reason with Jim, even offer to make a bargain with him of some kind – anything that will get him out of the burning building. As the fire spreads and the situation becomes more dire, Bob’s actions will become more frantic, more desperate, and more instinctive. Maybe he’ll give into that, maybe he’ll fight it. The goal can change during an action sequence, too. Maybe Bob is almost out of the building when he hears a baby crying from somewhere in the room, and his goal shifts to save the baby, and then escape.
Staying focused on your characters’ immediate goals will help you write sharper, more intense action scenes.
Too often in action movies, everyone can do everything. All the characters are equally good at fighting, driving, etc., and all the fights, chases, and escapes are the same. (The only exception is Asian characters, who almost always possess superhuman martial arts skills that somehow their opponents can counter with only basic street-fighting moves.) But all of your characters have different backgrounds, training, and experience (or in the case of a normal everyday person thrust into an action scene, no training or experience). They also have different psychological makeups. How do they normally deal with problems? Do they tackle them head-on? Do they seek others’ help in dealing with them? Do they try to manipulate others into dealing with them instead? Do they try to ignore problems and hope they’ll go away? How do your characters deal with an unexpected threat? Will they immediately leap into whatever action is necessary? Will they stand there, stunned, in terror or disbelief? How do they deal with stress? (The stress of conflict takes its toll on characters no matter what sort of story they inhabit). Do they rise to the occasion? Do they check out mentally? Do they go over to the Dark Side so they can survive? Do they betray companions so they can survive? Knowing how each character deals with problems and reacts to stress (both immediate and long-term) will help you decide what they’ll do, and not do, in action sequences.
In general, I believe an immersive point of view is the best way to go when writing fiction. So far, none of our other ways of experiencing story – movies, TV shows, videogames – is capable of getting into characters’ heads, allowing us to experience what they’re experiencing. It’s one of the great strengths of prose fiction. If you write with an immersive point of view, we’ll know what a character thinks and feels, both emotionally and physically, during an action scene. The action will be intense because, in way, it’s happening to us. Avoid writing your action scenes as if you’re viewing them on a screen. Write them as if you’re living them. When I talk about this in classes, I show an action clip from one the Bourne movies, then I show the video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker.” The latter is filmed from the point of view of a James Bond-like spy. I tell students to imagine action scenes (any scene, really) as if they’re the character in that video. Here’s a link if you’ve never seen it:
I was an acting major for a time in college, and one of the most important lessons an actor has to learn in is to “play the moment.” This means don’t rush dialogue, don’t rush past the emotional beats in a scene. When writing action scenes, don’t rush through the chain of events. Allow your characters to have responses and make choices, however quick they may take place. Allow them to having physical and emotional responses to the actions they take or are taken against them. Staying in the moment is what makes an action scene feel real, and it helps create intensity and build suspense.
Too many writers write about characters who, while supposedly human, possess superhuman strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to injury. Even if your character is an action-adventure badass, he or she will slow down during an action sequence, from the build-up of lactic acid in their muscles if not from injuries. The most believable action sequence I’ve ever seen in film was in John Carpenter’s They Live. Roddy Piper and Keith David are fighting in an alley. The fight starts off high energy, but as it goes on, the combatants slow down, become out of breath and exhausted. That’s the way a real fight would go.
There’s little suspense with characters like Batman and Superman, until Batman’s back is broken and Superman is suffering from kryptonite poisoning. It’s not what you give heroes that makes them interesting; it’s what you take away from them. So consider not writing about superheroes in the first place, but if you do, try to make their action scenes believable. Let them get winded, get tired, get hurt. And let them make mistakes. Maybe they don’t make every jump they take or hit every target they shoot at, even if they ultimately succeed in a story.
And think about how your characters will feel physically and emotionally after the action is over. Tired but exhilarated? Sick to their stomach over the violence they committed? So upset they’re determined never to raise a fist in violence ever again? Surprised – and maybe more than a little ashamed – to discover they like violence and want to commit more? The aftereffects of action are just as important as the action itself.
Writers forget that the bodies of characters in action scenes are flooded with adrenaline and stress chemicals. It doesn’t matter if these characters are well-trained and experience action veterans or newbies. The veterans will be able to handle the effects of these chemicals better, but they’ll still experience them. Here are some of the effects:
·       Increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
·       Dilated pupils to take in as much light as possible.
·       Constriction of veins in skin, which causes the chilly sensation associated with fear.
·       Increased blood glucose.
·       Tensing of muscles and goose bumps. Relaxation of smooth muscles.
·       Shutting down of nonessential systems such as digestion and the immune system.
·       Difficulty concentrating on small tasks (the brain is directed to focus on the big picture).
·       Once the threat diminishes, the body releases cortisol to calm itself back down.
Questions to ask yourself: How does your character’s body work during fear? After fear? How does your character’s senses perform during fear? How effectively can your character process information during an action/fear scene? How effectively can they think and react?
I read once that the reason so many shots were fired during the gunfight at the OK Corral was because the participants’ bodies were so full of adrenaline, their physical actions were too fast, too broad, too erratic for them to shoot accurately. If that’s true, maybe it explains the lousy aim of the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe.
How far is your character willing to go in an action scene? What risks will he or she take? Will your character jump off a cliff like the anti-heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Will he or she be willing to face a shark in its own element, as in Jaws? In a fight, how much violence are they psychologically prepared to commit? It’s easy to hurt and kill humans. Stick thumbs through their eye sockets into their brains. Slice their carotid artery. Bash their brains out with a heavy object. But most people won’t immediately go for those moves. You need to know what moves your character will make naturally, and which they’ll make when pushed somewhat, and which they’ll make when they’re pushed to the wall and feel they have no other choice.
One of my favorite sentences that I’ve ever reach in fiction came from a novelization of one the Friday the 13th movies, written by Simon Hawke: “Jason surged out of the water like a Polaris missile.”
I still laugh at the silliness of the image. The simile doesn’t work at all (nothing against Simon Hawke. I enjoyed the rest of the book just fine). A Polaris missile is military tech, science-y instead of slasher-y, and a missile is far more deadly than one dude with a machete could ever be, making Jason seem like a much lesser threat. Readers need to be able to picture clearly and accurately everything that’s happening in an action scene, not least because it’s (hopefully) fast-paced and they’re reading it quickly. If someone read the above sentence too fast, they might think a missile actually followed Jason out of Crystal Lake. Even if they realized it was a simile, they’ll still picture a Polaris missile shooting out of the water, and the image will clash with what’s really going on. Because of this, I try to avoid using similes and metaphors in action scenes, and I advise you to do the same.
Put energy into your writing so the words themselves feel like action. Instead of saying,
“She ran into the shadows,” say “She plunged into the shadows.” Instead of saying “Bob hit Jim,” say “Bob slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw.” Instead of saying “Jim let out a gust of air!” say “The wind whooshed from Jim’s lungs.” You have to be careful when writing like this, though. If you overdo it, you risk plummeting (see what I did there?) into parody.
In order to make action sequences more fast-paced for readers, write with shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Avoid excess description and focus in the action itself, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
I think the above says it all. Use action figures if you want or those posable wooden models that artists use. Use toy cars, boats, guns, etc. Anything that will help you visually conceive of action moves and help you describe them more effectively. If nothing else, it’ll give you an excuse to play with toys and act like a crazy person (as if writers need an excuse.)
By this point, I’ve spent all my energy, I’m gulping air, my muscles feel like lead, and I’m lightheaded and a trifle nauseated. (Writing is action, right?) I think I’ll go rest for a bit. Next time you write an action sequence, try using some of the above tips, and you’ll kick more ass and take more names than ever before.

Now that you’ve read my tips on writing action, you know you want to see if I practice what I preach! As I said earlier, my latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions.
They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .
. . . and it’s starting to rain.
My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime.
My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press.
It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

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