Jaw, shattered. Femur, snapped. Skull, cracked. Perineum, ripped off and thrown into a river.
It’s time to talk about action scenes. Explosions, high-kicks, roundhouse punches, car chases, train crashes, wizard battles, robot attacks, machine guns chattering, nipples spewing liquid fire.
Initially, I thought: “Why bother writing about action scenes? Seems easy enough.”
Except, I’ve read some truly asstacular action scenes. Not that I’m some kind of expert on writing action, mind you: by this point in our relationship, I hope we’re clear that I’m an expert on nothing, and merely a very loud, possibly drunken journeyman who has no problem yelling his profanity-lacquered opinion into the echo chamber that is the Internet.
But not being an expert clearly doesn’t prevent me from having thoughts on the subject, and so I figured this was high time to share my inexpert thoughts on the subject here at terribleminds.
Writing Fighting Is Like Scripting Sexing
Sex and violence stare at one another in a warped carnival mirror. Both are intimate. Both reflect physicality. Heartbeat pulses. Fluids spurt — spit, blood, sweat. You push the camera in too close or pull it far, far back and someone is bound to ask, “Are those two fighting? Or are those two fucking?”
The funny thing is, we tend to be a lot more comfortable with violence in this country than we do with sex. We’re a flock of Puritanical gas-bags who beg and scream and wheedle to see the bullet-scalped bodies of Al Qaeda terrorists but if we see two dudes smooch on Glee half of America takes a collective panic-poop and pulls out clumps of hair like they were clods of grass.
Still, there’s value in seeing the relationship between fighting and fucking, at least in terms of writing. Bring one into the other. Bring the intimacy and discomfort of sex into the fight scenes, and bring our culture’s comfort with violence into writing the bedroom scenes. An interesting exercise: write a sex scene like you’re writing a fight scene. Then, vice versa. Do it pantsless. Just because.
Form Matches Function
Imagine it’s like that knife fight in Michael Jackson’s Beat It video — form and function are given knives, and their wrists are bound together so that they may not escape one another until one is stabbified.
(“Stabbified” is a word, right? It’s totally a word. Don’t mess with me, Internet.)
Form and function do well together across all types of writing, but this is particularly true in terms of writing action. I find that when I write action, the form of my writing moves to match the pacing of the action. I tend to like my action sequences presented as a short, sharp shock, and so the writing tends to mirror that. Shorter sentences. Sentence fragments. Blunt, brutal language. Words like rabbit punches. Like the stitching of prison shivs.
Is this necessary? No, probably not. But there’s value in setting the pace of your scene with the clip at which you write. You don’t want to write long, languid patches of prose in writing action. We want action to be fast, exciting, engaging, and most of all, easy-to-read. Writing action is in this way like writing dialogue: you want it to come across to the readers without them halting, without them pausing to take a breath.
That’s not to say there’s no value in slowing things down — pacing is a tricky thing. The escalation of any story has its peaks and valleys and you can give an action sequence those same valleys, too — you can collapse moments just as easily as you can drag them out. The value in that is the value of crafting tension. By pausing before the money shot, the cookie-pop, the underwear-shellacking, you’re forcing the audience to hold their breath a little bit.
They know the shoe is going to drop, so you can slow things down a bit right in the middle.
Tricky to do, but cool if done right.
Point being: action scenes aren’t just about the action that’s happening, but also the form and framing of that action. I always like to print out my work and look at the shape of the words on the page. It’s telling.
Clarity Versus Sensation
I’ve read action scenes that clarify every tiny detail — the prose telegraphs every thrown punch, every grenade tossed, every inch of every rippling explosion as the fire belches forth.
This is nice in a lot of ways. If only because it helps you maintain an image in your head of what’s going on.
On the other hand, that can get a little dull. A giant meaty paragraph dictating the cold and clinical step by step of a fight scene is a paragraph I am going to ice skate over with my eyes. This is doubly true of those writers who know martial arts and write about it in a very granular way. No, I don’t know what a Wily Cheung Dragon Five-Toed Pylon Garrote-Kick does, and I don’t really care.
In opposition you have those fight scenes that eschew details and go right for the feel of the thing. It’s all sensation: the feel of fists landing, of fire on the back of your neck, of one’s butthole being ripped off by a rifle round. This is cool because it’s poetic. Because it puts you in the hot seat. Action is chaotic. It’s not clear and clinical. It’s mud and blood on the camera lens.
The downside is, you can overdo it. Purple prose bogs just as easily as a ten-page karate menu.
So, where’s the line? What approach is the right approach?
Rough guess: it depends on how close to the action you wish the reader to be.
If they’re with the protagonist — and it may be necessary to put with in italics — then a more sensation-based approach has value. You want to feel what he feels. But if it’s a high-concept gain-some-distance third-person-not-all-that-omniscient action scene, then you might gain more ground by approaching the writing in a more clinical fashion.
Reality Versus Authenticity
How “real” does your action scene have to be?
Once more we find ourselves in that old battle between reality and authenticity. Those two scamps, always sissy-slap-fighting it out. My feeling is that reality has no place in any piece of fiction ever. Not because it’s a bad idea but because it is a meaningless idea. Let me explain.
You must in all things remain authentic to your story. You’re setting a tone, a mood, a pace, a theme, and all these things should play well together. When one piece feels off, it’s like a painting hanging on the wall with a troubling tilt: everybody’s going to know, and they’re going to obsess about it. Your job is to keep all ducks in a row. Your job is to attend to authenticity.
How things happen in real life has zero bearing how things happen in fiction. This is true of books, film, games, and so forth. And so it is that your fight scene should match the tone you’re putting forth in the rest of the work. The fight scenes in a cartoonish mecha-battle is going to feel a lot different than the fight scenes in a boxing melodrama. Forget reality as a meaningful metric. Remain authentic to the story you’re telling.
How Action Reflects More Than Just Action
As always, I love ensuring that my writing does not fall into the behavior of a unitasker, by which I mean, that it does one thing and one thing only. Action scenes needn’t only be action scenes.
An action scene is awesome when it’s doing more than just expressing physical threat and a sequence of objective events. How can you reveal character in an action scene? How can you express theme and mood? You should be doing a lot with your action scene. A character reacts a certain way that reflects who he is on the inside (doubly so during times of action — which is to say, in scenes of duress). A theme is revealed in how brutal or insane or dangerous your action becomes.
Just as dialogue and description are given over to sub-text, action can be given over to subtler threads, too. An action scene should never be there just because it’s obligatory: it should always have deeper purpose.
Your Turn, Class
Name some good ones. In books. In film. In comics. Wherever they exist. What makes them good? What makes them great? What are some examples of ehh, mehhh, pbbbt action scenes?
Why would an action scene fail to connect?
What rules do you abide by when writing action? I think what’s true in prose is true, too, in screenwriting. I’ve seen some screenplays that let the action scenes be essentially a meaningless tag: “FIGHT SCENE ENSUES,” but that’s nonsense. While I don’t think you’ll find much value in bloating an action scene so that it fills ten pages of script, I do think action should be both enticing and enriching. I’ve long said that screenwriters could easily bring a few prose tricks into their scripts to keep it fresh and readable as opposed to detached and dull. Story is story, after all.
Talk this out. I’d love to hear your thoughts.