Fiction Writing Workshop: Action Scenes

kick-fighting-1528974

He extends his sword and then utters these words:

“My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.”

The most memorable part of this fight scene are these words. But why?

To find the answer, I wanted to know more about writing effective fight and action scenes. My novel has several of these scenes, so I did some research to maximize their punch.

I found some great articles on the web and as I read them, I kept coming across some recurring themes.

  • Action scenes in books are different than action scenes in movies. A blow-by-blow fight between characters doesn’t come across as exciting on the page as it does on the screen. Describing every detail bores the reader.
  • Action scenes must further the plot. They should do this in both movies and books.
  • Action scenes must advance characterization. Why is the protagonist fighting? The fight, the action must relate to the character’s goals.
  • Action scenes should increase the suspense, the tension and up the odds. Writer John Rogers says, “… this is one of the reasons The Matrix still holds up, and the sequels are two of the most boring movies I have ever, ever, ever seen.” I have thought the same thing over and over since I saw those last two movies.
  • Action scenes should be unique and have interesting settings. One fight scene looks like another. An interesting setting can make it more memorable.

I also found some contradicting advice. Writer K.M. Weiland says:

“Make sure you use [dialogue] to your advantage by breaking up descriptions of action with story-advancing (and perhaps scintillatingly witty?) dialogue.”

While writer Alan Baxter says:

“There is no dialogue while fighting. It never goes like that. You don’t have time, although there may be a few sharp words but no conversation.

Remember Montoya’s famous piece of dialogue? It’s totally appropriate. It had been repeated throughout the story and when he finally finds his father’s actual killer, it’s thrilling. Also, he says it before the fight begins, so it serves as a war cry.

Both of the writers I just quoted suggest using short sentences and one or two word pieces of dialogue. Good advice for fight scenes.

Here are the excellent articles:

Writing exercises:

  • Comb through your story or novel and analyze each fight or action scene. Does it develop character? Does it advance the plot? Is dialogue used appropriately? Does it create suspense?
  • Find a favorite novel and go through it looking for action scenes. Do they work? Could you improve upon them?
  • Do more research and find more articles on writing action scenes. Do you see recurring advice? What other tips can you find for writing these scenes?

See other Fiction Writing Workshops from this blog.

Books on writing I read in 2015

Every year I try and read a couple of books on the writing craft. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but,  honestly, I love reading stuff on how to write fiction. Here is what I read in 2015:

2940151898539_p0_v3_s192x300Planning a Novel, Script or Memoir
by Hank Quense
Quense offers practical tips on how he writes his novels. What I want is something I haven’t heard before, and that’s what I got with this book. At the beginning, he suggests the reader to just take what he or she needs. Good advice. Not everyone thinks the same way, and, also, who wants to read the same thing over and over?

9780985780401_p0_v1_s192x300Structuring Your Novel
by K.M. Weiland
Weiland shows how to make the most of using the three-act structure as you write your novel. She has become sort of an online tutor/mentor to me because books like this one answer my questions about writing fiction.

51QhpMsap6L._UY250_Your Guide to Scrivener by Nicole Dionisio
Scrivener is a program to help writers organize their projects, both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t praise the software enough. There are dozens of books out there to show the writer how to use Scrivener, and I picked this by Nicole Dionisio. I admit I selected because it was the cheapest ebook on the subject I could find. But it’s all okay, because she did a great job and the book is short, so you can learn Scrivener quickly.

Whoa, an epiphany in writing dialogue

116564_6429In one of my favorite books on graphic design, The Non-Designer’s Design Book, Robin Williams presents the concept of being able to name something so that you can own it. A person may recognize good design in a poster or a brochure, but not be able to know why it’s good design. In her book, she claims to present four basic design elements to master–contrast, repetition, alignment, and proximity–so that a potential graphic designer will understand why an item has good design.

The same thing sort of just happened to me when it comes to writing dialogue.

Author K.M. Weiland recently posted an article on her blog, Get Rid of On-the-Nose Dialogue Once and For All. In this article she presents three ways to make boring and obvious dialogue more interesting by including subtext, irony and silence. I already knew about these methods, but Weiland presented them in a simple way and even used one of my favorite–if subtle- scenes from the movie Gladiator as an example. Now I feel like I can own these methods when writing dialogue for my own fiction and point out when they are and aren’t being used in novels I am reading.

Weiland has great resources for honing your fiction writing skills. Check out her website for writers.

What I’m learning as I write my novel, part 2

1089540_94098497In my previous blog entry, I began listing some things I’m learning as I write my current novel. Here are some more:

  • Let the story unfold like a snowflake. When writing the discovery draft of a novel, I like to use the snowflake method. This is a method created by writer Randy Ingermanson. I mentioned in my last post how writing this novel was like peeling an onion; this is part of that metaphor. Here’s how I’ve adapted it: first, write one sentence for each scene; next, turn each sentence into a five sentence paragraph; then turn each paragraph into five paragraphs. I use the snowflake method software to develop my characters, but then I jump to a text document and let the story develop. I read about a similar method in a book that is out of print called One Way to Write Your Novel by Perry Dick. You may want to use your own version of this method.
  • Write a scribble for each scene. Many different methods float around the internet on how to write a scene for a novel. I’ve come across this list of tips for writing scenes, and the item on this list that I find helpful is write a scribble version (of the scene). Here is an example of what a scribble version looks like (Scroll down a little.). Usually, I write a scribble version for a scene when I turn scene from one sentence into a paragraph. So, a scene is first written out as a scribble, then I expand it with dialogue, action, narrative, inner emotion and inner monologue.
  • None of the main characters in my story are married or in committed relationships. They are all in their early twenties, with one exception. I’m beginning to think this could be marketed to young adults.
  • In further rewrites, I will be able to see where I can change things. As I write the discovery draft, I make notes about things that have already happen that I can change and strengthen. This includes: characters idiosyncracies; dialogue changes; inner emotion additions; jacked-up conflict; additional sub-plots. I also will be taking out some dialogue in my opening scene in which the antagonist reveals too much about himself too soon–I hope this will create more suspense as in “what’s he up to, anyway?”
  • I write a series of scenes that go together and break them into chapters. I write scenes and then break them into chapters. Supposedly, fiction is written as scenes in the same way nonfiction is written as a paragraphs. A chapter in fiction may contain several scenes, or only one–it’s up to the writer. I may cut a scene in half by ending a chapter in the middle of it to create a cliffhanger.
  • Most of writing is definitely rewriting. Recently, I’ve come across these articles about editing and rewriting a manuscript. I plan on using some of the tips they offer; in fact, I’m already using some of the advice from them. Here they are:
    How to Write a Book: the Five-Draft Method (Jeff Goins)
    How I Self-Edit My Novels: 15 Steps from First Draft to Publication (K.M. Weiland)
  • I’ve gotten good at avoiding sentences beginning with participles and as. I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. One chapter discusses sentences in which the writer begins a sentences with an –ing word. This can lead to dangling modifiers: Rowing down the river, the branches of the trees hung over us like protective arms. Anyway, here’s an article that talks about the same thing. The first comment also has some good tips.
  • Writing action scenes is not the same thing as action scenes on the screen. An action scene need not include every punch, kick or jab. Every car chase scene need not include every screeching turn around a corner. Actions scenes are an opportunity to reveal character, among other things. Here are some articles I’ve read recently on writing action scenes I’ve found helpful:
    5 Essential Tips for Writing Killer Action Scenes (Chuck Sambuchino)
    The Kung Fu Panda Guide to Writing Action Scenes (K.M. Weiland)
    Writing: Action Scenes (John Rogers)
    Just Google “writing action scenes” and you’ll find these articles listed as well as many more.
  • I’m avoiding infodumps. I’m writing a science fiction series with certain “rules of the universe” in which the stories take place. With this draft, I’m avoiding infodumps about this crazy place I’ve created–for now. When I rewrite, I’ll need to explain a few things as briefly as possible. How I will do that, I’m still deciding. Should I even do it at all?
  • Dialogue is never the best the first time around. When I rewrite, I will be hammering the dialogue to make it stronger in an attempt to give each character his or her own “voice.”
  • Writing about the progress of my novel, like this, is helpful. More lessons appear to me as I write and I hope to continue chronicling those lessons in this blog in an attempt to improve my writing and storytelling. Wish me luck.

What I’m learning as I write my novel

unpeeled onionWhen I say I’ve written six novels, this is what I really mean: I’ve written the rough draft of six novels. Sure I like to say “I’ve written six novels” to try to impress people, but if anyone would read these “novels”, he would read for five minutes, stick out his tongue, squinch up his face, hold the manuscript with his index finger and thumb as if holding a dirty diaper and dispose of it in the trash as if it smelled like said dirty diaper.

Here’s the truth: I’ve written six rough drafts National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Five of the rough drafts are part of a science fiction series I’ve been writing. The first NaNoWriMo novel I wrote is a stand-alone story.

Even after NaNoWriMo is over I’ll continue rewriting and polishing the manuscript, but then I get busy. And suddenly it’s November again—NaNoWriMo month—and I have a new idea and write a whole new story for the series.

This year I finished NaNoWriMo by writing the minimum 50,000 words, but I still have several chapters to write to finish the story. That’s what I’m doing now. The good news is that I more motivated than I’ve ever been to finish and rewrite the story. This year I planned out the novel differently than before and I feel it’s been a boon.

As I continue writing the rough draft of my sixth novel, here is what I’m learning:

  • A rough draft is really a “discovery draft.” Discovering the story is like peeling and onion. Sure, before I started writing, I made a list of scenes and sketched out some of the main characters, but I discover so much more about my characters and story as I write. I just keep finishing the discover draft, however, knowing that I will change and add later.
  • This year, I planned my novel a little differently: first of all, I made a list of scenes (one sentence each) and plugged the list into the three-act-structure. The three-act-structure is lauded by many and disliked by many, but it helped me think about suspense, conflict and rhythm for my story. Next, I took this list and labelled the scenes according to the hero’s journey. I was pleased that my outline seemed to fall right into the sequence of the hero’s journey. For example, toward the beginning of the story, part of the hero’s journey is “meeting a mentor.” And right there, in proper order, I had my protagonist run into a character who matched the description of being the “mentor.” (By the way, it’s perfectly legitimate to do all this planning before NaNoWriMo starts; the writing of the “discovery draft” begins on November 1st.) Here is a diagram that helped me see how to combine the three-act-structure with the hero’s journey.characters: they have goals; they will change by end of novel; need more inner emotions and thoughts for the protagonist.
  • I am writing this discovery draft using only the point-of-view of my protagonist. This means I am writing only scenes in which he is present and interacting with other characters or progressing the story himself. I include description, inner feelings and inner monologue related only to him. As a result, some of the other main characters don’t feel as well-developed as I’d like. The reader only sees them from the viewpoint of my protagonist. This may not be a bad thing, but as I rewrite, I may add scenes from the viewpoint of two of the other main characters. This would add some subplots that are not getting fully developed in this discovery draft. This may or may not be a good idea, but I will try it and see.
  • thumbMaking a fake cover for my novel has helped keep me motivated. I did this for all my rough drafts in this series I’m creating using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator and I had a lot of fun.
  • I have more lessons I’m learning as I write my current novel and I will talk about those in a later post. For now, I wanted to write about the realizations that come up. Just doing that is helpful and keeps me motivated.

For those who think visually: storyboard your novel

the_walking_dead_title_cardI didn’t get into the AMC network show The Walking Dead until its fourth season.

Dog sitting for some friends, I binge-watched over a weekend and got hooked. The next season would start in a few weeks, and I couldn’t wait.

For the next couple of years I watched TWD faithfully. Then I got rid of cable.

I planned to watch it on Netflix. Then I realized Netflix only carries past seasons of the show. The current season will be on Netflix after its initial run on AMC. Well, with all the hub-bub over the arrival of Negan, a major bad guy from The Walking Dead comic books upon which the show is derived, ratings were at an all time high.

But, surprisingly, I didn’t care. And I still don’t.

I may or may not watch the current season when it’s on Netflix. I’ve given up on the show. Here’s why:

  • I got rid of cable.  As I said, I got rid of cable and subscribed to Netflix and Hulu. Not only are they cheaper, they have more variety than even hundreds of channels that show the same thing over and over. I’ve discovered a whole set of new tv series on Netflix and Hulu.
  • Tired of the Violence. I’m the kind of guy that doesn’t gross out at the bashing in of the skull of a “walker.” I always ask: “Wonder how they did that?” But it seems like each season, the writers of the show try to find an even more gruesome way for someone to die by the hands of walkers. Yawn. Moving on.
  • Lack of hope. This is the main reason I will probably not rush to watch TWD anymore. The show is in its seventh season and there’s no sign of a cure for becoming a zombie. While the show is still on a rating’s high, I understand not wrapping up the story, but after a while, the lack of hope the characters go though wears me down. I don’t know if the comics ever offered any kind of radical change that would wrap up the story, but the television show is surely not going to be done as long as the ratings are good.

And so, I have moved on to other shows like American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, Timeless, and others. When I get a chance to watch the latest season of TWD, I’ll see how I feel. Right now, I’m not missing it.

Post Script:
Oh, and by the way, getting rid of cable is the best thing I’ve done in a while. Netflix and Hulu (and even Amazon Prime) have more a selection, and I can watch whenever I want. Cable, even with all those channels, had the same thing over and over.

No regrets. I highly recommend it.

Find my latest book on Amazon: Christ Simply, A Chronological Self-Guided Study through the Life of Christ.

Writing blog roundup: make trouble, right choices, wrong words, when writing, writer’s block

Articles on writing I’ve read lately: