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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

Fiction writing workshop: story structure

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The three-act-structure uses the idea that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. These are simple but effective building blocks for planning your novel.

When planning a novel, the most helpful tool I’ve found is a thousands-year-old recipe called the three-act structure. It’s helped me plan out my novels more effectively than any fiction writing software.

What is the three-act structure?
Greek philosopher, Aristotle, came up with this structure. He said a good story has three acts: a beginning, middle and end. Simple, right?

Act I: In the beginning, otherwise known as the setup, the writer introduces the characters and sets the tone for the story. This is also the time for the writer to tell the reader about the setting, at least for the beginning of the story. In Act I, a situation happens, an inciting incident, kicks off the story. This incident usually hints at the conflict that permeates the entire novel. Act I is roughly the first quarter of your novel and at the end of it is the first plot point. This plot point shows the reader a situation thrusting the main characters away from their normal lives into the conflict that changes their destiny.

Act II: This is the middle part of your novel and it takes up roughly fifty percent of your novel. Act II is where all the main confrontation occurs. Your characters find themselves facing a series of obstacles in which they keep getting deeper and deeper into trouble. They are prevented from reaching their goal. Roughly around the middle of Act II–the middle of the novel–everything changes. Your protagonist’s goals are shattered. Or they realize they can obtain the goal, but at a great cost. It might be a reversal of fortune. Whatever, the middle of the novel is where your protagonist and other characters start to change, really change because of the situation. By the end of Act II is your second plot point: everything is at stake. It’s do or die.

Act III: In the last quarter of your novel, the protagonist fights the battle that wins or loses everything. This scene, be it a literal or figurative battle, is the climax. A surprise or twist can make the ending of your novel a satisfying experience for your reader. The sub-plots involving all your minor characters are also resolved in the third act after the climax. In this resolution part of your story, you may hint at the future of your characters. What possibly happens to them after the last page is read? Here’s the main thing to pay attention to as your plan your novel: how are your characters, especially your protagonist, different than they were from the beginning of the story?

Project
Plot a novel using the three act structure. You probably should have several characters already developed. It also helps if you know how the story is going to end, but you may want to discover that for yourself if you plot from scratch. Write one sentence for each of the main scenes in each act. Use the descriptions of the acts above to guide you.

If you already have a first draft of a novel or have already plotted a novel, try and break it down using the the three act structure. Does it work?

Read more on the three act structure:

See other Fiction Writing Workshops from this blog.

 

Consider Iain Banks

A few days ago, Iain Banks, one of my favorite authors, passed away. This Scottish writer crafted novels under two names:” Iain Banks” for mainline fiction, and” Iain M. Banks” for science fiction. I’ve read him under both genres. Many consider him a master of “space opera” which is a sub-category of science fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed his book, Consider Phlebas, which is the first of his space opera series called “The Culture.” Most would agree that Bank’s magnum opus is The Wasp Factory, one of his mainline fiction novels.

For some reason, this book, or rather, my book review of  The Wasp Factory, opened up some interesting opportunities.

First of all, you need to know a character named Frank Cauldhame, a teenaged sociopath who may or may not have murdered some people before the story begins, narrates The Wasp Factory.  Just for cheap thrills, Frank builds a contraption out of junk parts he calls “the wasp factory.” It’s an obstacle course in which he places wasps he has caught. After meandering around the contraption, the insect perishes somehow; it’s smashed or gassed or burned or pierced. Yeah, Frank’s a really swell guy.

I wrote a review of The Wasp Factory and pasted it onto several book-related websites. For some reason, this review got a lot of “likes” which surprised me because I didn’t think much of the review itself. I knew I liked TWF, but I remember having trouble expressing exactly what I wanted to say about Bank’s creepy tome. I usually only write reviews of a book that affect me in a special way so I settled on saying, “After a few chapters, the dark humor and hypocrisy of Frank’s evil habits are amusing.” Whatever.

After writing this review, I discovered that TWF has quite the underground following. In one case, one of the people who liked my review was a young novelist, Chris Tusa, who wrote a novel called Dirty Little Angels. He asked me to read his novel and review it. So I did. Not a big life-changing experience, but it was the first time an author had asked me to do that. It was also the first time I read a digital book–he sent it to me as a pdf. Again not a life-changing experience, but it did factor into my decision to finally give in and buy a Kindle, which has changed my life. I am thinking of adopting my Kindle, so in love with it am I.

The really interesting opportunity that arose from this book review of TWF happened in 2007.

One day I was sitting in my office, minding my own business, doing some innocent graphic design as usual, when my office phone rings. A woman on the other end of the receiver introduced herself as Phoebe. She was calling from Great Britain. With a thick accent that my mind had trouble deciphering, Phoebe said she worked with a BBC radio show called World Book Club and an upcoming episode featured guest author Iain Banks talking about TWF. She had found my review online and wondered if I would be interested in pre-recording some questions that they would play on the show and Banks would answer. I said, “Sure.”

I emailed two questions I had about TWF to Phoebe. I can’t remember the exact words of one of my questions, but it was about the religious metaphors in the book. The other question was about Frank the protagonist. Phoebe called me back a few days later–I’m still not sure how she got my work number–and asked me to read the questions over the phone as they recorded them for the show.

Well, I looked up World Book Club on the web and was impressed with the caliber of authors the show invited as guests: Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, just to name a few. These authors discussed their best known works on the show with a live audience that asked questions. Some of the questions, like mine, were  pre-recorded and played as a call-in.

Here’s the question I asked (please excuse the dorkiness): “This is Andy Rector from Louisville, Kentucky in the United States. My question is: did you struggle with making the protagonist, Frank, a sympathetic character? Were you ever afraid the readers would not like the story because they didn’t like Frank or couldn’t identify him? Thank you very much.” Banks liked my question and said he actually got asked that a lot. He revealed that he did indeed worry that the readers of TWF would put down the book and not finish it because it meant getting into the head of a psychopath. They didn’t use my other question, but someone in the audience asked Banks about the religious imagery in the book and the author revealed it dealt with his becoming an atheist. It was nice to know someone else picked up on the same symbolism that I had.

Not a life changing experience, but showed me that placing a humble book review online may yield some interesting requests from strangers. I still have several of Bank’s books on my to-read shelf at home. Thank you, Iain Banks, for the hours of entertainment your stories have brought to me. Looking forward to reading the rest.

Oh, and if you want to hear the radio show where I asked Iain Banks my dorky question, you can listen to it here.

Writing blog roundup

fishingvillage
Is location important to your story?

Some entries from blogs on writing that I’ve read lately:

  • Does it matter where a writer lives: a big city or the countryside; a two-story house or a basement; a culturally diverse or monotonous neighborhood? Read more.
  • Why Keeping a Journal is so Important for Writers and all Creative Types. Read more.
  • The Art of Character: The Five Cornerstones of Dramatic Characterization. Read more.
  • Here’s What Makes Stories So Powerful. Read more.
  • The Flip Side: Writing Villain Protagonists. Read more.