Thursday, March 1, 2012

Writing Action and the Betrothed Daughter of a King

This week's discussion on writing is going to be about how to write action. I'm taking the main points of this post from the LTUE2012 panel on Writing Action by action master and self-proclaimed gun-nut , Larry Corriea. Larry is the author of several action packed series of novels, from the Monster Hunter International series to the Grimnoir Chronicles. Check him out of you haven't already.

So, why do we put action in our stories? Is it not enough to say, Boy meets Girl, Girl plays hard to get, Boy persists and eventually wins Girl's heart, Boy and Girl live happily ever after? 

Instead we say, Boy meets Girl, Girl plays hard to get, Boy wins Girl's heart, but leaves to seek his fortune to support her, Boy gets killed by Dread Pirate, Girl is agrees to marry Prince, Girl is kidnapped by Thugs and subsequently rescued by Dread Pirate who she later discovers is actually Boy, Prince-who plans to murder Girl to start war-pursues Boy and Girl, Boy and Girl get lost in Fire Swamp and must fight quicksand, fire bursts, and ROUS's to survive, Prince captures Girl, sends Boy to Pit of Despair, Boy is rescued by Thugs and revived, Boy and Thugs storm palace, kill Prince, and rescue Girl, Boy and Girl live happily ever after.

Ok, so I didn't exactly make that up on the spot, but did you see the difference? Even though the second plot summary was much longer, it was also tons more interesting. We write action into our stories to build suspense, to keep things interesting, and just because it's downright fun.

So how do we do it right? Well, according to Larry Corriea, the first rule of writing action is: If it sucks, don't do it; if it's awesome, do it. If you don't enjoy it, your readers won't either. You can get away with almost any action scene you want in a novel, no matter how ridiculous, provided you set it up right and make it as plausible as possible. In the first book of Larry Corriea's, Grimnoir Chronicles, Hard Magic, the finale of the tale as Larry puts it is, "...a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible." It sounds ridiculous, but since Larry took the time to set it up right in the novel, it not only works, but is dang awesome.

Another tip Larry gives is to do your research. If you're going to have a gun fight, make sure you know how guns work, how people react around guns, how bullet wounds affect people, and what residual consequences there may be from your shootout. For example, if your characters are fighting indoors with black powder rifles, make sure to take into account the vast amount of smoke put off by a single muzzle blast. Take recoil into account; and ammunition. Unless you are writing and Arnold Schwarzenegger action film, don't give your characters bottomless magazines. People will notice.

If you don't know anything about guns, talk to someone who does. Visit a shooting range. You'll find many people more than willing to share with you their immense knowledge of firearms.  The same goes for any action skills; martial arts, para-trooping, scuba diving, midget wrestling, sword fighting, car chases, or curling. Chances are, whatever you are writing about, someone in the world is an expert at it. Google them.

Another tip is to not just write action. You have to break up your story into high points and low points, the high points being action, suspense, etc., the low points being your plot and character development. Now that's not to say you can't develop both plot and characters within and action scene, you very much can and should. But if your entire story is high points, all action all the time, then the suspense level ten you've built up will begin to feel like a suspense level three. If it's all action, then it gets boring, you'll lose your readers. 

Along those same lines, you have to vary your action scenes in order to avoid monotony. If every action scene is a gun fight, then your reader will begin to expect and even predict the outcome of your action scenes. It will become dull. Break it up. Start with a shoot out, then have a car chase, then a sword fight atop a tank, then an all out assault on an ice-fortress. Whatever your story is, make sure to vary your action.

Avoid writing a checklist in your action. "I (or he/she) did this, then I did this, the I turned and did this, then I did this..." Again, variety. "He did this, then this happened. Moving over he saw this. This happened, then this. This happened suddenly and it forced him to do this..." As Larry said, "We're not choreographers, we're writers." 

And don't worry too much about avoiding cliches. If it's cool, it's probably been done. That's ok. Remember Rule #1: If it sucks, don't do it, it's it's awesome, do it. If it's a cliche action, twist it a bit to make it your own, but as long as you set it up right and write it well, no one will care. However, if your reader expects something to happen, that might be a good time to subvert the narrative and pull the rug out from underneath them.

Finally, to use a Star Trek reference, don't be afraid to kill bridge crew. If you kill a main character early on, then it shows the reader that you're not afraid to kill anyone in the story, and that helps immensely in keeping up your tension.

Challenge Accepted:
No one responded to the writing prompt last time, but it's ok. It was kind of vague anyway. And technically I cheated. So here's a simpler one for us all to try, relating to this post: 
Write an action scene that makes curling interesting. 
Challenging, I know. Don't forget to do your research, you can't write about curling if you don't understand it.

1 comment:

  1. Lately I have been researching more before I write. I thought, according to the universe in my head, that I knew it all. Turns out, I don't...

    Great post!