Thursday, May 28, 2020

On Your Marks, Get Set...

Last week I talked about action and I almost spun off on a whole little semi-related tangent. I cut myself off there, but I still want to talk about it, ‘cause it’s one of those things that comes up a lot. And people get it wrong a lot.

What I wanted to address (revisit, really) is that old chestnut that gets dragged out in almost every writing class or discussion or guru-lecture. Start with action. I’m guessing you’ve heard it once or thrice, yes?  Probably just this year.

The problem here is action. Most people see that word and think of... well, all that stuff we talked about last time. Car chases. Ninjas fighting cyborg lizard men. Giant two-headed shark attacks!

So, naturally, this is what they begin with. They come up with a reason to begin with a bank heist. Or a plane crash. Or an armed home invasion. Which is kinda weird in a romantic Christmas story, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? And we need to start with action!

To be clear, this almost never works.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me do one of my Saturday geekery binges, watching three or four bad B-movies in a row. And one of the most common problems they all have is that they start with action. Something crashing to Earth and killing some rednecks or, y’know, a giant two-headed shark attack. Usually in three feet of water. Most giant two-headed shark attacks occur in three feet of water.

But every time, these action-packed events involve people we don’t know and have no investment in. Which immediately lessons the action because it’s not involving anyone I care about, it’s just... happening. To put it in current events terms, we’ve all seen the news about hundreds of thousands of people dying across the globe from Covid-19—heck, we’re past a hundred thousand deaths just here in the US. And while it’s awful, it’s also kind of abstract... until it’s somebody we know. That’s when it hits home and all this stuff happening really connects with us.

Weirdly enough, as a side note... a lot of time the people in these opening action scenes tend to be awful, so I don’t even have basic human empathy for them. I want them to die, and that can switch the whole tone of my opening. Far too often, these events won’t even end up tying back to the story. They’re just little disconnected blips with characters we’ll never see or hear about again.

When I try to start with action like this, I’m just delaying the actual starting point of the story. And I’m doing it in a way that alienates my audience, too. Why would I want to do that?

And one other problem when I start this way. If I structure my story so it begins cranked up to eight-point-three, there’s only two things it can do. It can either take a huge hit and drop down to three or maybe four as I establish some kind of norm. Or it can stay up in that top fifteen percent of dramatic tension and be... kind of monotone. I mean, think about it—a whole story where the tension never shifts by more than ten percent in any direction?

So... why does start with action keep getting parroted around?

As I mentioned last time, there’s more to action than just swordfights. My typing all this up for you to read is action, and you reading it is action. Getting lectured by your boss, trying to get to class on time, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn... All of these things are action. They’re things happening.

More importantly, I think, is they’re actions we can all immediately understand, and they’re actions that can easily tell us something about the people involved in them.

Take mowing the lawn for example. How old is Wakko? Is he mowing his lawn or someone else’s? Why is he mowing it? How much effort is it for him? What’s he thinking about while he’s doing it? These are all really easy questions to answer while he’s pushing the mower back and forth. So something’s happening, we’re meeting the character, and maybe even getting to set up some simple, basic stakes.

When we say “start with action,” we want to feel that events are in progress. That these are real people who existed before page one. We just stumbled across them right now at what’s (hopefully) the point when all the interesting stuff’s about to begin.

Also, just to stop one train of thought real quick—yes, thinking is technically an action. So is fantasizing, realizing, remembering, reading, staring into space, and many other such things. But the key thing to remember here is all of these are really just Yakko sitting at his desk and not moving. So really... nothing’s happening.

And we want to have something happening. Something that falls in the middle ground between daydreaming and demon ninjas roaring down the street on AI-guided murdercycles. I mean, just off the top of my head, let’s look at some action-filled books and movies and see how they start...

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins, as I’ve often pointed out, with the two main characters doing their morning jogs.

Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz begins with a young woman writing/narrating a letter to her father, warning him not to come looking for her.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez begins with the main character trying to explain her very thin resume at a job interview.

Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine’s Journey begins with the main character reshelving books in a book store while she complains about her older sister not taking her seriously

My latest book, Terminus, begins with a guy half-listening to a sermon being given on a beach at night. Heck, Ex-Heroes, the post-apocalyptic superheroes vs. zombies book that launched my career, begins with two people on guard duty chatting while a zombie keeps bumping into the wall below them.

Hell, you want an absolutely crazy one? Do you remember how the Transformers movie begins? Yes, Transformers by Michael “it still needs more explosions” Bay? A bunch of Army Rangers get back from a long patrol and hit the showers while their CO goes to call his wife and baby daughter. Seriously. That’s the opening of the movie.

And again, they’re all starting with action... but they’re not starting with action! They’re putting us right into the ongoing story. They’re introducing us to characters rather than slamming us into them.

They’re catching our interest and drawing us in. Getting us invested. Making us want to read more.

Which is a pretty good way to start a book.

Next time, I’d like to share a special message with you.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Action Figures

And now I’d like to take a minute and talk to you about this really cool Machine Man figure I got off eBay this week.

No, not really. Although he is pretty cool. He’s got replacement hands with pieces so it can look like his arms are extending like they do in the comics.

(someone at Marvel should let me write Machine Man)

Anyway, I thought it might be good to revisit action. Yes, anything my characters do is an action, but I specifically want to talk about action. The dinosaur cyborg swordfight/ gunfighter strafing the room/ six burly guys in a bar trying to take out one MMA fighter and getting their asses kicked kind of action. The type of action your college writing professor said was pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I love a good action scene. On the page. In a movie. Hell, some television shows these days have fantastic action scenes. And I’ve been part of a few action scenes here and there in my own life.

Action, by its very nature, is fast. It’s a blur. If you’ve ever been part of an accident, a fight, a collision, or any kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about. In the moment, things are just happening. It’s not until later, when things settle down, that we take stock and piece together all the details of what just happened. And then I’m not quite sure how my arm got cut or how my pant leg got ripped or oh crap is that my blood?

Here are a couple tips I try to keep in mind when I’m writing action scenes.

Keep it fastAction can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, that means things are happening in slow motion. Even a paragraph can seem like a long time if I stretch stuff out.

My personal belief is action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would to experience. Throwing that punch and the moment of contact are a sentence, tops. I pare fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum so they read fast. Two ways I do this are to clump some actions together, and also to trust the reader to figure out what happened on their own. 

—Hector kicked one of the man’s feet away and flung his head down at the formica tabletop.

—One minute Officer Barroll had the young woman under control and then she kicked off the ground, went up over the officer’s shoulder, and now somehow she was behind him pushing his arm up along his spine.

Notice how in that second example you probably (hopefully) got a cool mental image of what happened, but you’ll notice I didn’t give a ton of details. I just provided some quick images and a bit of tone. Your brain filled in all the connective tissue, fleshing out the moment and creating a lot of the action.

Keep it simple—I know a lot of terminology for weapons and martial arts, but I actually try not to use a lot of it when I write. Again, just my opinion, but I think a lot of that “gun porn” type stuff clutters up action scenes. I want this to move fast, and the more technical I get, the less likely most people will know what I’m talking about. Yes ushiro geri is the correct term for what Wakko just did, but if my reader has to stop to sound out words or parse meanings from context... that’s probably breaking the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head or when you’re shooting at a charging T-Rex. Action is much more about instinct, and instinct rarely involves copyrights, brand names, or model numbers.

Keep it sensory—I just mentioned action is instinctive. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery. With that fast, simple nature in mind, I try to keep a lot of action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations. Like I mentioned up above, specific details can come later. I could write about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes, but in the heat of the moment it might just be the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.

Granted, writing this way can make it hard to describe some things, but again... a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once everything cools down. And some things get bandaged up.

Keep it real—Finally, like so many things in writing, it all comes down to characters.  Action needs to be based in characters with real emotion, characters we have some investment in. A stranger in a high speed car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Yakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.

We also need to have some sense of stakes here. Is someone’s life at risk? Is it someone we should care about? Someone who’s going to have an effect on the plot? If I don’t have any of this, odds are my action is just some empty filler.

Now, as I mentioned at the top, these are all just tips, not rules. There’s lots of times you might want to ignore one or two of them. But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.

A pretty common character to come across in stories is what we could probably call the fighting savant. You know the type. Batman, Melinda May, Jack Reacher, Stealth, John Wick—they’re the tough, unstoppable characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience. For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action as it’s happening around them, picking out beats and planning out responses the way you or I pick our lunch at Panda Express.

But remember... these characters by their very nature should be rare. If I’ve got a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons... it means I’ve got a dozen guys who are all kinda average. It’s monotone, and it’s going to get boring real fast.

Two smaller tips to keep in mind when dealing with these savant-folks. One... think about fairy tales. You’ve probably seen some version of that old Grimm’s tale about the guy with a collection of friends. One is the strongest person in the world, one’s the fastest person in the world, one’s got the best hearing in the world... you know the story I’m talking about, yes? It’s a group of people who have superlative abilities, but in a very narrow, focused range. They don’t have a lot of overlap, which is why each one of them is individually important to my team. I mean, if I've got a team where every person can hit a bullseye from a hundred yards with a rifle, pistol, or knife... well, what the hell do I need a sharpshooter for? If they’re all strong enough to punch through concrete, what do I need a strong guy for? And if everyone on the team can do everything... I can probably get by with a much smaller team.

The other thing to remember is point of view. This character might be a master of  unarmed combat, but this one is a borderline giant who favors brute strength and savagery. They’re both going to give us some unstoppable action, but it’s going to be a very different kind of action depending on whose narrative it is. And that should reflect in my writing.

And that’s that.  A handful of ideas for writing fast, hard-hitting action.

Although I did actually have one other thing to say about action. But maybe it should wait until next time.

Until then, go write.