Story Crafting: Action!

Writing action scenes–combat, battles, races, or anything with high energy and movement–takes a certain skill to pull off well.  You want to include enough detail to paint a vivid picture in your reader’s head, keep the reader flowing through the text with as little interruption as possible in order to simulate the speed of the action, and ratchet up the reader’s excitement level.

Fantasy and sci-fi action has another dimension to it.  Since the SF genre is also about setting as much as it’s about plot and character, action scenes should be tied into this as well.  We want a scene that reminds us that the action of the SF world is special, because the world itself is unique.  Star Wars action feels like Star Wars.

(Mmmm.  Lightsabers…  *takes break to go whummmm woosh vrummmmmm in his head*)

I think there’s something about writing sex scenes that also applies to action.  It’s been said that one of the differences between writing a story with sex scenes and writing pornography is the purpose of the sex scene.  If it’s purpose is purely to titillate and doesn’t advance the plot or reveal character depth, it’s more likely porn.  One of the guidelines I’ve encountered for fiction writing is that a sex scene should serve either the character development or plot development in some way.

I tend to apply a similar rule in writing fantasy action scenes as well.  I’d much rather read and write dramatic dialogue.  Just like a good sex scene, the action needs to have a point.  If I get scene after scene of sword fights that don’t really read much differently, or don’t reveal something about the character or world, I tend to get bored.  Same with battle scenes.  Or magical duels.  I suppose that’s one of the reasons that I stopped enjoying R.A. Salvatore after the Dark Elf Trilogy.

I write steampunk fantasy where most of my characters have some sort of supernatural ability.  For example, I have a heroine named Anuit, introduced in Lightfall but much more prominent in the upcoming Covenant.  She’s a sorceress who can channel dark magic and summon and bind demons to do her bidding.  When she fights, she has numerous tricks up her sleeve, from commanding one of her several demons to fight for her, or using dark magic directly.

I don’t like to repeat the same kind of action.  I want the scene to both challenge the character (to create tension or excitement that draws the reader in), and I also want the use of a power to reveal something about the world, or about the character.

I try to follow these guidelines (not rules;  guidelines):

  1. Don’t repeat the same tactic between scenes.  If Anuit channels a bolt of darkness in one scene, maybe she pulls out a demon in another.
  2. If you do repeat the same tactic between scenes, make sure it has a different result. It wouldn’t be exciting if Anuit won all her battles by pointing her hand and draining the life of her opponent.  Maybe that works once, but maybe the next villain is immune to such an effect.  The point is to challenge the character.  Make her think outside her normal bag of tricks.  Make her use her full toolbox over the course of a story.  The result should be different–but it doesn’t have to be worse.  At a climax, the trusty tactic in the beginning of the book that didn’t work in the middle of the book may end up working exceptionally well in the end.  Just as long as its differentiated somehow–less effective or more effective, but not the same.
  3. If a character pulls out a power, make it reveal something about the world.  The first time Anuit fights, she commands a demon.  This reveals something about sorcerers in the world to the reader.  The next time Anuit fights, she channels the dark powers directly.  The reader gets a glimpse in to the source of a sorceress’ power, and gets an idea of what it’s like to tap into that kind of power in the world.
  4. Make the use of the power or technique reveal something about the character.  How does Anuit feel when she channels the Dark?  Is it a rush?  How does she feel when she’s learning to use the forbidden magic?  How does she feel after she uses it?  If she’s horrified, that reveals one thing about her.  Anuit feels the rush of using the Dark, but is neither horrified nor thrilled by it after the fact.  She’s believes she understands its consequences and accepts them.  This is an aspect of her character.

It’s not just magic powers that can be looked at in this way.  Fighting techniques are just as much a part of a character’s tool bag.  The paladin Arda fights with two revolvers and a sword.  Each weapon has different uses against different enemies.  Revealing what works on what enemies is also a means to show a reader flavor in the world by defining the monsters and villains.  Does holy water work on vampires?  What about consecrating puddles in the street during a rain storm?

To wrap it up, action needs a point.  Let it reveal details about your characters and your world.  At its best, the action scene should fit your world in a way that it couldn’t be transplanted to any generic story.

Well, a short one this week, folks.  Next week I’ll be getting back into the analyses of RPG systems for world modeling.


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