For those of us who write in what our “betters” oft-times refer to as ‘genre-fiction,’ the action scene is a mainstay. In fantasy – be it high, heroic or otherwise – your hero is sooner or later going test his mettle against your villain. Swords must be drawn, even if they aren’t actually swords. Likewise, the phaser pistols in our favorite sci-fi adventures must go off with lethal results. The villains in a mystery must try to escape justice. The man of our dreams simply has to do some sort of battle to win the heart of his romantic lady. Those vampires don’t put stakes in their own hearts. Eventually, a spy must destroy that super-secret government agency. There ain’t room in this town for both our western cowboys. The superhero and supervillain must stand toe to toe and see which is stronger, ice-power or fire-power. Yes, indeed, the action scene is without doubt the defining moment in most of ‘our’ work.
And you know what? Most of those scenes are darned hard to write convincingly. The “unimaginative-fiction” writers (my term) would have you believe that describing an exciting fistfight is a trick more or less in the realm of flushing the toilet, difficulty-wise. But those of us on the imaginative side of the literary coin know that the big fight, the great action set-piece, is all-too-often the downfall of what promised to be a most-excellent adventure.
Why are they so darned hard? How do those big fights bring us down? There are innumerable ways, of course. The way battle scenes most often wreck me can be summed up in two words – “And then.”
Need an example? All right – imagine a battle between two wizards. One is a mage of great power. Let’s call him Yorick. The other is a novice, though possessed of a magic wand he believes will more than make up for his lack of experience. I’ll name him Leif. They’ve come together in a forested mountain pass.
Let’s see what happens! (I’m all tingly.)
Yorick laughed at his opponent. “You have no power to face me, Boy!” And with a wave of his hand he unleashed a bolt of blue lightning, and then, just as quickly, another.
“You’re wrong,” Leif dodged first to the left, and then to the right. And then he leapt behind the nearest tree, pointing his wand around the trunk while shouting, “Terrorizio!”
But the mage was too quick for Leif’s spell. In a moment he too had leapt behind a tree, and was once again poised to attack, this time with blazing fire.
Leif looked up, screaming as the tree swayed precariously and rained flaming needles and pinecones all around him. And then, dragging his robes over his head, he lunged behind the next tree. But Yorick had already anticipated this move, and had already begun to torch that tree as well. And so Leif leapt from tree to tree screaming and wishing he could find someplace that this monster could not find him.
And then, he saw what he needed to do…
Of course, most of the above is clearly a joke. But it also highlights one of the chief problems we face when we describe a battle – Over-Describing. If one lightning bolt is cool, then two is extra super-cool. And why not have the battle go on and on? Won’t the tension rise? Let me ask you, in all seriousness, didn’t it make you feel just a little tired to read that scene? Need another example? Read Chapter 35 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Or better yet, the scene in Angels and Demons where Robert Langdon fights Hassassin in a fountain.
And these problems don’t overcome us as writers only in our fight scenes. Try writing a really hot sex scene, describing every slippery embrace, and see how many times you end up wanting to use some version of “and then.” I’ll spare you an example.
But let’s not blame “And then” too much. Throw one in now and then, and you will be just great! Just don’t make a habit of it. Habitual writing makes for a flat, boring scene.
So that’s my pitfall, the habit I most often fall into. What’s yours? In any action scene, the problems and challenges seem to rise up almost as quickly as we knock them down. But there is a reward that repays us for the struggle. Writing action, I think, can teach us a good deal about how to – and how NOT to – describe any complicated physical activity.
I’ll finish this introductory essay by inviting you to read one of my own action scenes. This is a big risk, I know. You’ll be tempted to find all the places where I fell down (particularly those of you with acute Langdonitis or Potterfilia), and especially every place where I used the dreaded “and then.” But I am putting myself out there because I had real problems with this scene. I had to rework it many, many – oh so many – times. I switched characters, length, and pretty much everything else you can imagine. Could I have changed more? You betcha! Likely I could have spent the next decade combing through this thing, word by word. But finally, of course, at some point you just have to let go, and let the reader do her work. It’s the reader’s imagination, after all, that really makes the battle what it is. He or she will fill in the blanks. So why not let them?
From “Year of the Horse” by Justin Allen
Under attack by a local militia known as the Danites, Henry, Chino and John MacLemore take up positions along a stone ridge. They send the younger members of their gang, Sadie and Lu, along with all of their horses, to a place of relative safety in the woods back of the ridge.
Lu and Sadie rode better than a hundred yards from the ridge, but could still see the blue chambray shirts of the men they were leaving behind. It wasn’t until they’d reached a hard bend in the path, around which they discovered a fallen pine tree, that they finally got clear of the battle site.
“I guess we’ve gone far enough,” Lu said, climbing out of his saddle.
There was a patch of green grass behind the fallen tree. Lu led the animals to it and stood by while they grazed.
“He ain’t my boss,” Sadie muttered. “I don’t have to follow no dern orders.”
“He’s your father,” Lu said. “That’s sort of like a boss.”
Sadie glowered at him.
Just then, they heard the first of what was to be hundreds of shots. Lu and Sadie both recognized the source. Henry’s rifle had a way of rumbling in the inner ear long after it had been fired, like thunder after a bolt of lightning. The horses nickered, but made no move to bolt. Henry’s horse, having spent the better part of its life as a cavalry mount, didn’t even perk up its ears.
The next shot rang out soon after, followed by a third. These must’ve come from MacLemore’s rifle. More shots followed. Thus far, they’d heard no return fire. Lu guessed the Danites had been taken by surprise. That wouldn’t last long. It’d only take a moment for them to determine where the bullets were originating from, and adopt the proper response. Unfortunately, Lu was right. In no time they were hearing the whine of lead slugs, ricocheting off the boulders behind which their friends were crouched, and clattering through the trees.
Sadie tied her horse to the fallen pine.
“What are you doing?” Lu asked her.
“I’m goin’ to watch.” She’d finished tying Carrot, and was rapidly doing the same with Henry’s quarter-horse. “And you’re comin’ with me.”
“No, I’m not. Your father ordered me to hold these horses, and I aim to do it.”
“Well, I’m ordering you to come with me.”
“You can’t order me.”
“Sure I can. Don’t you remember your contract? It said you worked for the MacLemores. That means both of us, Daddy and me.”
Lu paused. He didn’t think that sounded right. It was months ago that he’d signed his name to that bit of parchment, but he didn’t recall its saying anything about his working for Sadie MacLemore. To be honest, he didn’t recall its saying anything about John MacLemore either. All he remembered was a long bit about the ‘reclamation of a property.’ He voiced his doubts, but Sadie just sneered.
“I tell you it was in there. Now tie off that horse of yours and let’s get going.”
Lu did as he was told, sure that he’d regret it later.
“How do you want to go?” he asked. “We can’t just go sauntering down the trail. We’d be killed for sure.”
“Let’s just go ‘til we see the others. We’ll figure out what to do from there.”
So they crept back down the center of the path, quiet as mice. It wasn’t long before they saw a blue chambray shirt, crouched behind a boulder on the lip of the stone ridge. At first, Lu couldn’t tell who it was. Then he saw the man stand up, a pistol in either hand, and send a half-dozen slugs blasting down the hillside. Chino shot so fast, Lu didn’t see how he could possibly know where any of his bullets were going. He seemed content merely to fill the air with lead and let the chips fall where they may.
“What now?” Lu whispered.
“I can’t see Daddy, but I think I hear his rifle.” Sadie pointed through the trees to their right. “Let’s sneak through there.”
So they ducked and twisted their way amidst the tightly grown wood, coming at last to a place where they could see fully thirty yards of the stone ridge. Sadie was all for going on, but Lu held her arm.
“I still can’t see him,” she complained.
Lu pointed. A blue chambray shirt was just visible to their left, and it wasn’t Henry.
“What’s he doin’?” Sadie asked.
“Looks like he’s reloading his gun.”
For the next few minutes they sat, shoulder to shoulder, watching as MacLemore twice more loaded and fired his rifle empty. He was fast. Not as fast as Henry, maybe, but still a good deal quicker than Lu would’ve guessed. Brass cartridges littered the ground at his feet. Lu couldn’t see the box, but figured MacLemore’s ammunition must be at least half gone.
“I wonder if he’s hittin’ anything,” Sadie whispered.
“I’ll bet Henry is.”
Just then, one of the Danites attempted to gallop to the top of the ridge. Lu and Sadie both held their breath as horse and rider leapt over the escarpment, nearly trampling Sadie’s father in their rush. MacLemore barely got his rifle up in time, and likely wouldn’t have if the horse hadn’t reared. But it did, and MacLemore blasted him.
The bullet tore through the lower leg of the rider, a man of no more than twenty, dressed in a homespun shirt and straw hat, and into the side of his mount. Lu’s stomach dropped as both horse and rider toppled backward off the ridge and fell out of sight.
“My lord!” he whispered. “Did you see all that blood?”
Sadie grabbed one of Lu’s hands and squeezed. Lu thought she looked a trifle green.
“Another horse,” she said. “That’s all we ever do, shoot horses.”
“What about the man on it? He looked mighty young.”
Sadie nodded. The horror was plain in her eyes.
Lu wondered about the part of the battle they couldn’t see. He remembered the way the deer had been blasted open when he shot it, one of its front legs having been sheered clean away. And how Cody’s neck had spurted blood like a fountain until he’d sunk beneath the surface of the lake. He thought about the buffalo Henry shot, the slug driving right through its enormous skull. From where they crouched, Lu couldn’t see Henry at all, but he could hear the boom of his rifle, and knew all too well the sort of damage it might do. All at once, he didn’t want to be there any longer. Sadie’s orders or no, he was going back to the horses.
“I don’t want to see any more,” he whispered.
Sadie nodded. “Me either.”
They began to scoot back through the trees. But before they’d gone even five feet, Sadie grabbed Lu’s arm. “Look!” she squealed.
Ahead of them, and just a hair to their right, a group of men was attempting to climb over the ridge. Lu could just see their eyes, and the brims of their hats, as they raised up, took a quick gander along the edge of the rock outcropping, and then ducked back down. They were only about ten yards from MacLemore, but for some reason he hadn’t noticed them. Maybe they’d found a blind spot, Lu guessed. He knew he had to do something, and fast. Any second, one of those men was liable to rise up with a gun in his hand. MacLemore would be dead where he sat.
Lu didn’t want to do it, but could see no other way. He drew his revolver, thumbed back the hammer, making sure as he did that there was a bullet in the next chamber, and took careful aim on the rocks over which the Saints were trying to sneak. He was just about to pull the trigger when the memory of the last time he’d fired the gun leapt to his mind.
“Hold my shoulders,” he whispered to Sadie.
“Last time, the kick knocked me off my feet.”
“This is ridiculous,” Sadie muttered, but did as he asked. Lu could feel her breath on the back of his neck.
“I’m going to shoot now,” he warned.
“Just do it. And hurry.” One of the Danites had just stuck his head over the tops of the rocks again, and this time he made no move to duck back down.
Lu squeezed the trigger and his pistol gave its deafening boom. The recoil tore through his elbows and shoulders, and even into Sadie, who lost her grip and fell against Lu’s back. She’d added sufficient weight to keep him from going over backward, however, and so Lu got to see what became of the bullet he’d fired.
It was a bad shot. Lu missed the Danite by a good two feet, hitting instead a piece of the stone ridge. But the results were amazing. A chunk of granite as big around as a dinner plate exploded, sending bits of stone flying in every direction. Lu might not have done so much damage if he’d used dynamite. More importantly, the blast drew MacLemore’s attention while it sent his attackers scrambling for safety.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sadie said.
Lu didn’t need to be asked twice. He leapt to his feet, slid his pistol back into its holster, and ran.
They crashed through the underbrush, bouncing off the trunks of trees and tripping over old logs, but somehow managed to keep their balance long enough to reach the path. Sadie was a swift runner, but Lu matched her step for step. By the time they reached the horses, both were out of breath.
“My Lord,” Sadie wheezed. “When Daddy said you had a cannon, I thought he was just foolin’. But that pistol of yours puts Henry’s rifle to shame. You must’ve put the fear of God in them.”
Please join us in the discussion! For easier reading, please keep comments and excerpts in separate posts, and limit any excerpts to 300 words or so. Justin will be joining us in the late afternoon, so let’s accumulate some questions for him.