Writer Wednesday – Justin Allen on the Pitfalls of Action Scenes

Our guest today for Writer Wednesday is Justin Allen, who is the author of Slaves of the Shinar (link to my review) and The Year of the Horse.

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.

105 Thoughts to “Writer Wednesday – Justin Allen on the Pitfalls of Action Scenes”

  1. Tia Nevitt

    That was great! I didn’t get any sense of “and then.”

    Here is an excerpt from my epic fantasy, Forging a Legend. It takes place in an ancient-world setting. The protagonist, Abriel, is fighting Thesk, who is a god.

    The flag fluttered to the ground. Abriel prowled around her opponent while he turned in a lazy circle, his eye upon her.
    She knew what would happen when she made an attack, but she did not see the point in delay. Thesk would heal her again, unless the wound killed her instantly. She did not want to go through that again, but she had no other option.
    She passed her sword to her left hand and tried a jab. Again, the sword moved as a blur as it swatted her stroke away. A sting in her upper arm told her that he had returned the stroke, but she never saw it. As far as she knew, her upper arm had sprouted a wound and started bleeding on its own.
    He is toying with me, she thought. Yesterday was the humbling; today was the humiliation. For every attack she made, he swatted it aside and answered with a superficial wound. A cut here, a puncture there, no wound severe enough to hamper her fighting, except for the cumulative pain.
    It went on and on. She started to tire. Every once in a while, the priest would call a halt. Yevin would be there with a water skin and words of encouragement.
    “You’re doing well, Abriel,”
    “Don’t lie to me, Yevin. He’s toying with me.”
    “Yes, but you fight with honor. You may not win the battle, but you’re winning the crowd.”
    “They’re his followers.”
    “Yes, but they respect you for taking him on.”
    “Where does that get me? I can win the crowd, yet I will still lose the battle.”

  2. First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. It’s true. Action scenes are soooo hard to write. It usually takes me eight or ten revisions to get them right.

    So…here’s a scene from Immigrant Moon, the novel I recently put on hiatus so I could work on Hex. Don’t know how much sense it will make out of context, but I guess we’ll find out!


    The passengers shoved into the aisle. Sean hung back to wait for Wan Ni. Man after man after woman slipped by, but Wan Ni wasn’t among them. Sean looked around, raised on tiptoe to peer over a woman’s hat. Several Chinamen in CP blue and a man in red flannel stood by the door. It was an odd sight, a non-Chinese in a crowd of Johnnys. Sean examined each one. None of the Chinamen looked like Wan Ni.

    But the man in red flannel did.

    Sean at least had the satisfaction of seeing Wan Ni look surprised. His hand played, Wan Ni ripped out of the crowd and off the train. He leapt over the steps, hit the ground running. Only now did Sean notice Wan Ni carrying the bag he’d just seen him with.

    “Rat-faced little shit!” Sean yelled.

    He stepped on and over Daniel’s lap, launched into the aisle. He pushed people aside, dodged punches. A fist grazed his chin. Another slammed his shoulder. “What’s the rush?” snarled a man twice his size. As the brute reached for him, Sean groaned. Sure could use Paddy’s magic now! He dove between the man’s legs, kept crawling, got trapped under a lady’s hoop skirt. She kicked his ear, her shriek rattling his teeth. “Sorry!” he called as he freed himself, and tumbled down the steps.

    On the platform now, he sprang up and looked around. Red flannel dotted the fog-laden street; it was common garb for UP men, practical for many laborers. He faltered. “Bollocks.” Sean had no idea where Wan Ni had gone.

  3. Chicory

    Its a relief to think I’m not the only person out there who struggles with action sequences. What a good topic. Now I want to read the rest of `Year of the Horses.’ And I usually avoid westerns. 🙂

    Tia, I really enjoyed the interplay between Abriel and Yevin. I would’ve given Abriel’s thoughts in the middle of the action its own paragraph: the bit where she realizes that he’s toying with her. (That’s rather nitpicky of me to point out, and probably just a personal stylistic quirk.) I like the movement of the descriptions. `swatted her stroke’ especially. It gives the sword-stroke a sense of sound as well as motion.

  4. A. Grey

    Honestly the ONLY thing I would even consider changing in the ‘Year of the Horse’ is the line about the horses nickering in response to the gunfire. That’s purely based on the fact that I work with horses and I associate nickering with a greeting, rather than alerting on sounds that might frighten them. That’s small potatoes though. The scene was very engaging and I felt like I was there!

    Tia your scene sucked me in too! I wanted to cheer Abriel on and I WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!!!

    I’ve got to go tend ponies in the rain and mud, but I’ll be back later to throw out an excerpt of my own…

  5. Chicory

    Superwench, that line about Paddy’s magic has me really curious. I like this. I think the action’s pretty clear despite the lack of context.

  6. Chicory

    Here’s an action sequence from `Heart of the Winds’ a book that I’m really proud of because I once got a personal rejection from an editor’s assistant for it. (Yeah, I take pride where I can.) In this scene, a fugitive convinced our heroine, Dusk, to hide him in her root cellar. He’s just been discovered by the thugs who were chasing him.

    I fell forward, skidding to my knees. The Blond’s knife whistled over my head. I heard the thud of the blade hitting flesh, heard the strangled cry of my prowler. The knife hilt jutted from his shoulder. Dark blood bubbled around it. My prowler shook his head, dazed, and plucked futilely at the handle.

    I glanced back at the thugs. Scarface’s mouth hung open in shock. The Blond’s buggy eyes peeked fearfully over his shoulder. Scarface turned and slapped the Blond’s face.

    “You weren’t supposed to kill him, you dolt! They aren’t paying us for a corpse.”

  7. Chicory

    Arrgh! I just realized Scarface makes his comment about not getting paid for a corpse BEFORE the prowler actually keels over. You’d think with the amount of times I’ve gone over this story I’d have caught that!

  8. Grr. I thought I was using a threaded comment widget. I WILL look for one this evening.

    Superwench: Only now did Sean notice Wan Ni carrying the bag he’d just seen him with. Maybe “carrying the bag he’d seen him with earlier”? Also, the pronouns tended to get confusing, so you might want to try using more names. My writing mentor just dinged me on this over the weekend, so you have company here. I do want to read this novel one day!

    Thanks, Grey and Chicory!

    Chicory, I love first person action scenes. But it wasn’t clear who got it with the knife — the fugitive? And is the fugitive the same as the prowler? Maybe I imposed too brief of a word count limit here.

    And yes! It’s amazing how you find these things after multiple readings. Especially after you set it aside for a number of weeks.

  9. A. Grey

    Okay, here’s an excerpt from EVERNOW, a YA that I’m currently peddling to prospective agents. The ‘he’ is an orcen, a muscle-bound Fey creature not unlike the stereotypical fantasy orc, but smaller. Donriel is a recurve bow and the ‘pit’ is an enlarged, deepened swimming pool, just to set the scene a bit.

    The guard house didn’t have much useful lying around within easy reach when I passed so I’ve only got a length of rope used to hang sheets of plastic for drying. It’s maybe fifteen feet long. It will have to do. There isn’t anything to tie it around so I knot the end and wedge it between two several hundred pound stones. That takes a good foot off the length. Another three disappear just getting to the edge of the wall. That leaves a measly eleven to dangle inside. At least fourteen feet separate the end of the rope from the still astonished orcen.
    If he questions my aid, it doesn’t stop him from accepting it. He runs the length of the pit and leaps like a tiger at an elephant, desperate and unrestrained. I know, somehow, that he ought to cover the distance with height to spare. But he misses the rope by several feet and falls hard, landing in a bruised heap. We don’t have time for him to try again.
    I haul the rope up hand over hand, so fast it burns my palms smooth. Shedding Donriel, my quivers and knives, I tie the rope around my waist. I use as little as possible, making it so tight I can’t catch my breath. Then I slide down it, upside down. My torso adds two feet. My hair adds four and some.
    Crouching, the orcen springs straight up. My head snaps around like a rag when he catches the last foot of my hair and I think it’ll pop right off my neck under his weight. But it doesn’t. He climbs my oiled ropes of reddish brown, muscles straining and continues over my body, and up the rope. I go limp, exhausted. I don’t know how I’m going to climb out myself.

  10. Tia: Urg. Those pronouns! I’ve gotten in trouble for using too many of them more than once. Anyway, thanks for your comments. And yours, Chicory! I liked your excerpt, by the way.

    A. Grey: Though I think you’ve got a good start, using some nice, telling details, I feel like this scene could use some tightening up. There are lots of extra words I think you could eliminate–which would make the pace of this excerpt a lot faster. I do like the use of the present tense. It can be very effective.

  11. Grey, I’m having some belief-suspension problem with the guy grabbing onto his hair and climbing up like that. I think the narrator might have been scalped, or even had his head ripped off. Since he’s suspended upside down, can he reach down with his arms? If it really is plausable that this could be done, give us a reason to believe it.

    Otherwise, it was gripping and Superwench is right — you made good use of present tense. When I forget I’m reading present tense, it’s a good sign.

  12. As a reader, I tend to gloss over the blow-by-blow accounts of action scenes. I’m much more interested in the dialogue and what subtle things might be going on underneath (works best when it’s two people with a history). I like Tia’s approach of describing generally what’s going on. Justin’s excerpt worked for me, too, because I get to see something of Lu and Sadie’s personalities during the fight scene.

    Here’s one of mine (heavy on the dialog, just the way I like ’em :D):

    “No, it’s not.” Sanrae pulled out a massive sword out of thin air. Jhayni’s eyes widened. It was the sharpest, most wicked-looking weapon she’d seen. “I’m not as easily fooled as Xeon. You’ll have a hard time against both a Morii and a Morii weapon, Aleusithenes Nimble-foot.” Sanrae’s other hand moved, a hairpin burst through the air and Jhayni, seeing it silver against the shadows, jumped behind Aleusis. His hand reached out to his side and he caught the projectile without looking at it.

    “Very good. Let’s see what you’re going to do against this.” Sanrae’s fingers flicked. Lightning crackled, Jhayni winced and closed her eyes, jagged lines of white imprinted upon the backs of her eyelids, expecting to be seared and charred and turned to ash before she could even think, Oh, dear!

    When that didn’t happened, she opened her eyes and peered over Aleusis’ shoulders. He stood, arms slightly raised, white light sizzling around his hands. The muscles of his back and neck were tense. Sanrae drove the sword towards his gut and Aleusis just managed to block it with the upcurved hilt of a dagger.

    “Tell me, Aleusithenes.” Sanrae disengaged and circled. “Is she really worth it? She must be wonderful in bed, because she certainly isn’t much to look at.”

  13. Chicory

    Tia: thanks for your comments. Yes, the prowler and fugitive are the same person, and he got knifed. Sorry for the confusion. I should’ve used the same term in my synopsis as in my scene. As for the word limit, I tend to go way under because I have trouble figuring out approximations and like to play it safe. The problem is my slight dyslexia, not the limit you set. 🙂

    A Gray: Your snippet makes me very curious, especially about the relationship between the narrator and the orcan, that the narrator will go to such lengths to rescue him.

    Rabia: I think peppering the fight with conversation is very cool. I had a little trouble figuring out whose viewpoint this scene is from, though. Is the second quote, the one that starts “I’m not as easily fooled…” spoken by Sanrae, or Jhayni? Maybe if you gave the second speech it’s own paragraph? (I should add that I have a thing for really short paragraphs, so my opinion isn’t exactly unbiased.)

  14. Howdy Writers!
    I have been dancing today – ballet – and getting a passel of things sent out for various publicity scams I have been working on, but am at my computer now, and ready to do some SERIOUS chatting.
    I can’t tell you all how excited I have been all day. It’s been years since I sat in a writing workshop – and I may never have ever been in one with such a good group of open, serious writers who really, truly have each others’ best wishes at heart.
    I am just really excited.
    So, I am going to go excerpt by excerpt, and make a comment or two about each… (If you all are willing to send your work out, for my benefit, I am humbled and willing to give my darndest to it, with a joyful countenance) And if anyone has anything they need to disturb me about, do. I like asides, and threads that lead us astray. Sometimes I learn so much by letting my mind wander afield.
    Oh, and one last thing… In my effort to give the greatest amount of honest feedback, I may slip into typos. Pardon me. I type as fast as I can, and let the chips fall where they may.
    Oh, and A. Gray – thanks for the note about the nickering. You are right, that is a normal greeting. But horses make a sort of noise when they are on the alert, too. There are wolves near the ranch where my father lives, and sometimes the horses smell them and start making a…. what sort of noise is that?

  15. Hey Tia,

    Thanks for having me….

    Love the idea behind this scene. For one of your combatants, the fight is serious. Abriel gets cut, she bleeds, she suffers… and she knows from the outset, I take it, that she can neither prevail, give up or even be put out of her misery… Terrible situation.
    About Thesk we know very little (not a complaint, merely the statement of a fact). What we do know is that he is fast… Very fast. And that he has all of the home-field advantage. And most importantly, we know that he is unbeatable and that he takes some sort of pleasure in defeating a lesser opponent.
    The best thing about this is we can not help but root for Abriel. And the ultimate underdog, we will rejoice if she so much as blocks one of Thesks attacks. If she wounds him, evena bit, we will almost weep with joy.
    I have a couple of questions… One. In a sentence like, “A cut here, a puncture there, no wound severe enough to hamper her fighting, except for the cumulative pain.” what would you think of breaking this into shorter, choppier sentences? Try to make it feel to us like the story-teller is almost out of breath, mimicking what Abriel must feel. Likewise, her conversation with the priest… Have you ever watched a boxer when he is sitting down between rounds? He can scarcely talk he is so out of breath. That’s where a combatant really feels the fight – between rounds.
    Plus, and this may be the most important of all – between rounds is when we can see what all of this means for Abriel. That is where we will really weep for her, I suspect.
    But great great work

  16. Tia Nevitt

    Excellent suggestions, and thank you. Yes, she does get her hit in . . . but not during this battle.

    And I must say that you are the most enthusiastic author guest I’ve had for this feature so far. Thank you!

  17. Tia Nevitt

    Oh, and I also want to add that we do have a wonderful collection of writers here, if I don’t say so myself! I’ve been seeing some of these writers’ excerpts for months now, and someone always wows me!

  18. Superwench – As a fellow writer of Chinese characters, I am intrigued. As you so correctly pointed out – context is everything. The context, in fact, MAKES the action scene. I have this theory, which your comment brought to mind, that the ultimate teacher of good action scenes – writing wise – is the western. In old westerns, context is what the action scenes are all about. I suggest to you two, “The Good, THe Bad and the Ugly,” and “The Magnificent Seven.” In both there is a classic gunfight, the kind where two men stare at each other, absolutely still, and then wham, guns go off (In magnificent Seven, one man throws a knife) and someone is dead. In those scenes, the excitement comes in two ways. One, we know WHY they are doing battle. And two, we know that by the time the first shot is fired, the outcome is already determined. So it is the anticipation that gets us, right in the gut.
    But to get back to your scene. Tia is right on about the pronouns. But more importantly, I think your scene could benefit from cutting. In the first paragraph you tell us that Sean is looking for Wan-mi. And then you describe HOW he is looking – on tip-toe, etc. This is a case of heaping details upon a single form, namely Sean. Have you ever noticed that when you write the description of a beautiful woman, the more details you give the less you can envision her? I have this theory that lists of descriptions cancel each other out, leaving your short-term memory focused only on the last detail. So in your paragraph we focus on the tip-toes, and lose the looking around. Instead, try telling us what Sean sees while looking around. Go from a description of Sean to a description of something else…

  19. Superwench continued…

    Here is a tricky sentence. I missed what it said at first “His hand played, Wan Ni ripped out of the crowd and off the train.” I like this idea, but it naturally confuses the reader. The problem is the verbs, i think. Played has a certain sense to it, and that is mostly nice, you know? We played cards. Joe plays with his dog. Play suggests to the mind a feeling of being free. Wan Ni is not free here. He is trapped! The second verb is also problematic. Ripped suggests something done to another body. Joe rippedpaper. Alice ripped her pants. Now imagine this sentence – Peter ripped himself. In essence, that is what Wan Ni does, he rips himself.
    The best part of these kinds of issues is that they are SO EASY TO FIX. You can do it now! Almost without effort. A different verb here and there and the scene is totally different.
    One last thing – the moment where Wan Ni leaps between a man’s legs. A LOT is going on here, and it does very little for you. The effect you want is simply to have him get away. I LOVE that he gets away by tumbling down the steps. Couldn’t be better. But why not just have him do that? The resulting ruckus is enough to hide his exit, Sean is perplexed, and there is no need for dialogue or complication.
    I think in an action scene we all need to remember that the result of the action is the important part. The cleaner we get to that result, the more our readers will stick with us.

  20. Hey Chicory,

    The only writers who don’t struggle with actions scenes are those who have not tried them.

    I have never had any other sort of scene that so led me astray.

  21. Hey again Chicory,

    Tia was absolutely right. There is some confusion in that scene. I think it comes from having too many names for a character. Let me hit at this by asking some questions…

    If you fall to your knees, isn’t the first thing on your mind your knees? Ouch!

    If you are on your knees, how do you know the knife came from the blond? Is she standing in front of you? Behind you?

    If a blade bites into flesh, does it also thud? Can anyone throw a knife that hard?

    I think it is a strange, maybe, to talk about “My knees” and “My prowler” in the same paragraph…

    Love the description of blood bubbling around the knife hilt.

    As you noted, Scarface talks about the prowlers death before the prowler dies… But if a knife goes in to the hilt, believe me, this is a chance to have a character just slump to the ground… simplifying the whole scene

    Again, these are the easiest fixes in the world. With the tiniest bit of tinkering you can have a powerful murder scene here. Just remember to tell us how your main character feels about what she has seen…

    I fell forward, skidding to my knees. The Blond’s knife whistled over my head. I heard the thud of the blade hitting flesh, heard the strangled cry of my prowler. The knife hilt jutted from his shoulder. Dark blood bubbled around it. My prowler shook his head, dazed, and plucked futilely at the handle.

    I glanced back at the thugs. Scarface’s mouth hung open in shock. The Blond’s buggy eyes peeked fearfully over his shoulder. Scarface turned and slapped the Blond’s face.

    “You weren’t supposed to kill him, you dolt! They aren’t paying us for a corpse.”

  22. A. Gray…
    I like this scene very very much. It intrigues me. I want to know why this person (is it a girl) would sacrifice her own health and well-being to such an extent. The Orcen, as I understand it, is not even grateful enough to haul her up after she let him literally drag himself out of the pit with her body (Jeez. I’m really sorry if the main character is male).
    I am interested in a named Bow (bows don’t traditionally have the same sort of romantic longevity that we find in swords, do they?), would love more description of an Orcen, and am troubled about the motivations of this woman…
    And yes, I think this scene could be tightened up…
    Try asking yourself why you would describe the rocks she ties the rope to… and why two of them? Why not simply say, she tied one end of the rope to a rock… Also, why all the descriptions of feet of rope, etc… Yours is a fantasy world, so maybe just leave those measurements out. It isn’t long enough, that’s all there is to it.
    And last, watch out for any confusions of time. How on earth could it possibly take less time to tie the rope around her own waist and then lower herself – upside down – into the pit than it would take for the Orcen to try another jump? Why not simply say he wasn’t EVER going to make it?
    All in all, very well paced (the most important part of any action scene), and deliciously interesting.

  23. Hi Rabia,

    Your scene had me turned upside down for a moment. I suspect we needed some information about what happened just moments before the start!

    So, I could not agree with you more. Dialogue can be vital in an action scene. Through it, we can know what the combatants are thinking – or what they want their opponent to think, which is just as fun. The only trick is, the dialogue has to be important. I think Chicory is right on when he says that it is hard to know who is speaking sometimes (but this could be because we need those previous three paragraphs, dang it all). My sense is that ALL of the dialogue comes from Sanrae. This means that what you have is a dialogue of boast versus silence, a most interesting dialogue indeed. Where I got lost was not in that, honestly, but in how the action was affecting Aleusis’. Are they literally fighting around him, and so over him (lucky guy)? If so, does he hope one or the other will win? Is he afraid for his own life – hairpins and spells shooting all around him – or well-being? And does he have nothing to say?

  24. I LOVE writing action scenes. They’re the bits that keep me writing, that get me all tingly with anticipation. Especially the “final showdown” scene. It’s even better than the kissy scenes 😀

    Thanks for sharing your advice. I’ll go scour my scenes for evidence of “and then”.

  25. Hi Rhiannon,

    Thanks for dropping by. I think action scenes are great as well – and Kissy scenes ARE action scenes… man, are they!!!

    The tricky part about “And then” is that is sometimes begins to crop up even when you try to fool yourself and don’t use those exact words. In reality, “And then” I suspect of being more or less the heaping of detail, which is not good

    Good luck scouring…

  26. And hey, how come YOU get a picture?

  27. Tia Nevitt

    I have no idea how she did that — and it’s my site!!

  28. I was going to say…

  29. By the way, Tia, have you ever done one of these about kissy scenes?

  30. A. Grey

    Thanks so much for the input Justin! The main character is a girl. She is the sort to go to amazing lengths for what she believes in (in this case, the fact that the orcen should be free. Which later you find out that he has a family, children, who missed him greatly) and she is stubborn enough to sacrifice even herself to solve her problems.
    I must confess that I myself name things. Anything that has somehow profoundly affected my life (cars, personal knives, I even have a small sledgehammer named Langothe) gets a name, and in the main character’s case, her bow is like an extension of her hands or arms and is vital to her survival.
    For the record, the orcen (his name is Ruarte) DOES pull Evernow (the girl) up and thanks her, in his own way.
    Hmm, she didn’t tie the rope TO the rocks, she put a knot in the end and wedged it BETWEEN them, thusly taking up less rope footage. The descriptions of rope length had more to do with how deep the pit was. I’m numerically dyslexic and have trouble stating how deep/tall/long something is and then remarking convincingly about it later. I ought to be able to rewrite that bit without all the length references.
    As for time… I’ll need to change that, you’re right. I can simply make it improbable for him to recover his wind or something of the sort.
    I’m glad it’s well paced (a constant concern) and I’m tickled that I interested you!
    And Tia: I’ll add something to indicate hair strength. The main character (a girl) is not a large person. Even if she extended her arms, her hair would hang double that. As for scalping (I was actually nearly scalped as a little girl, yikes!) I think in this case a broken neck would happen first… but it bears addressing to make it convincing. Thanks for that.

  31. HI A. Grey,

    I totally got all of that from the scene. I sort of had Evernow as a kind of fantasy greenpeace warrior, out to save the whales (Or orcen).

    By the way, what age group is your story for? I ask because I have some idea for addressing Tia’s hair problem

  32. A. Grey

    The book (titled Evernow for the main character) is YA. Evernow is nineteen. You’re pretty close to nailing her personality. She lives in a post-apocalyptic world where Fey folk and the few remaining humans are in constant conflict. There is an immense pressure for Evernow to ‘conform’ and act like other human girls her age, settle down and have babies (not many humans, not many women who can give birth) but she won’t have it. She understands the dangers of the world around her and she’d still rather try and get along WITH it rather than try and CHANGE it… even when that means going against the grain…

  33. Very very interesting indeed, and quite a challenge indeed. Anyway, my idea… Maybe crap, so be warned.

    As I read your scene I had this thought that she ought to hold something in her hands as she hangs down, and of course the first thing I thought of was her bow. But that presented two perfectly obvious problems. one – would she be strong enough to hold onto it if the Orcen leapt up and grabbed the other end (a variation of the loss of head/loss of hair problem Tia mentioned earlier). And two, if she has a bow she named, would she be willing to risk losing it? It is one thing to risk your life, and quite another to risk the life (I know bows aren’t ALIVE, but sometimes we attribute a sort of life to a possession that is particularly meaningful to us, right?) of a thing you treasure.
    So, I immediately wondered if she didn’t have anything else she could loop around her wrists… and the only thing I could come up with was her shirt…

    Too far? Maybe. But I had this idea of how really vulnerable she would then be…
    I had this writing teacher, Kent Anderson, who once said that a persons clothes are a kind of armor, and that nothing any character ever does is so surprising as to willingly go into battle not fully dressed…
    Again, maybe pure crap. In fact, probably. But if you can use it, you at least know who to send the check to

  34. Tia Nevitt

    A hair superpower! I love it! This is one of those instances where some context is crucial. If it works in the context of your novel, don’t worry about my critique.

    I have NOT done a Writer Wednesday topic on “kissy” scenes. Oh, heck, let’s just call ’em sex scenes, why don’t we? And that would be a great topic. I’m guilty of writing a few myself.

  35. Tia Nevitt

    “I had this writing teacher, Kent Anderson, who once said that a persons clothes are a kind of armor, and that nothing any character ever does is so surprising as to willingly go into battle not fully dressed…”

    You couldn’t tell from my excerpt, but Thesk fights in the nude! And Abriel’s first battle while under his power — not against him — is one that she is forced to fight in the nude. I really put her through hell.

  36. Not me, strange enough. I guess I’m a fighter rather than a lover.

    Course, about half of the fights people engage in over the course of a book are sort of preludes to kissy scenes (I like that term), aren’t they?

  37. Chicory

    Justin Allen: Thank you for commenting on my piece. You’ve given me a lot to mull over, which is great. Dusk knows who the knife belongs to because the Blond was threatening her with it earlier in the scene, but you’re right that she couldn’t possibly have seen the knife thrown. The `my’ prowler is to show that even though Dusk has no clue who this guy is, she feels somewhat protective of him. Didn’t occur to me that I was using `my’ twice in a row. Awkward. You’re right that Dusk probably spends a moment thinking about her stinging knees. 🙂 As for the prowler dying… actually, he survives. Which means I probably shouldn’t have the knife go in all the way to the hilt, doesn’t it? Drat. I love that description.

  38. ooohhhhh Tia!!!

    You are cruel! Fighting in the nude is really really bad. Thesk is torturing the poor thing. You know the reason why we are scared of having someone come into our house while we are asleep? Why soldiers with PTSD keep pistols under their pillows? My theory is that we feel most totally vulnerable when we are in bed. We are asleep, and this may be more important yet, not wearing our day clothes, that armor with which we face the world.
    Of course, now I am all a-wonder about how Thesk is wounded… You did say he was a god, not a goddess? A man simply can’t do his best fighting naked

  39. Chicory

    A Gray: I have a friend who names her musical instruments. 🙂

  40. No Chicory,

    The knife could still go in to the hilt – Don’t give tooo much credence to what I say, I am just one reader – after all, everyone there BELIEVES him to be dead, right? Why not let the reader believe it, too? The big plus in that is that we will be so surprised when he shows back up, ALIVE!
    I’d give up the “My Prowler” bit, though. All she has to do is be concerned about him – and he did get stabbed – and we will get that she cares. Just one sentence…

  41. A. Grey

    This is EXACTLY why I LOVE your Writer Wednesdays Tia! Justin, I adore the idea of going into battle not fully dressed! Context IS a crucial thing sometimes. In this case, the very fact that Evernow acts without considering what might happen (scalping or other injury) simply because the moment in which she has the chance to act has arrived, is a big thing. And her hair comes into play throughout, especially later at one point when she meets with Ruarte, and his family. The orcen’s youngest daughter perceives her as some sort of amazing person with magical hair, because her father has told the story of his escape. Evernow ends up cutting a length of her braid off and giving it to the small girl (who wants hair like Evernow’s so that she can rescue her father if he’s ever captured by humans again). The poignant part is that Evernow sees herself as someone who does odd things randomly, just because they feel like the right thing to do, rather than a brave, sometimes heroic girl who stands even against the status quo.

    On kissy scenes… eeewww. Now that my grade-school tomboy self has been indulged… I think that would make an AWESOME topic for a future Writer Wednesday!

  42. I used to have a truck I called the Big Pig — names all around!

    By the way Chicory, you don’t happen to come from New Orleans? Chicory always reminds me of coffee at cafe du monde

  43. Tia Nevitt

    Thesk is quite full of himself and goes nude often. He has her in full armor while he is nude, armed only in his “godly power”. He does this to make himself look generous.

    Your question calls for another scene! Here is where Abriel first parries one of Thesk’s strokes.

    In the arena, the battle went much the same as yesterday — at least at first. After sustaining half a dozen injuries, Abriel took a different approach. She circled, but made no attack. Up to this time, Thesk had remained strictly defensive. Since Abriel had concentrated on her attacks, she was unable to discern any precursors to his attacks. Therefore, she wanted to force him to attack.
    The crowd began to get restless. They began to chant her name. “A-briel! A-briel! A-briel!”
    The strike came without any warning that she could tell. She never even got her sword up. She tried to ignore the pain and continued to watch.
    After he made a few attacks, she shifted her approach again. He had always attacked directly after swatting aside her attack. She decided to make a careless jab, concentrating more on his response than on her own action. However, her knowledge of the impending pain kept interfering with her concentration.
    Then, entirely by accident, their swords rang together and she realized that she had somehow parried. He froze in evident shock. She flashed a grin and laughed, “Ha, ha!” His brow lowered and she realized that she had angered him. He struck again, and pain stabbed her shoulder. He peppered her with small, painful injuries, moving so fast that she could not defend herself.

    (Later, Abriel pays dearly for laughing at him.)

  44. Ah, Grey, so then the hair is important…

    Why is it that women are so much more comfortable with Kissy scenes than we men are? No theory on that. I do know that “men’s books” are deserts where sex is concerned while “women’s books” are lush gardens. Do you think it has to do with the whole romance angle? Or are we all just little boys unable to step up to that ultimate adult topic?

    Sorry, i used the no-no ‘s’ word. i meant kissy scenes

  45. A. Grey

    Justin… I sleep with knives (large sheath knives) at hand. I don’t live in fear of awakening to attack… more it’s because of all the times I’ve been awakened by horse-based disasters in which knives (to cut horses free and whatnot) or other disasters in which I’ve been forced to run outside in nightclothes and nothing useful beyond what I was carrying. True it is, that I would walk through TImes Square butt-naked if I only had one small good knife in hand… of course, the unusual and unexpected frightens people more than real weapons, so keep ’em guessing I say!

  46. Another great interchange Tia. I always thought gods should be nude… If you remember Mana from Slaves of the Shinar, she was always nude. Her reasoning being – would I be improved with clothes? Why would a god be ashamed of his or her body? Why would they cover their perfection.

    As to the scene, there is one slight alteration I would consider. You say Abriel laughs, and then describe it “ha, ha.” But we know what laughs are… Plus, a laugh here seems not entirely appropriate. She is wounded and in pain… Merely that she grins, and feels good about herself at the gods expense. Wouldn’t that be enough to awaken his anger? After all, he is a god…. and gods, like Santa (yay, he’s coming!), knows when you’ve been bad or good.

  47. A. Grey, you are quite a lady…

    “True it is, that I would walk through TImes Square butt-naked if I only had one small good knife in hand… of course, the unusual and unexpected frightens people more than real weapons, so keep ‘em guessing I say!”

    Amazingly, in the scene you describe, the knife is so defensive it is almost completely arresting. that’s what I mean about being in the ultimate vulnerable state…. you’ll notice that you go out to help the horses in nightclothes, not naked… and man who could blame you? I would at least put pants on before going outside, scarcely matters who or what I was going to help, or how much time I had to do it

  48. Chicory

    Justin Allen: The celts used to fight naked all the time. (You probably already knew that. Just had to point it out.)

  49. Really? I didn’t know that. Naked naked, or with ceremonial stuff? And are we talking battle here? Or wrestling? I know the picts painted themselves blue or gray… and there were tribes in North America who went without much… plus, of course, the Greeks did all their games, fighting games included, naked as the day they were born – But in each of these cases they weren’t REALLY naked. They were ceremonially prepared… You know what I mean? Sort of like how you can be a lot more naked at the beach than at the office. Because it is a part of the ceremony.

  50. Plus, werewolves. They always fight naked… will that lead us back to fantasy writing? Let’s see.

  51. A. Grey

    Justin, I actually spent an hour running up and down a highway in a pink silk slip once trying to keep a calf from being hit by some unlucky driver… The only really embarrassing part of it was when our 84 year old neighbor (a very formal gentleman whose only love was tragically killed in a car crash coming home from her final bridal gown fitting sixty years ago) came to try and help. He never even wears short sleeves, and there I was dashing around in a silk slip, barefoot… well, as the saying goes, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear…
    As for the celts, they were totally naked as far as I know, beyond knife belts and body paint, beads or amulets…

  52. Chicory

    My computer’s a little slow, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m a few steps behind topic. I’ve never been to New Orleans, actually. I’m not surprised that there’s a chicory flavored coffee, though. People used to make chicory tea. It’s just another name for chick-weed. I love the chicory’s jupuxation of grit and delicacy (I’ve seen it growing in dump-yards) so I made it my sort-of totem flower. (That, and I invented a mouse detective named Chicory back when I was sixteen). Oh, and I’m a girl (so the `delicacy’ half of grit and delicacy doesn’t come across as too weird.)

    I’ll give the `my’ prowler some thought. I think she referred to him that way earlier, so it’d still have the same affect even if I change it here.

  53. No problem Chicory. I just discovered that we had gone onto a second page. Started to think that you and Gray had abandoned us.

  54. A. Grey… What a totally Miss Havisham image. A man who remains a bachelor, pure of heart, mind and body, because his beloved dies getting fitted for her wedding dress. There is a great character in that.


    Now you can’t use it, Ha!

  55. Tia Nevitt

    Gladiators often fought naked as well, having had to earn their armor through valor. My gladiators also fight naked.

  56. Man, Tia, you had better watch out, you are going to develop a reputation.

    Want to hear something funny?

    I once rewrote a scene in a story, making the characters get naked and then pay no attention, with the idea of telling nudist groups all about it… you know, that wasn’t such a bad idea…

  57. A. Grey

    Justin, you write a book around that and I’ll come to your release party and run around in a pink silk slip! And then your wife can chase me away with a folding chair and the tabloids will take it as they might… the book will become a bestseller from the publicity… sounds like a plan!

  58. it’s a deal. But I get to choose the slip….

    Seriously, though. Where does everyone live?

  59. That sounded screwy. When you mentioned book release parties it reminded me that I wanted, earlier, to let everyone know that I was going to be in Boise, Idaho, doing a couple of signings on Dec. 22nd, so if you know anyone in the area… And next week i will be appearing as the Mouse King for Dances Patrelle’s Nutcracker here in New York. Yep, New York AND Idaho. Now That’s cosmopolitan

  60. A. Grey

    I’m in Virginia. Rural, but not way out. This part of VA is an area where you can pass a mansion and then a mile down the road find yourself in a hollow where they pass around mason jars full of last year’s best berries. A great place for running wild and barefooted, riding horses in bathing suits to the swimming hole and then putting on pinafores and patent leather shoes and going to the local Easter egg hunt…

  61. Tia Nevitt

    That’s the only book I ever wrote with any nudity worth mentioning. And Abriel isn’t used to all the nudity either — she’s from a different culture. So it was a culture shock thing.

    We almost decided to go to the Nutcracker this year, but we decided to give my daughter another year or two to mature. Do you have any clips on YouTube? We are always watching ballet on YouTube. I’m trying to prepare her, but it will be a while before she’s prepared to sit for 3 hours and watch a ballet, due to certain challenges she has. Maybe when she’s 10.

  62. Tia Nevitt

    Grey, you have an adventurous life!

  63. Sounds lovely. I am from Idaho myself, which is how I came to write “Year of the Horse” Long cowboy and western tradition, mixed with fantasy, and voila.

    By the way, if anyone else is still out there, do we have anything more to say about Action scenes?

  64. A. Grey

    I just cannot wrap my head around the idea of you dancing classical ballet! Not that I have any vision of you personally being incapable of it, it is simply that you’re the first person I’ve interacted with that has, and nurtures such a skill. Such dance, to me, is like watching songs take a physical shape, or perhaps emotions. The only reasonable dancing I’ve ever managed was period middle age pieces. Well, I’ve a (married, and not to me) friend who taught classical ballroom, and because of my relationship with Mark, I’ll let him toss me any which way, so I look relaxed and serviceable when I gallop around to waltzes with him. Otherwise, I’m a disaster when it comes to physical grace, unless riding horses counts…
    I’d love to see the Nutcracker. I will not, alas, be anywhere closer to NY that the east coast any time soon…

  65. Tia Nevitt

    I think our takeaways could be:

    1) Keep descriptions to a minimum.
    2) Mind your pronouns.
    3) Short and punchy.
    4) Avoid “and then”-itis.
    5) Keep physiological problems (heavy breathing, extreme pain of an impending scalping) in mind when writing reactions and dialog.

    Any others?

  66. You might be able to see me dancing on you-tube if you search for Eidolon Ballet. Can’t say for sure exactly what you will see, but…

    And Grey, she’s right, you do lead an interesting life…

    By the way Tia, I am interested as to how you handled the initial nude fighting. Which was more important, description-wise, the battling or the newness for Abriel? Also, if this society goes to nude gladiatorial combats, what does that say about the rest of their lives? Are they sort of Romanesque?

  67. A. Grey

    How about keeping in mind that your readers can’t see what’s going on the way you can within your own mind? Does that make sense? I find that even beyond action (but sometimes in a more pronounced manner where action scenes come into play) that what I know is happening, and what is portrayed to the reader, is lost in translation. I think it’s easier to miss things in such a way in action sequences because of the speed associated with the scene.

  68. A. Grey

    Sometimes… it’s like I live in one of those badly written SyFy movies… 🙂 But it’s fodder for the pen!

  69. Really, I think there is one thing about describing an action scene that we ought to always keep in mind. And that is this…
    The action scene is not more important than all the other scenes. Yes, a lot can be decided in those moments when swords are drawn, but really it is the lead-up to the action that makes it what it is. Understanding why the characters are fighting is vastly more important than How they are fighting.
    A very good friend, the screenwriter Walter Bernstein, once told me that in any scene, by the time the gun actually goes off, the real battle has already been decided. The real battle is inside the heart of the heroic character. What led him to this moment? At what point did he choose to follow the path that would lead to violence? If that moment, that turning point, is crystal clear, then you have a BOOK! After all, once that choice was made, the violence and the ultimate outcome of the scene were preordained…
    So work hard on your action scenes, but keep them simple. And don’t let them wreck the important work you have been doing up to that time…

  70. Yep, Grey, keep it simple. Just like everything else in writing… KEEP IT SIMPLE.

  71. Tia Nevitt

    Justin, I tried to make it very uncomfortable for her. Only the combatants are nude in the gladiator fighting; not the attendees. Yes, they are Romanesque. I adapted customs from ancient Rome (the concept of pietas – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietas_%28virtue%29), modern day India (my own version of saris and tea) and Egypt (slightly).

  72. Before we end, I think you ought to share that first nude moment with us… might wrap up all of our conversations.. and we can all leave uncomfortable…

    You don’t actually have to. And I have one more thought… one blessing… one Mitzvah.. to pass along, when we are ready.

  73. Chicory

    I’m a Western Marylander, just far enough from the ocean that I never get to vacation by the sea. I have country roots (My grandma grew up in WV) but I’m pure town-bred. I don’t know my history very well and can’t talk battles, but I’m contrary enough to insist that the Union invasion of the Confederacy was illegal. I don’t froth at the mouth about it, though.

  74. Tia Nevitt

    Before you go – thank you very much! This was a wonderful conversation. I literally have done nothing else all night, just trying to keep up!

  75. Love that last comment Chicory. Read my book “Year of the Horse,” and see if you don’t hate me just a little bit… Union versus Confederacy-wise… although there are some Yankee readers who positively seethe with hatred for my having a Yankee as the main villain.

    Thanks so much for having me, Tia, and thanks to everyone who commented, and to those of you who commented to the comments…

    I still want that first nude battle, but Tia can send it over at her leisure

  76. Chicory

    Justin Allen, what you said about lead-up to the action reminds me of Donald Maast’s advice in his Breakout Novel Workbook, that -oh, I don’t know if I can say this right- that you need to figure out the center motivation, the heart of the character that leads them to take action. Once you got that, you’ve got the reader.

  77. Chicory

    I’m going to look for `Year of the Horse’. Like I said, I don’t take the whole North/South thing too seriously. I tend to treat it as just one of those local interest things. `Up from the meadows rich with corn’ and all that. 🙂

  78. So, I just wanted to end this by offering all of the writers who honored us with an action scene here today a blessing.

    I expect that a number of you will find yourselves publishing your work with huge and wonderful houses in the coming months and years… I am certain of it.

    When that time comes you will find that the irritations you have now – when trying to properly compose an action scene (be it nude or in full armor), describe the feelings a boy has for a girl, the route your armies take to the next city, the power of a rogue god, or the mysteries of the cult that has taken your heroine captive – are nothing compared with the unending work you owe to the published book.

    But please, when you are tempted to curse a reviewer, wonder why the top journals won’t do a feature about you (or even your hometown paper), and can’t believe how difficult it is to fill a store for a reading, remember this moment, when your book was just a lot of words, striving to find a way out into the world, this very moment when you hoped – God how you hoped – that the miracle would happen (or happen again) and your literary baby would see life.

    If you can keep some small bit of that hope always before your mind, you can enjoy knowing that you have been published – and that there are people out there who LOVE what you do.

    Believe me, there will be people out there who will LOVE what each of you is doing. I guarantee it!

  79. Tia Nevitt

    Thanks so much, Justin!

    Chicory, the North probably did overstep the Constitution in the war between the states, so I can see your point! I have Donald Maass’s book as well, but not the workbook. If you think it’s worth getting, I may order it.

  80. You’re welcome. And thank you!
    And thank you all…

    Off to have dinner with my wife and tell her all about your fabulous scenes.


  81. A. Grey

    Amen to that! And best wishes to you and yours Justin, and you Tia, who so kindly hosts us for this weekly conjunction of all things literary!

  82. Tia Nevitt

    You’re welcome. Believe me, I have fun with this too!

  83. Chicory

    Tia: I think the book’s worth it. It’ll teach you a lot, but you’ll be putting a lot of work into it, too. The Breakout Novel Workbook is kind of a one-person equivalent to going to a Writing Workshop. In fact, the exercises are based on Donald Maast’s workshops. What you get out of it depends a lot on what you put in.

    This was a great discussion. Thanks, everyone, and best wishes!

  84. Wow! This comments thread just grew and grew. Thank you, Justin, for your feedback and enthusiasm. Thanks, Tia, for hosting. I’m looking forward to your next Writer Wednesday. I apologize for the lack of context around my excerpt.

  85. Raven

    Wow, I am really late to the party! What a great discussion.

  86. Holy merde! I come home from rehearsal and there are 85 comments! Last time I looked, there were 10!

    So. Just finished reading some Civil War stuff (I grew up in General Grant’s boyhood hometown, so I encounter a lot of that), and yes, the North did overstep its bounds constitutionally speaking when it comes to the Civil War. But you know…It’s not like nobody has bent the Constitution’s rules since then. (Not that I’m saying it’s okay. Just sayin’.)

    Justin, thank you so much for all your wonderful comments and discussion! I hope you’ll come back again for another Writer Wednesday, be you the guest author or just to say hi.

    I’m sure there’s something else I wanted to comment about that I’m forgetting. I’m supposed to tell where I’m from, right? Ohio. The Cincinnati tri-state area. That would make an interesting Writer Wednesday topic, too–how where we’re from affects the way we write.

    Love the idea of a “kissy scene” Writer Wednesday, by the way. Oh, and it’s so cool that you’re a ballet dancer, Justin! I couldn’t dance my way out of a paper bag. But my daughter takes ballet, and she’s pretty good, if I do say so myself. Not that I’m biased or anything.

    Okay. I think that covers everything. Wonder if there will be another 85 comments by the time I come back tomorrow.

  87. Ah… A. Grey? Necks are hard to break, and hair is hard to pull out by the roots. The main problem is the tensile strength of the hair, and that can really be improved by braiding it tightly. I learned that when I looked into Japanese braiding; they used it extensively in their armor! {Impressed Smile}

    On a different note, the Celts who fought naked thought their tattoos and war paint were better armor than any leather or metal. {Amused Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  88. Tia Nevitt

    Wow, this was great. As I said earlier, we have a wonderful group that shows up here, which makes me love doing this.

    We will tackle sex scenes for the next Writer Wednesday, which will be whenever I can find and book another writer.

    And before the next Writer Wednesday, I hope to have installed a threaded conversation widget, which I think would have made this even cooler because all the various subthreads would have stayed together.

    Thanks everyone for participating! I’d say, “Tell all your friends!” but we don’t want to let this discussion grow unreasonably huge, do we? 😉

  89. Raven

    Sex scene Wednesday sounds worthwhile. I also like the idea of doing a topic on how where we’re from (or where we’re located) affects the way we write. We could even add in how our family roots affect us – or maybe that’s another topic!

  90. […] out of Moorcock’s “Epic Pooh” The Way of the Warrior: Women with Bruises The Pitfalls of Action Scenes Meeting Marion Atheism, misotheism, multitheism: the religious landscape of Battlestar Galactica: […]

  91. great conversation and i’m glad to know i’m not the only one who has challenges with fight scenes — I agonized over the first one I wrote. Like Rabia, I tend to skip over the blow by blow.

    the only thing I fear writing more than a fight is that hot sex scene… and I guess to top that would be one of those fighting naked scenes… or a sex scene that turned violent? Yikes.

    i like your tip of “keeping it simple” – that takes some pressure off. I wonder if finding HUMOUR in the scene would help, too?

  92. Tia – I was just thinking a threaded conversation widget would be useful… it was difficult to follow all the threads.

    The first sex scene I wrote involved two amputees. Now that was a challenge.

  93. I’m behind the times, but… I like the discussion on action scenes! What I always find painful (mostly in stuff I’ve critiqued at online writing sites) is scenes where I just can’t figure out what’s going on. It’s sometimes hard for the author to explain what’s in his or her own mind when putting such a scene on paper. You have to re-read it from the perspective of someone who is new to the book’s world… and get objective critiquers to read it too.

    Looking forward to the sex scene post. My agent said she laughed out loud about the (intended, comical) ending to one of my sex scenes in DEMON’S BANE… I was really pleased ’bout that. 🙂

  94. Tia Nevitt

    Danika, I came to the same conclusion far up in the conversation thread! I love writing action scenes, but I, as you, prefer to write and read the absolute minimum in order to be able to figure out what is going on.

    Which brings us to Dave’s point. Lots of pronouns tend to make it confusing, and I’ve noticed that lots of writers – including some here – use short capitalized descriptions to distinguish each person, such as Scar Face and Blond Hair:

    “Scar Face yanked out a knife. Blond Hair lazily drew out a sap and started whirling it around his head.”

    I think this works great in certain genres, but I didn’t think it worked for either my epic fantasy or my regency fantasy. I do think it could work for my time travel historical and my Christian novel. I really depends on the voice.

  95. Tia and Danika reminded me of a guy I knew in high school. He thought that describing the last few fantasy role-playing battles in great detail made riveting conversation. Even the most avid of us fellow role-players tended to think of one or two good reasons why we couldn’t hang around and chat too long when we saw him coming. {Smile, wink}

    By all means, keep the blow-by-blow to a minimum. {SMILE}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  96. Dave and Tia — yes! The pronoun issue. If you have several people, it gets confusing. But the alternate is just as clunky, i.e. using their proper names in every sentence. Gertrude did this. Jack did that. Henry did this. Lance ran for help.

    I’ve only been able to use that nickname idea once… in a scene where my protagonists were fighting off several giant frogs. Then it became Mean Frog, Fat Frog, Purple Frog, etc. 🙂

    That’s why I like screenwriting! Someone else gets to worry about staging the fight scene. All you have to do is write “Bob kicks the living daylights out of Gus.” The fight coordinators do the rest.

  97. Tia Nevitt

    I’ve never tried writing a screenplay, but I did write three issues of a comic book once, which uses similar formatting. It was a huge amount of fun. Maybe I should rewrite my unfinished Christian novel as a screenplay, since the only reason I stopped is I didn’t have enough material for a full novel. Might work that way.

    I found it helpful to concentrate on two people at once during a fight scene. After all, the protagonist can really only concentrate on the person directly opposite him, even if he is being beset 3 on one. This way, a blow can come flying in from behind or beside him when he loses sight of his other opponent.

    If you keep your point of view “high and tight” behind the protagonist’s eyeballs, it really helps.

  98. […] The Conversation Reborn By Tia Nevitt, on December 11th, 2009 The Writer Wednesday conversation from last week has revived! Come help me make it the first post  to reach 100 comments! We are now discussing the difficulties of writing fight scenes when there are more than two characters involved. Jump to it here. […]

  99. Just checking in on all this… I think there is a major problem with writing a fight scene involving more than two combatants. A MAJOR problem. And what we see on the screen is seldom (never) helpful. You know how in Steven Segal movies the bad guys never come at him all at once, but wait their turn to be defeated? That is inherently going to happen in a written fight, owing to the fact that writing is by its nature a time ordered art form. Multiple things might be happening at once, but we can only describe any one thing happening at a time. Thus, the challenge.

    This relates, as it happens, to the writing of battles, in which hundreds and maybe thousands of individual fights are happening simultaneously. You will note how often those scenes are told from the point of view of a general or bystander (or god). That was my solution in Slaves of the Shinar, and as I had two principal characters, i always had one who was on the outside making judgments about the meaning of what was happening.

    But in a two (or more) on one fight, you are in trouble. The more people involved, the more you will inherently fall into the trap of “and then.” You know how it goes. He hit the man with the gun in the jaw, and then turned in time to stab the woman running up behind him, and then swiveled back to face the gunman, and then looked over his shoulder to make sure the woman really was dead, and then kicked the gunman in the crotch, and then beat it for the door. A big yawner.

    I have no real advice for how to deal with such an occasion except to say, the writer ought to consider having his protagonist either win each fight with a single blow, or lose in a moment (this determined by the fact that your protagonist is either the world’s greatest badass, or hopelessly outmatched raising the tension).

    And, most importantly, as a writer you should ask yourself whether such a scene actually forwards the story, telling us something about the meaning of life (I know, too big, but you get what I mean maybe), as understood in the mind of your character, or whether this is really just what you imagine the world’s coolest video game would be like – hint, do not be like later Matrix movies.

  100. Tia Nevitt

    Wow; I think this is the 100th comment.

    I agree, all too often, exciting action scenes turn out to be anything but. I like it when the author stays in the reader’s head. And I kinda like it when the hero loses.

    Hmm. This kind of makes me want to reread that scene in The Three Musketeers when D’Artagnan schedules himself to duel each of the musketeers, and they all end up battling the Cardinal’s men.

  101. Deborah Blake

    I just wrote my first fight scene ever (not first conflict scene, but the first one with actual hand-to-hand combat) in my current WIP. My first 2 novels were paranormal romance, but this one is an Urban Fantasy. And the three main protagonists (heroine and 2 guys) ended up fighting a number of bad guys. No idea if it really works or not…But they did set the building on fire in the process!

    And now I have to go back and make sure I didn’t say “and then.” Pretty sure I didn’t 🙂

  102. {considering look} I don’t write many fight scenes myself. The stories that come to me rarely call for them. However, I just got an idea that might be worth trying. {smile}

    Justin’s example of how not to write a multi-enemy fight scene was more detailed than the blow-by-blow gaming replays the guy I knew in high school used to do. I know he meant it to be a bad example, but… If that sort of blow-by-blow came to me when I was writing the rough draft, I’d write it down. This is the sort of thing revisions are great at fixing. {smile} While revising, I’d ask myself which blows are important to the narrative.

    1) The opening salvo is important, since without that, you don’t have a fight. So is engaging particularly important opponents.

    2) Deciding blows in the main battle and sub-battles are important, too. If it knocks out the main opponent, or a major underling in the way of getting at the main opponent, it’s important. If it knocks out enough soliders, any remaining ones aren’t a real threat, at least in the immediate area, that’s important, too. I suppose it could mean something else, as long as it ends the battle, or a major part of it.

    3) Intermediate blows that change the course of a fight. These need to affect a key fighter in a major way. Disarming blows, and others that make them change weapons. So would ones that remove helmets, break shields, knock out tanks, and remove other important protective devices, including protective spells. Wounds that force them to change their fighting style (like broken limbs) are pretty important, too. So is something that actually knocks someone out of commission, even if they recover and rejoin the fight before the end.

    I’d use anything else sparingly. Even first blood is rarely important except in a duel where folks are taking time to scope out fighting styles and such. Anyway, I’d try to summarize the rest of the battle.

    I don’t know how well this would work. It only just occured to me, and I don’t have much experience with writing fights. This approach may be too deliberate to keep the writing fresh. However, I think that concentrating on the important blows in a battle would be more interesting than a more detailed description. {Smile}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  103. Tia Nevitt

    Anne, I think you nailed it. The blows you mentioned should be the only ones detailed to the reader. Everything else should be summarized. When I read novels that go beyond these, I tend to get restless.

  104. Thanks, Tia. It’s good to know that wasn’t one of those ideas that sounds better inside my head than it does out-in-the-world. {SMILE}

    Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

  105. […] the summer, and we have been in contact off-and-on ever since. He recently participated in an exceptionally lively Writer Wednesday. After I read and reviewed Slaves of the Shinar, his publisher sent me his second novel, Year of […]

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