META: Writing Good Action [was: Re: [LNH/ACRA] Onion Lad #8]

martinphipps2 at martinphipps2 at
Wed Jun 7 20:54:15 PDT 2006

Tom Russell wrote:

> I ask, not only on behalf of my fellow writers but also for myself
> (action scenes never being my strong point), what makes for a good
> prose action sequence?

That's difficult.  If it is a conversation you are describing then, of
course, you just use dialogue.  If it is a static scene then you can
take your time to establish it, assuming that this is something the
reader cares about.  But for an action scene you don't want to use too
much description because you don't have a lot of control over how the
reader reads the story.  Will the reader get up to go to the bathroom
during the action scene?  Will he quickly check his e-mail?  So you
want the action scene to be quick because it is supposed to be read in
one sitting.  It's not like the hero and villain are duking it out, you
go check you e-mail and come back and they're still duking it out.
Ideally the reader should get a real sense of time: the amount of time
the heroes spend doing something, be it make a speech, have a
conversation or fight a villain, should correspond roughly to the
amount of time it takes to read the scene.  I hate it when writers put
flashbacks in the middle of a scene with a conversation.  What was the
other person doing when the person was having their flashback?  Was he
or she even aware of the fact that the hero wasn't listening?
Similarly, you wouldn't have a flashback in the middle of a fight
scene.  That's just an extreme example of what I'm trying to describe

So you are left with using a minimum of description for your fight
scenes.  Maybe that's why Jesse and myself are willing to use fight
scenes, because we don't like using a lot of description, we feel it
bogs a story down a bit, perhaps making it too long and giving readers
too much to read.  But then the fight scene becomes like a conversation
with phrases like "he explained" replaced with "he attacked" and maybe
the reader doesn't have a clear idea what is going on.  In my own head,
the fight is like a dance but does the reader see the same thing?
Phrases like "he used a karate move on his opponent" really don't
describe anything that the reader can actually visualize.

I know that it is convenient when you have teams attacking teams to
pair people up at first.  Then you can "switch partners" when one team
or the other realizes that it is strategically advantageous to take out
the weak members first - or vice versa if the strongest guy on the
other side is capable of taking out your whole team.  Usually you'd
think if one guy were left and all his teammates were defeated then
you'd say the fight was over but if that guy is Thor or Superman
then... no, it's not over yet.

On the other hand, fight scenes are great opportunities to show people
what, exactly, are the powers that your character has.  If your
character never gets involved in a fight scene then his or her powers
remain poorly defined.  So the fight scene does add to the drama of the
story, allowing you to get to know the character better, and isn't just
an excuse for mindless action.  In my (not so) humble opinion anyway.


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