Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ready – Set – Action!

I love action. Not in real life. In real life, I’m a writer, which means I spend 90% of my day sitting in front of my computer. Oh, once in a while I get up, stretch a little, put on my shoes, and walk out to the mailbox to see if the mailman happened to drop off a royalty check. Or I head into the kitchen for a drink of water or a cup of coffee and a cookie. But that’s about as exciting as my life gets.

Still, I love action. I love watching it on TV or on the big screen, and I love reading it. Give me a heart-thumping chase scene over an introspective walk in the woods any day. Too much exposition in a novel, too much description, too many paragraphs and pages going on and on about chaos theory, and I start flipping pages. (Sorry, Michael. Much as I loved Jurassic Park, I’m pretty sure I actually read only 3/4s of the book.)

I also love writing action. As a thriller writer, I get to blow things up. Burn things down. Maim, terrorize, and destroy. Get all the meanness out of my system and onto the page.

Action scenes are fun to write. There’s no lengthy introspection, no character development, no scene-setting or descriptions – just short, declarative sentences that propel the reader through the scene:

Her foot caught. She pulled. Pulled again. Looked up. Phillipe and Ross were still at the edge of the waterfall, still hanging on. She pulled again, reached beneath the water with one hand and jerked at the boot lace. The knot held, the lace wet and swollen. She pulled again, ripped at the knot. Tore her fingernails. Didn’t care.

Action verbs are exciting all on their own. Nobody runs – they dash, sprint, dart, spurt, race and tear through the scenes.

Action scenes are also the only time an author can indulge in what would normally be an appalling overuse of em-dashes and exclamation points:

Phillipe – Ross – struggling in the water – the hot, hot water – boiling up her ankles, her legs, her thighs – the helicopter ladder dangling the rescue sling – but Ross – Phillipe – they were in trouble – they needed her –

“Go!” Ross screamed as he struggled to hold on to her stepfather. “Grab the cable! We’re right behind you! Go – go – go!!”

“Sheila!” Rebecca screamed. “Hurry!”

But action is so much more than superficial wham-bam. If that’s all there was to it, then watching the roadrunner chase the coyote off a cliff would be as gripping as watching “Inception” or James Bond.

The reason action scenes get the heart thumping is not because they’re exciting. It’s because the reader cares about the characters.

Back when I was working on my first novel, that understanding hadn’t yet become clear. Three-quarters of the way through the book, I got stuck on a scene where my characters were drifting in a small, engineless boat toward a huge waterfall (no, not the same waterfall in the excerpts above – apparently, those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories about people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel made a deep impression on me when I was a child). No matter how I tried writing the scene, it felt artificial and cheesy. I knew the characters weren’t going to die, and since this scene took place three-quarters of the way through the book and these were the principal characters, I knew the reader would know the characters weren’t going to die, either. It all felt contrived and silly.

The one day, I suddenly realized that the characters didn’t know they weren’t going to die. It seems obvious now, but at the time, it was a revelation. I put myself in the characters’ heads, imagined the events as they were experiencing and feeling them, and the scene practically popped of the page.

Inadvertently, I’d discovered the key to writing a compelling action sequence. It’s not the short sentences or the strong action verbs or the exclamation points that carry the scene. It’s the emotion. Fear. Anxiety. Terror. Apprehension. Desperation. It’s us sitting in our comfortable armchairs feeling what the characters feel as they drift inexorably toward that waterfall that raises our adrenalin level. We’re not reading. We’re sitting beside them in the boat.

And that’s why I love action.

How about you? Why do you love reading or writing action?

Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of Freezing Point, a science thriller nominated by RT Book Reviews as Best First Mystery of 2008. Her second just-published environmental thriller, Boiling Point, about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher, and a radical scheme to end global warming, finishes with a 40-page action sequence that takes place in the caldera of an erupting volcano.


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Karen,

Thank you for joining us today! I love action scenes because of the unknown element. Will it turn out well? Bad? What suffering will the hero go through before achieving his/her goal? How will the scene change him/her? How will the novel's focus shift? And I love the heart-pounding, get-your-blood-circulating element of action scenes.

Congrats on your newest release!

Thomas Kaufman said...

Karen, this piece really gets down to basics, and it is all about character, isn't it? Thanks so much for writing this.

Pamela Callow said...

Hi Karen,

Great post - I totally agree. For me, one of the revelations about writing suspense came when I read Elizabeth George's WRITE AWAY, and she made the same point as you -- that suspense comes from caring about the characters. Suspense does not come from someone jumping off a cliff - unless, of course, you care about whether they do so.

What surprised me about writing action scenes was my own reaction to them. When I wrote the climactic action scenes in DAMAGED -- where my main character is naked, tied to a gurney and has to escape from a dementing killer -- I had broken into a nervous sweat, my heart pounding, my fingers shaking. It literally burst out of me. I couldn't stop -I sat at my computer into the wee hours of the morning until it was done. Those scenes still have the power to scare me (and my editor)!

Carla Buckley said...

Hi Karen,

You're so smart! It took me forever to learn that if you care about the characters, then you care about what happens to them. It's a tricky balance, isn't it, to start things off fast enough so that the reader turns the page, while taking the time to establish your character so the reader keeps on turning the page. I wish there were a formula...

Unknown said...

Thanks for having me! I love ITW's debut authors program, and while I'm technically no longer a debut, I can't imagine not being a part of this fabulous group.

Pam - that's a very interesting experience! So it's not only the readers and the characters who need to feel the emotion when we write our action scenes. We do too!

Rochelle Staab said...

Karen -

Perfect description of why action is so gripping. When the reader cares, we're IN the characters shoes (or lack of) and savor each heart-stopping step. The short sentences, the fast pacing, the absence of gazes at the scenery :) Well said.

I love the steps to writing an action scene. I find it difficult to put characters I love into peril so I have to write the scene layer by layer. Generalities become more specific. The danger gets deeper. The threat stronger. I know I've succeeded when a sentence takes my breath away.

Thanks for the post! I'm inspired to put someone in a dark alley.

Tracey Devlyn said...

Thank you so much for hanging out with us today!

Cat Connor said...

Hi Karen!
I too love writing, reading, watching action.
I enjoy the heart racing terror when I can barely bring myself to look at the words I'm typing - because I am in my main characters head. Sometimes writing first person is pure adrenaline and I love it.

I have always believe that feeling the emotion when we write is what makes the words and therefore the character's come alive.


Anonymous said...

I'm a relative "novice" when it comes to writing. Actually "publishing," since I have some 7-8 manuscripts "written," waiting for the right time. But, my FIRST attempt, or foray, into the world of publishing has been very eductaional (an understatement!). And, now, I have had a couple "nods" in my direction re: the possibility of making my first work of action, non-fiction into a full-production motion picture (although I believe a Mini-Series would do it more justice).
What say you?
I'll whet your appetite with a website:
The DOWN side is that it comes in two volumes.
(For ArchDukeMax on Twitter).