No Lights… No Camera… Just Action!
One of the things a writer learns early is that the big engine in any story is conflict. Without conflict, all you have is mush. That’s not to say it’s necessarily uninteresting mush… but mush all the same.
Conflict drives story. It reveals who our characters are by how they react to opposing forces — preferably proactively, but at a bare minimum reactively.
One of the most immediate and visceral ways we demonstrate our characters in conflict is through action sequences. Not every action sequence has to be a fight or a chase, but many of them are. I’d like to provide my take on action sequences today — specifically, my take on how to write them in such a way as to tie them in with the overall mood I happen to be going for in any given scene.
Pacing is of vital importance when it comes to tying your action sequence into the mood of the scene. It is, in fact, the “make it or break it” element of your action sequence. If you’re going for suspense but your action scene is too hectic, you risk breaking the tension too early or in an otherwise unsatisfying way.
On the other hand, if you follow a hectically paced chase scene with a confrontation and fight that is too verbose, you drag the pacing to a crawl and lose the momentum you created.
But how do you control pacing in action sequences? My answer is: The same way I control it everywhere else. The number and complexity of adjectives is a strong force for pacing control: if I describe a room detail by detail, using fairly advanced adverbs and adjectives while varying their sensory type, that establishes a leisurely or careful narrative pace. I like to employ that style when a character enters a new environment because it places the reader in his head as he investigates his surroundings.
For rapid pacing, however, I shift to a more screenwriter-ish style of description; adjectives are kept minimal, only active verbs are employed, and alliteration is used to provide a sensation of “percussion” to the narrative. Additionally, individual sentences and paragraphs can be shortened to further enhance the sense of rapidity.
I stepped inside and closed the door behind me nice and slow, allowed the catch to click into place. The sensations of warmth and darkness swam over me. A smell of stale beer whispered from somewhere in the cozy, soft darkness. My footsteps were silent on the thick carpet as I felt my way along the wall in search of a light switch.
Reilly wrenched the throttle all the way open. The bike screamed and surged. The front wheel threatened to lift off, but he put his weight on the bars and got it under control. The gates ground toward each other. His pulse pounded in his ears. His breath caught in his throat as the walls blurred by. The bike’s mirrors snapped off against the relentless steel gates and he was through and gone.
As important as pacing is, the level and type of description you employ will make or break the pacing you’re going for. As you saw from the above examples, the level of description in the second is very spartan compared to the level of description in the first.
Beyond the obvious, though, what exactly makes the description different? In the first example, inanimate objects are largely described in passive terms. ‘Swam’, ‘whispered’ and ‘clicked’ are the only active verbs attributed to the environment, yet they are soft, comfortable. The pacing is leisurely not only because of the actions of the protagonist, but because the character of the environment itself is dormant.
Despite that, there is conflict — the environment has the protagonist at odds with it due to the darkness, through which he slowly and carefully seeks a light switch.
In the second example, we have a larger environment — an outdoor scene — yet because the focus is only on a closing pair of gates and a man on a motorcycle racing to make it through them before they close.
But the tenor of those inanimate objects is markedly different — the motorcycle is a primal, animalistic object. The gates are an implacable enemy which seeks to pen in the protagonist. Fewer words are devoted to description, but each one is chosen to deliver maximum punch at a breathless pace.
So that’s a quick look into how accelerating, maintaining, or decelerating the pace, while making the very most of description, can enhance your action sequences by creating the appropriate mood.
Thanks for reading, and as always: be good to yourselves and each other.