Writing Action Scenes

What’s the difference between my action writing and that of a professional?

This video from Sherlock Holmes is a great example. Simply put, my writing is like the scene from 0:00 to 1:00, while a professional’s writing is more like 1:09 to 1:40. And before you ask, yes. I am excited about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Robert Downey Jr. may yet save the 2011 movie year.

Cue music. The reason I bring this up is because my action-writing is slow, explanatory and overly detailed. Where as the professional tends to hit us with the WHAM! CRUSH! KA-POW! of the original 1966 Batman series starring Adam West. The pro uses fast paced, quick words that hit the reader like a blow to the stomach. They use active words while I use passive ones. Which is not good.

In the rejection letter I received from Every Day Fiction, one of the editors made it quite clear that he did not like the long action descriptions. Another stated that they read the entire scene in bullet time. Reading such long details slows it down. It’s fine from time to time, like Sherlock Holmes’ thought out fight sequences. But to have all the action like this is akin to filming an entire movie in slow motion.

This needs to change. I took my latest short story to my friend, Lord Lucan, for some editing on the back-to-back horror and action scenes. My story isn’t finished, but I decided that asking for corrective thinking now would allow me to practice writing fast paced sequences in the draft. If I understand what I need to improve on, I can try to write that way rather than wait for editors to rip me apart.

I took almost all his small suggestions. But I rewrote his rewritten sentence suggestions. On one hand, I know I need assistance and I’m not too proud to ask. But on the other hand, I don’t want an editor doing all my rewrites.

When comparing active to passive words, publishers financial love active. Explained, it’s more concise. Publishers often pay per word, so less is more.

Taking this one step further, I brought three books with me today. The first is Blood for the Blood God by C.L. Werner, the second is Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden while the third is The Guns of Tanith by Dan Abnett. Here’s what I noticed.

The Guns of Tanith: Forget the use of a thesaurus, the words are clean and clear. Red is red. Scenes involving sneaking and maneuvers start out descriptively but concisely. The closer the characters get to the action, the shorter the paragraphs get. Eventually it boils down to one, sometimes two sentence paragraphs. Sometimes the action becomes little more than two words in a sentence, reliant on the reader’s imagination to describe the how.

The point is clear. Not everything needs a description and it respects the reader’s imagination to let them fill in some of the blanks. However, this style of writing likely works better with the sci-fi military action, where people can die instantly from a stray shot.

Blood for the Blood God: Paragraphs are longer and far more detailed. Every move gets more focus, such as wide swings and reactions. Sentences are separated by one or two commas; action, supportive description or result. As I read the sentences, part of me wants to mentally rewrite them to make them more concise, but then I second guess myself as I realize that some of the idea maybe lost doing so.

Some sentences seem to mix active and passive words. The effect forgoes spur-of-the-moment action for more epic story telling. This story is fantasy however, which is probably more open to passive words.

Helsreach: A combination of the two, though on the leaner side. Occasionally, some sentences are separated by multiple commas. The one I’m looking at actually has five commas in it. This story, I realize, is a pretty good combination of the previous books’ genres. It’s sci-fi military action with plenty of fantasy style melee combat. For many reasons, it actually strikes me as middle of the road.

While the words he uses are simple, he tends to accent the sentence with a single or couple of more extravagant words. Such as personification of a bolter, describing it as ‘starved’ when it’s ammo-less.

Keeping things shorter and sweeter can be a challenge when my mind demands the entire scene be told. But no one said this would be easy.

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