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I decided to write this post for four reasons. The first was a friend of mine, Mark Gardner, asked me to write an action scene for his upcoming book, War of the Worlds: Firestorm. This was a completely different kind of action scene than I’ve ever written. A Martian, Think the aliens in the Simpsons, must escape a burning laboratory while out running a deadly gas. His shape, size, and lack of abilities made him a unique challenge.
As for the second reason, I’ve been shopping my own book Birthright around and I’ve found I’m a thousand words short of publisher’s requirement of eighty thousand words. I didn’t want to go back and add fluff, because I’ve worked so hard to take it out. Instead, I looked at my plot and realized there was no action scene at the end of the book to showcase my main character Kita’s new augmentations and abilities.
Thirdly, I love action scenes. Anytime someone asks me how to improve their books I tell them to put a dragon in it or at least the equivalent. I did it in Birthright. Dinosaurs count as dragons, right? I subscribe to the J.J. Abrams school of thought, go big or go home. Unlike Abrams, I do have my action sequences make sense and be believable to the reader.
Lastly, I did a little research on this subject and found that all the blog posts about writing action scenes are nothing but silly rules that don’t tell you anything about writing an action scene. I’ve come up with a list of things that will help you write a killer action scene: environment, characters, drama, and the goal. Today I’m going to talk environment and characters.
The environment. This is where your action scene takes place. An action scene can take place anywhere. What you have to do as an author is to arrange and populate the space with things that can be used to maximize the scene. For example, in WotW: Firestorm the main scene took place in a laboratory. I populated it with glassware, lab equipment, and workbenches—what you’d expect to find in a lab, but all these things are used to create the action scene. Here’s an example:
Climbing onto the nearest workbench, it was covered in something wet. Let’s hope it’s not toxic, he thought with a shuddering of his tentacles. Steve climbed across the workbench to the edge. It was over a meter and half. Below him on the floor was a pile of burning lab equipment that had caught the workbench and floor on fire.
Steve stood up on the tips of his tentacles, and rocked back and forth. When he was moving forward he jumped, landing in the middle of the next workbench. He signed in relief, but he couldn’t relax. The end of the next workbench was engulfed in flame. The open end had a set of glassware taking up most of the space.
Around Steve the roar of the fire continued, urging him onward. The sarin gas could arrive at any moment. He set himself up for his next jump, hoping to land in front of the glassware set.
Steve jumped, but overshot his target. He crashed into the glassware, crushing some underneath him and sending the rest to the floor. He snarled over the pain of several shards of glass penetrating his tentacles. I cannot worry about superficial injuries, he thought, I must get out of here.
You can see the environment at work here and how it’s shaping the action sequence. The more you give yourself to work with, the more imaginative you can be. But, don’t put something in the scene that doesn’t belong, unless you have a good explanation how it got there and have established it beforehand. Ex Machina is something the movies love, but as an author, you want to avoid it at all cost. For everything, there is a reason.
So now that we have a place for our action scene, let’s talk about characters. In WotW: Firestorm Martians aren’t the most agile, but does have long tentacles that give them reach. Steve the Martian is in stark contrast to my character, Kita. She is an Olympic gold medal caliber gymnast and a master with the sword. Their action sequences are going to be very different. If I put Kita in the lab from WOTW: Firestorm, she would have had no problem making it from one side to the other. There wouldn’t be much drama there. Look at your character’s skills and abilities and plan your action scenes to challenge these. If you make it too difficult the character is going to die, too easy and your reader will lose interest. The reader is going to know what your character is capable of. If your character has never handled a gun before, nothing ruins the action scene more than your character picking up a gun and being a crack shot with it. It just doesn’t happen in real life. Now, if they picked it and failed to hit anything, not only is that believable but helps elevate the drama which I’ll cover next time.
That’s it for today. Next time we’ll cover drama and goals.