Wednesday, August 4, 2010

When Detail Drains

I wrote about action scenes a while ago, but I've considered them even more in the last few days.

How does a writer transfer that amazing action scene from the screen (for real or in his or her mind) to the page? Some of those action scenes in a movie are awesome, and I almost hold my breath while they're taking place. I see every detail and it's all I can do not to call out. Have you experienced those? (I was lazy on Sunday and watched movies most of the day.)

Sadly, with many—if not most—novels that I read, these are one of the parts of the story that bore me. I find myself skipping over them, plucking out a word here and there to make sure there's nothing important happening that might force me to go back and read it carefully later.

What's with that?

As I mentioned in the earlier post, slowing down and developing details are important. But too much of either and you can kill the story. Trying to capture every nuance that is visually available on the screen becomes tedious and draining when you're throwing it out to your audience using only words.

How do you lift that tension-filled cinematic moment to the page?

I knew there had to be an answer.

Behind my back at this very moment is a bookcase with probably over sixty books related to writing. I like to think that somehow the brilliant advice and direction in each of them would somehow drill into the back of my head when I'm goofing around with emails, but alas, they require a more interactive approach.

Donald Maass is my 'go to' guy when it comes to most things writing, and he didn't fail me in The Fire in Fiction. In fact, I had conveniently highlighted it months ago when I first read it:

" . . . action, when related in strictly visual terms, feels flat. Handled objectively, it does not move us. Emotions are needed to give action force." (p. 198)

Yes! Exactly! So what does this mean . . . exactly?

Master Maass continues later:

" . . . tension in action comes not from the action itself but from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it." (p. 200)

(Note: This is also the first time I've seen a 'poor' example spelled out in a craft book. Nope. Not gonna tell you. You'll have to get your hands on a copy for yourself. But it begins on page 196.)

So, the way I interpret this is you reign in your broad cinematic view of the details to the sweat and fear and utter desperation in your POV character.

Slow it down, provide the details, but don't try to be a reporter on the scene. Be the character. This would be a perfect place for deep POV.

If there's something else, please share!

CR: Rain Gods by James Lee Burke. This one has really slowed me down. I'm considering shelving it for a bit because I'm sure it's me and not Mr. Burke. And, to be honest, there's been a lot of life going on at the moment.

It's all better with friends.


  1. Exactly -- slow it down and go for detail. Also, action is usually improvised, so it's useful to have a really good, detailed picture of the setting. One of the models for me is Jackie Chan -- there's never any doubt whom we're supposed to sympathize with and that he gets hurt, and he does wonderful riffs with an object -- say, a ladder -- that is used six or eight ways in the course of 90 seconds. Dazzling, detailed, tightly focused, and personal. Can't do much better.

  2. Peg -- you need to read my how-to and let me weane you off Donald Mass -lol...okay he has good advice but I have great examples. My book is on Kindle and in POD from and as an instructor of creative and not so creative writing for thirty some odd years, I have a lot to say on the subject of crafting scenes and fight scenes do take as much choreography as do love scenes, and in fact if you can take what you do in a love scene (always from one point of view are they not, filled with emotion, are they not, thru the five senses of the main character in the throes) and so it should be when she or he throws a punch as well. So in fact Masse and I agree on these matters as does Tom Sawyer and David Morrell who also have excellent books on this writing craft. My title is Dead On Writing; have had NO returns, no complaints, but lots of pleased folks who have taken my hard-won lessons to heart.

    AGain if you can choreogaph a love scene...not a sex scene but a love can create one hell of a fight or action sequence. Final note, in a sense every scene is an action scene. I once kept beratting myself over a few paragraphs, unable to put my finger on the problem until I smacked myself with the realization I had LEFT out my main character in the scene...described it through the narrator's point of view rather than via Lucas Stonecoat's five senses, his POV. Changed the whole of it so much for the better. Adds dialogue to the action, adds emotion, adds the three to five senses you can get into it without forcing them.

    Enjoyed your post and this subeject is close to me heart.

  3. My writing guru told me once that to pack more punch in my action scenes use short sentences. Try it. It's amazing how much the tension elevates with a series of short, dramatic sentences.

  4. You nailed it! Well said.

    (PS: I struggled with Rain Gods too. Too many bad guys and little of it rang true for me.)

  5. Short sentences speed up the action and long sentences slow it down. So, for action scenes you want short, to build tension, from the POV's perspective. This doesn't under mine what Donald Mass told you, it helps to clarify. Then go back to the longer sentences to enhance his/her experience. Critique groups make you focus on the submission and are great to help reinforce all those fabulous writing books.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  6. Peg, you're absolutely right about the emotional content carrying the scene, but there are two other factors that pull me out of action scenes more often than not.

    One is the physical impossibility of the movements the author describes. If the writer would just get out of her or his chair and try to do what is supposedly happening, we wouldn't read so many passages of, for example, people stumbling and falling backwards after being kneed in the groin.

    The other one is sloppy prose. In an action scene, it's even more important that the rhythm of the words and sentences matches the rhythm of the action scene. Short, choppy sentences can convey the actiion of a fist fight, but they have to be in the right order or they become confusing.

    The same goes for sex scenes. I can name you two or three big name writers who can't write either a sex or action scene without making me burst into laughter.

  7. Hmm. As both a TV producer and a writer, I tend to approach two different media from different points of view. Typically a cinematic or TV action scene needs some objectivity, because, if the action is all from an antagonists POV, necessarily very close up, the action will be hard to follow, particularly on a large screen. Hence establishing shots and observational. In a novel, on the other hand one can engage the emotions of striking and being struck (for ex) in highly charged short declarative sentences. Yes, most good action scenes are described in short sentences. In fact, it's often useful to surround such scenes with more complex sentences than usual.

  8. Writing in short sentences is certainly a key to building suspense or writing action, as many have commented here, and I appreciate their noticing I forgot to mention that element. Leave it to the experts! Thank you so much.

    An addendum I'd like to make to that advice is to read aloud the section where you've focused on short sentences. I've critiqued a few scenes for others where the short sentences sounded like a To Do List of some kind, and found myself creating the same mistake. Make sure there's a rhythm to your sentences that isn't all the same, and still fits the speed of the scene.

    Steve, excellent point about making sure what you're writing is physically possible. I've been embarrassed more than once by someone coming up on me while I 'act' out a scene. I get over it fast.

    L.J., thanks for the Rain Gods relief. I even went hunting for a cozy last night to replace it, but alas, there was none in my TBR pile, and I was too tired to peruse Amazon for a Kindle download.

    Now, I'm going to have to check out Jackie Chan, and Rob Walker's Dead On Writing.

    Thanks, all. You make me proud to be part of this community of writers!

  9. Great post, Peg. Like all things in writing, it's the writer's job to make the reader involved in the scene. The old saw, don't tell readers it's raining, get them wet and windblown. Get them involved in the action, after all, all scenes are action scenes even if in the minds of the characters. There are specific techniques to do this, but it comes down to a writer's innate ability to engage readers.

    Great blog.