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Writing Action Scenes: You'll be Lucky to Survive

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This presentation provides detailed tips and techniques on crafting action sequences that put the reader right in the midst of the tumult. Complete with example excerpts.

This was delivered at the Sleuthfest mystery convention in Boca Raton on March 1, 2018.

A live audio version of this workshop, along with the live audio for three more of the presentations I have posted on this site, are available for purchase from VW Tapes: Conference & Seminar Recording. If the link below doesn't work, please go to the VW Tapes webpage and type my name in the Search box.

http://vwtapes.com/search.aspx?find=Vincent%20O'Neil&fbclid=IwAR0SkwWW5izLbBFvZHKhqOI953GMXhhsFBsg749We3dvq4-43BcFj_S-aMU

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  • A live audio version of this workshop, along with the live audio for three more of the presentations I have posted on this site, are available for purchase from VW Tapes: Conference & Seminar Recording. If the link below doesn't work, please go to the VW Tapes webpage and type my name in the Search box. http://vwtapes.com/search.aspx?find=Vincent%20O'Neil&fbclid=IwAR0SkwWW5izLbBFvZHKhqOI953GMXhhsFBsg749We3dvq4-43BcFj_S-aMU
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Writing Action Scenes: You'll be Lucky to Survive

  1. 1. Writing Action Scenes: You’ll be lucky to survive Vincent H. O’Neil (aka Henry V. O’Neil) www.vincenthoneil.com
  2. 2. Mystery and Horror as Vincent H. O’Neil The Frank Cole / Exile Mystery Series Supernatural HorrorTheater Mystery Mystery Anthology
  3. 3. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil www.vincenthoneil.com
  4. 4. Purpose Good action scenes can make the readers feel like participants instead of spectators Action sequences aren’t just a list of movements describing what’s happening —they’re an opportunity to pull the readers in and make them feel like they’re right in the middle of the event
  5. 5. Presentation Outline • It’s an experience • Make it different from the rest • Put your readers in the action • Plot it out • Writing it • Conclusion
  6. 6. It’s an Experience • Action scenes have great potential to pull your readers into the story • Everyone has personal experiences that can help them relate to action sequences • Give them a memorable experience
  7. 7. Make it Different • Action scenes shouldn’t read like the other parts of your story • There’s almost always something at stake, so the passage should generate a sensation of suspense, dread, or excitement over the possible outcomes
  8. 8. Action Scenes are Different • These sequences also have a faster tempo, which means they’re transpiring in a way that often doesn’t lend itself to deep analysis or explanation • That’s okay, because in the middle of a desperate fight, a sports match, or a natural disaster there’s a lot that the characters aren’t going to notice
  9. 9. Go Easy on the Details • Provide enough information to keep the audience from getting confused, but don’t be afraid to limit the details • When your characters are running for their lives, there’s plenty of time later for them to figure out exactly what happened— provided, of course, they got away
  10. 10. Examples of Action Arrests Accidents Weather events Natural disasters Fights Riots Chases & escapes Arguments Emergencies
  11. 11. Example Excerpt From E. L. Doctorow’s crime novel Billy Bathgate, this is: • The first time the teenager Billy Bathgate has been given a task by the Dutch Schultz mob • Although it’s just getting coffee, he needs to do it right and do it fast • This is his one chance to impress the gangsters who might give him a job
  12. 12. Excerpt: Billy Bathgate A minute later I was tearing down the stairs saying over in my mind how many black, how many black with sugar, how many with cream, how many with cream and sugar, I ran down 149th Street in the direction of the Boulevard Diner, I ran faster than the cars were moving, and the horns of the buses and trucks, and the grinding gears, and the clop and rattle of horse-drawn wagons, the sound of all the traffic driving its way fiercely into the high hours of the business day, sounded like choir music in my breast.
  13. 13. Excerpt: Billy Bathgate A minute later I was tearing down the stairs saying over in my mind how many black, how many black with sugar, how many with cream, how many with cream and sugar, I ran down 149th Street in the direction of the Boulevard Diner, I ran faster than the cars were moving, and the horns of the buses and trucks, and the grinding gears, and the clop and rattle of horse-drawn wagons, the sound of all the traffic driving its way fiercely into the high hours of the business day, sounded like choir music in my breast. Puts the reader in the middle of things Focused on the sounds and the movement Concentrating on doing it rightMotivated to do it fast Enjoying the challenge
  14. 14. Put Your Readers in the Action • Action sequences are an opportunity to make the audience feel something • Stressful circumstances often generate extreme emotions and heightened senses, so try to elicit those responses from your readers
  15. 15. What’s It Like? • Identify the possible sensations and reactions of the characters involved in the situation • Describe them to yourself • Try to remember a similar experience of your own • Think about how you felt, how you reacted (or didn’t) and how it was different from a non-stressful event
  16. 16. Sensations Connect With Your Readers • Instead of stating that a character is afraid, offer their physical reactions – thudding heartbeat – dry mouth – sudden fatigue • Mental responses – tunnel vision – sense that time has sped up or slowed down – out-of-body feeling This is standard fight-or-flight stuff, and most of your audience will relate to it from their own experiences
  17. 17. Example Excerpt From John Steakley’s scifi novel Armor, this is: • The moment when the main character Felix materializes in the middle of an enemy horde that wasn’t supposed to be there • Felix is a scout in an armored suit • The opponents are called Ants, but they’re ten feet tall and heavily armed
  18. 18. Excerpt: Armor Slamming forward into them, firing wildly about, he had to get, to get out of them, had to, had-to … mandibles flashing by him and at him, tree-trunk arms and legs and claws crossing in front of him … most didn’t seem to know he was there, and the few who saw and reacted were blazed down or passed by but still there were more to come and more still, rows and rows of them, he’d been dropped right into them, and his overworked blazer was signaling frantically of overheating …
  19. 19. Excerpt: Armor Slamming forward into them, firing wildly about, he had to get, to get out of them, had to, had-to … mandibles flashing by him and at him, tree-trunk arms and legs and claws crossing in front of him … most didn’t seem to know he was there, and the few who saw and reacted were blazed down or passed by but still there were more to come and more still, rows and rows of them, he’d been dropped right into them, and his overworked blazer was signaling frantically of overheating … Shock, surprise, and reflex reactions Desperation at being TRAPPED Terrified by the strangenessDisaster of losing his only weapon
  20. 20. Make It Realistic • Do the research—interviews, diaries, books by people who have been there • Watch the real thing—videos, news reports, documentaries • Watch the fake thing—if an action sequence in a film resonated with you, watch it again
  21. 21. Example Excerpt From Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, this is: • The scene when Michael Corleone murders the gangster Sollozzo • They are meeting at a restaurant • Although Michael was unarmed when he was picked up for the meeting, a gun was planted in the restaurant’s bathroom
  22. 22. Excerpt: The Godfather Michael sat down again … now he felt safe and he must have been scared because he was glad he was no longer standing on his legs. They had gone weak with trembling. Sollozzo was leaning toward him. Michael, his belly covered by the table, unbuttoned his jacket and listened intently. He could not understand a word the man was saying. It was literally gibberish to him. His mind was so filled with pounding blood that no word registered. Underneath the table his right hand moved to the gun tucked into his waistband and he drew it free.
  23. 23. Excerpt: The Godfather Michael sat down again … now he felt safe and he must have been scared because he was glad he was no longer standing on his legs. They had gone weak with trembling. Sollozzo was leaning toward him. Michael, his belly covered by the table, unbuttoned his jacket and listened intently. He could not understand a word the man was saying. It was literally gibberish to him. His mind was so filled with pounding blood that no word registered. Underneath the table his right hand moved to the gun tucked into his waistband and he drew it free. He’s never done this in cold blood Muscular response to fear Hugely elevated heart rate Can’t concentrate In the movie, Al Pacino’s eyes are darting all around just before he moves
  24. 24. Consider Responses Everyone reacts differently, with responses at the outset that are sometimes different at the end: • Some people freeze initially and then regain their balance • Others leap into action and carry that through • Some remain calm and methodical • There are also some entertaining-but-dangerous individuals who fly into a frenzy
  25. 25. In or Out of Character? Your characters’ responses will say a lot about them, but consider having them behave in a fashion that’s unexpected: – Brave people can experience burnout – Normally dependable individuals can let us down—and the coward can save the day – Action scenes can add depth to your characters and twists to your plot – Actions cause reactions, and when human beings are involved, those reactions can be very surprising
  26. 26. Example Excerpt From Hank Phillippi Ryan’s mystery novel Prime Time: • The main character, Charlotte “Charlie” McNally, is an investigative reporter • She’s driving her car at night, and several vehicles are slowly surrounding her • Charlie now realizes that two fatalities involved in her investigation weren’t single-car accidents—they were forced off the road, and it’s happening to her now
  27. 27. Excerpt: Prime Time The night speeds by, towering highway light posts almost a blur as our eerie convoy of vehicles, the only ones on the road, races north in unison. My exit is soon. Maybe my sinister escorts don’t plan to let me take it. So I might have until the next exit to come up with something. If I don’t, I realize with growing dread, it’s adios, Charlie … I can’t believe how determined I am. When this is over —cross fingers, cross toes, rabbit’s foot, wish on a star— I’ll probably freak out. But right now, I’m ice.
  28. 28. Excerpt: Prime Time The night speeds, by, towering highway light posts almost a blur as our eerie convoy of vehicles, the only ones on the road, races north in unison. My exit is soon. Maybe my sinister escorts don’t plan to let me take it. So I might have until the next exit to come up with something. If I don’t, I realize with growing dread, it’s adios, Charlie … I can’t believe how determined I am. When this is over —cross fingers, cross toes, rabbit’s foot, wish on a star— I’ll probably freak out. But right now, I’m ice. Concentrating on her problem Hemmed in Life-threatening Underestimates herself Rises to the occasion
  29. 29. Plot It Out The real world is a messy place, and it gets worse at high speed: • Running people trip over their own feet • Fighters misjudge the distance, lose their balance throwing a punch, and get pounded • In big fights, unusual things start appearing: – objects flying through the air – broken items (and sometimes bodies) underfoot – friends popping up in front of enemies
  30. 30. Keep Track • As the storyteller, you need to know what’s happening to every character all the way through—but you aren’t required to share that • Most of your characters will only see what’s directly in front of them, and very few of them will be able to describe the action in full • You’re the only one who has to comprehend this thing from start to finish
  31. 31. Example Excerpt From John M. Del Vecchio’s Vietnam war novel The Thirteenth Valley, this scene is a close attack on an infantry company perimeter in the jungle • The viewpoint is a veteran named Molino who, though a good soldier, has been away from action and only recently joined Alpha Company in the field • Molino believes he will be of no use to them
  32. 32. Excerpt: The Thirteenth Valley Doc disappears from Molino’s vision. Molino can’t see the wounded because of the thick undergrowth. He sees Pop Randolph running. Pop has sprinted from Alpha’s center. He is running the direction Doc ran. He is screaming in his hoarse, high voice, yelling at the top of his lungs. He has a grenade in his left hand, and grenades strapped to his web gear. He fires his M16 and yells. Molino can’t understand the words. Pop disappears into the foliage. Molino looks left-right. He can’t let them go it alone. He hunches his back, brings his legs up under him, his hands are on the earth, his rifle is stuffed in the muck. He is sprinting. He throws a grenade. He did not know he had prepared one, he did not know he knew the enemy location. He is firing. He is with Doc, and Pop, and Calhoun.
  33. 33. Excerpt: The Thirteenth Valley Doc disappears from Molino’s vision. Molino can’t see the wounded because of the thick undergrowth. He sees Pop Randolph running. Pop has sprinted from Alpha’s center. He is running the direction Doc ran. He is screaming in his hoarse, high voice, yelling at the top of his lungs. He has a grenade in his left hand, and grenades strapped to his web gear. He fires his M16 and yells. Molino can’t understand the words. Pop disappears into the foliage. Molino looks left-right. He can’t let them go it alone. He hunches his back, brings his legs up under him, his hands are on the earth, his rifle is stuffed in the muck. He is sprinting. He throws a grenade. He did not know he had prepared one, he did not know he knew the enemy location. He is firing. He is with Doc, and Pop, and Calhoun. But he DID Limited vision and confusion Molino feels he must help Accident due to distress Tight focus on one detail Short, choppy sentences
  34. 34. Writing It By now you’ve identified the sensations and emotions involved in your action sequence, and you know what actually happens from beginning to end. But how to write it? No matter what the action is, the tempo is accelerated—and the storytelling should be as well.
  35. 35. Techniques • Try shorter sentences and smaller words, to convey urgency and a compressed timeframe • Try longer sentences and stream of conscious description • Action verbs and onomatopoeia can also give the readers the feeling of actually being in the midst of the tumult • Describe the characters’ physical and mental reactions to events, to tell the story while making the experience real for the audience
  36. 36. Viewpoint in Action Scenes • You get to choose those viewpoints, and how accurate they might be • Single characters will only see and experience events right around them, while multiple viewpoints can help reduce reader confusion: – The single viewpoint conveys uncertainty and inaccuracy, and helps to put the reader in that character’s shoes – However, the perspectives of several characters can help fill in the blanks
  37. 37. Example Excerpt From my military science fiction novel Glory Main, this scene is a surprise attack: • The enemy are known as the Sims • The human soldiers are concealed in a poorly defended ravine • The viewpoint is Lieutenant Jander Mortas, who has just linked up with the force in the ravine
  38. 38. Excerpt: Glory Main All was sound and movement in the trench, the sergeant hollering “Up! Up! Up on the line!” dark figures struggling to their feet or up the incline, more screams from above, now bodies tumbling into the gulley or landing full in its center, the remaining sentries reaching safety just a few steps ahead of their pursuers. A brief, roaring volley from the troops who’d made it to the top, the night illuminated by white light ripping straight out of the rifle barrels, Mortas taking in a rapid-fire succession of images as the bodies in the gulley leapt about in confusion, whipping his head side to side in search of a weapon just before the wave hit them. Dozens of bodies came jumping straight into the ravine as if they hadn’t known it was there. Sims bouncing off the opposite wall, dirt flying, humans pulled off the parapet, falling in a tangle of weapons and arms and legs and screams that rent the air. More shots now, close range, the whole world was shouts and booms and flailing arms and legs. A flare burst just overhead, swinging wildly on a parachute and casting the gulley into daylight and then night as it whipped around.
  39. 39. Excerpt: Glory Main All was sound and movement in the trench, the sergeant hollering “Up! Up! Up on the line!” dark figures struggling to their feet or up the incline, more screams from above, now bodies tumbling into the gulley or landing full in its center, the remaining sentries reaching safety just a few steps ahead of their pursuers. A brief, roaring volley from the troops who’d made it to the top, the night illuminated by white light ripping straight out of the rifle barrels, Mortas taking in a rapid-fire succession of images as the bodies in the gulley leapt about in confusion, whipping his head side to side in search of a weapon just before the wave hit them. Dozens of bodies came jumping straight into the ravine as if they hadn’t known it was there. Sims bouncing off the opposite wall, dirt flying, humans pulled off the parapet, falling in a tangle of weapons and arms and legs and screams that rent the air. More shots now, close range, the whole world was shouts and booms and flailing arms and legs. A flare burst just overhead, swinging wildly on a parachute and casting the gulley into daylight and then night as it whipped around. Onomatopoeia Chaos, flying bodies, and limited vision Stream of consciousness
  40. 40. Conclusion • Action scenes can really engage your readers • Something important is at stake • Physical and mental sensations • Chaotic occurrences and limited perspective • Shorter sentences or stream of consciousness • Don’t be overly concerned about the details • Create an experience for your audience
  41. 41. Mystery and Horror as Vincent H. O’Neil The Frank Cole / Exile Mystery Series Supernatural HorrorTheater Mystery Mystery Anthology
  42. 42. Military Science Fiction as Henry V. O’Neil www.vincenthoneil.com

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