I had an experience last Saturday that benefited me greatly as a writer. I want to tell you about it because it provided me with the clearest possible example of how (and how not) to write action from within a character's POV. I apologize for the length of this post.
To be brief, I lit myself on fire.
It was an accident, involving sitting too close to a candle while watching a DVD. The flame was directly behind me, so the back of my two shirts caught on fire. I was alone at home.
Here's what I was *NOT* thinking, even though it is factually accurate: - The flames are licking up my back. - The smell of acrid smoke is dancing into my nostrils. - I am twisting and turning to escape the searing heat. - In a flurry of panic, I am desperately trying to save myself. - I am all alone and there is no one here to help me. - My buttons went flying in all directions and pattered against the walls. [This will make sense in a sec.]
The following is an accurate transcription of my thought process. The parentheses are my physical actions and reactions. Keep in mind this all happened in the space of 20-30 seconds. Also note that I could never actually see or reach the fire because of its location on my back (except for the brief moment with the mirror).
- My back is hot. Oh, I must be sitting too close to the candle. - (Scoot forward.) - My back is still hot. Why is my back still hot? My back shouldn't still be hot. - (Twist to look over my shoulder to try to see the part of my back that is hot. Can't see. Feel hot air on my face.) - Am I still leaning over the candle? No... - (!!!!!!!!!!!!!) [This represents the physiological reaction of adrenaline shooting into my body. This was not a conscous thought.] - Do something! - (Flail arms backwards in a random attempt to smack out the fire.) - Where is it?!?! - (Pause, assuming random flailing has been successful.) - It was only the edge that was singed, so that took care of it. - My back is still hot! - [Smoke detector goes off.] - Stop, drop, and roll! Good for me for remembering. - (Drop and roll.) - I don't want to burn myself, so I won't press my back down very hard. I'll arch it instead. The fire will be smothered anyway. - (Stand up.) - OW OW OW OW!!! More hot! Pain! - (I am in front of a full length mirror, and catch a quick glipse of myself while I am in motion. There is bright orange all over my back.) - Huh. I look just like they look in the movies. _ (!!!!!!!!!) [This was when it hit me that I was in actual danger. I would describe it as a feeling of dread.] - PAIN! PAIN! - (Move about in random panic and pain.) - I'm trapped. The fire is on me and I'm trapped. It's growing, and it will keep growing until it eats me. Trapped. - I have to get these shirts off right now. [This was an extremely decisive moment.] - Off! Off! Off! - (Start to unbutton outer shirt.) - Too slow! PAIN! TRAPPED! - (Grab shirt and prepare to rip down the middle.) - But the buttons will rip off! My shirt will be damaged! - (Rip outer shirt open. Feel buttons popping. Outer shirt disappears. [I have no memory of actually removing the shirt. It ended up on the floor at my feet.]) - Hulk Hogan. - (Grab t-shirt at the neck.) - I'm glad this is a v-neck shirt. That will make it easier to rip. - (Rip most of the way open. Grab again to get another grip, finish ripping. Shirt disappears.) - My shirts are still burning. Wow. They were really on fire. - (Stomp on burning shirts with one slipper foot.) - Where is my other slipper? - (Hear television and smoke detector.) - I'm missing what Ben is saying! [Ben from LOST - the DVD I was watching.] I need to pause the tv. - (Find the remote. Pause the tv.) - The smoke detector is really loud and it's been going off for a long time. I don't want my landlords to hear it - they might get worried and come up here! I have no shirt on! - (Turn on overhead fan, open deck door, stand on couch and wave magazine at smoke detector.) - I'm shaking. - (Look at hands, which are indeed shaking violently.) - The only reason I'm shaking is because my body is full of adrenaline. It's cool that I know that. - (.......) [This is shock. i.e., that dull sense of out-of-body calm when you are simultaneously panicking. I was not feeling pain at this point.] - (Pace back and forth in a half panic half stupor.) - I'm burned! I need to do something. What should I do? Should I call 911? No, that's for emergencies and I'm not an emergency so I shouldn't clog up their phone lines. I can't look anything up online because the internet is out today. I need to do something. Mom will know. I'll call Mom. [Yes, I'm 31, and I called my mom. Significant other was in New York.]
At this point, Mom talked me down from the panic over the phone, ordered me repeatedly to ensure that the fire was out (it was not), told me to stand in a cold shower for ten minutes, and made me drink orange juice. I started to feel the pain, and worked on getting in touch with my doctor. Etc.
Of particular interest to me are the thoughts that seem out of place. For example, my smugness at remembering to stop, drop, and roll - and then my ridiculous logic about not pressing my back down. Or the movie comparison, the Hulk Hogan reference, the hesitation over ripping my shirt, the concern about pausing my DVD.
How does this relate to writing? Well, how many times have we read action sequences that sound like my list of things I was not thinking about? On the other hand, if I took my list of thoughts and actions and formed them into complete sentences, I'd have a pretty compelling action sequence. This helped me. Discuss!
I had something similar happen to me. It involved a candle too. And, yes, nothing helps you write about something better than when it's happened to you. THAT I will whole heartedly agree with.
Ever read an action scene in a book that's so unbelievably real that you wonder if the author has actually experienced it? That kept going through my mind while reading "The Horse Whisperer" during the accident where the driver of an 18-wheeler semi truck can't stop in time to keep from slamming into two teenage girls riding horses. The images the author wrote through the entire wreck were unbelievable.
Oh yeah, my accident: I was sitting on a piano bench with my back to it during opening Christmas gifts with about 20 other members of my family. Votive candles were on the closed keyboard cover behind me. I have long hair and leaned back to peek around the person next to me to see my husband sitting just down the way. I started paying attention to the kids handing out the gifts when the woman beside me exclaimed my hair was on fire.
I jumpe up to get away from everyone near me and the source of the fire. Didn't work. My hair continued to burn. So I swung my head to bring my burning hair in front of me and slapped it out between my hands. Surprisingly, the only damage was to my hair. My shirt wasn't even singed. Unreal!
Wow, is your back okay? That's really true about the weird thoughts that go through your head when you panic, like the primal and the normal collide and fight over who's going to come out on top. Thanks for the insight, and I'm glad you're alright (or is it all right? I hate those words.)
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I need to do something. What should I do? Should I call 911? No, that's for emergencies and I'm not an emergency so I shouldn't clog up their phone lines This was my thought process after I crashed my motorcycle and broke my foot in five places, and I went to the after hours GP (sorry, I don't know what a general doctor's practice is called in the US). It took five days to get it seen to, where if I'd just walked into emergency they could have had it dealt with that night... Thanks to the people who abuse the emergency number, how many people who may need urgent medical attention put it off until it's too late? I'm scared to think about it...
If you're not sure if you should call 911, YOU SHOULD CALL 911!
Turns out, the operators are prepared to tell the difference between a real emergency and an almost emergency, and can tell you where to get attention in the almost but not quite emergency situations.
Meanwhile, sojoyful, thanks for the detailed explanation, very insightful! I hope you're feeling better and any burns are minor and improved. I got a teensy tiny burn (from the soup I was making) on the inside of my wrist on Saturday night and it literally burned ALL NIGHT LONG. Anytime I took the ice pack off, I felt the burning sensation and pain. Ouch!
I know what you mean about crazy thoughts. I had a real bad bicycle accident when I was in highschool - took off half my face. Right after the wreck I was more worried about my bike and the fact that I couldn't find one of my shoes.
Crystal Stevens wrote: Ever read an action scene in a book that's so unbelievably real that you wonder if the author has actually experienced it?
I had that experience reading Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, when, after a night of four little kids aged baby to six puking all over her and everything else while her husband was away hunting, mother Vivienne takes off her pukey clothes, pulls on a fur coat (and nothing else), calls the babysitter, and takes off for the coast, planning never to return.
I could so relate to how Vivienne was feeling (been there....), and the scene was so well written, I feel certain that the author, Rebecca Wells, has been there, too.