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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Best Action Sequence

   
Author Topic: Best Action Sequence
Doctor
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I am writing a very difficult action scene in my WIP, and I was hoping you could recommend me to action that, for you, has worked very well. I'd also like to launch a discussion about what works and what doesn't for written action, and why. Please bring example to the table.
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arriki
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I find that long, detailed fights bore me. Those are the ones that mention every blow. Salting the action-reactions with a little commentary/internalizations helps. It's different from the action-reaction cascades of dialogue.
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Bent Tree
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I enjoy action where the POV character's reactions to the events are well thought out. I like to see there mind work. I want to see their strategy, manuevers, and emotion. I don't like melodramatic dialogue, being told every time swords clash, or a shot is fired.
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JamieFord
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Check out Fight Club. A lot of the action is highly stylized to fit the flow of the whole book, but it's interesting.

If you want boring fight scenes, check out Piers Anthony's Wielding a Red Sword. The overly descriptive, overly technical judo scenes left me bored and confused. (And my dad taught judo, so you'd think I'd be interested...)


But, that's just me.


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Igwiz
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Take a look at Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. There are several good battle scenes that deal more with the MC reacting to the battle than to the blow by blow. Specifically look to chapter seven. I think this is some of the best character-building fight scenes that I know of.
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rickfisher
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There are other types of action than fighting. Chases, for example. Or struggling to get away from a tornado. Are you thinking of fights/battles in particular, or any kind of action?
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InarticulateBabbler
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For Sci-Fi fighting scenes, any of Steve Perry's Matador Series. Notably Black Steel, which opens with a fight scene (If I remember correctly), or his latest: The Musashi Flex. Most of the books are short, sweet and action oriented (Star Wars meets Highlander). Steve Perry is a student of the Javanese martial art Pentjak Silat Sera--sothere is a type of philosophy infused in the action.

For Fantasy David Gemmell's Drenai books. They are mainly set in war torn lands, just before a (or a few) big battle(s).

[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited March 17, 2008).]


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Ben Trovato
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In my opinion, Jack Vance (Demon Princes, Planet of Adventure) writes good action; very quick and matter-of-fact. So does James H. Schmitz (Telzey Amberdon, Telzey and Trigger), though in his case you have look for it very closely sometimes.
I would also second the Roger Zelazny motion.

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JeanneT
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quote:
I enjoy action where the POV character's reactions to the events are well thought out. I like to see there mind work. I want to see their strategy, manuevers, and emotion. I don't like melodramatic dialogue, being told every time swords clash, or a shot is fired.

And here's where individual tastes come in. That ruins most action scenes for me. The last thing I want in an action scene is a bunch of emotional stuff slowing down the ACTION. Action scenes are supposed to be just that. Emotion is for before and after the fight except possibly for tiny fragments.

I do like a lot of detail, but FAST detail. Reading the scene shouldn't take longer than the action itself.

I second that action should be quick and matter of fact. You don't do a lot of emotional junk while you're hacking someone to pieces or being hacked. I mean really--think about it. When someone is swinging a sharp object at your head are you REALLY going to stop and ponder how sad it all is? I don't think so.

However, there is action and there is action. Someone referred to someone in a novel watching a battle. To me that isn't an action scene really. I conside an action scene one where the PoV character is part of the action--and of course by action I mean combat.

A good action scen? Read the prologue to A Game of Thrones. I also like Juliet McKenna's deft handling of sword fights in her Ei narinn series. She describes the moves and swings very well but understands one of the essentials--fights don't last long.


[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited March 17, 2008).]


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Rick Norwood
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The writers best at action are often those the more literary critics look down on, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard come to mind. I just read the Conan story The Servents of Bit-Yakin. How's this for action:

"Conan was almost under the spot from which the creature had fallen. The monster struck the lower arch glancingly and shot off, but the writhing figure of the girl struck and clung, and the chest hit the edge of the span near her. One falling object struck on one side of Conan, one on the other. Either was within arm's length; for the fraction of a split second the chest teetered on the edge of the bridge, and Muriela hung by one arm, her face turned desparately toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of dispair."

A few observations. Lots of hard consonents: stuck, clung, hit, edge, struck. A third person in peril -- action scenes between just hero and villian seldom work, we need a third person involved, preferably scantily clad with large breasts. A lot going on. More than just winning or loosing at stake.


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JeanneT
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Mmmmm Not my taste in action sequences. But as has been pointed out, we have varying tastes.

quote:
Muriela hung by one arm, her face turned desparately toward Conan, her eyes dilated with the fear of death and her lips parted in a haunting cry of dispair."

I'm afraid my reaction was "Oh, Puhleeze."

Ok, here is an action scene I wrote myself a year or so ago. It's how I like to do it. Nah, I'm not to proud to use my own work. *grins*

The King made a move, a hard swing toward Jessup. Jessup took a fast pace back, keeping out of reach. The King threw back his head and laughed as Jessup lunged. The King parried. Jessup made a high swing. The King caught it on his blade. Jessup leaned in hard, his head buzzing. He shook it and set his jaw. They were working more of that pissing magic. He went for the goat loving piece of dung. He sent short, fast feints to the side then thrust for the belly. Jessup’s vision dimmed, covered with swirling black clouds, knees going weak. He back peddled as the King came at him, raining down blows. He strained to see as he caught them, instinct pulling him away from a blow that would have split his head like a melon.

The King went down with a scream. His mouth moved. A gush of blood poured out. Jessup stared as Tamra dropped to her knees behind the dying King, the blood covered sword falling from her hands.

Edit: You'll note I don't believe in fighting fair. She kills him from behind. Feel free to criticise it. That's not to everyone's taste. No emotions, internal dialogue and definitely no big boobs.

[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited March 18, 2008).]


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Doctor
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Ha! That's excellent.

Thanks everyone for your comments, especially for the examples. In answer to a question above, by Rick, yes I was talking mostly about violence, however, chases and the like are very important as well. And I wonder if the same set of rules applies.

As for my action it tends to look like this: (be gentle I'm just making this up on the spot)

Alex picked up his sword, raising it like he'd seen his father do. The man in black made no movement for a time.

"What are you waiting for?" A whisper came from behind the mask.

Alex bolted forward, blade slicing towards the stranger, aiming for his neck. Their swords connected, sparks flying as he drove the stranger into a fast retreat. Their blades crashed against each other, fast as a blur. Alex could feel the stinging in his arms from the shock of each blow. But he did not relent, ducking a clever slice he lunged, a narrow miss.

I like to write action that is unclear how the exact fighting goes, and instead I prefer to focus on the pace of the duel, who is winning, and what is at stake. I choose to let the reader imagine the fighting for themselves and, I believe, most readers enjoy it more that way. Instead of the narrator specifically describing each blow.

But I am basing those judgements purely on what I like, and what I think. I'd appreciate feedback, thoughts, and comments.


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JasonVaughn
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I think David Gemmell's fight scenes are excellent. They are on the detailed side but that's how I like them.

'Beltzer ignored the runner and hammered his axe into the first of the attackers. A sword plunged through his jerkin, narrowly missing the flesh on his hip. Dragging his axe clear of the falling warrior, he backhanded a cut into the second man's ribs, the blade cleaving through to the lungs.'

I hate it when a fight is built up and then it's over in a few sentences. Jo Walton comes to mind. She's an excellent writer but she seems to skip over the fight scenes.

p.s. I've just realised I've mentioned David Gemmell in almost every post I've written. I'm not obsessed. Promise :P


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Tiergan
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There are many different styles for writing action, thoughts of the MC during fighting, blow-by-blow action, or just the general feeling of a fight versus the specific details. I don’t believe any are wrong, in fact I try to use them all, depending upon the POV and the situation at hand.

Overmatched opponents:
If a young boy grabs a sword and is in his first fight against a skilled opponent, the boy’s mind is going to be racing a hundred times faster than his actions, thereby making his thoughts more prominent and the majority of my writing will go there.

Two equally matched opponents:
If the two combatants are of equal skill, I prefer the blow-by-blow; it highlights their ability and seems to make it more dramatic.

One versus many: War:
I prefer more the feeling of fighting, the general pattern, versus detailing every blow which can sometimes become too much in a large scene. Also I believe in this format instinct would take over more than thought, muscles acting on their own accord.

With all that said, I must admit I have been known to use all three in the same scene, the general fighting to allow a break from the specific blow-by-blow, and so forth.

Below is an example, taken from one of my first battle scenes a few years ago.

He was relentless now, slashing out with the butt end of his axe, the hard hickory crushing bone and cartilage. He reversed direction, cuting in a broad two-handed stroke. Green blood sprayed into the darkness. Swinging the axe overhead, he drove the swarming horde back. And then, dropping to his knees, he feinted, drawing the enemy in, only to reverse direction again, jerking the blade back from low to high, the weight of the weapon pulling him to his feet. The blade bit, cutting the legs out from under the nearest serpent and slashing open the stomach of another, before severing the head of a third. The momentum of the blade carried him into his next attack.

So that’s my take on action.


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Toby Western
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Not sure if this counts, but one of the most memorable action scenes I have come across completely finessed itself.

The writer (it was Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash) goes to a great deal of trouble setting up a scene where the hero runs out of a bar and jumps onto a high-powered future dream-bike, followed by a roomful of crazy thugs. He then kills it dead with something along the lines of “the rest was just a car chase.” and gets on with the rest of the book.

I doubt you could get away with it very often – and you really want your reader to like you before you try – but talk about chutzpah!


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JeanneT
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And you didn't throw the book across the room in disgust?

[This message has been edited by JeanneT (edited March 19, 2008).]


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Rick Norwood
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Loved Snow Crash, which has already done one great "car chase", has another coming up, and wisely does not overload the book with them.

As I said, Robert E. Howard is not to everyone's taste, but he is in print today, more than 60 years after his death, and writers such as L. Sprague de Camp, technically a much better writer, admired his energy. Staying in print doesn't necessarily mean writerly virtue, but it beats the alternative.


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annepin
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I've enjoyed Steven Pressfield's action scenes in The Virtues of War and Last of the Amazons. They're slightly different in take, since both are told first-person retrospectively, but I think that provides the right venue for mixing action, tactics, and inner perspective, all of which are particularly interesting when the MC is in charge.

So, an excerpt from The Virtues of War:

quote:

"Iskander!" Tigranes cries my name in Persian, claiming me as his own. His Meteor plows into Bucephalus like a trireme on the ram. The press swallows all. The heat sucks the breath out of you. The animals' necks straining against each other, burn like surfaces of flame. Meteor's jaw is so close to my face that my cheek piece catches against his bit chain. His eye is wild as a monster int he sea. The horses lock up chest=to-=chest, fighting their own equine war, while my antagonist and I clash like fencers, shaft against shaft, dueling for an opening. Tigranes could plunge his lance in to Bucephalus's gorge as easily as I can sever Meteor's windpipe with my own. But he will not, nor will I.

Elswere he riffs into long bits about tactics, which can be a little dry, but incredibly informative. Either way, what I like about his action scenes is that they feel like how a commander would have to think to win a battle, struggling to see through the dust and fighting bodies, trying to gain the perspective necessary to make key decisions and win the war.

He also wrote Gates of Fire about the Battle of Thermopylae which, as you can imagine, is packed full of action. I have a pretty high tolerance for gore in books but at one point I had to put the book down (though I picked it up later). I think I had nightmares, too.

My own stuff is pretty bloody. I generally focus on action, but throw in some gut reactions and perspective. Again, I think the character really has to come through in the action, but obviously you have to do this in a way that doesn't compromise the pacing.


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Toby Western
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quote:

And you didn't throw the book across the room in disgust?

Had he done so with one iota less aplomb, I surely would have.

I guess the moral is that you can get away with anything if you are glib enough.

But I've been quite tangential enough in this thread already. I guess the point I was trying to make (if any) is that sometimes the best action is the kind you don't see, but are artfully left to imagine.


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