Writing Action

actionAction, Baby!

When I’m writing a novel, I always write the kind of thing that will keep me amused and engaged. As it happens, I’m amused and engaged by action scenes, so you’ll find a lot of them in my work (which you should immediately purchase, of course). I got a nice note from one of my writing group buddies, who bravely suffers through drafts of my latest whatever, saying that he thought the action scenes in the last portion of novel #2 (The Farthest Hour) were quite the thrill-makers.

I glowed for a few minutes, and when that settled down, there being no work or household crisis to deal with, my mind wandered to thoughts of why the action scenes were working, at least for this pal of mine, who pens some corking passages of mayhem, himself. (Bagger Island and its sequels, by Denis Hearn – highly recommended.)

Stakes

The lead character in the scene, normally your protagonist, needs a good reason to get out of the easy chair and get into action, and that means something serious must be at stake. In a recent scene from Farthest, the protagonist’s best friend is strapped to a cross and about to be flayed alive. She doesn’t want him to die, much less suffer such a horrible death. She’s launched into action because of the stakes.

Drama

The cardinal characteristic of an action scene is – duh! – action. It can’t be just any action, though. It’s got to be dramatic enough to draw the reader in, and it’s got to move the story forward. Luckily for me, my lead happens to be preternaturally good at accurately throwing things, and is also carrying a set of throwing knives. From across a city square, she flings one of the knives and nails the would-be flayer in the neck, taking him down and giving her friend at least a temporary reprieve. So, that’s one down: it’s dramatic.

Story Movement

But what about moving the story? If the scene just stopped there, not so much, but it doesn’t. The sudden crack in the apparently total power of the authorities breeds controversy in the crowd. Some wanted the flaying to happen, some didn’t; now they start yelling about it, and the next thing you know, there’s a riot. Best friend and his fellow prisoners are evacuated and the protagonist, is identified as the knife-wielder and arrested. Now she is hauled off into the belly of the beast she was just busy resisting. If that’s not plot movement, I’ll drink a beer. Hell, I’ll drink two. You’re buying.

Physical Movement

Another hallmark of the action scene is physical movement. In the scene I’ve been talking about, the protagonist not only throws a knife, but works her way through a thick crowd, rides in a rickshaw, and gets tied up and thrown onto a horse. Her friend also spends some time tied and mounted, and is then taken down, tied to a cross, and forced by survival instinct to do a lot of useless struggling. The flayer parades around with his knife and actually starts the job before getting distance-stabbed. By the end, the cops are high-tailing it out of there, leaving a square boiling over with rioting civilians. You get the idea.

Getting the Knack

The best way I know of (my knowledge being, admittedly, limited) to get the hang of writing action is to sort of marinate yourself in it. Read a lot of books with action—fiction and non-fiction. (Ever read Into Thin Air? Wow. Watch action-packed movies and TV shows. Read some more! Engage in a bit of action yourself, if you can, to the best of your ability; get some martial arts instruction, go mountain biking, walk the dog on a new route, whatever you can manage.

Most important of all, start writing action as soon as you start marinating, or even before then. As with everything else in life, practice makes you better.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Carson

Writing Prompt: Write an action scene starring Wishie the Troll and leave it in the comments!

wishie-cropped-for-090916

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Tools for Writers: Keeping a Daily Average

I’m a bit of a geek, so I enjoy playing with spreadsheets sometimes. If you’re similarly afflicted, you might be interested in something I’ve come up to track my productivity over time.

It’s easy to track your words written per day and watch the total as it gets bigger and bigger on a line chart. It’s fun, too, and I find it every encouraging to see that squiggle reach a little more skyward each day. (Except on editing days; then it can take dip. Feh.)

Wonderful as it is, the word total graph is always going to be moving up, overall. It doesn’t really tell you how effective your writing time is. I decided a good way to check that would be to keep a running average per day, based on all the writing days I’ve managed to accumulate for a specific project.

Here’s how to do that…

  1. Create a spreadsheet (I use MS Excel, but you can use whatever you like) with columns for Date (bet you can guess this one), Words (cumulative total), Written (words written today), Notes (for whatever comments), and Avg (for the average). It looks more or less like this:

columns-for-avg

  1. Set up the Written column so the word total from yesterday is subtracted from the world total for today, to give you a total for today. For example, in the illustration above, 17,651 words total for 8/10 subtracted from 18,138 words total for 8/11 give me 487 words for 8/11. You might have some in-line notes or something that keeps this from being exact, but the number will still be, as we say in the day-job world, “directionally correct.” In other words, close enough to give you an idea how you’re doing.
  2. Set up the Avg column so that the first cell in the formula stays the same and the second one increments when you drag or copy the formula to the cell below it. I know, that’s clear as a London fog, so let me break it down:
    1. Leave the first Avg cell, E2, blank, since there’s nothing to average yet.
    2. In E3, set the formula as “=AVERAGE($C$2:C3).”
      1. The $ signs keep the “C2” from turning into a “C3” and hosing your formula when you move it down to the next cell.
      2. The numeric value in the plain “C3” is going to increment by one when you move it copy it to the next cell down, which is what you want.
    3. Every day your write:
      1. Record your total words in Words.
      2. Copy or drag the formula in Written down to the current row.
      3. Copy or drag the formula in Avg down to the current row.
  1. After you’ve got a few rows of data:
    1. Select the data in the Date column.
    2. Keeping the Date data selected, also select the data in Avg. (To do this in MS Excel for Windows, you hold down the Ctrl key while selecting. If you use something different… Google it if you don’t know.)
    3. Using the Insert menu, select the line graph from the Charts section, pick the one you like best and click on it.
  2. You’re done! If all went well, you’ll get a chart that looks like this:

avg-chart

I can use this chart now to see how I’m doing, productivity-wise. Looks like I’ve been going pretty steadily at 5-600 words per writing day since September 2016, which is where I like to be. I can also tell that I had a higher average when school was out and I had more time in the mornings, without the chaos of getting people ready for school.

So, there you go. Go on and geek out. May your averages be high.

Cheers,

Carson

 

Please leave a comment, and maybe the Good Fairy will bring Wishie some shoes.

wishie-cropped-for-090916