Monday, March 16, 2009

Writing Action Is Like Writing Sex—Advice from Novelist Mark Phillips


Today’s guest blogger is Mark Phillips, author of The Resqueth Revolution, a gripping, highly recommended sci-fi story with thought-provoking social commentary. But forget the social commentary for now. Mark’s here to talk about writing action scenes. As the editor of this new release, I can attest to his skill. I kept getting so caught up in the action, I’d have to go back and read again to do my job. As a novelist, I learned a lot about writing action from his story. In this blog, Mark describes how writing action scenes is a lot like writing sex scenes. So sit up and take note.

How to Write Exciting Action Scenes – Part 1 of 2
Action scenes most often involve physical violent confrontation between characters in your story. They can also involve characters trying desperately to avoid a direct confrontation, as in a chase scene or even characters fighting to stay alive in a natural disaster—trying to ski out of the path of an avalanche say.

Action is often violent, but not all violence is action. A slasher film can be all about violence and suspense and yet have little or no action.

Good action scenes ought to be exciting. They should vicariously provoke within you the fight or flight response, raise your heart rate, make you breathe faster, get your adrenalin pumping, make you feel focused in the present moment and vibrantly alive, ready for anything.

Suspense is similar to action except the option of physical release is withheld. As our characters labor to defuse the bomb and agonize over cutting the red versus the blue wire, the suspense may have many of the same effects on us, but what makes it all the worse is that we are forced to just sit there with our character’s face inches from the bomb. We can’t save ourselves by violent physical exertion. Indeed, in novels or movies with both suspense and action, action is the release for suspense, much as major chords provide relief after prolonged stretches of minor chords and dissonance in music. It works the same in sexually explicit material: prolonged episodes of teasing find their release in raw sex.

I suspect that a great many writers who have trouble writing exciting action scenes also have trouble writing exciting sex scenes or avoid writing sex scenes altogether. On the other hand, if you already know how to write exciting sex scenes, the transition to action scenes will be all the easier.

The first rule of action writing is counterintuitive: slow everything down. In real life, action happens so damn fast that many of us have no time to react effectively. In movies action mostly happens in real time, coming at us in an overwhelming rush. But in writing, your job is to slow everything down.

Real life and movies are overabundant in details. All the most relevant details need to be in the written version, which means hundreds or even thousands of words for all those images and sounds. Your reader has to understand the setting and the relative positions of opponents. You must describe anything that may contribute to the outcome of the action before it comes into play—you can’t have your heroine slip on wet pavement without having previously told us about the rain. Tactical decisions that in real time are often nearly instantaneous and subconscious need an explicit examination; options need a thorough analysis. Then consider all the necessary expressions of thoughts and emotional details.

Martial artists and combat veterans often describe a subjective time dilation, where everything plays out as if in slow motion. Often, action scenes in movies use slow-motion literally to slow down the action. Viewers need time to notice and absorb all the details. Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge in American Gunfight, a nonfiction account of the assassination attempt on President Truman, take nearly 350 pages to describe fully a gunfight that lasted 38 seconds in real time. The reader wants to know what everyone is doing, their positions, what they are thinking, what they are feeling at every moment. If your character uses a weapon, the reader will want to know how it feels in the hand, its heft and the sound it makes in use, exactly how it operates, and the exact devastating effects it has on the character’s opponent. That all takes time and your audience will give you their attention as long as you are making it possible for them to experience vicariously the exciting action.

Action scenes are really writing in microcosm. The reader wants to know how the story ends, but will delay that gratification so long as the journey to that resolution is enjoyable in itself. We must exploit the interplay between suspense and release, between arousal and orgasm, dissonance and harmonic resolution. The audience naturally wants us to resolve the conflict. They are desperate to know how it turns out, but at the same time they are reveling in the action itself and want it to go on forever. Like a pornographer, your job is to keep them desperately craving orgasm, but so thoroughly enjoying the details of the preorgasmic procedures that they simultaneously enjoy and regret the moment of release.

But, all that said, the final product cannot dawdle. You are not describing lilacs in bloom. Your prose must sweep the reader along as if caught in mad, crashing, unstoppable rapids. Use action words, the smaller the better, and short declarative sentences with only the most crucial adjectives. (The purple prose school of action writing revels in the adjective-laden poetry of it all—if the muse moves you toward this, don’t necessarily shut her up. I personally enjoy purple prose of the old pulp variety.) If grammar gets in the way of the natural flow, you may occasionally opt for sentence fragments. Without sacrificing essential detail, condense descriptions into the quickest, leanest prose possible. Think of a fast movement in music—more notes per bar and smaller notes than before. Think bodybuilding—you pack on the muscle mass but also lean out that muscle until definition is everything, until your prose is “ripped.”

What do you think about the sex/action scene analogy? What is your favorite action scene in a novel? Favorite action scene in a movie? (Commentors have a chance to win a copy.)
______________________________________
For the second half of this great article, stop in Thursday at The Dark Phantom. Tomorrow Mark will do an author interview at Katie Hines’ site.

Followers of the 2009 Resqueth Revolution blog tour will have two opportunities to win a copy.
  • Everyone who leaves a comment on the tour will receive one drawing entry per comment per blog site. Two entries will be drawn at random, and the winners will receive a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution.

  • Everyone who answers all quiz questions correctly will be entered into a drawing for the grand prize — a signed copy of The Resqueth Revolution, a Resqueth pen, magnet and calendar, and a signed copy of Hacksaw, the first in the Eva Baum Detective series. Quizzes will post on March 21 and 27.

34 comments:

Syl said...

Good insight, Mark. One of the pleasures of reading action (sex or sci-fi) is that drawn-out immersion in a richly detailed scene that plays like a slo-mo movie in my head. Your scene of the meeting with Dr. Krim is a great example. It erupts into a guns-blazing battle and ends with the "blood and loops of intestines raining down...like heavy wet laundry on top of me". Juicy! For me, the really artful part of this whole scene is the ending where your main character cannot feel normal again until after a very long hot shower - this is a very humanizing moment. Thanks!

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Syl. I worked and reworked that scene for about a week getting it just the way I wanted it. Glad you found it juicy.
Mark

Maggie Bishop said...

Hello Mark,
Thank you for pointing out the big difference between movies and books in action scenes. I now know that I need to slow down and go into detail when the gun is about to go off or the car if about to go over the cliff. Your explanation is very clear.

Maggie Bishop
http://maggiebishop1.tripod.com
http://damesofdialogue.tripod.com

Mark Phillips said...

Lj,
Thanks for hosting me on your wonderful site. I want all your readers to know how much your editing meant in improving Resqueth. You went above and beyond the call making innumerable valuable suggestion about grammar, style, plot issues, etc. Any errors that have persisted into the final version are not there because Lj missed them--they are me stubbornly holding on to my bad habits. I will be a better writer in furure because of the lessons Lj taught me during the editing phase for Resqueth. Thank you Lj.
Mark

Mark Phillips said...

You're welcom, Maggie. Have a great writing day.
Mark

Edward G. Talbot said...

Hmm, I hate to write that I disagree somewhat, but I think I do. I cannot answer whether writing action scenes is similar to writing sex scenes since I have written action but not written any sex scenes. But I can answer the question about action scenes as a reader. Action thrillers are my favorite genre. And I prefer the scenes that are not drawn out in rich detail.

My favorite action scenes are from Clive Cussler novels. I could cite a dozen scenes from a dozen books, but certainly I could use the example of being holed up at the fort in "Sahara" defending against an overwhelming force. I find that what makes an action scene great is a combination of the right situation - essentially plot - and relatively terse writing, giving only the necessary details, and focusing on how the characters are dealing with the situation. It's much more important that I feel the character's pain as he falls than that I know that he fell because it is raining (although obviously the latter is a good thing to communicate as well). I don't necessarily think my opinion is completely contradictory to Mark's post, as this does not preclude slowing things down. But my eyes glaze over when I see too many details in an action scene.

I'll use an example of another one of my favorite authors - Tom Clancy (his earlier books). The thing I like least about Clancy books is the action scenes. Too much detail in most of them. I love his writing and his tension and his characters and I've reread some of his books 3 or 4 times. But even the first time I would wind up skimming whole paragraphs during action scenes. I find this happening with a lot of authors where I enjoy the books otherwise.

Again, I don't think my opinion and Mark's post are mutually exclusive. It's just a question of focus. When I write an action scene, first draft I treat almost like technical writing to get the nuts and bolts out. Then I go through and make sure I've got character reactions. The rest of the editing involves stripping out a lot of things, until I've gotten it so bare that action and emotions are all that's left.

tom cain said...

What an interesting idea, Mark! To me, the big difference between writing about action and sex - though I agree they share many stylistic/technical challenges and similarities - is that pretty well every adult reader has had sex, whereas far fewer (I hope!) have ever been involved in a fight, let alone shoot-out, car-chase, explosion, etc. That, I think, makes writing action easier, because readers aren't constantly cross-referencing what you've written against their own experiences, assumptions and biases. In terms of writing action - and my books are full of it! - I'd say the key is simplicity of language and clarity of description. I figure that if I've set everything up in advance, so that the reader knows what is at stake, where the jeopardy lies, what the scenario is and what tools/weapons are available, then the actual fighting/chasing.blowing up/crashing can be described in pretty simple, direct reportage. It's one of the areas of thriller-writing in which an experience writing easily-understood newspaper copy comes in very handy. It's the same task: to report on a complex, fast-moving situation in such a way that the reader can follow what is happening and become involved in the drama. Sex is FAR harder ... but maybe that's because I'm British and therefore crap at the whole subject!:)

Mark Phillips said...

Goog points Edward. When I researched what other authors had said about writing action, they all seemed to divide into two basic groups. You argue well for the other branch. Every writer should find the way that works best for them. My style is just one option among many. But even though I'm in the other branch, even I spend a lot of time stripping down my prose and getting it as lean as possible. It is definitely a balancing act. On March 19th the second part of this article will be at The Dark Phantom site. There I will include an action scene I've been working on. I hope you can visit. I'd like to know what you think.
Mark

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks for your insightful comments Tom. You are right about setting up as much as possible in advance. Much better to have an earlier scene with our hero practicing with weapons than to hold up the action describing the tools of his trade for the first time during a life and death struggle. And you are right that clarity is everything. When I'm writing action my goal is to have people be able to visualize it as if they were seeing a movie in their heads. Any confusion that throws them temporarily out of that state can be disastrous.
Don't give up on writing sex scenes. Being British is no excuse!
Mark

carl brookins said...

I agree with the whole premise, Mark, except in one not-so significant area. Hmm, that sounds like it could be dangerous. Anyway, I know several writers of really good action/suspense, thriller novels/scenes who can't and won't write sex scenes. They squirm and blush.

Too bad. I think it's the cultural attitudes. Society is okay with pretty graphic bloody violence, but almost never with explicit sex. Especially true if the scene involves actions considered unusual or perverted.

Mark Phillips said...

Good observation Carl. Our society has some major issues about both sex and violence. During this tour I will be exploring these disturbing tensions in much more detail in my second series of articles, Wriing About Violence. It's a three part article. You'll find the dates and locations back at tour central at Char's Book Reviews http://charsbookreviews.blogspot.com/
Hope to get your reactions to those articles as well.
Mark

P.S. I just watched The new film adaptation of The Watchmen this last weekend. It explitly (forgive the pun) deals with the complex pychosexual relations in our culture between sex and violence. It did so with an unflinching eye. Several people I watched the movie with assumed that the sex and violence were meant to shock and were gratuitous, but I've read the original graphic novel many times and I'm convinced that it was not gratuitous, but key to one of the main themes of this complex and many layered work.

Diana_Duncan said...

I don't have a problem writing either action or sex. But those scenes that go so fast in the reading often take a really long time to craft well. *G*

My favorite action scene in a movie is John Woo's HARD TARGET with Jean-Claude Van Damme. A martial arts fight that is slowed down to the point where every movement is as exquisite, perfect, and defined as any ballet.

It never fails to steal my breath when I'm watching it and I'd LOVE to be able to capture that ultra-violent, yet so fluidly beautiful animal essence of a fighting warrior in prose!

©DGreer said...

What do I think of the action/sex scene analogy?

Uh-oh.

:Dani
http://blogbooktours.blogspot.com

Mark Phillips said...

I like the way you descibe John Woo's handling of martial arts. He is a master of the genre. Some people look at me like I'm crazy when I describe the sheer beauty of what to them seems ugly brutality. But it can be beautiful. I grew up with Sam Peckinpah films. There are scenes in The Wild Bunch that are high art, especially some in very drawn out slow motion. John Milius' The Wind and the Lion has some action scenes that are awe-inspiringly lovely.
Thanks for your comment.
Mark

Jean Henry Mead said...

You draw an interesting parallel between writing sex scenes and violence, Mark. I don't read or write either one, which is probably why I write senior sleuth novels. :)

Jean
Jean Henry Mead
Diary of Murder

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks for the comment Jean. I'm not sure those seniors out there are as prim and proper as are commonly thought. I knew one who was certainly as bloodthirsty as they come. I was in a writing seminar at Rice U. down here in Houston with an octonegenarian named Mrs. Green. She has since left us, bless her soul, but at that time she was adamant about passing along to us youngsters her passion for detail. I made the mistake of writing a rather hasty passage involving an eye gouging. Mrs. Green lectured me for ten minutes on the need for graphic detail. She would not rest until I had inserted the requisite sound effects, sensations, etc. in rather gruesome detail. She was right. The scene is in Hacksaw and, in context, it is, I believe, a critical moment in the character development of the protagonist. Mrs. Green taught me a crucial lesson that has helped my writing.

All that said, thank goodness for cozies and their writers. I love a good cozy on a rainy afternoon.
Mark

Kristen Painter said...

I'm sort of new to writing action scenes, but I really enjoy crafting them. They take some work, but it's worth it in the end.

Mark Phillips said...

It is fun Kristen. Practice makes perfect. Keep at it.
Mark

Heidiwriter said...

Great advice. Both good action and good sensual scenes are difficult to write.
Thanks,
Heidi
http://heidiwriter.wordpress.com

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks for the comment Heidi.

Lisa Logan said...

A very interesting and astute comparison, Mark. Sex scenes require the careful pacing, suspense, buildup, and payoff of a dynamic action sequence. Appreciate the reminder!

Mark Phillips said...

You sound like a thorough craftsman yourself, Lisa. Keep up the good work.
Mark

Bob Sanchez said...

Your advice makes good sense, Mark. Thanks for the excellent post.

Bob Sanchez
http://bobsanchez1.blogspot.com
http://tinyurl.com/gettinglucky

Mark Phillips said...

You're welcome Bob.
Mark

Lynnette Labelle said...

Great post. Sanks.

Lynnette Labelle
http://lynnettelabelle.blogspot.com

Helen Ginger said...

I think you did a great job of explaining the difference between action and suspense scenes.
Thanks, Mark.

Helen
http://straightfromhel.blogspot.com

Mark Phillips said...

Tou're welcome Lynnette and Helen.

Autumn Storm said...

I once heard the greatest thing about sex was the anticipation, that of course can be applied to a lot of things. With that said one of my favorite movies would be the the Kill Bill series. Here Quentin Tarantino takes us into the world of a hit man and shows us that the end could very well justify the means.

Mark Phillips said...

Kill Bill I and II are among my favorites too Autumn. Tarantino is one of the few directors who can get consistent laughs from the most gruesome violence. I'll have a lot more to say on the relationship between sex and viloence later on in the tour. Keep watching tour central at Char's Book Reviews for my three-part article on Violence next week.
Mark

Chester Campbell said...

Coming late to the party as usual, Mark, but I enjoyed your post. It's interesting to take a technical look at something you've been doing by instinct.

Mark Phillips said...

Thanks Chester. A writer's instincts are precious things. Somtimes I feel like ananlyzing them may risk killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but so far, knock on wood, my ananlyses have allowed me to strengthen my writing. I'll be interested in your take on my three-part violence article next week. It's less a how-to as an analysis of when society will and won't approve of our use of violence in fiction. Hope to hear your reactions to that article.
Mark

joandelahaye said...

Hi Mark, Thanks for that incredible advice. I usually struggle with writing action scenes, now I know how to fix it. Just slow it down.

Joan De La Haye
http://joandelahaye.wordpress.com/

Mark Phillips said...

Have a great wreiting day, Joan.
Mark

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