Building Definition - Bring Your Story to Life: Action

J.R. Pittman

A bullet pinged off the low stone wall, missing Jason's head by inches and peppering his left cheek with tiny sharp chips. With a muffled curse he threw himself to the ground and scrambled forward on hands and knees to the edge of the wall, wishing for the gun that lay three feet away from him in an open line of fire. Pulling himself up into a low crouch, he took a deep breath, counted to three and then lunged forward.

Though Jason couldn't hear the shots, the dirt exploded next to him as his left shoulder hit the ground and his right hand closed around the gun handle. Go, go, go! Heart slamming in his chest and his old sergeant's voice echoing in his mind, he tucked his head down and rolled behind the next section of wall, then scuttled backwards until his back hit the cold stone.

Ah, action - how glorious it is! You, as an author, have the ability to paint a living picture that can cause a reader's heart to hammer, have them biting their nails or sitting forward in their seat. Great action sequences can turn a mediocre book into a nail-biter, while poor action can ruin an otherwise excellent story. What's the difference, though?

How do you tell what kind of action sequence you have? How do you write nail-biting, heart-stopping sequences? How do you paint a living masterpiece?

This is where wording, setting and character description really come together. Each action sequence is the culmination of all that you do as an author to pass your story to the reader.

Rule #1: Decide the overall emotion for the sequence. I personally believe that this is the most important part of any good action sequence. If your character is afraid, choose words that pass along that feeling to the reader without telling them "my character is afraid":

Carol was terrified. Her body shook with fear as she watched her attacker from the bushes.

This is - okay. The problem is that I'm telling the reader Carol is scared, and then showing it. Instead, I should be describing the fear and Carol's emotions. If need be, remember a time when you were scared - how did your body react? How did your thought processes change?

Heart knocking in her chest, Carol stared through the thick branches and scrubbed her shaking, clammy palms on her thighs. Please don't let him see me! Please don't let him see me! She choked back a sob as her mind babbled on; her teeth clamped on her lip, bringing a sharp sting of pain.

The words and phrases in bold - along with the brief moment in Carol's head - all help to create the emotion you want the reader to feel. Try to keep from using the emotionally descriptive words - i.e. terrified, scared and afraid.

Rule #2. Choose your verbs carefully. Your choice of wording is no small thing. Each verb is a reminder, an echo if you will, of what your character is feeling. Let's use "ran" as an example. Your character is running, but what is the reason - the emotion - behind the action?

Fear: Carol fled from her attacker.

Anger: Jason charged his enemy.

Using appropriate verbs for the emotional impact can make all the difference between a great sequence and a poor sequence. A thesaurus is a wonderful tool for this - look up the word and then chose the one with the appropriate emotional feel to it.

Rule #3. Make your delivery follow the emotions. Your delivery in an action sequence is as important as a stand-up comic's delivery of the punch-line. For instance, if you've ever been in a serious fight you know that most of the action happens like stop-motion photography:

I hit him. His fist comes toward me. I duck and punch his stomach. He doubles over and I step back. Something hits me in the head. It's his fist.

There is no finesse, no outside distractions. Every thought is focused on now, all perceptions are narrowed down to this one moment and your thoughts are lightening fast. Now, in the example above it sounds bland. However, let's try a simple example from a character's point of view, using the same type of minimalist delivery but more description:

Jason hit Derek with hard right. Derek took the jab and swung back. Jason ducked under Derek's fist, slamming two hard punches in his stomach. Derek doubled over, but a solid roundhouse caught Jason in the side of the head.

Try to keep your sentences short, without long, involved descriptions. You want your reader's eyes to leap from one sentence to the next, not trudge through a paragraph-length sentence.

Rule #4. Your setting is there for a reason. In other words, don't be afraid to bring your character's surrounding into the action:

Carol's grasping hand closed around a hard, round object. She swung it up in front of her and her attacker jerked to a halt.

"What are you going to do with that?" he hissed, dark amusement in his voice.

She stared in disbelief at the small branch in her hand then jerked her head up. "Stab you in the throat with it if I have to," she growled.

It's just a stick in this example, but it can add more reality to the situation. Anything can be a weapon in a fight. Things can be thrown into the path of someone chasing your character. Use your setting to help, hinder or save your character.

Rule #5. Read, edit, rewrite - then do it again. Action sequences carry a lot of weight in a story, which is why it's so important to get them right. After you've finished with your sequence, reread it. Try to look at it as a reader would, and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are there any unnecessary words? - One of my short-comings as a writer is being long-winded. This is a big no-no in action sequences. If your character is in a life-or-death situation, they don't have time to notice that the trees are flowering or that the grass is lush and thick - unless they fall in it, perhaps. They might notice that it's sunny, for example, but only if the sun is in their eyes. Make sure that the descriptions you use are needed and not just space fillers.
  2. Do my verbs and descriptions match the emotion I am trying to get across to the reader? - This falls under rule #2. Have you used verbs appropriate to the emotion - i.e. "fled" or "charged" instead of "ran"?
  3. Do I, as a reader, believe my action sequence? - The problem is that it's hard for most authors to distance themselves enough to answer this question. If you find that you can't, get a review group! Not only do these wonderful people save you lots of time by pointing out what they don't believe, they also can tell you what works and what doesn't.

In the previous three articles of this series, I've used the analogy of a painter and a paintbrush. Most artists have an idea of what they want their canvas to look like when they're finished, but end up making small changes here and there before the picture is finished.

You, also, are an artist that must make the small changes here and there to get the story you want. How you write your story is ultimately up to you. You know what your finished masterpiece is supposed to look like and how your characters would act in any given situation. Sometimes, it's hard to change things.

I know how proprietary an author can be about their stories, but use the rules I've passed along - they've come from many years of experience. In the end, it is still the story you began with, but a tighter, more focused version.

Good luck, keep writing, and may you always paint a masterpiece!