In my last post,  I talked about how writing in scene, grounding your action, and exercising conservation of detail make for stronger action sequences. Here, I discuss three more things to consider: Dialogue, stakes, and sentence-level writing tricks to speed up your action and keep things tense.

Dialogue

There is dialogue in action sequences. It’s less likely to be the focus of the scene, but unless the POV character is running through an obstacle course alone, it’s probably going to happen. In fact, it would probably be strange if it didn’t. Dialogue can break up large blocks of action, facilitate information flow between characters, and give them a way to establish their thoughts thus bypassing internal monologues.

Types of dialogue that are likely to happen:

  • Delivering instructions
  • One-liners
  • Taunting enemies
  • Calling for help
  • On the fly planning
  • Confrontations

Types of dialogue that are unlikely to happen:

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Ha. You’re so funny, Courtney. Kind of like this quicksand. What a riot.

Note that most of the dialogue you’re likely to see is going to be fairly tense. It’s also likely to be a bit shorter than regular dialogue and punctuated by action. Lengthy friendly interactions break up the tension, lighten the mood, and make it seem like your characters don’t feel particularly threatened. This usually happens to the detriment of the action sequence. On the other hand, tense interactions contribute to the momentum of the scene.

Stakes

An action sequence does not necessarily mean that readers are going to be glued to the page. Lots of writers assume that  chase scenes, battle scenes, and one-on-one fight scenes are inherently interesting. They’re not. What’s interesting is what’s at stake. This is why action sequence openers are a crapshoot: readers don’t know what’s at stake or who they’re supposed to cheer for, so if the exposition isn’t worked into the action incredibly well, it runs the risk of coming off as clunky and confusing.

Tension is created by having something at stake. Action sequences are cool because the tension is allowed to play out and readers know that at the end, the heroes will necessarily win or lose. Put something on the line and let the readers know what it is before the action begins.

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There’s no time for streets–microwave enchiladas are three for five and daylight is wasting!

It’s possible for the stakes to go up during the fight. But you must have something on the line—be it plot coupons, pride, etc.—at the outset. This can be implicit. It can also be vague (ie. The Raxgnor bursts out of the shadows and begins to chase Lucy. We don’t know what it wants, but we know the outcome will be very bad for her if she gets caught). It must be present.

High stakes should also mean high risk. It’s important to remember that tension is tied to whether or not the hero can lose. If the hero is able to negotiate the action sequence without batting an eyelash, it’s not going to be tense no mater what is supposedly on the line. Put the hero in danger. Their goal should be put in jeopardy. Let them get roughed up and come out a bit worse for wear, and don’t be afraid of making things difficult or even letting them fail. If they fail small challenges, it implies that it’s possible for them to fail where it counts.

Training Simulations and Low Risk Action Scenes

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Having just dry-cleaned his uniform, James braved the concrete tubes of doom at great personal risk.

This is when fight scenes are thrown in for the sake of fight scenes, such as two characters sparring with exceptionally little on the line. These scenes are fluff. They’re fun. They’re action packed. But they’re still fluff. How willing readers are to read these and how many they’ll take before losing interest is contingent on how invested they are in the characters. It’s good to pare these scenes back where you can, and to make sure that there are interesting character interactions with more personal stakes where you can’t.

Language and Sentence Structure

We’ve all heard that short sentences equal fast pacing while long sentences equal slow pacing. That’s a massive over-simplification, and it shouldn’t be relied on. If you’re fine-tuning on a sentence level, the most important thing to do is to make sure that all of your sentences read smoothly. Awkward wording counts for double in action sequences because this is the very last place that you want readers stopping to make sure that they’ve read something correctly.

When it comes to sentences, what’s actually important is not length but where you’re putting the emphasis. Don’t be afraid to vary up your sentence lengths and structures , and keep the effect that you want in mind.

Quick and Dirty Sentence Tricks

  • The end of the sentence tends to carry a lot of emphasis. So do the first and last lines of a paragraph. The words that you put there get a bit of extra force.
  • Deliberate repetition places emphasis on the repeated word, sentence, or sentence structure.
  • Difference draws attention. A short sentence among long sentences is going to get noticed. So is a complex sentence among simple ones.
  • Short sentences tend to pack a punch. They’re quick to read and powerful.
  • A lot of short sentences feel choppy or disjointed. Depending on what you want, this may not be a bad thing.
  • Complex sentences slow down pacing—long sentences with lots of long clauses or complicated grammatical constructions. Commas and semi-colons also slow things down because they indicate a pause.
  • A long sentence with short clauses and less punctuation runs together and doesn’t provide space to breath. Short clauses and more punctuation tends to read more methodically, like a list. Either of these can be used to your advantage if you know what you want.
  • Simple sentences are quick and easy to read, and push the story forwards.
  • Walls of text are difficult to read. Breaking up paragraphs will make the text easier to read, and will give the impression that more things are happening more quickly.
  • Filtering phrases (“he saw,” “she thought,” “they felt,”) and word clutter (“the color blue,” “the sensation of pain”) are going to slow down your action and make it less immediate.
  • Rhetorical questions are a form of ruminating. They do not propel the story forwards and do not convey motion.
  • Avoid gimmicks. Readers will catch on, and it will look cheesy.
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They stared into the billowing smoke, a great grey obelisk against the slate sky, wafting up from the wreckage like a lace curtain  fluttering on a light autumn breeze.

This isn’t the only way to do things so much as some generalizations. How sentences function has a lot to do with structure, position, and content. The best thing you can do is play around with them and figure out what works for you.

Action sequences are also a good place to be careful with figurative language. Almost all but the most basic figurative language takes readers away from whatever’s in front of them. Concrete images are relatively quick and easy to process. More abstract images take readers longer to imagine and pull them farther away from the action. Likewise, familiar images blend in while more interesting images tend to call attention to themselves. There’s often a trade-off between inventive figures of speech and unobtrusive language. Find the balance that suits your style.

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