August 27, 2009 / 2 Comments

Getting in on the Action

Well, since not one of you voted last week, I got to seize power again and decide what to rant about this week with no input or opinions. Viva Democracy! The system works!

So, speaking of things working, action can mean a bunch of things. It can be Yakko finally getting a backbone and standing up to his abusive boss. It can be Wakko fighting off cyborg ninjas from the future. It can be Dot running from a serial killer deep in the forest one night because she was doing naughty things at summer camp.

We all want to do cool action, because it’s fun and it’s memorable and it makes producers think “this would look great on the big screen– give that writer a quarter-million dollars!” But most of us have probably read a book or three with painful action descriptions, and any script reader can tell you about the dozens they dropped because the action scenes were sleep-inducing at best.

Probably the most common problem I see with action is a desire to put in all the action. Every single instant of it. Every gunshot, every punch, each flail of the legs as someone tries to climb up a cliff, and all the individual roars of an angry dinosaur.

Thing is, too much detail slows action down. It can be the most amazing bit of kung fu fighting ever, but each time the writer pauses to describe the harsh open-palm strike which is blocked with a swift overhand block which rolls over the wrist and into a hold to create an opening for two quick punches, one to the face, one to the… man, that should be half a second of fighting, but it’s two lines here. That is one slooow, overwritten fight.

Putting in all the action also tends to get messy from a vocabulary point of view. Bad enough the writer is putting in all seventy punches, but they also know that seeing “punch” seventy times on the page is going to get dull. So suddenly the combatants are punching, hitting, striking, whamming, banging, thrusting, pounding, blasting… It starts feeling needlessly complex, and yes, you should also notice that it starts sounding vaguely pornographic as well.

Now, compare all that to this…

Their hands were a blur of strikes, blocks, and counterstrikes.

I didn’t give as much information, but I did convey a much faster, intense scene, and with far fewer words. Fewer words means a faster read, which means a faster fight.

In my mind, action is a lot like character descriptions. You want to give broad strokes and only use fine details when absolutely necessary. Let the reader fill in a lot of it– because odds are they will anyway.

Action, by it’s very nature, is usually fast, so use this as a rule of thumb. If something is only taking a few moments to happen in your story, it should only take a few moments to read. If there’s an important detail that will matter later in the story, sure, add it in. But otherwise, keep it clean and simple.

Another key note… it has to be possible for the reader to visualize the action. One screenplay I read a while back had gladiatorial games where one man was pitted against three hundred. It actually said that in the script– “Now he fights 300 men with just his sword.” This was going on in the background, for the record.

Gigantic action scenes involving a hundred thousand people are cool, but they’re hard for someone to keep in their mind. That’s why such huge battles tend to concentrate on smaller, individual conflicts. In Tolkien’s The Two Towers, thousands fight at Helm’s Deep, but we’re mostly concerned with Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas. When Dan Abnett writes about the Tanith First and Only on a battlefront, he tends to focus on Gaunt, Mkoll, or Rawne, not on the regiment as a whole. Saving Private Ryan is about World War Two, but it’s mainly about this one small unit of soldiers.

Visualizing can also be a common knowledge problem. It’s cool that the author knows all the Japanese names for every kick, punch, strike, and block from each of fifteen fighting styles… but does the reader know them? Do they need to? From an audience point of view, it there a huge difference between a hail of bullets from an M-16 and the spray of lead from an AK-47? Anything that makes your readers pause to consider what’s going on is slowing down the action and it’s breaking the flow of your writing. Especially watch for this in genre material, where writers can be making up completely unique weapons and fighting styles. It’s great that Nimwadda is a Zonbovac master with his gwerttig, but it’s a lot easier to visualize if I’m told he’s a world champion axe-fighter… even if it’s a special goblin axe.

A special note for screenwriters. A lot of action stuff gets redone on set, for a variety of reasons. Time is one. Money’s another. Plus, let’s face it… most stunt coordinators have a better idea how to set up a cool-looking fight on screen than most writers do. That’s their job, after all. They’re also keenly aware of what’s possible– and what’s safe— for the stunt teams and actors to do. I heard a funny story from the live action Spawn movie, about the petulant writer/ director who was angry a stuntman wouldn’t do one stunt sequence he’d blocked out… because it almost certainly would kill the stuntman.

In a screenplay, worry about setting the mood and tone of an action sequence more than a shot-by-shot description of the sequence itself. The swordfights in The Princess Bride have a very different tone than the ones in Highlander. The slugfests in Rocky are not like the ones in Hellboy. Skim over the action itself, just make it clear what kind of fight it is, which way it’s going, and who wins.

As an example, let’s look at the lobby battle in The Matrix. Neo steps through the metal detector wearing a hundred guns he borrowed from his grandfather’s arsenal and then it’s mass carnage. From the moment we see Neo’s boots coming out of the revolving door to the moment he and Trinity step into the elevator is almost precisely three minutes, fifteen seconds of bullets, karate, acrobatics, and aggressive redecorating.

How long is it in the script?

About half a page. Ten lines.

Neo and Trinity walk in, he guns down the guards. More guards come, they’re gunned down, and our two heroes continue on their way, cool as ice. That’s it.

However, it’s still okay to note key elements of a sequence. In The Princess Bride, we need to know that Inigo and the Man in Black both switch hands during their swordfight, but we don’t need to know which steps their blades clash on as they work their way up the staircase. Watch a couple films with elaborate action sequences, like Equilibrium, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or even (dare I say it) Attack of the Clones. There are long stretches of action, but what stands out? What catches your eye? Remember the “hallway of death” in Equilibrium? We remember the auto-loaders in Cleric’s sleeves, his roll onto the “weeble” clips, and him kicking up the rifle near the end. There’s a lot more to the scene than that, but that’s all you’d need to focus on.

So that’s where the action is, if you’ll pardon the pun. And if you won’t, well… you should’ve voted when you had the chance.

Next week, we bring on the bad guys and talk about why John Saxon never got to play a good screen villain, but Alan Rickman did.

Until then, take action. And go write.

July 17, 2009 / 4 Comments

The Challenge Round

Sorry for the slight delay. Stupid work with their stupid assignments that let me pay my stupid rent…


Speaking of things getting in the way, a common writing term is the obstacle. It’s what stands between your characters and whatever it is they want. While opinions vary on the topic, in my opinion an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict because obstacles tend to be exterior, while it’s very possible for conflicts to be interior. I prefer to use the term challenge, personally. I’ve found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind solely onto physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course. While this isn’t technically wrong, it does tend to result in a lot of the same things.

There are tons of different things people can want, for a number of different reasons. They can want that foreign prisoner back in America. You can want to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. To get that alien implant out of their skull. Or to tell Phoebe O’Brien from sixth-period English you think she’s the most beautiful person you’ve ever known. These are all solid goals.

Likewise, there are even more things that can be between these characters and their goals.

A few tips on challenges…

A challenge must exist

Yeah, this sounds like a basic one, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stuff where characters just stroll through a story with minimal effort. Looking for a clue to that mystery? There’s one over there. Need a boyfriend or girlfriend? Not any more. Villain waaayyyyy outclasses you? Good thing they told you about their Achilles heel and then left it open and exposed. This sort of thing shows up in fiction and scripts far, far more than you’d like to believe.

There needs to be some sort of challenge between your characters and their goals. If there isn’t, they would’ve accomplished these goals already. If I want a soda, I go and get one from the fridge– that’s it. Hardly the stuff great stories are made from, because there’s no challenge. If I want to drink my soda from a Faberge egg while Phoebe massages my feet… that’ll require a bit more effort on my part.

A challenge needs a reason to be confronted

If your characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it. A real reason. Nobody sneaks or fights their way onto an enemy base just for the heck of it. They’re not here because there wasn’t anything else to do on Thursday night, but because millions of lives depend on the information this prisoner has and the enemy is torturing it out of him. You don’t tell Phoebe she’s beautiful for the heck of it, you tell her because you’ve wanted to for months and never worked up the nerve and now your parents are moving and you’ve only got two weeks of school left to let her know how you feel.

A big trick here is to make sure this reason is really there. It may be obvious in your head why the characters are going to undertake this challenge, but is it that clear on paper? This also holds for less physical things like Phoebe-confrontation, where the audience needs to understand why talking to her is such a big deal for this character.

A challenge has to be daunting

That base has over a hundred armed guards, attack dogs, barbed wire, starlight-scope cameras, and a minefield along the north perimeter. And if you think that sounds rough, Phoebe always has two or three friends with her, which means you’ll have to figure out a way to get her away from them, but they’re still going to know what you’re talking to her about. Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let’s be honest– we’d all love it if more things were just handed to us. That enemy agent. The alien brain implant. Phoebe’s heart (emotionally speaking).

Much as a challenge needs to exist, it needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn’t really a challenge. Even John Carter, greatest swordsman on two worlds, would occasionally look at the odds he was facing and say “Oh…crap.”

Well, he was always a bit more eloquent than that, but you get the point.

A challenge cannot be impossible

If you’ve ever watched a boxing match, or any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they’re evenly matched. NFL teams don’t take on pee-wee football teams. Rarely do you see someone like Vin Diesel beating on a person with a Woody Allen-esque physique. Well, not outside of high school, anyway…

The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the protagonists have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge. If you’ve ever watched a horror movie where the killer is merciless, unstoppable, and inescapable… well, that gets pretty dull after the second or third kill, doesn’t it? One of the reasons Jason Voorhees was always terrifying is that he never ran, he just sort of… marched (well, in the original films, anyway). You always had this sense that someone should be able to get away from Jason. Maybe if they could go a little faster…

The other risk to be wary here is if the challenge is completely impossible and your protagonist pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock your audience out of the story.

A challenge needs a reason to exist

A combination of the first two points. If you’ve ever seen Galaxy Quest, you probably remember the mashing hallway which–as Sigourney Weaver loudly points out– serves no purpose whatsoever. We can probably all think of a book or movie where, for no reason at all, an obstacle just popped out of nowhere. Or perhaps it was there all along, but you couldn’t figure out why if your life depended on it. That’s false drama, and it just weakens writing.

Challenges have a purpose. They’re characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have (for one reason or another) set in your protagonist’s way. One of Phoebe’s friends can’t be a queen bitch just because the writer needs a bitchy character to thwart our love struck hero. Why would Phoebe hang around with someone like that? Think about why they’re doing this, and if you don’t have a real reason, stop for a couple minutes and re-think this particular challenge.

A challenge should be unexpected

This one’s not ironclad, but I’d still lean heavily towards it. If your characters are prepared, well-equipped, well-rested, and waiting for conflict, it’s not quite the same as when its sprung on them and they have to make do. It’s really cool to see the guys deal with sneaking onto the base, but it’s even cooler when they get there and what the #&$%!! Are those motion sensors? Why didn’t we know about those? Okay, everyone stay calm, here’s what we’re going to do…

A small bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives your characters a chance to look clever. When they beat the unexpected challenge (even by the skin of their teeth) it makes them all the more likeable.

A challenge needs a resolution

If we see the set up, we have to see it resolved somehow. As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three. The squad needs to make it onto that base or die trying or at least they have to decide they can’t make it and that prisoner isn’t worth it. Once we, as writers, present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored. We can’t spend the first quarter of our story pining for Phoebe and then never, ever address those feelings again.

Next week might be a bit tight again, as I’m heading into deadlines. But if all goes well, I’ll be here on time on Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather be working on this than some of the assignment I have.

Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk about next week. Not getting me wrong.

Until then, get some writing of your own done.

March 28, 2009 / 1 Comment

Kiss Kiss, Boom Boom

      An odd title, I know. Hopefully it’ll make sense by the end.

      So, everybody here knows a drama queen, right?
      I know there are two or three international readers here, and maybe they’re called something different across the ocean. Drama queens can be male or female and, as the name implies, they make drama. All the time. It’s what they release instead of the sweat and pheromones the rest of us let off. No matter how simple or mundane the situation, they’ll find a way to complicate it and over-emotionalize it. It’s what they do. I had a drama queen friend once who could make a dozen people going to the movies an operation on par with storming the beaches of Normandy. Operation Desert Shield was child’s play compared with getting all of us out to see the new Lord of the Rings.
      Now, people do behave irrationally sometimes, and we all have a buffer of sorts for it. There’s one time that you’ll accept someone’s insistence this is the worst thing that can ever happen, despite all evidence it’s pretty minor. We’re all decent enough to let a friend have one breakdown or emotional crisis for no real reason. That’s what friends do. Sometimes molehills really do look like mountains. We’ve all been there. If this happens once, it doesn’t make you a drama queen.
      Here’s the thing about these folks, though. The litmus test, if you will. They can pull their business once. That’s it. The second time someone tries to make a production out of a text message, or a trip to the grocery store, or a rumor they heard, you’re going to be taking it with a grain of salt. The third time it’ll be a spoonful of salt. And by the fourth time, you’ll already be focusing past them before the second word.
      Starting to see where we’re going with this?
      Some folks have a bad habit of creating false drama in their writing. They want to keep the reader’s interest, so they throw in something that they know is considered a good element for their chosen genre. Suddenly, for no reason at all, Bob and Cindy kiss passionately. With no warning, Emily starts to freak out over the message she just got. People start shooting at Dan. Out of nowhere, the car blows up. And then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob.
      Let me use films as an example. Most folks have seen a movie that’s just loaded with action. Where there are gunfights, explosions, ninjas, and more. Non-stop ninjas, in fact. Cyborg ninjas. From the future. With nuclear self-destruct devices on timers. Short timers. And yet… the movie didn’t hold your attention. Bored you, even.
      On the other hand, maybe you’ve had to sit through an indie film. And by indie I don’t mean independent, I mean indie. That special sub-genre of film that’s grown over the past decade. Indie films usually have a lot of people talking. Or not talking. Maybe staring at walls, old photos, or trees. Staring deeply. Pondering. And all the while, they’re trying to deal with issues. Problems. Things that weigh heavy on their soul. And talking some more. Or screaming. Or crying. Or then Cindy remembers she was molested as a child and starts shrieking at Bob. And that’s not holding your attention either, is it? Bored again, aren’t you.
This is all empty material. It’s false drama. It’s unmotivated action. And like the drama queen we’ve all known, it doesn’t take us too long to start tuning it out.
      This is, for the record, a very, very common first draft problem. Someone comes up with an interesting idea on page 98 and drops it in, ignoring the fact that absolutely nothing in the 97 pages before it even slightly or remotely hint at this idea. It isn’t a bad idea mind you. It just comes out of nowhere, like me suddenly shouting out WHANGDOODLE for no reason. Might be eyecatching and funny once. Maybe. But wouldn’t it be better, and more keeping with the rest of the post, if I made an off-color joke about some of those cyborg ninjas traveling back in time even further and molesting Cindy when she was a child?
      So, the easiest ways to avoid all this emptiness…
      Motivation. If one of your characters is doing something, whether they’re one of the leads or that guy they bump on the street, they should have a reason for doing it. It should be consistent with what we’ve seen them do before. This includes people we don’t see at all, like the people who are setting bombs under cars or loading that song into the jukebox. If there’s no reason for someone to do it, that probably means no one should do it.
      Realism. It doesn’t have to be tied to our real world, but what’s happening in your story should be believable within the reality of your story. Cyborg ninjas are great in Bytestrike VII: Computron’s Revenge. They are not quite as impressive or fitting in To Kill A Mockingbird.
      Coherency. A sci-fi story shouldn’t turn into a gothic romance halfway through. Likewise, a chick-lit story about shopoholics shouldn’t decend into a bloodbath. And hardened soldiers on the battlefront shouldn’t break down in tears because war is so icky and their boots are too tight. If you come up with a neat idea, go back and make it a consistent idea thoughout your writing.
      Relevance. Okay, maybe Cindy was molested by time-travelling cyborg ninjas when she was thirteen. Does that really have anything to do with the story of her trying to save the historic movie theater in her town from demolition? Will it have any effect on that meeting she’s having with the developers and the town council? If not, why are you bringing it up? Yeah, it may be rich character development, but it’s also distracting from your actual story, and that’s what everyone’s here to read.
      So, look back over your manuscript and make sure everything’s actually got something behind it. No empty drama. No empty explosions. Make sure it’s all got some weight to it.
      Next week, by request, a few thoughts on names and what’s in them.
      Until then… go write.