November 12, 2020 / 3 Comments

Not THAT Kind of Action…

How’s everyone’s week been? Anything interesting going on in the world?

Today I’d like to dissect one of those chestnuts of bad advice that keeps floating around the internet and showing up in different writing-related groups. Well, it’s not so much bad as really misunderstood. Which is what happens when a lot of these things get distilled down to quick little buzzphrases instead of, y’know… explained.

So, an explanation.

The advice in question is start with action. I’m sure you’ve heard it once or thrice before. I’ve mentioned it here a couple of times and why it isn’t the best rule to follow.

Because starting my story with action doesn’t mean explosions and automatic weapons firing.  We don’t need to have dinosaurs in mech suits fighting vampire kaiju while SEAL team sixteen  (the best of the best of the best) blows up the Washington Monumentto take out the ninja lizard men trying to steal the Declaration of Independence. No boxing matches, no car chases, none of whatever other type of wild action scene might grab the reader immediately.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things. But it should be clear there’s a lot of genres they won’t work in (although I do think a lot of Hallmark’s Christmas rom-coms could be improved by introducing kaiju). Heck, even in genres where this kind of high energy intro could work, they might not fit in the particular story I’m telling.

Trying to force these high-action openings into every story is the misunderstanding I mentioned up above. It makes for a lot of clumsy openings that often don’t match up with the tone or plot of the actual narrative. When we say a story should start with action, what we’re really saying is that characters should be active from the beginning. A story should start with something happening.

But… and this is why I’m revisiting this…

I’ve had a few people point out to me (with a few different tones to their voices) that lots of things count as something happening. Right now I’m typing. And pausing to re-read a bit as I go. And digesting lunch. And breathing. I mean, technically, sleeping is me “doing something.” So is walking from room to room. Taking a shower. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, deep in thought. Yeah, those are all actions, no question. But none of these make for really compelling openings. They’re not exactly what I’d use to kick off a book.

So we don’t need to begin with gigantic, all-caps ACTION, but we also don’t want to begin with a light breeze making a few strands of my character’s hair drift side to side while she naps. 

I’ve been trying to think of a simple way to explain this better, that level of action that falls between explosions and mundane. And the other day I came up with what I think is a pretty solid one. With two small provisos.

So here’s your new rule to replace start with action.

Start with someone’s life changing.

This sounds big, but hear me out. It doesn’t need to be a permanent, scarring change. It doesn’t need to be gigantic. It just needs to disrupt the flow of their life to some level. It should be something that they notice happening if it’s going to be worth us using it as a starting point for the story.

Wakko finding out he’s got a flat tire when he’s heading into work is a change to his life—it’s going to affect his whole day. Same with Dot spilling her coffee and having to stop and clean it up. Phoebe finding out her ex thought she was “comfortably dull” (yes, no matter what they were doing) is going to change her life. And to use an example I’ve mentioned before, Sam Wilson realizing the guy he’s trying to run laps against is Captain Americais definitely going to make some ripples in his life.

Keep in mind—the big change in Sam’s life comes much later, when Steve and Natasha show up at his place looking for a place to hide and learn Sam has some skills of his own. But the action of that opening scene… Sam’s just met an actual living legend and had a moment of bonding over their experience as returning combat vets. If nothing else ever happened, if Sam and Steve never saw each other again, we still know this moment would’ve had some effect on Sam, for the rest of that day if nothing else.

Simple enough, yes?

Okay, here are my two little additions/provisos to this rule.

One is that this life changing event doesn’t need to be connected to my main plot in any way. Or even a subplot. It can be, sure, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s more about giving us a first impression of the character. Wakko’s flat tire doesn’t need to lead to the bigger overall story. The opinions of Phoebe’s ex don’t have to tie into a larger arc about relationships. And honestly, if you snipped that morning jog scene off The Winter Soldier and just began with Cap rescuing the ship at sea… what would really change, plot-wise? 

Two is a little trickier, but… it’s definitely worth keeping in mind. I’ve blathered on a couple times about the idea that characters should be used to things in their world. To the point that what would be amazing to us might be almost boring to them. With that in mind, I can start with something that might not be life-changing for the character as long as it would definitely be for the reader. Taking a gravity elevator-shuttle to the Moon is normal for Caliand Kurt, maybe even boring, but we can still appreciate the idea of kids bouncing around the cabin as people glide through the aisles and over seats. It’s nothing to them, but it’s something to us.

And one more time, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with explosions, car chases, and vampire kaiju. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dinosaurs in mech suits. But these big action pieces need to work with my story as a whole. They shouldn’t be something I just wrestled into place so I can say my story starts with action.

Look at the opening of your book. Does it change somebody’s life? Because that’s the big goal here, right…?

Next time, I’d like to hit you with a rock.

Until then… go write.

Last week I talked about action and I almost spun off on a whole little semi-related tangent. I cut myself off there, but I still want to talk about it, ‘cause it’s one of those things that comes up a lot. And people get it wrong a lot.
What I wanted to address (revisit, really) is that old chestnut that gets dragged out in almost every writing class or discussion or guru-lecture. Start with action. I’m guessing you’ve heard it once or thrice, yes?  Probably just this year.

The problem here is action. Most people see that word and think of… well, all that stuff we talked about last time. Car chases. Ninjas fighting cyborg lizard men. Giant two-headed shark attacks!

So, naturally, this is what they begin with. They come up with a reason to begin with a bank heist. Or a plane crash. Or an armed home invasion. Which is kinda weird in a romantic Christmas story, but you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? And we need to start with action!

To be clear, this almost never works.

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me do one of my Saturday geekery binges, watching three or four bad B-movies in a row. And one of the most common problems they all have is that they start with action. Something crashing to Earth and killing some rednecks or, y’know, a giant two-headed shark attack. Usually in three feet of water. Most giant two-headed shark attacks occur in three feet of water.

But every time, these action-packed events involve people we don’t know and have no investment in. Which immediately lessens the action because it’s not involving anyone I care about, it’s just… happening. To put it in current events terms, we’ve all seen the news about hundreds of thousands of people dying across the globe from Covid-19—heck, we’re past a hundred thousand deaths just here in the US. And while it’s awful, it’s also kind of abstract… until it’s somebody we know. That’s when it hits home and all this stuff happening really connects with us.

Weirdly enough, as a side note… a lot of time the people in these opening action scenes tend to be awful, so I don’t even have basic human empathy for them. I want them to die, and that can switch the whole tone of my opening. Far too often, these events won’t even end up tying back to the story. They’re just little disconnected blips with characters we’ll never see or hear about again.

When I try to start with action like this, I’m just delaying the actual starting point of the story. And I’m doing it in a way that alienates my audience, too. Why would I want to do that?

And one other problem when I start this way. If I structure my story so it begins cranked up to eight-point-three, there’s only two things it can do. It can either take a huge hit and drop down to three or maybe four as I establish some kind of norm. Or it can stay up in that top fifteen percent of dramatic tension and be… kind of monotone. I mean, think about it—a whole story where the tension never shifts by more than ten percent in any direction?

So… why does start with action keep getting parroted around?

As I mentioned last time, there’s more to action than just swordfights. My typing all this up for you to read is action, and you reading it is action. Getting lectured by your boss, trying to get to class on time, cooking dinner, mowing the lawn… All of these things are action. They’re things happening.

More importantly, I think, is they’re actions we can all immediately understand, and they’re actions that can easily tell us something about the people involved in them.

Take mowing the lawn for example. How old is Wakko? Is he mowing his lawn or someone else’s? Why is he mowing it? How much effort is it for him? What’s he thinking about while he’s doing it? These are all really easy questions to answer while he’s pushing the mower back and forth. So something’s happening, we’re meeting the character, and maybe even getting to set up some simple, basic stakes.

When we say “start with action,” we want to feel that events are in progress. That these are real people who existed before page one. We just stumbled across them right now at what’s (hopefully) the point when all the interesting stuff’s about to begin.
Also, just to stop one train of thought real quick—yes, thinking is technically an action. So is fantasizing, realizing, remembering, reading, staring into space, and many other such things. But the key thing to remember here is all of these are really just Yakko sitting at his desk and not moving. So really… nothing’s happening.

And we want to have something happening. Something that falls in the middle ground between daydreaming and demon ninjas roaring down the street on AI-guided murdercycles. I mean, just off the top of my head, let’s look at some action-filled books and movies and see how they start…

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins, as I’ve often pointed out, with the two main characters doing their morning jogs.

Fractured Tide by Leslie Lutz begins with a young woman writing/narrating a letter to her father, warning him not to come looking for her.

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez begins with the main character trying to explain her very thin resume at a job interview.

Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine’s Journey begins with the main character reshelving books in a book store while she complains about her older sister not taking her seriously

My latest book, Terminus, begins with a guy half-listening to a sermon being given on a beach at night. Heck, Ex-Heroes, the post-apocalyptic superheroes vs. zombies book that launched my career, begins with two people on guard duty chatting while a zombie keeps bumping into the wall below them.
Hell, you want an absolutely crazy one? Do you remember how the Transformers movie begins? Yes, Transformers by Michael “it still needs more explosions” Bay? A bunch of Army Rangers get back from a long patrol and hit the showers while their CO goes to call his wife and baby daughter. Seriously. That’s the opening of the movie.
And again, they’re all starting with action… but they’re not starting with action! They’re putting us right into the ongoing story. They’re introducing us to characters rather than slamming us into them.

They’re catching our interest and drawing us in. Getting us invested. Making us want to read more.

Which is a pretty good way to start a book.

Next time, I’d like to share a special message with you.

Until then, go write.

May 21, 2020 / 1 Comment

Action Figures

And now I’d like to take a minute and talk to you about this really cool Machine Man figure I got off eBay this week.

No, not really. Although he is pretty cool. He’s got replacement hands with pieces so it can look like his arms are extending like they do in the comics.

(someone at Marvel should let me write Machine Man)

Anyway, I thought it might be good to revisit action. Yes, anything my characters do is an action, but I specifically want to talk about action. The dinosaur cyborg swordfight/ gunfighter strafing the room/ six burly guys in a bar trying to take out one MMA fighter and getting their asses kicked kind of action. The type of action your college writing professor said was pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I love a good action scene. On the page. In a movie. Hell, some television shows these days have fantastic action scenes. And I’ve been part of a few action scenes here and there in my own life.

Action, by its very nature, is fast. It’s a blur. If you’ve ever been part of an accident, a fight, a collision, or any kind of really dynamic moment, you know what I’m talking about. In the moment, things are just happening. It’s not until later, when things settle down, that we take stock and piece together all the details of what just happened. And then I’m not quite sure how my arm got cut or how my pant leg got ripped or oh crap is that my blood?

Here are a couple tips I try to keep in mind when I’m writing action scenes.

Keep it fastAction can’t drag. If it takes a full page for someone to throw a punch and connect, that means things are happening in slow motion. Even a paragraph can seem like a long time if I stretch stuff out.

My personal belief is action shouldn’t take much longer to read then it would to experience. Throwing that punch and the moment of contact are a sentence, tops. I pare fight scenes and action moments down to the bare minimum so they read fast. Two ways I do this are to clump some actions together, and also to trust the reader to figure out what happened on their own. 

—Hector kicked one of the man’s feet away and flung his head down at the formica tabletop.

—One minute Officer Barroll had the young woman under control and then she kicked off the ground, went up over the officer’s shoulder, and now somehow she was behind him pushing his arm up along his spine.

Notice how in that second example you probably (hopefully) got a cool mental image of what happened, but you’ll notice I didn’t give a ton of details. I just provided some quick images and a bit of tone. Your brain filled in all the connective tissue, fleshing out the moment and creating a lot of the action.

Keep it simple—I know a lot of terminology for weapons and martial arts, but I actually try not to use a lot of it when I write. Again, just my opinion, but I think a lot of that “gun porn” type stuff clutters up action scenes. I want this to move fast, and the more technical I get, the less likely most people will know what I’m talking about. Yes ushiro geri is the correct term for what Wakko just did, but if my reader has to stop to sound out words or parse meanings from context… that’s probably breaking the flow.

There’s nothing wrong with terminology, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  That time is rarely when someone’s swinging a baseball bat at your head or when you’re shooting at a charging T-Rex. Action is much more about instinct, and instinct rarely involves copyrights, brand names, or model numbers.

Keep it sensory—I just mentioned action is instinctive. There isn’t a lot of thought involved, definitely not a lot of analysis or pretty imagery. With that fast, simple nature in mind, I try to keep a lot of action to sounds, sights, and physical sensations. Like I mentioned up above, specific details can come later. I could write about a knife going deep into someone’s arm, severing arteries and veins as it goes, but in the heat of the moment it might just be the hot, wet smell of blood and the scrape of metal on bone.

Granted, writing this way can make it hard to describe some things, but again… a lot of that gets figured out after the fact anyway.  My characters will have a chance to sort things out once everything cools down. And some things get bandaged up.

Keep it real—Finally, like so many things in writing, it all comes down to characters.  Action needs to be based in characters with real emotion, characters we have some investment in. A stranger in a high speed car crash is kind of sad in an abstract way, but Yakko in a car crash is a tragedy and we want constant updates.

We also need to have some sense of stakes here. Is someone’s life at risk? Is it someone we should care about? Someone who’s going to have an effect on the plot? If I don’t have any of this, odds are my action is just some empty filler.

Now, as I mentioned at the top, these are all just tips, not rules. There’s lots of times you might want to ignore one or two of them. But there’s one particular exception I want to talk about.

A pretty common character to come across in stories is what we could probably call the fighting savant. You know the type. Batman, Melinda May, Jack Reacher, Stealth, John Wick—they’re the tough, unstoppable characters who’ve taken physical action to an art form through years of study and experience. For these people to not use precise terminology for weapons or moves could seem a little odd.  It makes sense they’d be able to dissect action as it’s happening around them, picking out beats and planning out responses the way you or I pick our lunch at Panda Express.

But remember… these characters by their very nature should be rare. If I’ve got a dozen utterly badass characters who all have badass moves with badass weapons… it means I’ve got a dozen guys who are all kinda average. It’s monotone, and it’s going to get boring real fast.

Two smaller tips to keep in mind when dealing with these savant-folks. One… think about fairy tales. You’ve probably seen some version of that old Grimm’s tale about the guy with a collection of friends. One is the strongest person in the world, one’s the fastest person in the world, one’s got the best hearing in the world… you know the story I’m talking about, yes? It’s a group of people who have superlative abilities, but in a very narrow, focused range. They don’t have a lot of overlap, which is why each one of them is individually important to my team. I mean, if I’ve got a team where every person can hit a bullseye from a hundred yards with a rifle, pistol, or knife… well, what the hell do I need a sharpshooter for? If they’re all strong enough to punch through concrete, what do I need a strong guy for? And if everyone on the team can do everything… I can probably get by with a much smaller team.

The other thing to remember is point of view. This character might be a master of  unarmed combat, but this one is a borderline giant who favors brute strength and savagery. They’re both going to give us some unstoppable action, but it’s going to be a very different kind of action depending on whose narrative it is. And that should reflect in my writing.

And that’s that.  A handful of ideas for writing fast, hard-hitting action.

Although I did actually have one other thing to say about action. But maybe it should wait until next time.

Until then, go write.

January 23, 2020 / 1 Comment

A Lull in the Action

I know the A2Q thing just got started, but I wanted to pause for a few moments to talk about action.
I’m a big believer that action—especially dynamic action–shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take to happen. Swordfights, shootouts, fistfights, even sex scenes—all of these are events where we kind of expect people to get caught up in the moment and not focus too much on minutiae. When I’m telling these events as part of a story, it creates an odd situation where I want to advance the action, but I also need to explain what’s going on. It’s especially tough in first person narratives, but really it can happen anywhere.
An example I’ve used before is when a ninja leaps out of the shadows to attack me. On the one hand, I want to mention the mask and the gloves and the sash belt and those special shoes that ninjas wear. Plus maybe they’ve got weapons in their hands or tucked in their belt or strapped to their back. Maybe even cursed weapons with extra barbs or weird auras. And wait… is that long red hair? Is this ninja a woman? Holy crap, the robes are kinda loose but, yeah, I think she is.

Of course, during all this time… what’s the ninja doing? They leaped out of the shadows and… froze in the air? Are they waiting to punch or kick or maybe skewer me with their short sword or something like that?

Heck, did you even remember the ninja was in the process of attacking me while you read through all that description?

Which is the problem in these situations. Once I’m in an action moment, I’ve got to be careful about bringing it to a pause for descriptions of other characters, weapons, fighting techniques, heck sometimes even overly-describing the action itself. I can blow the rhythm and wreck the flow, knocking my readers out of the story right when I want them desperately turning pages.

And it’s not just descriptions that can do this. Another thing I’ve seen is people trying to do funny, snarky dialogue in the middle of action sequences. Sure, this can work to an extent, but when every other character is making one or two quips during every gunfight or car chase or building collapse, these events begin to stretch out. It doesn’t take long for them to start dragging.

Another common one is the sudden need to share information, either between characters or sometimes the narration relaying these facts directly to us, the audience. I think a lot of the time when this happens it’s the writer feeling the sudden need to remind the readers of something important. The potential double whammy here is this can be breaking the flow of my action and it may just be a bunch of noise that we already know and don’t need to be reminded of at this crucial moment.

The worst of all of these has to be the introspective moment. That point when the arrows are flying and plasma bolts are crashing around us and my character pauses to dwell on how fragile the connections are between all of us, and the series of decisions that unknowingly brought him to this moment. And this place. Of all the possible places he could’ve been right now. One different choice and maybe he’d be on a date with that cute barista, instead of here, pondering the threads of destiny…

Anyway, where were we. Right! Raw plasma exploding everywhere and whoa when did Wakko get fried? How’d I miss that?

Other popular introspective topics that can disrupt action may involve lost loves, found loves, children, aging parents, the ephemeral nature of beauty,  and a single raindrop, frozen in that moment of impact that so perfectly symbolizes the inevitability of death…

The real killer for all of this? Lots of stuff counts as action. There’ve been a few times I’ve mentioned that often-misunderstood chestnut, start with action. It doesn’t mean my book needs to begin with a ninja leaping from the shadows, it just means I need to start with something happening. With my characters doing something. Anything. And all those things that count as action are things I want to be careful about disrupting and slowing down.

Now, yeah, of course, there’s always going to be exceptions. There are lots of reasons why my character might have an unusual, unrelated thought in a moment of peak action, or why they might get distracted by that single raindrop. But I need to remember that exceptions are rare.

So don’t break the flow of your story by letting your action get bogged down.

And speaking of action and doing things… have I mentioned that my new book, Terminus, comes out next week? Like, one week from today. It’s an Audible exclusive, and if you wanted to preorder it now that’d help further convince the people who pay me that my books are a good investment. Which mean more books down the line. Which means we all win.

Next time here on the ranty blog, we continue with the next part of the A2Q, where I’m going to try to explain plots and how to put one together.

Until then, go write.

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