October 1, 2020 / 1 Comment

Allow Me to Explain…

 There’s a storytelling idea, sort of a method, I suppose, that I’d been batting around for a while as a possible topic. Something I see crop up enough that it was worth mentioning in that “something else to keep in mind…” way. I decided to add it to my list of topics here and then, in a weird synchronicity, said problem showed up in a TV miniseries I finally got around to watching and a book I was reading (some formats may be changed to protect… you know).

The miniseries I mentioned involved an aggressive computer virus. And it explained how the virus worked. In detail. It used a few specifics and a few generalities, but it spent three whole scenes explaining this virus, the logic behind how it worked and how it selected targets.

The problem was… even as I was watching this, I could see a bunch of holes in the explanation. Holes that were only pulled wider as the story went on. And my computer skills more or less peaked in the very early 00’s. But I still knew enough to know the virus wouldn’t work the way it was described. Couldn’t. If it chose targets this way, why didn’t it go after that or that? If it propagated like that, how had it reached here and here?

For a brief time I was wondering if this was some sort of foreshadowing that there was more to the virus than was being let on. Maybe some sort of AI or a living virus that had been transcribed but then… mutated or something? But no, in the end it was just a computer virus that didn’t make any sense.

Which was doubly annoying because the virus didn’t really need to be explained in this story. The plot was much more about the repercussions of this thing being loose on the web and how it was affecting lives, society, and so on. The explanation slowed things down.

And, yeah, sure—part of this is on me. Any genre story is going to involve a degree of suspension of disbelief. Nobody wants to be the guy picking apart the energy requirements of a lightsaber or arguing how the Hulk can’t be that strong because his muscle/bone density would mean he’d sink into the earth. And as for Mjolnir, look…

Okay, yeah… there are some people out there who love being that guy.

(looking at you, Neil…)

But here’s the thing. I couldn’t’ve picked it apart if the writer hadn’t put so much down in front of me. I wouldn’t’ve had anything to pick apart. I can’t complain about your wardrobe if you never show me your wardrobe. But this writer decided they needed a whole scene (three scenes, really) explaining the computer virus in detail. And the details didn’t match up.

So what does this mean for me if my story needs explanation? I mean, speculative fiction is filled with different forms of technobabble. It’s got FTL drives and magic systems and AI computer viruses and alien life cycles and bringing dinosaurs back with cloning and mutant superheroes and… I mean, I’ve got to explain it all somehow, right?

Maybe? Consider Jurassic Park. How much does Crichton (or Spielberg and Koepp) actually tell us about the process of recreating dinosaurs? No, seriously—what do they tell us? If you look back, it’s actually a pretty bare-bones explanation of what’s a fairly complicated process (especially twenty-five years ago!). In fact, it encourages us to fill in a lot of the blanks ourselves and make it seem more complete.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind as I’m writing out that long explanation…

First, be clear if the story really needs this explanation. Is this what the story’s actually about, or is this a minor element I can handwave away or just skip over? Back to the Future gets away with a ridiculously simple explanation of time travel because it’s not really about the time travel. It’s about actions and consequences, and becoming a better person. Time travel’s just the mechanism that lets it happen. It’s just short of being a MacGuffin. We don’t need that explanation the same way we don’t need to read about someone hitting every step on the staircase, how many keystrokes it took to log into their cloud account, or a list of every item of clothing they put on when they got dressed (in order). The reader will fill it in.

Second, if I decide I really need to explain this at length, it’s got to be solid. I’ve waived the right to say “just trust me, it works” and now I need to make this as rigorous and believable as possible. I need to do my research, double-check my logic, triple-check my numbers, and let it marinate overnight in plain-old common sense. Trust me when I say if I get a fact wrong or use garbage science or make a math mistake… people will let me know. I don’t even have to ask them. Not only that, but…

Third, I need to keep in mind the more something gets explained, the easier it is to punch holes in that explanation. Like in the example I first mentioned. As the characters went into more and more detail about the computer virus, the flaws in that explanation became more and more apparent. How often have we seen the person digging themselves deeper and deeper because they won’t stop talking? It’s soooooo tempting when we’ve done all that sweet, cool research, but I need to figure out how much explanation my story really needs and stop there. I’ve mentioned screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin here onceor thrice, and his idea that we experience stories in our gut, but we analyze them in our head. I never, ever want my explanation to drive people into their heads.

Fourth, closely related to the last one, is that this sort of explanation is almost always going to be exposition. Yes, even if I try to work it into a conversation or presentation or something like that. As we’ve talked about here a bunch of times, exposition gets boring really fast because so much of it is either things we already know or things we don’t need to know. For our purposes here, there’s a chance the reader doesn’t even want to know. So if I decide I need this explanation in my story, I need to make sure it’s going to be clever and engaging for the reader.

And that’s me explaining how to explain things.

Next time, I’d like to talk about if you should be reading next week’s post.

Until then, go write.

August 27, 2020

On the Third Day…

I got a request from Rhyen, which is great because I still haven’t really hammered those ideas on endings or comedy quite into shape. So that’s still some stuff for the future. Or, y’know, somebody else could ask something.


Rhyen wanted to know about worldbuilding. Not just “our world, but with secret werewolves” but full-on, hardcore fantasy worlds, sci-fi worlds, and so on. How (and when) do you come up with histories, cultures, and all that other stuff?

Y’know what? Let’s make this post super-active rather than me blathering away. Right here, right now, let’s look at werewolf world. The other version of it where everybody knows werewolves are real.

Now, I know, we said we were going to do more hardcore settings but just go with me for a minute.

I’ve mentioned Charlie Jane Anders once or thrice before, and her little note that there’s no such thing as “a world just like ours, except…” because any noteworthy “except” is going to change everything. If there really were werewolves and everybody knew about them, so much would be different in the world. Tonsof things.

Don’t believe me? Let’s go over a few things real quick. Just off the top of my head…

Here’s an easy change. There probably wouldn’t be any silver coins. In WereWorld anything with even a scrap of silver would’ve been gathered up and turned into anti-werewolf weapons or defenses. The government would be treating silver like uranium. 

Which, hey… how would warfare be different? Forget atom bombs… imagine if the Manhattan Project involved deliberately infecting a hundred or so troops with lycanthropy and then dropping them all on Nagasakiand Hiroshima on the night of the full moon. A hundred unstoppable killing machines running wild in each city. That’s a terror weapon, right there. And of course, if the Japanese capture two or three alive, now they’ve got their own werewolves.

But now without the USpouring all that money into nuclear warfare and missile programs… where does it all go? Infrastructure? Social programs? Schools? Would there be a Cold War? A Bay of Pigs? And if the Soviet Union leaned into werewolf warfare… what kind of arms races would there be? Would the USSRhave financially collapsed?

And we haven’t even talked about dating or sex in WereWorld. Hunting laws? Home security? Profiling? Legal issues—if I kill someone as a werewolf, am I legally responsible? Is it murder, which requires a degree of forethought, since the werewolf’s essentially an animal (or is it?)?

And all of these assume we just “discovered” werewolves somehow back in the early 1940s. What if it was even earlier? How would global exploration and trade have gone differently five hundred years ago if every twenty-nine days  one of your crew members might kill everyone on the ship? How different would the world map look right now?

Again, this is all off the top of my head. Seriously, I’ve spent maybe ten minutes on this. But I’ve completely rewritten the world, just by being aware that things would inevitably change in this situation.

So, with that in mind…

Creating a setting, any setting, is a lot like creating a character. I want to know them backwards and forwards. It’s fantastic if I have lots and lots of factoids about them easily on hand (you may remember that back before we all took the pandemic plunge, I talked about characters and their underwear choices).

I’ve mentioned character sketches once or thricebefore, and I think worldbuilding can be approached the same way. We come up with the bare basics and then we start fleshing it out by asking questions and maybe following a few paths to their logical outcome. Like I did up above with WereWorld.

Or let’s do something even more divorced from our world. Let’s say it’s going to be a fantasy world, maybe one with some gearpunk elements. So, easy one—is there actual magic in this fantasy world? Is it kind of rare or very common? Does it need components? Are they rare or common? Do people have spell-component gardens the way we might have an herb garden?

How about the gear-tech? How precise is it? Do you need mathematically perfect brass gears or do lots of people carve wooden ones after dinner? What do they use for power? Springs? Counterweights? Two or three big guys turning a crank?

Does magic dominate the gear-tech, or vice versa? Is one notably newer than the other? Does either have detractors, vocal or secretive? Are magic and/or gear-tech novelties or parts of everyday life? Do they ever cross-pollinate, so to speak? Are they expensive or so common everyone has access to some aspect of them?

Considering all of this, now… is this mostly an agrarian world? Are more people farmers? Hunters? Are there gearpunk tractors or crossbows? Magic millstones or knives that can skin anything? And if none of this ever filters down to the common folk… how do they feel about that?

Has the magic or gear-tech made travel easier? Are people still isolated in villages or are there much bigger cities, made possible because of these advances? Do people know more about the world?

Heck, how fantasy is this world? Are there supernatural or mythological creatures? Are they common? Domesticated? Are there things we know or all-new creatures? Does the farmer have a six-legged hexox dragging his plow? Are there gods? Demons? How do they feel about humans playing with magic and gear-tech?

Or heck… is it even humans? Is this about magical halflings or gearpunk elves? I just pictured a gearpunk lizardman and that seemed pretty cool.

If you’ve answered a lot of those questions, I bet you’ve got the beginnings of a pretty solid world in your head. And probably spun off a question or three of your own. Enough so that you can start setting up your plot.

And one thing to keep in mind—just like with characters, this might change as I go along. As the story grows and progresses, I might change a lot. I might add even more. It’s an ongoing process. Halfway through my outline or my first draft, I might realize I need to address currency. And, hey,  maybe this world has a really crappy exchange rate, so it matters if you’re getting paid with glowing quartz or brass gear-coins.

Again, the world is here to serve the story. You’re going to change and tweak it as you go. Maybe all the way up to your last draft. And just like with characters, you’ll keep coming up with cool little details and anecdotes.

Now… there’s three key things to remember…

First, I know I talk about editing things down a lot, but we can all breathe a small sigh of relief here. If I’ve got a story set in another world—a drastically different world—most editors are going to give me a little bit of leeway, word-count wise. They understand I’ll need a few extra pages to explain why Yakko is riding a gearpunk tractor powered by magical crystals.

This doesn’t mean I can go crazy listing details. Or that I can be really blunt with them. No pausing for two pages to randomly describe the wooden sun-and-planet gears in Yakko’s trailer. Or the long history of the mining guild that provides those magic crystals. One more time—say it with me—the world is here to serve the story. It’s okay to have a little extra flavor here and there, but I shouldn’t lose track of what my book is actually about.

Which brings me to my second point. Whenever I create a character, there’s a lot of things about them that are never going to come up in the book. Or maybe they come up, but they’re never explained. I might have tons of rich backstory and weird little details, but a lot of it just never becomes relevant.

For example, in the Threshold books, I know a ton of things about Veek. I know why she’s abrasive with most people. Why she likes wearing men’s suits and ties over women’s power suits. Heck, I made a note of when/how she lost her virginity. But the truth is, none of this has been relevant to any of the books she’s been in. It’s stuff I know, and it helps me make her feel more three dimensional on the page, but ultimately… it’s all kind of irrelevant if it doesn’t have anything to do with this book—with the plot I’m telling and the character’s arc through that plot.

Worldbuilding is the same way. No matter how fantastic or amazing the details of this world might be, they only matter if they’re going to have some kind of impact. While it may be very interesting how this society ended up with a hexadecimal/base sixteen number system, do we need to know any of that history for this story? Yes, WereWorld does have eleven continents and there’s a fascinating story behind it… which has nothing to do with this book.

And even then, I’d argue that if there’s no real reason for something to be different… maybe it shouldn’t be. I think one thing that confuses some people is they see this rich, historied world that the story’s set in and forget the world only exists to serve the story, not the other way around. If you look back at my A2Q discussion about the world Phoebe and Luna live in, I made choices based on what would be interesting for the plot and story, not what would make for an interesting world.

So I shouldn’t be coming up with (and using) new things just to come up with new, different things. I mean George RR Martin just uses leagues for distance in worldbuiding heavyweight A Song of Fire and Ice(perhaps better known by it’s Hollywood stage name, Game of Thrones). It sounds good, a little archaic, and he doesn’t have to waste half a page explaining what hekkrets are.

Or heck, here’s another example… any of you remember that old 70’s indie movie, Star Wars? There’s a great scene where Ben and his would-be-protégé are trying to hire a ship from some lowlife smuggler. And Ben tells him “We can pay you two thousand now plus fifteen… when we reach Alderaan.” Remember that?

So… two thousand what?

No, no, no. Don’t run to novelisations or books or articles that retconned this. Right there in the movie you watched… two thousand what?

Truth is, it doesn’t say and it doesn’t matter. For this story, the type of currency’s irrelevant. I don’t care if it’s Imperial credits or Old Republic scrip or gold-press latinum or Jawa skulls. Okay, I might care if it’s Jawa skulls because WTF Kenobi why do you have two thousand of these laying around?! What the hell have you been up to out in your little desert hut?

Anyway… no, all we need to know is that two thousand is a good amount (judging off everyone’s reactions) and fifteen more makes it a very good amount. Past that, we just don’t need to know why Solo wants all these Jawa skulls Kenobi’s collected. It’s not important. The dialogue’s solid and sounds believable, which is far more important that a brief segue to explain the various types of Galactic currency and their exchange rates.

This brings me to my third and final point.

Worldbuilding is, in my opinion, a really easy trap to fall into. Because worldbuilding is fun. Seriously. That question game we played up above? We can do that for weeks with worldbuilding. Months. Maybe even years. My world is going to be so huge and so complex with so many races and creeds and economies and social structures and seriously we can spend so much time doing this instead of…

Y’know, actually writing the story.

And that’s how I generally approach worldbuilding. You may need to change this approach a bit, depending on your own story and the kid of setting you want for it, but hopefully this’ll get you a little further down that path. Or help you find your own path.

Next time… endings.


Until then, go write.

Like a lot of you, I’m still feeling a little overwhelmed by everything going on right now. Awe-inspiring stuff. Long overdue stuff. But still overwhelming.
I thought about updating my list of top ten B-movie mistakes, but I really haven’t been up for bad movie geekery for a few weeks. So I shelved that idea for a while. Then it occurred to me there’s a related topic I haven’t discussed in… well, years. Not directly, anyway.
It probably goes without saying that I really like genre fiction. I grew up with Doctor Who and Star Wars and comics about Spaceknights who came to Earth to protect us from alien shapeshifting sorcerers. Sci-fi, horror, fantasy—I like reading ‘em, I like writing ‘em.

But you probably knew all of that already.

Point is, I’ve consumed so much of this stuff. In so many formats. A lot of it’s been fantastic. Some of it’s been… not so fantastic.

As I started taking storytelling and writing more seriously, as I started really breaking things down and studying them, I noticed a few similarities. Common problems that showed up again and again, especially in genre stories. Three of them.

To be clear, they’re not confined specifically to these stories—you might see these issues crop up in mysteries or romances or even literary fiction. They’re also not the only problems these stories can ever have (not by a longshot). But it’s kind of amazing how often a problematic sci-fi or fantasy and even horror will have one or more of these three issues.

The first issue is when we bury our stories in too much of our chosen genre. If I have an idea, it gets included in the story. No matter what it is—neat visual, cool character beat, clever way a door opens—I’ll fit it in there. If it was scary in that story, it’ll be scary in my story. Most of us have probably read a genre novel that went to great lengths to explain how the weapons, shoes, uniforms, food, transportation, education, and economics are all very different on that other world or in that not-too-distant future. If it’s a magical world, everything is ancient and magical and built by the fae. If it’s a sci-fi world, everything has nanites and AI and came from interdimensional aliens. People don’t wear glasses in these stories, they have optykwear, and a good set of optykwear can cost you seven or eight neshseks.
The problem with writing like this is my audience has nothing to connect with as they’re overwhelmed with all these unfamiliar elements. The people are different. The setting’s different. Motivations are different. Yeah, it’s a really cool alternate world where the Dark Ages never happened, all coinage is brass,  and wars are now fought with steampunk robot dragons run by difference engines, but the important thing is that my readers need to be able to understand this world and relate to it, while it’s on the page in front of them.
All the worldbuilding is good, but my story needs to have something my audience can immediately identify with in some way, and it’s best if it’s the main character. Someone who hates their job, who wants something they can’t have, or maybe who just feels like an outsider. A person with a universal need or desire.
When a reader believes in my characters, they’ll believe in what’s happening to my characters. It has to do with willing suspension of disbelief—I can’t believe in the big elements of a story if I don’t believe in the basics of it. Once I’m invested in Wakko’s life, then I’ll be more willing to go with it when he goes to work shoveling coal in the belly of a a giant steampunk dragon (but one day he’s going to be the commodore of the whole mechdragon fleet—you just wait and see)
There’s one very closely related issue to this, so close I’m not even going to branch off and make it a separate thing. Sometimes, all the laying-on of more genre gets a little monotone. Dramatic stories that are non-stop drama. The horror movie that’s nothing but horror. The magical fantasy series where everything is magical and fantastic. No matter how much I love this thing, it gets boring pretty quick when it’s all I’m getting.
We want our fiction to mirror our lives as much as possible, and the truth is very few of us lead monotone lives. They get broken up with moments of laughter (not always at appropriate times), random pettiness, unexpected excitement, casual flirting, and more. Our stories should be the same way.
The second issue happens when I try to explain everything. It’s confusing enough that I dropped readers right into a steampunk mechdragon battle, but now I’m going to pause that battle for ten pages while I explain how mechdragons came to be and where the best coal for their boilers is mined and how the creation of functioning wings (and the required steam- piston musculature) changed the nature of battle and hey I should probably talk about dragon tactics for a bit, right?
I think most people reading this have seen a story or two that suddenly deviated into that sort of excessive, often unnecessary exposition. I’ve read many stories that suddenly go to great lengths to explain how and why the serial killer turned out the way she did. Or how she ended up with superpowers and exactly how they work. Or both. At length.
What this leads to is stories that feel very detailed, but very little ever actually, y’know, happens. Page after page of explanation can add up really fast, and suddenly a third of my book is just… details.  And while I’m going over those details, my characters are just sitting around twiddling their thumbs, waiting for something to happen again. It can also annoy my readers as all this information gets doled out, especially if it’s something that feels unnecessary and unmotivated.
I think there’s two ways to deal with this issue. One is something I’ve talked about here in the past—the ignorant stranger.  If I’m going to explain things, I should have an actual, in-story reason for them to be explained. Wakko may know the day-to-day workings of a mechdragon, but Phoebe’s a stowaway and he needs to help her pass as a crew member or she’ll be “dropped off”… and they’re three thousand feet up. So he has a solid, understandable reason to explain everything and she can ask a lot of the questions my readers probably have.
The other way to deal with this issue is the quick and easy one. Cut it. I can delete anything that isn’t actually necessary to the story. This can be tough, because, I mean… steampunk mechdragon wars! There’s so much cool stuff in those three words. But how much of it do I really need? Is it relevant or is it just me piling more “genre” onto the plot and story? Yeah, ceramic teeth are cool, especially on that scale, and I’ve come up with a crazy way how they’re made, but does my story fall apart if the reader just knows the mechdragon has… teeth? Does it change anything if in their mind they picture the teeth are brass or steel or diamond? Pages are precious—do I really want to spend part of one on this?
The third issue is actually the reverse of the last one. It’s when I don’t explain anything. There’s so much new stuff that there’s no context. I can’t tell if neshseks are coins or bills or maybe they’re not even money. Maybe this world works on the barter system and they’re some kind of gourd. Could be a massage or a sex act or maybe it’s some kind of pet? Maybe it’s a pet that gives great massages?
But it’s not just terminology. The genres also tend to collect mysterious characters who drop vague hints or implied threatsfor… reasons. Creepy messages appear on walls, sidewalks, computer screens and we never learn how they got there. Disturbing objects are discovered in the attic and never, ever discussed again.
I think there are two general reasons this issue happens. First is that, as the writer, I’ve sunk deep into my fictional world for the past five months and I forgot the reader… hasn’t. They have no idea what a neshsek looks like. Or what it’s used for. Or how many you can seriously expect to get from a relative stranger for two tinted sets of optykwear
The other reason is that people are trying to duplicate the sense of mystery and anticipation they got from another story, but they don’t really understand how and why it worked there. A lot of these weird mysteries are just a general lack. There is no explanation or reason or motivation behind what’s happening in the story. It’s just happening right now because… I wanted to tell a weird creepy story.
A friend of mine gave me a great rule of thumb once, and I think it’s the best way to deal with this issue. I kinda mentioned it up above—my main characters should mirror my audience. If my goal’s to make my audience puzzled and eager to learn more, then really Phoebe should be puzzled and want to learn more. If the reader’s angry about something, Wakko should probably be angry about it, too. Likewise, if Phoebe and Wakko are both really annoyed because they still don’t know what’s going on… well, I can probably guess how my audience feels right now, one way or the other…
Are these the only three problems that might crop up in my genre writing? No, not at all. I have faith in you that you will find awesome, all-new problems. But these are the ones I see appear again and again. So maybe they’re worth looking for in my manuscript. Just in case.
Next time… I’ve got kind of a follow up idea to this. It didn’t really fit here, but it’s a genre problem. Sort of.
Stay safe out there. Wash your hands. Wear your mask.
Until next time, 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.