Friday, April 6, 2012

Editing the Action Scene: Seven Ways to Make it Stronger

If you missed the first part of this post, How to Write an Action Scene, be sure to check it out.

Now that you’ve written out your fight scene, there are some things to consider when you go back in to edit your scene.


1. Believability
Be on cliché alert. We’ve all seen a lot of movies. And most movies are a poor example of real fighting because they're two dimensional and choreographed. Real fights are chaos. If you catch yourself writing anything you saw in a movie, cut it! And don't be throwing anyone through a window just because it's there!

Keep gender in mind. Tough girls rock, don’t get me wrong. But physiologically, men are much stronger and bigger than most women. Sure, a woman can beat a guy, but you’ve got to make it realistic. Most girls cringe at the idea of truly hurting anyone, even in a fight! It’s just in the female nature. With training, however, your girl will have a much better and more realistic chance.

Research weapons and fighting styles. There are great books, websites, and YouTube videos on just about any subject. You can also attend a class and actually fight someone. Getting beat by a skilled fighter will give you some valuable insight. *smile* I once asked my husband to “attack” me… It totally showed me what a weakling I was and freaked me out, too! These experiences helped me feed emotion into my fight scenes.

Remember, real people aren’t perfect. They mess up. Especially in a fight when emotions are running high. And fighting is a horrible thing. It really is. It’s scary and painful. So keep it real.

If your character has a high skill level and you don’t, consider interviewing someone. Here are some things I learned from a skilled martial artist:

-Try to relax. You have more control over yourself that way.

-Pros are trained to watch their peripheral vision.

-Pros are trained to watch their opponent’s body to anticipate moves.

-This training gives a pro more time to react. Time an untrained fighter doesn’t have.

Test your character's moves. You can do this by acting out the fight with someone to see if the moves you describe actually work. You can also find someone who owns your weapons of choice and get a quick lesson. Since I have minimal experience with guns, I had a friend bring his rifle to my house and show me how to use it. It made describing how to shoot much easier. And for my sword fighting scenes, I devoured a book called Medieval Swordsmanship. It was a huge help.
Don’t be lazy with your research. Your readers will know. Trust me. Put in the time to get your facts straight and the scene will be so much more realistic.

2. Characterization
Inexperienced vs. an experienced fighter… an aggressive person vs. a passive one… feeling like you’re just being picked on vs. you messed with my kid, you pay!

Who your character is and how he responds to being attacked affects what he'll do. Make sure to incorporate your character’s skills, personality, strengths, and weaknesses into the fight. Thinking through each character might also inspire an interesting edit. In my book To Darkness Fled, when my character Achan was attacked, he forgot the proper sword fighting skills he’d recently learned and he turned to what he did best: brawling. So rather than continue to clash swords, Achan—though it made little sense—tackled his opponent and wrestled him to the ground.

So ask yourself some questions as you look over your scene. What if my hero did something different? What would happen then? What about his opponent? How might his opponent react?

3. Don’t make it easy!
Yes, your hero will likely win in the end, but that doesn’t mean he’ll win every fight, nor does it mean he shouldn’t get a bit wounded in the process. Make it a challenge. Putting your character in harm’s way will heighten the drama. Why not put the odds in his opponent’s favor? Let your hero get hit. Let him bleed a little. Let him lose a few times before he wins. Your reader will like him all the more.

4. Dialogue

Keep dialogue to a minimum. No monologues! In a real fight, when the adrenaline is flowing, you don’t have time to talk. Any chitchat should be short. A word here and there. If you have more than one sentence in a row, re-think that. It might need to be split up. Even internal thoughts should be minimized. An experienced fighter might have more time to think, since he is trained to stay calm and think ahead, but a novice will simply panic. In my fantasy novels, Achan often criticizes himself. Since he’s only partially trained, he notices when he makes a mistake, so he sometimes thinks: Pig snout! Why can’t I get that right?

5. Details

Trim out unnecessary details that interrupt the action’s flow. Such details might be: things happening with another character across the room, description, explanations of how things work, long trails of thought, and backstory. If you need to set up some things, do it before the fight begins so that you don’t have to interrupt your action once it’s on.
If you can, add some of the five senses. Not all of them. But a smell here, some pain there, the veins popping on your opponent’s muscled arms, and the overall panic or fear helps the reader connect to the emotion.

6. Pacing
I like to check my word count on the fight scene, then try to cut out almost half the words. Action should move quickly, the fewer words the better. Keep it tight. Use short sentences and strong, active verbs. Don’t write only a blow-by-blow list of movement. Include sensory details. What does your character see, feel, touch? Keep things chaotic. Are they sweating? Are they in pain? Intersperse your bits of dialogue in with the action.
Take a look at where the scene begins and ends. It’s best to start the scene at the last possible moment and end it as soon as you can. If you’re trying to add a buildup of drama, don’t. It will likely read as cliché.

Get rid of words like: “as,” “simultaneously,” and those “-ing” verbs that start sentences and create physical impossibilities. Ex: Swinging a fist, he knocked out the man. If he was only swinging his fist, he didn’t even hit the man yet. This can’t happen. Make sense? Also, simultaneous action tends to slow down the pacing of your scene.

Alternate between action and reaction, action and reaction. Something is done, and your character reacts to it. The opponent reacts to that, and your character plans a new action.
If there are a lot of fight scenes in your book, make sure to give your reader a break in between them. Your character needs time to rest, reflect, talk, plan, and discover new things that will further the story and bring your character closer to achieving his overall story goal before he is locked in another tussle.

7. What happens after the fight?

Consider the role of bystanders and other characters not involved in the fight. Might a friend give—unnecessary or helpfuladvice later on? Did someone film the fight and post it on YouTube? Did someone step in and try to help? Did no one help? Did your character rescue someone who is now a grateful sidekick? Or is someone angry at your hero for getting into a fight in the first place?


Your fighting character is likely exhausted and bruised. Maybe he sleeps like a rock that night. Maybe he’s sore the next day. If he was hurt, don’t forget his wound as the story progresses. It doesn’t go away soon. If he got hit in the mouth, can he chew his food? If he was knocked out, give him a lingering headache or concussion. And also don’t forget his emotions. If someone was killed, that will stay with him. And if he’s an inexperienced fighter, he might replay the scene again and again in his mind. I certainly would. And when it all catches up with him, he might just break down from the shock of it all.

Fighting is a horrible, emotional event. Make sure you convey that in your story.

Click here for the third post in this series, Writing an Epic Battle Scene.

23 comments:

  1. Now I really want to go try these tips out in my own WIP. :)

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    1. Thanks, Lauren!
      I hope you already had a fight scene planned. :-)
      Jill

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  2. Good to know...I'll keep this in mind (I'll probably need it in my next WIP) :D

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  3. I found this post great, even though I don't have any physical fights in my stories. Yet.
    I would also love to have a post on larger scale battles like in Return of the King and stuff like that. I'm going to writing one of those pretty soon and it's really intimidating me.
    Thanks for posting, Ms. Williamson!
    ~Sarah F.

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. That's a good idea for a post, Sarah. Maybe I'll write a post for magical battles and one for all out wars. A war can be intimidating. Good idea. :-)

      Jill

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  4. Really fascinating! Like the tips from the pro fighers. :)

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  5. This is exactly what I needed! Thanks a million Jill! I have a couple people I need to talk to for tips. I have a friend who takes fencing lessons. Do you have any tips for what questions to ask him?

    I took three years of karate, however I hated sparring people. I just liked the drills and head knowledge. :) Its not my nature to attack people I suppose. Though it has helped me a lot in my writing! Anytime I have hand to hand combat.

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    1. You're very welcome!

      I'd ask him what goes through his head when he's fighting. And what might be different in a competitive match vs a real battle. He'd have to imagine, I would guess. But his answers could be very helpful.

      I'd also ask him to describe his motions out loud. I recall reading a novel where the characters fought with rapiers, and the main character often held his weapon in the position of "prime." And there were other positions such as first, second, etc. If fencing has such terms, you'll want to learn them well. Ask how he describes different offensive and defensive moves.

      I bet the Karate did help! And you understand what it takes to really want to attack someone, which will help all of your different characters. That's cool, Leila.
      :-)

      Jill

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  6. I loved your tough girl comments. I just loved how Gabi in the River of Time series fought with a sword...but never came across as super-girl or anything. :)

    Thank you for this post! Engrossing!

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    1. Thanks, Rachelle! :-)

      In my medieval books, Vrell (my noblewoman who was dressed as a boy), could hardly fight with a sword at first. But she got better because she had to. And Achan was a good teacher. *grin*

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  7. What a great post! Thanks so much! I'd like to add/agree that it really is important to research your action scenes. I remember once watching a Zoro movie with my brother who was on a competitive tumbling team. Zoro goes running along the roof tops and garden walls, and at some point does a roll (or maybe it was a front flip?). Anyway, my brother looks at it and says "Why would you roll like that," he said. "It'll just slow you down." It made me realize that although I didn't know the difference, the illogicalness of the move pulled my brother, who did know the difference, out of the story, making it harder for him to enjoy it. It's important to check your fight scenes with someone who does this stuff (a friend who fences, a blackbelt cousin, or a sister who does cheer), to make sure you don't have any inconsistencies that could spoil the story for someone else. Brothers and their friends who are addicted to star wars movies can occasionally be helpful, since they use the moves in both scripted and unscripted fights (the brothers, not the actors);)

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    1. Great story about your brother! And excellent point about how it pulls readers out of the story. That's exactly what we don't want to have happen, huh?
      :-)
      Jill

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  8. Thanks, Ms Williamson! It's really helpful, though i still have some questions...
    I had a problem describing the sequences of the fighting action, like I'm writing about two guys locked in a fight. How do I describe it without making it boring, too tedious for the reader, and yet delivers a clear image?
    I tried describing my swordfight into a bloddy tango...but I just don't think it's clear enough, and failed to give the necessary excitement and adrealine...
    Thanks very much anyway!

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    1. Well, "a bloody tango" is telling. The words sound nice, but you're asking your reader know what a "bloody tango" looks like. And most won't exactly know. You want to show it instead. And you might think it sounds boring or tedious at first, but that's okay. You can edit it later so that it reads smoothly.

      I like to start out by writing the step-by-step actions, then editing that later so that it flows. So close your eyes and think through the movements your two characters make.

      Ex:
      Villain raises his sword and steps toward Hero. "Let's end this."
      "Gladly." Hero draws his sword.
      Villain lunges forward, swinging his blade in an arc aimed for Hero's neck. Hero lifts his sword to block and the force rattles his arms. He steps back to get room to swing, but Villain comes at him again, snipping at him like a gardener trimming a hedge.
      Hero runs back a few steps and manages to get himself balanced in time to meet Villain's next blow.

      And you write the sequence of events until you're done. Then you can go back in and add feeling and the other senses, trim things out. Cut any cliches that managed to get in there and rework metaphors you may not like. For example, if you're Hero is a girl, she might think of a barber snipping at hair over a gardener. So make sure your metaphors and descriptions match who your point of view character is.

      Hope this helps!

      :-)

      Jill

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  9. Great info!
    Had me worried for a minute when you mentioned Achan tackling his opponent, because I had one of my characters do that in a fight, too. But then God reminded me of a ballgame early in my story where the character tackled that same person. Precedent. =)

    When you wrote, were there any books you specifically avoided because of similarities to yours?

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    1. Precedent is so important, Jenni! It sets up who your character is and how they behave.

      I didn't avoid any books that were similar to mind. I often read books that are similar to mine to keep me immersed in a similar storyworld. And it helps me see if I have any similarities I could change. I don't always change a similarity, but I don't like my book to look like I copied anyone. So I will sometimes change certain things if I catch something very similar.

      I like to write my book first before I read similar ones so that I don't get swayed by the things I liked in those similar books. Does that make sense? Did that answer your question?

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  10. WOW... this was eye opening! I'm a fantasy writer too so this helped sooo much, I'll have to hone my action-writing skills and apply it to some sword fighting and grappling I have in my books!

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    1. Thanks, Jazmine! I'm glad it was eye-opening.
      :-)
      Jill

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  11. Thanks! I'll be sure to file this away in my writing brain:) Very useful information, can't wait for the next one!

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    1. You're welcome, Michelle! I'm glad it was useful!
      :-)
      Jill

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  12. I'm not starting the story yet, when the world is only half made, but I think I should remember this, and maybe this also makes my fanfics better! :)

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