Aaa! Action!

As you see above, the website is up and running.  Please let me know what you think if you haven’t commented already or have more to say.  It’s still a work in progress.

Announcement: Yesterday was Betsy Red Hoodie Day, when my second Betsy book (the first was Betsy Who Cried Wolf!) was released.  You can read about both books on the website.

And check out my upcoming appearances on the “What’s New” page.

When you ask a question on the blog and I say I’m going to add it to my list, the list is a document called “blog ideas,” and each week I mark off the last question I answered and go on to the next.  Today when I went to the next question, it was this from Sami: “How do you write a love story if you have never been in love?!?!? I want to but don’t know how..”  I realized this was one I already covered – on Wednesday, June 9th, in a post called “Un-sappy Romance.”  So Sami, I’m not ignoring your question, and please take a look at that post.  If you – or anyone – have more questions on the subject, please let me know.

The next question, on May 6th from Abigail, was about covers, but I discussed covers on August 4th, “Cover Musings.”  Abigail, if you have more questions about covers, please post them.

Now for today’s topic, on May 7th, 2010, Rose wrote, …do you have any suggestions on writing action or fight scenes in books? Things that happen fast are especially hard to capture, because it takes so long to say that it happened, even if it happens quite quickly. I think I especially need help on writing large battle scenes because I have no idea where to start. However, if you haven’t done this sort of thing much, that’s fine too – I was just fishing for whatever help I could get.

I wrote a battle scene in The Two Princesses of Bamarre and my recent Disney Fairies book, Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, and I wrote a fight scene in Dave at Night.  In Fairies and the Quest for Never Land, the battle is between the fairies, aided by a human girl, and a dragon.  It lasts a few pages in two segments and gave me more trouble than the entire rest of the book.  Speed was one problem and where everyone was was another.

The battle takes place on a plateau, so I needed to make up landmarks.  I invented a tree, the only one for miles, a petrified log, and a pile of stones.  Then I drew a map, a rough one, no work of art, and I had the three landmarks form a triangle.  No matter what happened, I knew where the action was relative to at least one landmark, because if I don’t know where the characters are and if I can’t visualize the scene, the reader doesn’t stand a chance.

In Dave at Night, the fight scene, really a beating, takes place in the orphanage superintendent’s office, a small space, but I still drew a map: desk, knickknack case, electric fireplace, door.

Short sentences can help move things along and give the feeling of the rush of  action.  This is a snippet from the battle against monsters in The Two Princesses of Bamarre:

…Her sword flashed.  Blood spurted from the ogre’s neck.  He pitched over.  She stood and ran at the falls.
    I raced to catch up.  An ogre leaped between us, his head and shoulders swathed in cloud.  Another cloud-ogre lurched about nearby.

Short phrases in long sentences work too.  Here’s an example, also from Two Princesses:

    Rhys hovered, just higher than the ogres’ heads, pointing his baton at one ogre, then another, wrapping them in cloud.

A battle can have a cast of thousands, but of course it’s impossible to show what a thousand people are doing, so the author needs a camera with a zoom lens.  Zoom way out to show the armies assembling, then in on the important characters.  It’s been a long while since I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but if I remember correctly he’s a master of shifting in close and out again, and it may be worthwhile to read a few of his battle scenes.

You have to wield that camera even in a fight, when there aren’t many characters.  Say your main character, Jesse, is attacked by three bullies.  If you’re writing from his point of view, you can show only as much as he’s taking in.  As the bullies approach, the camera zooms out to see them all.  Once the melee starts, the camera comes in close.  Jesse may see two coming at him, but the third has circled to attack from behind.  The view may narrow next to one boy.  If Jesse falls he may see only the left sneaker of one bully or two inches of pavement.  Same for sounds.  Before the action starts, with his senses on full alert, he may hear children playing, a mosquito whining, an ice cream truck going by.  But once the first bully makes the first threat, he’ll be listening only for noises that endanger him.  If a fire truck passes, sirens blaring, he probably won’t hear it. 

Same for smells.  Once the fight starts he probably will no longer be aware of the newly mown grass a few yards away.  But he’ll be noticing the sour odor of his own sweat.

If you’re writing in third-person omniscient, the task is harder, because you have to decide at every turn where to point the camera.  But you still need to focus in here, pull back, and focus out there.

Even though the pace is breakneck, don’t omit details, because they’ll bring the scene to life.  In this, think of the camera as a movie camera.  The camera is rolling until you freeze the frame to linger on a bully’s screaming mouth, his sweaty upper lip, his nostrils, which seem enormous, his chipped front tooth or his gleaming braces.  Action rushes on again until you stop to take in the detail that may save Jesse, a bully’s trailing, untied shoelaces or, say, a tree that can be an escape route for Jesse, an expert climber.

When you choose your details, pick carefully.  You want details that increase the tension or advance the action.  To increase the tension at the beginning, for example, a bully might go a few steps out of his way to kick a cat.  Or, while they’re beating Jesse, they’re talking about what a nice house he lives in or how pretty his sister is.  Yikes!

Jesse isn’t going to stop thinking during the fight, and you shouldn’t stop reporting his thoughts, but they’re likely to be stripped-down thoughts, limited mostly to the immediate situation.  He may think about where he can move, what the bullies are going to do next.  There may be other thoughts too, depending on the situation.  If Jesse has something in his backpack that’s precious to him, he may think about how to protect it.  He may even give away his thoughts and further endanger the thing.  Or maybe he had a conversation with his aunt that morning, and she urged him to make friends at school.  During the fight he may fleetingly and ironically remember her advice.

The only exception to this that I can think of is if something devastating happened to Jesse just before he’s ganged up on.  Let’s imagine the worst: his mother died, and he just got the news.  In that case, he may hardly notice the bullies, may not care that he’s being beaten.

As for feelings, the reader needs them, wants to experience Jesse’s fear, his desperation, his churning stomach, icy feet, shallow breath.  Again, stripped down.  If Jesse deliberately breathes deep, remembering his brief martial arts training, that’s okay.  But we don’t want a digression to a martial-arts lecture.

In fact, we want no long thoughts, elaborate feelings, certainly no flashbacks – because they suck the tension out of the scene.  When I read an exciting part in a book, my reading speeds up.  If the author throws in complications I may miss them, and if I have to slow down for a detour, I may just jump ahead.  In an action scene, I’m thrilled.  I want to be on a roller coaster with nothing to interrupt the wild ride.

Two prompts:

•    Tighten an action scene you’ve already written.  Take out anything extraneous.  If you need to, add thoughts, feelings, sensations that heighten the tension.  Try shortening your sentences.  Paragraphs too.  Then put the revision aside for a day.  The next day go back to it and tighten even more.

•    Write about Jesse.  You can change his name, his sex, his age, whatever you like, but have him attacked by three bullies and make the setting an amusement park or a playground.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I can't wait to check out the site! (And to go back and read the two blog posts I missed.)

    I'm glad to see that you mentioned using long sentences in action, because the only technique I've noticed being taught is the short sentences. The rationale is that long sentences slow the reader down. But, when I have analyzed scenes that I think work the best they often have long sentences. I think I actually speed up when I read long sentences in a tense scene because without periods to slow me down I start racing to get to the end to find out what happened.

  2. Thanks for the post! It's really helpful!

    I wanted to ask a question about Forgive Me, I Meant to Do It. Who's the illustrator? The sample page you showed looked like Quentin Blake.
    It looks like a good book.

  3. The new site looks good!

    About action and fighting scenes, they are the ones I find I have most trouble with. It's either moving too slow to be action, or so fast I don't know if I can focus on anything without breaking the scene up. There needs to be a balance, and your movie camera that sometimes freezes frames was a good point.

    I also liked the point about reading speeding up. I have that too, and I've been trying to analyze action scenes based on that.

    I think all that is to be done to improve my action scenes is to practise, and to write, write and write.

    This brought to mind another problem I noticed I had when I got feedback for my writing; Accidents. How to best describe, for example, being hit by a car as a pedestrian? If you've never had things like this happen to you or anybody close to you, it's hard. I read a lot about that sort of accidents, the trauma and injuries that follow, what happens in the ambulance, and how the injuries heal.
    I also consulted people I know who are studying to become nurses and doctors.

    This is all before I could determine how severe the injuries would be, and most importantly, where they would be. All based on the size of the vehicle, the direction of the vehicle and the pedestrian, and the speed of both.

    Do you have any thoughts on this? I don't remember reading it in your blog before, but it's a long time ago when I first read it all through.

  4. OOh! thanks for this post! I've always been a bit curious about action scenes, since I generally don't get close enough in my writing to have them, but I have written a few.

    I ADORE your website, by the way. I especially enjoyed looking at all the book covers from around the world. 😉

  5. Congratulations on the new website! It looks nice!

    Thank you for the post! I have a lot of action sequences in my book too, so I can use all the advice I can get. I can visualize these scenes in my head as if they were a movie. The hard part is putting them into words and being able to convey the same image that's in my head. I'm bookmarking this page for when I go back over my action scenes.

    Rose, I have a few thoughts on large-scale battle scenes. First, you'll want to make sure your battle scene adds to the story somehow and doesn't just act as a filler. Then you'll want to consider the terrain the battle takes place on. Is there anything your army could use to its advantage, such as rocks to shelter behind or a ridge where archers(or gunmen, if this is a modern battle) could be stationed? Then consider what is in your army. Are there giants? Eagles? Tanks? Anything that might be an asset to your army? Hope this helps!

    Also, I thought I'd mention that I created a NaNoWriMo account, and my username is Silvera. If anyone here has an account there and wants to friend me or talk, just let me know who you are. 🙂

  6. Thanks Ms. Levine and Silver the Wanderer (btw, did I ever tell you how much I adore your username?). I'm looking forward to using this info in my stories! This was a very helpful post and I'm so happy that my question got answered.
    As regards studying JRR Tolkien's battle scenes: yes, yes, a thousand times YES. He's pretty much my favorite author ever, and I'm completely in awe of just about all aspects of his work…Also, I've felt that M. I. Mcallister writes good action scenes; has anyone read her? She writes the Mistmantle Chronicles…
    Silver the Wanderer: I'm hoping to do NaNoWriMo too.

  7. Oooh, action scenes. I think they're my weakest point in writing, but generally, I don't do them much. Still, they are important. I'd better practice, starting with the prompts.=)

    @Silver the Wanderer: I'll send you a message, I just signed up, abt a month ago, for NaNoWriMo too.=)

  8. The site looks amazing! The color scheme makes it easy to read, and I love all the pictures. Your comments on the books are fun to read too, and for the record, I am jealous of that A above high C–a lot of opera singers can't come close to that note!

  9. I'm not going to mention the site, I gushed enough on the last blog post. 😉
    This advice….ahh, for months I've been searching for some definite way to write a battle/fight scene. What you've mentioned is no different, Ms. Levine, from what I've already heard, but it gives me the determination to get up and start writing! Short sentences! Immediate surroundings! 😀 I can do it. Hehe.

    Silver the Wanderer, I'll just go buddy you now…that'll be me. Apart from Mya, I mean. I'll PM you to. Great to see more Wrimos! 😀

  10. Debz–The illustrator is Matthew Cordell. I love the sketches.

    C–I have no experience with this. I haven't written about it. I've been in a few car accidents, but no one has been hurt. Here are a thoughts, though, which may or may not help. You're doing the clinical research, which is exactly right. You might also think about accidents that you have experienced, like broken bones. Or even shocking bad news that hit you as unexpectedly as an accident. Do you remember your feelings? Because getting them authentically is as important as the facts. You might also find people who've been in serious car accidents who can tell you the circumstances, effects, thoughts, feelings.

  11. I started thinking, after posting, that you might not have much experience with writing that kind of accidents. What I basically meant with my question was about dealing with injuries. Like falling off a high place, dragon's fire burns, or dealing with wounds after a fighting scene. The car accident I wrote into my magical realism story was an example of how I dealt with an injury.

    Yes, after I did all that research and determined how severe the injuries were, and which bones were broken, I started thinking about my own experience. I don't know anyone who's been hit by a car. I only know of people being in a car when someone crashed into them, but that's different from what I was writing. I had to concentrate on my experience of broken bones and hospitals.

    Another character witnessed the scene, and I wrote it from her viewpoint. The first time I wrote it it was fast, like an action scene. Then I had some feedback when a friend read the whole text. She said that the problem with the scene was that I didn't capture the fright. I didn't capture the feeling of shock. While I've never experienced anything like this, I now knew how to act. I wrote it again. The scene was slower, and I repeated some words or sentences to capture the shock of the viewer. I made it a sort of a slow motion scene from a movie.

    I think I've had one shock of seriously bad news in my life, and I did use it as a base for what the viewpoint character felt later on, but looking back at the scene after your reply just now, I realise I did use those feelings then as well.

    Thank you for the comment, though you didn't have much to say. Even though you didn't give me anything new, you gave me a confidence in the scene I wrote!

  12. C – I'm not sure if I understand what you're asking, but I think I may: if you're wanting to see how writers write about "dealing with injuries" or if you're just hard up for a book to read, try reading the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner… (you'll know what I mean when you get into book 2.)

    Actually, that's a book rec for ANYONE. Anyone who wants to read some terrific writing and meet some absolutely fantastic characters… I think those books are fine for middle schoolers and up. (and up, and up, and up. Try'm if you've got time, Ms. Levine.)
    Start w/ The Thief, then read them in order (my fav is The Queen of Attolia).

  13. Thanks, Rose, I'll give it a try. Maybe I'll get some more ideas if I start reading concentrated on how writers deal with injuries and other shocks.

  14. Great post, Ms. Levine!
    I write a lot of action sequences and I still struggle to highten the tension enough. I normally use complex sentences when I write so its difficult for me to switch to using simple.
    For anyone who wants to know about writing wars and large scale battles I would suggest "Cry of the Icemark" (middle school and up) by Stewart Hill. The man is a master. His details are accurate (a bit intense but nothing too bad or gorey) and I fully felt like I was in the battle, absolutely amazing.
    @Silver the Wanderer, welcome to NaNoWriMo, I'll send you a PM when I get the chance! 🙂
    Thanks again for the post Ms. Levine! This was really great! (I also enjoyed the comments from everyone =D)
    P.S. Website looks awesome! Putting it on favorites.

  15. No other questions at the moment, thank you. I enjoyed the "Cover Musings" post vey much. Speaking of covers, I absolutely adore the "other editions" section on your website. I particularly like the Brazilian Ella Enchanted cover. The rest of the webiste looks wonderful, very informative and lots of pictures that are fun to see.

    Oh, by the way, mystery and fantasy are my two favorite book genres, I've ALWAYS wanted them to be combined and you've done it! I can't wait for the release of "A Tale of Two Castles."

  16. Ms. Levine-
    I have a couple of questions for you.
    1) In Fairest, how come Aza forgives Ijori more easily than the Choirmaster? If someone had done something like Ijori did to me, I would have been really angry and would have taken a while to forgive them, even if I loved them. But Aza's character is probably different than mine.
    2) Whenever I read a book that I really, really adore, I want to write a story/novel similar to it. So I get this great idea that I am really excited about until I read another really, really great book, then I get an idea that I think is even better… I don't stick with ideas very long even though I want to write something novel-length. Do you have any advice on this? Thanks!

  17. Alexandra – your 2) is a lot like something my brother did. He is writing a fantasy series…the idea for the first book came out of one thing we read, and he scrambled together so many parts of other favorite books of ours that I told him it'd _never_ work. But it did. And the whole series, despite the fact it was inspired by maybe 4, 5 books, has achieved uniqueness and plot very well on its own.
    So – don't worry if you get ideas from your favorite books!!! Write them…and mix and match.
    I tell my friends: "there are nearly no bad ideas for stories. It's all in how you tell it."

  18. @Rose: The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia…*sigh* I have the whole series, but haven't read it, and now it's at home (whereas I'm not, haha.) ANYWAY. My brother was reading it, and THERE ARE PAGES MISSING IN MY COPY OF THE SECOND ONE! :O

    Yeah, that's all I wanted to share. XD

  19. Oh, after going through your website a bit more, Ms. Levine – I have a selfish request that might be a tad too personal…

    Could you share a couple of rejection letters that you received for Ella Enchanted? It would be great to see, and serve as great encouragement, too.

  20. I love the new site!!! I really liked the outhouse page. But I was wondering if you fixed it cosmetically or if it is back in working order. Also is Baxter a welsh terrier, because he looks exactly like my dog!

  21. @ Alexandra: My brother says: wait about 1 day from when you read the really-great-book until you start writing. Otherwise you'll be _too_ cluttered up with the ideas of the previous book.

  22. Alexandra–1)I'm also less forgiving than Aza, but she adores Ijori, and he is adorable, especially with those ears.
    2)I've posted about this in one way or another a few times this year. I suggest you check out my posts on 1/20, 2/3, 1/13, and 7/28. After you read them, if you have more questions, please ask.

    T. Farfara–Can you tell me more? Do you think the problem is the dialogue or something else?

    F and Andi–ELLA was rejected only once, and the rejection went through my agent, so I don't have a letter. But I got lots of rejections for other stories. I can post about rejection letters, but not much about queries, because in that far away earlier day, publishers accepted entire unsolicited manuscripts, so queries weren't so important.

    Jill–The outhouse repair was cosmetic, but I don't think it takes much to make an outhouse usable again. I could be wrong, but I think all you need is lime. Baxter is an Airedale, and they look like big Welsh terriers.

  23. Ms. Levine- Nice post! I have action scenes in my work in progress and it gave some food for thought.
    On another note since you were the starter of the disney fairies series I thought I should recommend their site where you can create your own fairy. You might want to check it out. It has beautiful pictures. It's

  24. I'm so glad to see your new site with all the updated info, especially new books!
    On the post-thank you so much for writing about action. I haven't written anything that's needed a fight scene, but I definitely have ideas I plan to work on the would find those hints very useful.

  25. Yes! Tolkien is amazing! I highly reccomend examining the battle scenes! I love how there are expirienced characters such as Eomer who are amazingly skilled and might actually enjoy the battle despite the danger (like my brother playing Ultimate Frisbee) and characters like the Hobbits who don't know what they are doing but kind of blunder through it anyway (like me playing ultimate frisbee). Tolkien is great for the tactical side of battles. I also highly reccomend Robin Mckinley. her one-on-one battles are great to delve into the main characters thouths and feelings. Tolkien! Oh, don't even get me started! <3

  26. Dear Ms. Levine–

    First of all–your blog is fantastic! I just came across it today when trying to find a way to contact you, but I can already see each post you write is gold and enlightening. I apologize in advance as this doesn't relate to Action, but I wasn't sure where else to write this short letter.

    I just wanted to say, thank you for everything. I was answering questions for my college survey–for next year, it's out of the house and into a crammed dorm room for me–and I came across one question which asked who my favorite author was. I've read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare but no one reaches me in his or her writing the way you do. I read ELLA ENCHANTED when I was in second grade and my poor paperback copy has been utterly abused since then, dragged across countries in cloth backpacks and shoved under the bed when my mom checks up on me to see if I'm really studying. Pages are falling out, the back cover is missing, and the front cover is torn, but I can't get enough. The way you paint a picture in my mind is just incredible, and you've influenced my writing in so many ways.

    I've won a few small awards at school for writing and I must give credit to you for I don't think I would love writing as much as I do if I never read your stories. ELLA ENCHANTED, THE TWO PRINCESSES OF BAMARRE, FAIREST, and your Princess Tales series are my favorites, although when I saw that you wrote for the Disney Fairies series I was thrilled.

    I must also say I'm sorry for I don't think I'm coming off quite clear, but of course, I'm far too excited just to finally be able to write to you to make any sense! I suppose all I'm trying to say is…thank you, you've brightened up my childhood, you've cured my boredom, you've taught me and you've inspired me. I'm forever grateful!

    Now please excuse me while I reapply more tape to the binding of my ELLA ENCHANTED copy.

    a fan.

  27. I just recently discovered your blog and I was SO excited; I loved writing magic and this was like a continuation! this past prompt was a great one- I always have had trouble with battle scenes because they go on too long.

  28. Happiness – you and me both!!!! The Minas Tirith battle in the 3rd LOTR book is…my ultimate standard in battle scenes…absolutely.

    And yes, Robin Mckinley does a good job too. (SPOILER) I love the end of _Hero and the Crown_, with Aerin riding into the battle and throwing the Crown to Tor…

    And believe me, I feel the same way about my brother and I – even with Ultimate Frisbee – though his strengths are also more the academic sort! I'm horrible at just about any sport – I just stand around and hope no one passes me the ball. I figure that I'd be the same way in any sort of battle. ;)Oh, well, I guess that's what we have big brothers for.

  29. Aww, I'm just so glad that I could tell you!!! Really, I hope that more people will write to their favorite authors. Just typing the letter itself made me very happy, and to know that you received it…WOW!

    And thank you so much =D!!

  30. This was so helpful! I knew my fight scenes were missing something, now I realize it's probably the sentence structure that's causing most of my problems. That's a much easier problem to fix!

  31. Hi Ms. Levine!

    Your post on action scenes was very helpful. However, I have a few questions…

    I’m writing a fan-fiction book. Toward the end, one of my MC’s has a duel with the villain. Do you think the same rules that work for large-scale battles apply for one-on-one fights?

    Also, the space in which the fight takes place is very confined. How would I choreograph it?

    If you can answer these questions, I thank you very much! If you can’t I understand.

    Thanks again!

    P.S. My favorite book by you is Fairest. I’m a singer like Aza!

    P.P.S Have you heard the audio book? It’s amazing!

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