The Derring in the Do

Thanks for all the title help with my forthcoming novels about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain! I’m putting together a list of possibilities for my editor, and I’ll let you know the result, but it’s not too late. If title inspiration strikes, please let me know.

On October 10, 2018, Superb♥Girl wrote, I have an idea for a story that has multiple themes: story-within-a-story; fish out of water; contemporary magic, etc. Something that is extremely important to the story is the sort of swashbuckling element I want to give it. But the thing is, I’ve never really attempted to write anything action/adventure-y before, and I’m worried about it feeling blank. I don’t want to write action/adventure for action/adventure’s sake, but I want it to be important to the emotional aspect and the overall plot. I also want to give it sort of an old-timey feel, like romanticizing it with kindheartedness and chivalry. So, long story short (writing pun), does anyone have any tips for action-type themes?

Angie wrote back, I think that one way you can add the swashbuckling/action element without it feeling like it’s there “just because” is to link it to some fundamental aspect of your MC’s personality or past. (Perhaps her(?) father passed down a fencing foil and your MC learns about a secret life of danger that her father led, and this affects her own path and choices.)

For example, in The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya brought the swashbuckle to the story, and it was inextricably linked to his heart and character, as he needed it to avenge his father – his life goal. In The Three Musketeers, D’Artagnon was determined to prove himself, and that manifested in daredevil, swashbuckling antics.

In my own WIP, my MC feels that she doesn’t have any particular talent or outstanding cleverness, but she finds her place in protecting her friends because she is strong and quickly learns various defensive fighting skills.

If you can find the way that the swashbuckling, chivalry, and action is a part of your MC, I think you have every reason to include it!

And Poppie wrote, Superb♥Girl: I think you could have a lot of fun with that swashbuckling, action-adventure type of story! To help answer your question, let’s take a look at this quote from the film The Princess Bride: “Does it have sports in it?”

“Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…”

That movie is very swashbuckling, and when in doubt, you can look at the quote and see what elements you could apply to your story. As an example, you would have to have some close-combat dueling in this type of story. Perhaps your hero gets into a fight with a criminal gang or his arch nemesis. He could use a sword, or martial arts, or magic (there’s the “fencing, fighting” element to it). It could also apply to your hero’s character. You mentioned a fish-out-of-water theme? Perhaps he comes from a city that promotes deeds of daring, and the city he currently lives in values quiet meditation above all else (there’s a little world-building in that as well).

Something else that I highly recommend is reading books and watching movies in that genre to give you an extra feel to the world.

Great answers!

I’m with Poppie that reading and watching the sort of books and movies in this genre will help. Specifically, you might try reading some contemporaneous Arthurian material. Here are two links to the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which dates from the fifteenth century: http://www.yorku.ca/inpar/sggk_neilson.pdf and https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/weston-sir-gawain-and-the-green-knight. There is a little hanky-panky going on, so maybe high school and up. And here’s a link to the discussion on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight#Synopsis.

A great read for charm and swashbuckle is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court–one of my all-time favorites. Another I love is The Once and Future King by T. H. White, a marvel of beautiful writing, among other things. Both, I think, are great for upper elementary and up–worthwhile no matter how old you are.

Twain’s novel was published in 1889 and White’s in 1958. If we’re going for old-timey, it helps to look at work that was created in an earlier period–another reason to turn to contemporaneous sources. Being aware and a little–unless we’re really studying a period knowledgeable will give us options and will help with our world-building. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves: How did people spend their days during the period? What were gender roles? Table manners? Diet? How did people regard children? How did they regard themselves? Did the idea of self differ between a lord, a merchant, a carpenter, a peasant? Did the idea of self differ between a lord and his lady, a peasant and his wife? I don’t think we’re going to find the self question resolved explicitly anywhere, but we can get hints. Then we decide what we want to keep and what we want to discard, using the complexity of what we learned. For example, we may decide to craft our MC in a contemporary mold for the sake of relatability, but we may make the lord of the castle pre-modern in his approach to everything.

Also, for movies, you might check out the oldies of the 1940s and 1950s that starred Errol Flynn, who could swash and buckle better than anybody.

One way to get the action/adventure going is to make the scale big. My two books that fall most into the adventure category are my Bamarre books, The Two Princesses of Bamarre and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Addie, the MC of Two Princesses, is on a quest to find a cure for the Gray Death, which kills many every year. Perry, the MC of Lost Kingdom, is charged with freeing the Bamarre people from the oppressive Lakti.

The dangers in an adventure are real and physical. Addie has to face down monsters and for a while is held in a dragon’s lair by a dragon who intends to kill her. Perry rescues children from a battlefield and is hunted by the wily and determined Lord Tove.

This doesn’t mean there can’t also be emotional and psychological struggles, too. Addie has to fight her shyness and timidity. Her father is a basket case of emotional frigidity and indecision. Perry is unbending and almost universally disliked. Her mother is cold and judgmental even though she loves Perry.

But contrast this with my contemporary novel, The Wish, in which what’s at stake is popularity. Popularity is super important to MC Wilma, and I think it becomes important to the reader, too, but it’s all played out on a small stage.

We can use tone to make our action/adventure work. Though every rule can be broken, and I don’t want to get very prescriptive, in general, I think action/adventure stories don’t take themselves too seriously. Princess Bride, cited by both Angie and Poppie, is lighthearted. Hamlet has swordplay, too, but I wouldn’t call it an action play or an adventure. In fact, it might be called a stalled-action play, and the tone is very dark. Just saying, there’s neither swash nor buckle in making your girlfriend psychotic or killing an old man. I don’t mean that an adventure story can’t be serious, but there’s a difference between serious and depressing.

In Hamlet, the villains may be Claudius (the evil uncle) and Gertrude (AKA Mom to Hamlet), but they’re not actively opposing Hamlet, the MC. They’re more like the murderers in a mystery, trying to avoid discovery. However, generally in an action/adventure, there is an antagonist–human, fantasy creature, alien, natural force (like a fire)–that the MC has to deal with. So when we build our action/adventure, we can think about an antagonist.

I’m with Angie that we need to consider the character of our MC. She doesn’t have to be a derring-do sort at the outset, but she has to have that quality buried somewhere in her. When she’s pushed against the wall and all her old, pacific tactics fail, she needs to be able to pull out the audacity she didn’t even know she had. Or she can be a tough fighter from the start, but she can’t be unbeatable, or the tension will collapse.

As for old-timey feel, I’d use standard language if the story isn’t contemporary and stay away from words like nerd, geek, rad, and others that you know better than I do. But I wouldn’t attempt terms that aren’t in current use, like prithee or dost, and I’d stick to modern spelling–unless you have a Ph. D. in Elizabethan English and can get it exactly right. Having said that, it would be interesting to try thou and thee as the only deviation from standard English.

Let’s summarize strategies, keeping in mind that every rule can be broken if the result works:

∙ Look at books, movies, and TV shows that exemplify the qualities we’re looking for. Think about what we can take from them and use.

∙ Make the scale big and the stakes high.

∙ The most important risks should be physical and real (not emotional).

∙ The MC should have potential as a swashbuckler.

∙ The overall tone, the feeling that the reader is left with, shouldn’t be depressing.

∙ There needs to be a tangible, external antagonist.

∙ The language in a not-contemporary adventure story should be standard English rather than colloquial.

And here are three prompts:

∙ Just saying, the expression “chivalry is not dead” is modern, so chivalry does still live. Write a chivalric, action story set in a climbing gym.

∙ This may seem like sacrilege, but take The Diary of Anne Frank and change it from memoir to fantasy fiction by introducing one or more of these, or any other bit of magic: a dragon, a wizard, a fairy, a sword with magical properties, a flying horse, a cloak of invisibility. If you like, give it a happy ending. (Remember that the Diary is still copyright protected, and whatever you write can’t be published without the permission of the estate.)

∙ Pick a scene from Hamlet and write an action spoof of it. Make the ghost, if he’s in the scene, play a more active role. Think funny. Hamlet, in my opinion, is over the top, ripe for a takedown.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Stalled in Slow Gear

First off, a follower of the blog got in touch through my website and asked me to announce this free event, and I’m happy to oblige. Here’s what she wrote:

“…the Newbery Honor Winner and author of over 80+ books for children, Marion Dane Bauer, will be doing a FREE, LIVE teleconference call entitled “The Basics of Writing Successful Picture Books.”  It will be held on Wednesday, September 19 at 7:00 EST, and her readers can go to http://www.writingforchildrenlive.com/Marion_Dane_Bauer.html for more information.  She will also be offering a FREE, LIVE Webinar on Point of View in Fiction the following Wednesday, September 26, 7:00 EST.”

I plan to attend or tune in later. My picture book skills could use work.

And – you are among the first to know – I sent Beloved Elodie to my editor two weeks ago. I was afraid to announce that in case she despised it and told me to start over, but she called me, and looks like the manuscript will actually be a book! …after I revise and mostly trim. She does not like the title, so, after I bang my head against a wall a few hundred times, I may come to you guys for help again.

One more thing: I’ll be signing books at Children’s Book Day at Sunnyside in Tarrytown, New York, on Saturday, September 15th, from noon to 2:15. Hope to see some of you there! Please let me know if you found out about the event on the blog.

Now for this week’s question. On March 19, 2012, writeforfun wrote, In my last book, the beginning was really good. The conflict is introduced on the second page. For 15 pages, it’s all exciting and keeps the reader’s interest. After that, it goes downhill. The first 50 pages cover one week. During that week the MC never leaves the apartment he’s in, and the only action is his conversations with the others that live in that room and the secrets he learns about them (of which there are many). The reason for that is because he’s been kidnapped, and I needed all that time to learn about the kidnappers, who become co-MC’s, and to make them seem likable, as they are actually good guys. The trouble is, readers start to get bored. They tell me that they like knowing all this about the kidnappers, but it seems a little dragged-out, although they can never tell me what I should omit. I guess all I’m asking is, how do I know what to cut, and how do I keep the reader’s interest until AFTER the 50 page mark, when the action kicks up again?

To start, congratulations for soldiering through the gluey part, where the action is stalled. For me, when I sense the reader’s boredom the going gets tough. Writeforfun, if you’ve finished your story, by now you may already have figured out what to cut. For the rest of us, often we can get perspective on the parts we need and the parts we don’t only after we’ve written “The End.” As the plot works itself out, we develop our characters and discover what they’re driven to do. When we’re done we realize that some of the incidents, sometimes entire chapters, we thought were crucial have become unnecessary or actually impede progress.

But if you have finished and you still can’t tell, here are my ideas:

Consider whether all the secrets are necessary. Maybe you’re giving the reader too much and she’ll never keep it all straight as the plot progresses. If you can slice out a few story strands the pace may pick up. Or maybe some secrets can be revealed later, after the characters leave the room. You may be able to work in a few pauses for exposition, a break for a meal, a fireside chat before your characters go to sleep.

The message that the kidnappers are good can be conveyed economically. I gave an example of this in my post of November 2, 2011, in which Fllep and Yunk, aliens from another galaxy who don’t speak English, enter Keith’s house in the middle of the night and tie him to his bedstead. However, before leaving him alone and going on to the rest of the household, the aliens bring his stuffed elephant over from the bureau for him to cuddle with. From this single gesture, the reader gets the idea, at least provisionally, that these beings with a single eye and hands that look like spiders, may not be so bad. Follow this up with a couple more indications, and the reader is likely to be won over. The dog may be following them and wagging his tail; the cactus plant in the window may suddenly break into flower. A few sentences may be all that’s needed.

However, going the other way, I’m not sure that cutting is required.

If the characters are stuck in a single room, the setting may start to feel claustrophobic. I had that problem in Beloved Elodie. For most of the book many of the major characters are confined to the Oase, a residence and museum inside a mountain. I love being in caves, but even I started to twitch after a while. One approach I took was to shift POV to characters on the outside. Another was to have Elodie explore parts of the Oase beyond the great hall. In writeforfun’s setup there’s just one room, but there may be ways to create private, separate areas, perhaps a closet or bathroom that could be its own environment. Or maybe there could be a screen; or two characters might barricade themselves behind a piece of furniture. Or, getting imaginative, two characters might have a way to communicate that the others don’t understand, a secret language or hand signals or something else.

*Warning!* I’m about to use a word concerning the afterlife that may offend some of you. If you’re worried, skip this paragraph:

There’s a great play, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (definitely high school and above) that might be worth reading if you have this problem. For those of you below high school level, it’s about three souls in hell (literally), and their hell is a single room, a modern room, like a hotel room, no torture devices. The hellishness is that the three have been chosen because their company and their combination will provide each with unending torment. The setting doesn’t change but the audience or reader is never bored.

If all your characters are in a single room, dialogue still isn’t the only option. There can be action. For instance, a fight can break out; there can be escape attempts. Depending on who’s there, the characters can engage in a project that can break up the talk. They can play a game – rummy, Scrabble, Monopoly, whatever – which may reveal goodness and evil and power relationships.

I also wonder why the reader has to find out right away that the kidnappers are good. Doubt increases tension, always a plus. Their virtue can emerge gradually in the course of the action. Sometimes, because I like my good characters, I don’t want anyone to think ill of them for even a page. I may mire my stories in mud just to shine their halos – I need to remember that there’s no way I can actually hurt their feelings!

Here’s another approach, it’s possible that the story starts too late and a better beginning would have begun earlier. The secrets that are revealed may more properly be shown in action when they happened. Let’s imagine that Allura, one of the kidnappers, was tortured by the terrible regime in power. Under torture, she revealed the true identity of one of those held in the room, who doesn’t even know who he really is. Now she’s got to protect him. Why not start the story with the torture?

Or, suppose another of the kidnappers, Borick, is there because he had a vision. Why not begin with the vision?

Here are three prompts:

• Nora, Nate, and Nina are trapped in the basement of Nora’s suburban ranch house during a tornado scare. When they judge that the storm must have passed and try to leave, they discover they’re trapped. Write the story, and don’t let it get boring. Create tension through their desperate situation (little water, no food, no bathroom, no cell phone reception), their personalities, their attempts to free themselves, the secret that Nate has been keeping from the others, and any other harrowing factors you invent.

• Nora, Nate, and Nina discover they’re not alone. Write the new story. Unknown to Nora’s family, homeless Norton has been living in the basement for a month. Norton is bigger and older than the others. Give hints that confuse the others and the readers about his intentions. Make him seem evil one moment, good the next until you finally resolve how he is.

• Although the entire story takes place in a modern basement, find ways to vary the setting. Write a scene of exploration. Write a scene of privacy for one or two characters.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!