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.
• 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!