Fighting and F#&%ing: All About Action Scenes
by April L’Orange, cross-posted at The Editor’s Pen
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the sex scenes and fight scenes most writers tell me they hate dealing with are two sides of the same coin. Both are action scenes, and the most common points of first draft (and sometimes final draft) failure are poor visualization, problems balancing narrative elements, and lack of research.
Visualization is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to see the physicality of the scene you’re writing in your head. This is easy for some folks, while it makes others break out in a cold sweat. The important thing to remember is that no matter how much trouble you have, there are always additional tools you can use to help you “choreograph” your scene.
More applicable to fight scenes than sex scenes, drawing will help you with almost any other kind of action scene you can think of. Don’t feel like you have to be Picasso–just grab a piece of paper and sketch the room your characters are in. Circles, squares, and stick figures are great for being able to see where the coffee table sits before one of your characters trips over it. You can use graph paper if the dimensions of the space are critical, but most of the time, you just need a rough idea. I still have sketches relating to stories I wrote fifteen years ago, and I keep them because I never know when I may need to go back to that setting.
Pictures are also your friend. If you’re writing romance on a tall ship and you’ve never been on one, googling pictures of ship’s cabins will both save you having to sketch one out yourself and make sure that what you’re putting into the cabin is realistic. Just be careful that the source you’re using is drawn from fact, not fiction. Any time you use an image from fiction, your research is only as good as the research the creator of that work did.
Visualization applies to sex scenes, too. Don’t take sex scenes for granted just because you have some experience with the subject matter–romance editors tell each other horror stories about 4’11″ women somehow kissing 6’3″ men while attached at the pelvis and characters bending into positions they couldn’t accomplish without breaking their backs. Pull out a tape measure and compare those heights to each other. Buy poseable dolls to reality check a position. Don’t be afraid to look online for examples. A Wikipedia search will show you body parts that aren’t porn and a Google image search will show you an array of images without your ever having to visit a webpage your virus scanner thinks is dangerous.
The biggest problem balancing narrative elements in an action scene is being so focused on the action that you forget some other element. In both sex scenes and fight scenes, the thing most likely to slip is a character’s thoughts and emotions. In a first draft, you’re in a hurry to simply get the gist down on the page, and that’s fine. But when you’ve finished that first draft, go back and reread those action scenes. Do we know what your point of view character is thinking and feeling? For that matter, what can your point of view character tell about the other characters in the scene based on their expressions, body language, or tones of voice?
Next, consider the evidence of the character’s senses. Maybe it’s not realistic for your character to notice the smell of flowers in the air if she’s in the middle of a fight, but she needs to be aware enough of her surroundings that she doesn’t step into a gopher hole or off the edge of a cliff. Be sure to let us continue to see (or sense) important information.
It’s easy to remember your point of view character and the characters she’s interacting with, but sometimes characters who are minor within the scope of the scene are forgotten in an action scene. While you’re doing that reread, make sure none of your characters fell off the page. Even if they aren’t kissing, talking, or fighting, they are still reacting, and we need to be aware of them once in a while, or it feels like the writer simply forgot them.
Lack of Research is one of the trickiest things to tackle in an action scene, because it follows the simple rule that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Consequently, I have caught research issues in the action scenes in five of the last six manuscripts I’ve edited. If yours happens to have been one of them, I’m not singling you out. But by the same token, don’t assume that yours was the one that came away clean. *g*
With that in mind, here are some places to start:
* People do all kinds of things they would call sex that may not bear any resemblance to your experience of sex. Look it up. To avoid porn, add the word “forums” to whatever search you’re doing–that will get you discussion instead of pictures most of the time. Use reputable sex toy sites to learn about everything from sex acts to anatomy. Try adding the phrase “tips for writers” to whatever search you’re using to get detailed information. A remarkable number of sites have gone up aimed at fanfic writers, to try to keep them from “doing it wrong,” and the information on these sites is often very good.
* Real fighting is not like movie fighting. Boxing is different from back alley, bare knuckles fighting and karate is not tae kwon do. However, looking for information on boxing will tell you some of the basics about how to throw a punch. If you’re picking a fighting style for a character, be sure to pick one that character has access to, but also try to pick one you can find information on. It’s amazing how many different fighting styles you can find video clips of online, from old-school Greco-Roman wrestling to capoeira.
* Not all weapons are created equal. Romance writers will probably laugh at this and science fiction writers may already have thought of it, but believe it or not, a role-playing game manual is not the worst place to start. These types of manuals are sometimes available online and tend to group weapons in useful ways. Some swords are meant to be wielded with one hand, some take two hands, and some can be used either way. Close-quarters weapons may be piercing weapons, slashing weapons, bludgeoning weapons, or some combination of the same–and it changes how you use them. There are a ton of specialized pole arms and they all have different names. Different types of armor are more effective against some types of attack than others.
* Weapons you can use from a distance have their own wrinkles to know about. A web search will generally produce pictures, and it’s important to look up anything you haven’t personally seen. We all know what a knife looks like, but a throwing knife is an entirely different animal. You’ll need to double-check your knowledge of any weapons that take ammunition on a case-by-case basis. Crossbows may load and fire very slowly due to the cranking mechanism. A revolver only hold six shots, but an automatic may hold a different number of shots depending on what size ammunition it takes and who makes it. Automatic and semiautomatic rates of fire produce different results.
* Finally, regardless of subject, don’t be afraid to go onto online forums and ask questions. Sometimes, you can even find people with firsthand knowledge who are willing to read over manuscripts or sections of manuscript and let you know if they see anything wrong. It may seem awkward to charge into a forum and say “Hi, I’m writing a book, and I really need to know this obscure thing that I can’t find a posted answer to,” but that’s exactly what you want to do. Most people are fascinated to meet “a real writer” and delighted to be asked for their opinions, whether the question is how fast you can field strip a M-16 or whether Vaseline makes a good personal lubricant.