PACING AN ACTION SCENE

Sometimes the best way to learn how to do something is to find an example of the work of an undisputed master of that particular skill, break it down to its components parts, and examine each element.

Want to know how to write an action scene—a fight scene—that leaps off the page? Who better to learn from than R.A. Salvatore. Let’s see how he does what he does using just a few paragraphs from his 2009 Forgotten Realms novel The Pirate King:

Desperation drove Regis to new tactics and he dived in between the ghoul’s wide swings, repeatedly bashing his mace about the undead monster’s face and chest.

He felt the tearing of his shoulders, arms, and back, felt the weakness of paralyzation creeping through him like the cold of death. But he stubbornly resisted the urge to fall down, and kept swinging, kept pounding.

Then his strength was gone and he crumbled to the floor.

The ghoul fell in front of him, its head a mass of blasted pulp.

The woman was holding Regis then, though he couldn’t feel her touch. He heard her grateful thanks then her renewed scream of terror as she leaped past him and ran for the door.

Regis couldn’t turn to follow her movements. He stared helplessly forward, then saw only their legs—four legs, two ghouls. He tried to find comfort in the knowledge that his paralysis likely meant that he wouldn’t feel the wretched things eating him.

The Pirate King by R.A. Salvatore

The Pirate King by R.A. Salvatore

Let’s look at this in pieces then. We start with this:

Desperation drove Regis to new tactics and he dived in between the ghoul’s wide swings, repeatedly bashing his mace about the undead monster’s face and chest.

Try to read that in one breath.

This is a great example of using long sentences to prevent your readers from catching their breath, which can bring on a feeling of panic. This puts the reader in Regis’s head. We become Regis. We feel what he feels, go through what he’s going through. And when you’re in that sort of state of mind, there’s too much happening all at once, and no time to separate thoughts or actions into shorter units. Had it been written this way:

Desperation drove Regis to new tactics. He dived in between the ghoul’s wide swings. Then Regis repeatedly bashed his mace about the undead monster’s face and chest.

The same information, but not quite as evocative. Just separating each action into discrete sentences takes it out of the moment and makes it into a list of things that happened, rather than the short barrage of danger and reaction it should be.

Next:

He felt the tearing of his shoulders, arms, and back, felt the weakness of paralyzation creeping through him like the cold of death. But he stubbornly resisted the urge to fall down, and kept swinging, kept pounding.

The first sentence—also a long one—is only about what Regis feels. It’s not detached, it comes from his experience. Then the second question gives Regis some power. It says very clearly that our hero won’t be taken down that easily, that he has some reserves to draw on. Even then, the lack of the word “and” after “kept swinging,” very subtly, but quite intentionally, conveys a sense of desperation. It’s hard to muster the energy to say, “and kept pounding,” or to break those into new sentences.

Next, a sudden break from longer sentences to two short, single-sentence paragraphs designed to surprise:

Then his strength was gone and he crumbled to the floor.

The ghoul fell in front of him, its head a mass of blasted pulp.

This plays with cause and effect. We know that Regis has been wounded and poisoned by the ghouls (cause) and despite his efforts to the contrary his strengths fails him and he falls (effect). But then that’s immediately followed with a second effect (the ghoul falls dead) that’s conspicuously lacking a cause. So we get hit twice: Regis couldn’t keep it together—oh no! Then: something happened to the ghoul and whatever it was Regis didn’t do it—what the heck?

Surprise is usually best conveyed in that simply-constructed sentence that just says: This happened. As long as “this” is sufficiently unexpected but not impossible to consider, your readers will be surprised.

But in order to keep everyone with you, you can’t let that mystery hang there too long, thus the next paragraph:

The woman was holding Regis then, though he couldn’t feel her touch. He heard her grateful thanks then her renewed scream of terror as she leaped past him and ran for the door.

A woman is just all of a sudden there. Why? Because Regis can’t see her approach. And it’s a fair assumption that she killed the ghoul but, like Regis, we don’t know that for sure.

It’s extremely important to recognize here how tight the POV is on Regis. We can only see what he sees, and feel what he feels. He can’t see who this woman is, he doesn’t know who she is, so we don’t either. We’re experiencing this with him.

The paralytic effect of the ghouls’ touch also starts to put Regis at more of a distance. He’s weakened, paralyzed, kinda out of it, so begins to “report” more on what’s happening as his mind pulls farther away from the here and now.

Next, remind us why his experience is so narrow, but quickly:

Regis couldn’t turn to follow her movements. He stared helplessly forward, then saw only their legs—four legs, two ghouls. He tried to find comfort in the knowledge that his paralysis likely meant that he wouldn’t feel the wretched things eating him.

This reestablishes, immediately following Regis seeing the woman flee the room, that Regis is still laying there helpless. Again, we’re strictly limited to exactly what Regis can experience through his now-limited senses, so we’re just as surprised to see the legs of the ghouls—just their legs.

And though the scene goes on in the book from here, we’ll end with another extremely important point: What’s at stake.

Regis is helpless. The woman who had helped him is gone. There are ghouls there. Ghouls eat people. Regis is in serious trouble.

And for those of you who haven’t been keeping up with R.A. Salvatore, Regis has been a pivotal character in this series since the first book, The Crystal Shard, was released in 1988. We love Regis, and don’t want to see him laying helpless, surrounded by cannibalistic ghouls. There’s something really at stake here—Regis’s life—and he’s not super-capable or over-capable, in fact he’s utterly helpless. And he knows it, and we know it because we share in his horror at his own situation. We are never told: “Regis is going to be eaten by ghouls right now unless someone helps him.” Instead we experience what it’s like to be Regis in that terrible situation.

Lessons learned!

 

—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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5 Responses to PACING AN ACTION SCENE

  1. James says:

    I took a few points from that snippet that you didn’t mention, stuff I’d been looking at in my own work. Thanks for some incisive examples, great analysis. (Sorry for the banal praise!)

  2. Craig says:

    I particularly like the example of using long sentences in an action scene like this. It really works, but is counter to a lot of advice that one reads about action scenes (ie use lots of short choppy sentences).

    In reading the passage though, I didn’t see the double whammy you mentioned when you said:

    “But then that’s immediately followed with a second effect (the ghoul falls dead) that’s conspicuously lacking a cause. So we get hit twice: Regis couldn’t keep it together—oh no! Then: something happened to the ghoul and whatever it was Regis didn’t do it—what the heck?”

    The ghoul went down with a nasty head injury, but wasn’t Regis just bashing it repeatedly in the face with a mace a second ago? To me it read more like Regis succumbed to the paralysis, but had done enough damage to take down his foe at the same time. I wasn’t shocked (although it did say the ghoul’s head was a “mass of blasted pulp”), I just assumed Regis did some good bashing🙂

    The fatal injury and area of injury are too close to what Regis could’ve caused (in my opinion)… If one writes, “Bob stabbed at the monsters chest. The monster fell with blood spurting from its chest.” You wouldn’t wonder, “Woah who caused that chest wound?”

    The passage still worked very well for me. In fact I liked the thought that Regis had enough left in him to have dealt the fatal blow before succumbing.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Good point that Regis was likely responsible for killing that ghoul–even then by the time it falls he’s starting to succumb to the paralysis (etc.) and isn’t quite sure that was his handiwork or the mysterious woman’s.

  3. Tiinsky says:

    Reblogged this on Tina Dubinsky, Writer and commented:
    How to write an action scene – reblogging this so I can find it again later!

  4. Pingback: LEST WE FORGET THE ART | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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