Writing Action Sequences (Part 2)

Action-Reaction

Fight scenes are nothing if not Action-Reaction. The name should be pretty self descriptive. We are pretty familiar with this concept already.

Lord Strent thrust his sword forward. Jaecyn shifted right.

That was an action-reaction sentence.

Jaecyn shifted right to avoid Lord Strent’s thrust.

That was not an action-reaction sentence, because we placed the reaction before the action. This is something you’ll want to avoid, because it disrupts flow. If you have a series of action-reaction sentences and then suddenly you pull a reaction-action things get thrown off. The reader should see the reason for the reaction before the reaction. Thus action-reaction.

Action-reaction plays an important role in portraying a fight. The person with action is implied to have the initiative in the fight, as the other person is reacting to his movements. When the direction of the battle switches, ie. someone takes the initiative you break the paragraph, and then continue with the action-reaction sequence.

Changing Initiative

Strent chopped down. Jaecyn raised the chair, and caught the sword in the back of the chair. Strent raised his sword and tried again. The wood splintered, but this time the sword stuck in the chair. Jaecyn twisted the chair, trying to wrench Strent’s sword out of his hand.

Observe the first two action-reaction pieces. “Strent chopped down. Jaecyn raised the chair” and “Strent raised his sword and tried again. The wood splintered”. Even though in the second action-reaction, Jaecyn’s action isn’t explicitly stated, his action is implied. But then the underlined next sentence begins with an action by Jaecyn—he has gained the initiative here, and the following paragraph will involve Jaecyn’s actions and Lord Strent’s reactions.

Interruptions

This is another way initiative can be stolen. When the first person has the initiative, but is interrupted during his action.

Jaecyn drew another three, but Strent chucked a china plate at Jaecyn. He ducked as the china exploded over head.

Here Lord Strent has gained the initiative, he turned what was going to be Jaecyn’s action into his Action-Reaction. Jaecyn is forced to react to his interruption.

Caveats

There is a caveat here. For concurrent actions, the action-reaction model doesn’t exactly work. You’ll still want to start with the action of whoever has the initiative, even if they are happening at the same instant. This can help preserve flow.

While Lord Strent swung, Jaecyn lunged forwards.

In the larger context of several action-reaction models, this doesn’t sound at all out of place. The important thing is to be mindful of the way words can change the time frame we view things in.

Lord Strent cut, Jaecyn stabbed.

Sounds like they are taking turns.

Lord Strent cut and Jaecyn stabbed.

Sounds more like they are acting in the same moment. I’ll use this to lead into a discussion of time flow.

Time

Time in fight scenes can be kind of tricky, because there are two interactions. On one hand, sentence and clause length functions as an indicator of time.

He cut.

Sounds like it happened faster than

He twisted his wrist in an elaborate circular motion to cut.

Doesn’t it? This is why the following is a bad passage,

Out of the corner of one eye, Eragon watched as a humpbacked figure leaped toward him, extending its leaf-bladed sword so as to impale him. The world seemed to contract around the thin, narrow point; the tip glistened like a shard of crystal, each scratch a thread of quicksilver in the bright light of dawn.

He only had time for one more spell before he would have to devote himself to stopping the Ra’zac from inserting the sword between his liver and kidneys. In desperation, he gave up trying to directly harm the Lethrblaka and instead cried, “Garjzla, letta!”

It was a crude spell, constructed in haste and poorly worded, yet it worked. The bulbous eyes of the Lethrblaka with the broken wing became a matched set of mirrors, each a perfect hemisphere, as Eragon’s magic reflected the light that otherwise would have entered the Lethrblaka’s pupils. Blind, the creature stumbled and flailed at the air in vain attempts to hit Saphira.

Eragon spun the hawthorn staff in his hands and knocked aside the Ra’zac’s sword when it was less than an inch from his ribs. The Ra’zac landed in front of him and jutted out its neck. Eragon recoiled as a short, think beak appeared from within the depths of its food. The chitinous appendage snapped shut just short of its hood.” (Paolini, p. 46)”

Those two bold sentences are the Action and the Reaction. Remember, it is Action-Reaction, not Action-awholelotofotherstuffthatjustgetsintheway-Reaction. With so many words there, that felt like the world’s slowest leap and thrust, didn’t it? In fact, everything in this scene seems to happen in slow motion, as the Action-Reaction is constantly being delayed by words. You job as a writer should be to cut words, not to add them. Any word isn’t essential to the understanding of the scene should be cut, so the action is crisp and clean, not so cluttered. I’ll use that to lead into our discussion of description.

Description

Let’s revisit a but of that excerpt.

“Out of the corner of one eye, Eragon watched as a humpbacked figure leaped toward him, extending its leaf-bladed sword so as to impale him. The world seemed to contract around the thin, narrow point; the tip glistened like a shard of crystal, each scratch a thread of quicksilver in the bright light of dawn. “ (p. 46)

This is wrong. The description interrupts the narrative flow, is terrible, and isn’t appropriate for an action sequence. There are only two kinds of description that are appropriate in action sequences. There is the kind you would remember in the heat of action. Imagine you were in the middle of a bull run in Spain. What would you notice in the moment? Probably the flashes of red, the smell of sweat, and the shouting. In fact, these are the things that you can describe if you must. Color, smell, and sound. Perhaps feel, if appropriate. These are the things someone in the moment would be capable of observing. In the middle of a bull run, you won’t have time to compare the red of the headbands and cloaks to flowing blood and the lips of your lover. If you have that kind of time, it’s probably because a bull has trampled you, and you are dying. Poetic imagery isn’t for survivors.

The other kind of appropriate description is anything important to the reader’s understanding of the physical circumstances.

Jaecyn drew another three, but Strent chucked a china plate at Jaecyn. He ducked as the china exploded over head.

Here the description of china plate is acceptable as a description of the physical properties of the plate. It won’t simply clatter like a metal plate would.

Jaecyn drew another three, but Strent chucked a china plate at Jaecyn. He ducked as the plate exploded over head.

It could be argued that once you add the second paragraph you could remove the china descriptor, because the fragility of the plate is now implied. However, I kept it in as an indicator of status. As always, there are exceptions to rules that can be made.

Use the Environment

Far too often, fights just happen in generic open spaces, and the author gives no consideration to how terrain might effect a fight. The fight we read above from Brisingr is purported to be fought in a cave, but this is never an important fact. Are the characters’ movements ever constrained due to the low space? Do people ever use chokepoints in tunnels to make sure they are double teamed? No, no. There seems to be infinite space in this cave, because these enormous Godzilla-esque lizards are prancing around in it. Saphira is getting attacked by two Lethrblaka. If she backed into a narrow tunnel, only one would be able to fight her at a time.

You should always keep your setting in mind when choreographing a fight. High ground is useful for people who leverage that advantage. A fight on a staircase will only feel like a fight on a staircase if you keep aware of the inherent dangers present. One false step and you could tumble to your death.

Putting This Together

I’ll go through the process for writing a fight scene.

It’s important to keep your characters in mind, so I’ll give some background. Jaecyn has just returned from an exile imposed in large part by the Strent family. Although he is suspicious, he cannot afford to offend, so he attends a feast hosted by the Strent’s to “celebrate” his return. Lord Strent has other ideas. Jaecyn fights with a smallsword, primarily used for quick thrusts. Lord Strent comes from a traditional school of sword fighting that favors using a cutting weapon to deliver a single fatal stroke. He uses a broader blade to cut. Jaecyn has the advantage of reach and quickness here. The battle takes place in a feast hall, so the long table will be the center piece of the action.

Jaecyn was the only one in the hall. He sat at the head of the long table, across from the entrance. For the time, he enjoyed the food alone. Lord Strent strode into the room. Jaecyn saw the black scowl on his face, and stood up from his chair, alarmed. Lord Strent drew his sword, and now Jaecyn was sure. I can’t say I didn’t expect this.

He approached from the right. Jaecyn circled, keeping the table between them. As they circled, Jaecyn got closer and closer to the doorway. He glanced at the open door. Lord Strent saw the look, and dashed for the doorway. Caught off guard, Jaecyn sprinted, but Strent got there first. Lord Strent cut, and Jaecyn had to slow and scramble back to avoid being hit. Strent slammed the door shut while Jaecyn regained his footing and drew his smallsword.

“Please let me leave,” said Jaecyn.

“I don’t think so.”

Lord Strent charged, holding his sword low. Jaecyn rapidly backtracked. Strent swept his sword in an upward arc. Jaecyn braced; intercepted with the forte of his sword. His sword was nearly swept away as the cut swung past. Lord Strent rushed past, and turned to charge again. As Strent approached a second time, Jaecyn vaulted over the table, knocked over a jar of wine, and landed on the other side.

“Coward,” said Strent as he faced Jaecyn across the table.

“Better than dead, at any rate.”

Strent tried to cross the table, but Jaecyn threatened. Strent cut, and Jaecyn stepped back as Strent bumped into the table. He lunged and thrust his sword forward. Jaecyn sidestepped, and struck Strent’s outstretched arm.

“Agh!”

Strent grimaced, then grabbed a chair and lobbed it. Jaecyn hesitated. I should duck. Strent jumped onto the table, kicking aside several plates of fowl. The chair struck Jaecyn and he managed to avoid injuring impact by catching the chair. Strent hopped down and faced Jaecyn. Reeling slightly, Jaecyn took a step back. Strent chopped down. Raising the chair, Jaecyn caught the sword in the back. Strent raised his sword and tried again. The wood splintered, but this time the sword stuck in the chair.

Jaecyn twisted the chair, trying to wrench the sword out of Strent’s hand. He twisted back and the sword broke free. He readied another attack, but Jaecyn pushed the splintered back of the chair into his stomach. He staggered, as the breath him. Jaecyn took this chance to dive across the table, flying into all manner of puddings and utensils.

He landed with a half tumble and tried to ignore the broken piece of bowl he landed on. Standing and drawing three daggers, he threw them. Strent roared as one glanced off his forehead and left a long cut. Another struck his left shoulder, and stuck.

Jaecyn drew another three, but Strent chucked a china plate at Jaecyn. Jaecyn ducked as china exploded overhead. By the time he got up Lord Strent was already across the table, scattering salad bowls in his wake. Jaecyn lost his composure, he panicked, there wasn’t enough time to think.

Snarling, Strent cut vertically. Jaecyn tried to sidestep, but there was no space. As the stroke bore down Jaecyn was forced to block, and he was driven to his knees. Strent swung at Jaecyn’s neck. Jaecyn tumbled backwards and away.

“Why are you trying to kill me?”

“You murdered my son!”

“It, it was an unfortunate accident, for all of us.”

“This’ll be an accident too, you bastard.”

Lord Strent charged. Stubborn. He wants to deliver the deathstroke. Jaecyn grabbed a heavy cauldron and flung it in his path. There was a flash and a crunch, and Strent was on the floor screaming as the hot soup scalded him. Jaecyn jumped forward, landed on Strent’s stomach. Amid the soup he saw a bulging adam’s apple and slashed at it. Blood ruptured from beneath the covering of soup as Strent gurgled.

When Jaecyn finally stood, the blood intermingled with the overturned soup. The red blended and swirled in the soft cream. He breathed heavily, trying to regain his composure, but as he breathed in the savory smell of the soup the sharp stench of blood overwhelmed. He held his breath, trying to avoid it, but it was too much. He heaved up the meal he had just eaten. He fell to his knees in exhaustion. And there was Lord Strent, dead, amid what had been a perfectly good clam chowder.

Comment

  1. Amelie on 26 September 2008, 09:06 said:

    I think both of your action tutorials are great! Really informative, coherent, and above all, they manage to squeeze in a few cheap shots at our favoritest author ever, CP. The only thing I think you left out (this could just be a style thing) is the use of gerunds to help bring readers into the action. Ex: “Lord Strent cut vertically, forcing Jaecyn to execute a block that sent him to his knees.” I know there’s some antecedent ambiguity w/ “him” in that sentence, but you get what I’m saying. You can also put gerunds in a phrase at the beginning of the sentence, e.g. “Raising the chair, Jaecyn caught Lord Strent’s next blow in the back of it.” This little trick brings readers into the action as if you’re using the present tense, but you’re really using the past. ;)

  2. SlyShy on 26 September 2008, 13:21 said:

    Oh, good advice. I’ll have to keep that in mind, and maybe update the article.

  3. SubStandardDeviation on 1 October 2008, 17:40 said:

    You asked for typo corrections, so…

    This is why the following is a bad passage,
    Should be a colon, for professionalism.

    In the middle of bull run, you won’t have time to think compared the red of the headbands and cloaks to the flowing blood of love[…]
    Should be “of [a] bull.” I’m not sure exactly what you wanted to say in that second part, but my best guess would be “time to compare the[…]”

    Poetic imagery isn’t for survivors.
    That made me LOL.

    how terrain might effect a fight.
    Should be “affect.” Of course, it might be interesting to see how terrain could effect a fight…

    Do people ever use chokepoints in tunnels to make sure they are double teamed?
    Should be “aren’t.” (Unless you’re Eragon, and after you’ve herded the Urgals into a few tunnels you wait for them come out of the tunnels to fight you on wide open ground. While you are outnumbered and on the defensive. Yeah, I don’t understand it either.)

    Strents plural shouldn’t have an apostrophe.

    Then there’s my critique of the fight scene itself…but I won’t bother you with that here.

  4. SlyShy on 1 October 2008, 18:03 said:

    Fixed the stuff. Towards the end things started getting a bit incomprehensible. I’ve noticed when I get tired I always drop the negation off my contractions, hence “are” instead of “aren’t”.

    Oh, and please do critique the fight. I’ve been meaning to revise it since I wrote it. The writing isn’t really doing the idea in my head justice.

  5. SubStandardDeviation on 3 October 2008, 03:10 said:

    Well, it certainly is a lot better.

    I’d say the biggest improvement is the way the two fighters are characterized-especially Strent. Between the snarling and the wanton disregard for his valuables (YAY destructible scenery. I almost feel sorry for his wife/kids, though), you can tell he’s really, really angry. And on Jaecyn’s part, he’s rightfully panicked. Being an AGI-based fighter confined in a room preventing 8-way run, he’d be desperate to put some distance between himself and his opponent. I love the repetition of “it,” such a little thing can convey so much.

    One thing I forgot to commend you on is the consistency in the fighters’ styles; Jaecyn sticks to quick piercing attacks, while Strent prefers slashing attacks (and when he tries a thrust, it ends up badly for him). Strent also has more power behind his sword, preventing Jaecyn from parrying. (BTW, when you say “broader blade”, now I’m thinking Medieval.) I like how the fighters use increasingly unorthodox tactics as they learn what does and doesn’t work.

    I also like the new ending: Jaecyn is exhausted and nauseated from the fight. In the old version, despite the vomiting, it seemed like he could just waltz away at any time, but now you’ve introduced a sort-of-cliffhanger, seeing as someone could barge in the door any second and he’d be in no shape to face them.

    As for the door thing, don’t worry about it. I’ll assume there are guards all over the house.

    For some reason, the typos you corrected in the previous edit are back.

  6. Morvius on 18 October 2008, 09:50 said:

    Okay, how about when a PoV is observing a fight? You still employ the action-reaction “format” right?

  7. SlyShy on 18 October 2008, 11:32 said:

    Yeah.

  8. Pi on 21 October 2008, 23:58 said:

    Just one thing bothers me about the fight scene you wrote, and all though this is cliche: how does it make our protagonist feel? From the dialouge, I struggle to comprehend exactly how Jaecyn feels about this set up for an attack. Of course I don’t know if there was stuff before it that alerts us to if he was expecting it or not.

    When he asks to be allowed to leave, is he possess a warning tone or is he pleaing to be released. I also struggle with his comment “Better than dead, at any rate.” as it seems a little relaxed, but then again I don’t know how the protagonist reacts in times of stress,

  9. SlyShy on 22 October 2008, 00:16 said:

    Hm, yeah, this is part of a far larger story, so a lot of background is missing. Jaecyn was expecting this, so he just feels vindicated in a crappy way.

    That does sound rather relaxed. I’m thinking over how I envisioned the scene when I wrote it. Although I think he would have been calm at that point, but not later into the fight.

    Thanks for the suggestions.

  10. Addie on 22 October 2008, 22:08 said:

    SlyShy, good job! I never noticed that about action-reaction sequences before; I’m glad I came and read this. I’ve always been exasperated with the fight scenes in Inheritance, though; they feel like a lot of excessively wordy hang time. I wonder, what do you think of the fights in Harry Potter – especially those in the last book, for instance? They seem lighning-quick and blurred, to me. What do you think?

  11. SlyShy on 22 October 2008, 22:37 said:

    I though HP fights were fine. It’s because of that effect I mentioned, longer sentences hang more. The sentences in HP fight scenes are generally short. And much of the action consists of characters shouting a single word, so that’s very fast as well. Sentence length plays a big role in the perception of time.