How to write an action scene

TODAY  I offer you a guest post by Fred Johnson (@fredbobjohn), an editor at Standout Books.

For new writers, throwing in a few combat scenes can seem like an easy way to add some excitement to a novel, but the reality is that violence can be incredibly difficult to pull off effectively. There are many pitfalls writers will fall into when writing about violence, so I want to talk about what they are and how you can avoid them. In their places, I’ve offered up two main alternative methods that I think work for ninety percent of combat scenes.

Violence: The Detailed Method

If you’re writing a fight or battle scene in genre fiction, detailed description will be the way to go nine times out of ten. This is because a fight scene of any scale and duration is likely to involve two or more people tied up in an incredibly fast-paced and complex process. Detailed description serves to guide the reader through the confusion and helps your readers suspend their disbelief. Some of the worst combat scenes I’ve ever edited have said something along the lines of:

Bob disarmed the guard and killed the seven men behind him.

What? How did he do that? He’s only guy against eight assailants. Did he snap his fingers and they all dropped dead?

Don’t be like the author of Bob’s brief fight—you need to make your readers believe it’s possible that your James Bond-esque hero shot his way through two hundred trained henchmen, despite what their brains are telling them.

Combat must be shown, not told. It needs to be specific, and it needs to be rooted in concrete actions. This is doubly true if it’s a case of an underdog protagonist surmounting impossible numbers. After all, for the reader to stay immersed in your story, they need to be able to believe the story’s events. If those events are too preposterous, that’s it—you’ve lost your readers.

Take, for example, this scene from fantasy writer David Gemmell’s White Wolf:

When the death blow came it was so sudden that many in the crowd missed it. Agasarsis lunged. Skilgannon met the attack, blocking the lunge and rolling his blade round the saber of Agasarsis. The two men leapt back. Blood suddenly gushed from Agasarsis’s severed jugular. The champion tried to steady himself, but his legs gave way, and he fell to his knees before his killer. Servaj realized that, even as he parried, Skilgannon had flicked the point of his saber across the throat of his opponent. Agasarsis pitched face forward to the earth.

Every movement and detail is picked apart here, slowed down, and recounted by a third-party spectator. The result is a climactic and vivid end to an important encounter.

For the same reason, action movies favor slow-motion effects and sharp editing. The complex and unlikely actions presented need to be slowed down and examined to be believed. Imagine if, in The Matrix, Neo and Trinity simply arrived to rescue Morpheus and told him, “Oh, yes, we killed those fifty guardsmen downstairs. No sweat.” No, we need to see this action to believe it. This is much the same for novels.

Violence: The Implicit Method

The alternative method for writing good violent action only works in certain situations, such as in literary fiction and detective novels. The method operates around what is left unsaid. Consider Myrtle’s death in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enormously popular novel The Great Gatsby:

A moment later she rushed out into the dusk, waving her hands and shouting—before he could move from his door the business was over. The “death car” as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop; it came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend.

The precise moment of Myrtle’s death isn’t depicted. Here. We don’t see the impact or hear the scream, and yet we know with terrible certainty that Myrtle is dead. This kind of quiet violence gains power through how understated it is. It totally relies on the power of context. When you attempt to use an implied moment of violence, your prose has to boil over. You’ll want short, punchy sentences and resonant concrete images. For example, this fight between two antagonists from a fantasy novel I edited recently:

The final blow struck Samson hard in the chest. He reeled back, his knees trembling like aspens before giving way beneath him. The hooded woman watched him fall, saw his eyes widen. Slowly, she drew the long dirk from her boot and ran her finger along its edge. “You’re in for a long night,” she said softly.

This is the equivalent of when, in a movie, the door swings closed on the man bound to the chair in the mafia den. The scene cuts off, and although we don’t see anything, we all know bad things are happening.

Reducing violent action to two alternative rules might seem rather limiting. I have, after all, suggested either spelling everything out in candid, straightforward language or giving the reader just enough so that she/he can work out what’s going to happen. It could be said that I haven’t left much room for any middle ground. Of course, great writers will always find ways to flout these guidelines, so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself. Writing is an art, not an exact science, and there’s always room for experimentation. That said, to break the rules, you have to first be aware of them.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge of the English language and the craft of fiction to help writers improve their work, offering them critiques and line editing.

Did you like this post? If so, please click the Like and Share buttons.

Four basic sentence structures you should know

THE English language uses four basic sentence structures:

1. Simple sentence — a sentence with just one independent clause (also called a main clause): I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore.

2. Compound sentence — A compound sentence contains at least two independent clauses: I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal, but the bookstore was out of maps.

3. Complex sentence — A complex sentence contains an independent clause and at least one dependent clause: Because I was planning to visit Tokyo, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal. The dependent clause is underlined.

4. Compound-complex sentence  — A compound-complex sentence contains two or more independent clauses and at least one dependent clause: While Mary waited, I purchased a tour guide and a travel journal at the bookstore, and then the two of us went to dinner. The dependent clause is underlined.

DEFINITIONS

Sentence: The largest independent unit of grammar. It begins with a capital letter and ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point. The sentence is traditionally defined as a word or group of words that expresses a complete idea and that includes a subject and a verb.

Predicate: the part of a sentence or clause containing a verb and stating something about the subject (e.g., went home in John went home).

Independent clause: An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate. Unlike a dependent clause, an independent clause is grammatically complete—that is, it can stand alone as a sentence. An independent clause is also known as a main clause or a superordinate clause. Two or more independent clauses can be joined with a coordinating conjunction (such as and or but) to form a compound sentence.

Dependent clause: A dependent clause is a group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Example: Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the urge passes. The dependent clauses are underlined.

Conjunction: a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g., and, but, if). The coordinating conjunctions in English are and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet. Example: I once loved photography, but I lost interest in it.

Coordinating conjunction: A coordinating conjunction is a conjunction (such as and) that joins two similarly constructed and/or syntactically equal words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence.

Varying sentence structure improves writing. That’s why knowing the four basic sentence structures is important. I talked about sentence variety in my August 10, 2017, post.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
http://Paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Grammatical terms walk into a bar

A dangling participle walked into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passed pleasantly.

A bar was walked into by the passive voice.

An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.

Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”

A malapropism walked into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs, and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.

Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.

A question mark walked into a bar?

A non sequitur walked into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

Papyrus and Comic Sans walked into a bar. The bartender says, Get out! We don’t serve your type.

A mixed metaphor walked into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.

A comma splice walked into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.

Three intransitive verbs walked into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.

A synonym strolls into a tavern.

At the end of the day, a cliché walked into a bar, fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.

A run-on sentence walked into a bar it starts flirting with a cute little sentence fragment.

Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapsed onto the bar floor.

A figure of speech literally walked into a bar and ended up getting figuratively hammered.

An allusion walked into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol was its Achilles heel.

The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

A dyslexic walked into a bra.

A verb walked into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.

An Oxford comma walked into a bar, where it spent the evening watching the television, getting drunk and smoking cigars.

A simile walked into a bar, as parched as a desert.

A gerund and an infinitive walked into a bar, drinking to forget.

A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walked into a bar, and the bartender nearly choked on the irony.

If you don’t see the humor in some of these sentences, take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

 

 

Fiction writing: Theme

THE THEME of a work of fiction is an idea that is central to a story—a message that the writer wants to communicate to readers. A story may have more than one theme. Along with plot, character, setting, and action, theme is one of the main components of fiction. A theme can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). The theme reflects the author’s worldview, which is developed by showing what a main character does, says, thinks, and experiences in response to particular circumstances wherein he/she is involved in a deepening conflict. Every story must be driven by a conflict of some kind.

Some of the most common types of conflict are person vs. person, person vs. self, person vs. society, person vs. nature, person vs. fate, and person vs. technology. Many others are used.

Themes often explore historically common or cross-culturally recognizable ideas such as ethical questions that are usually implied rather than stated explicitly. An example is whether one should live a seemingly better life at the price of giving up parts of one’s humanity, which is the theme in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

You will find a wide variety of themes in literature including:
• Alienation – The effects of, the loneliness of, ways to cure it.
• Ambition – getting what you want, stunted by, thwarted.
• Betrayal – the pain of, in love and friendship.
• Coming of age – loss of innocence.
• Courage – courage to deal with conflict, lack of, developing, conquering with.
• Deception – how to deceive, results of.
• Discovery – what does it take to discover new places, inner meaning, strength, even treasure.
• Escape – from life, routine, prison, family pressures.
• Death – how to escape, facing, what happens after, consequences of.
• Fear – driven by, dealing with, conquering.
• Freedom – loss of, gaining, handling, fight for.
• Good versus evil – survival of one despite the other, triumph of one over the other.
• Isolation – physical and emotional.
• Jealousy – trouble caused by, denial of, driven by.
• Justice – the fight for, injustice, truth versus justice.
• Loss – of life, innocence, love, friends, to avoid.
• Loneliness – no man is an island, or hell is other people.
• Love – love fades, is blind, can overcome all obstacles, lust for power, for sex. • Power – the search for, the loss of, what we are willing to exchange for.
• Prejudice – racism, bigotry, snobbery, dealing with.
• Security – the loss of, the finding of the need for, how we act when security is shattered.
• Spirituality and God – the struggle to find faith, live without faith, etc.

Here are a few examples of themes:

Moby Dick
Complex and elusive themes about existence, morality, and the nature of reality.
Of Mice and Men
Loneliness
The Great Gatsby
The decline of the American Dream in the 1920s
The Catcher in the Rye
Coming-of-age struggle
To Kill a Mockingbird
Judgment, all people have the capacity for good and evil, and coming-of-age struggle
Lord of the Flies and Jurassic Park
Survival and good and evil
Gone with the Wind
Survival, initiative, perseverance, overcoming adversity with willpower
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Moral and ethical beliefs during war, loss of innocence, the value of human life, romantic love as salvation
The Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, and The Hobbit
Heroism
Harry Potter books and Lord of the Rings
Good and evil, power, and corruption
Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and The Notebook
Love and loss
Hamlet, Macbeth, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Revenge
1984
Power and manipulation
Atonement (movie)
Atonement
Animal Farm and Macbeth
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Any mystery novel
Deception

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Fiction writing: What’s the Rush?

MOST of us who are, shall we say, “older” folks grouse about the shortcomings of the younger generation, one accusation being that they demand instant gratification. I think that is the pot calling the kettle black. We all harbor that sin. No better example can be found than writers who have completed their first book. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there.” Many writers saddle themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Why? Isn’t there enough stress in life already?

Don’t allow your excitement and your impatience to get your book published before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you’ve gone back through your manuscript and how many other people read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least once. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews.

Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He claims to have rewritten A Farewell to Arms “at least fifty times.” Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. Abraham Lincoln is said to have revised the Gettysburg Address at least five times before he thought it was ready to be shared.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the editorial process. Be patient. Be professional. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
www.paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Beware of Commonly Misstated Phrases

Try to find all the misused words and expressions in this humorous piece of writing.

DON’T embarrass yourself by saying or writing commonly misused idioms such as the following ones. The incorrect phrase is stated first, followed by the correct one:

For all intensive purposes — For all intents and purposes

Statue of limitations — Statute of limitations

I could care less — I couldn’t care less

Jive with — Jibe with

Scotch free — Scot free

Hunger pains — Hunger pangs

Beckon call — Beck and call

Butt naked — Buck naked

Mute point — Moot point

Case and point — Case in point

The spitting image — The spit and image

On tender hooks — On tenterhooks

Hone in — Home in

One in the same — One and the same

Deep-seeded — Deep seated

By in large — By and large

Nip it in the butt — Nip it in the bud

You’ve got another thing coming — You’ve got another think coming

Extract revenge — Exact revenge

It’s a doggy-dog world — It’s a dog-eat-dog world.

Two peas in a pot — Two peas in a pod.

Right off the back — Right off the bat.

Peaked my interest — Piqued my interest

Wet your appetite — Whet your appetite

Piece of mind — Peace of mind

Wreck havoc — Wreak havoc

Tow the line — Toe the line

Pour over — Pore over

Tongue and cheek — Tongue in cheek

Nerve-wrecking — Nerve-wracking or nerve-racking

Escape goat — Scapegoat

Beckon call — Beck and call

After all is set and done — After all is said and done

Upmost desire — Utmost desire

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.

Should you join a writers’ group?

SHOULD you join a writing group? Maybe, or maybe not. Such groups might give you the kind of support you need; however, despite all its good intentions, a writing group may do you more harm than good. Why? For a number of reasons, including:

• Inexperienced writers are not the best people to critique the work of other inexperienced writers.

• Group members don’t always speak the truth, because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

• Group members usually don’t want to hear the truth, because criticism hurts too much. They want the group to praise their writing so they can enjoy the fleeting high of affirmation—something we all crave for what we do and say.

At its worst, a writing group can cause deep self-doubt, crippling frustration, and sometimes years of wasted effort.

Let’s expand on those points.

Inexperienced writers are not the best people to judge the work of other inexperienced writers

Why would you think that being in a room with other people who are also struggling with the same writing problems you are and who have little or no experience with that struggle would be a good way to improve your work? Yes, you might get camaraderie and a sense of community, identity, and purpose, which is fine, but the odds of getting specific, useful help with your writing are low.

Aspiring writers who are not seasoned enough to assess problems with a story often get it wrong, or get it only partially right, or demand specific remedies by using a kind of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. That’s not helpful. What others like or dislike is a subjective response that comes without any assistance with how to move forward. You might get the “It’s not working” feedback but not the education you need to fix your problem—and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how they would fix things or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path to crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.

No one tells the truth, and no one really wants to hear it

Most writing groups tiptoe around glaring weaknesses in the work being shared and sometimes tell outright lies about it because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. All the writer hears is praise or vague criticism that isn’t actionable, so novice novelists assume that what they are writing is solid (if not awesome) and plow on, creating fundamentally flawed work. Developing writers must find a way to welcome criticism, even harsh criticism, but writer’s groups tend not to foster this ability. As a result, no one learns new things, no one grows, and they become deluded about their work, believing it to be better than it is.

Some fixes for a flawed group dynamic

Tell the truth. If something is not working—if it has a fatal flaw, if it’s ill-conceived, if it has an underlying problem with literary conventions—say so, being as specific as possible. Don’t hold back for the sake of being nice. Nice could condemn a writer to years of writing in the wrong ways. A consensus regarding telling the truth should be one of the ground rules when a writing group is established.

Be open to criticism. If you get deep criticism of something you have written, consider that you might need to deep-six the book project and go back to the drawing board. Allow that reality a place at the table. New writers often say they know something is wrong with their novel, but they can’t put their finger on the problem. A writing group might be able to help them find the answer.

Talk about the failure. Discuss the doubt and the agony of writing a novel. Let the pain be part of the mix, because creating something out of nothing is not easy. It’s highly emotional work. Writers need support, and they need a safe place where they can fail. Let your writing group be a place where you can learn the craft and provide a valuable service to others.

Also see:
How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner for You https://www.janefriedman.com/find-the-right-critique-group/

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services
paulthayerbookeditor.com


Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.