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.

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Fumblerules of Writing

Much of this humorous list was originally compiled by George L. Trigg, et al.

1. Make sure each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.

2. Just between you and I, the case of pronouns is important.

3. Watch out for irregular verbs that have crope into English.

4. Verbs has to agree in number with their subjects.

5. Don’t use no double negatives.

6. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

7. The passive voice is to be ignored.

8. Never use a big word when substituting a diminutive one would suffice.

9. Kill all exclamation points!!!

10. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.

11. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.

12. Being bad grammar, a writer should not use dangling modifiers.

13. Join clauses good like a conjunction should.

14. A writer must not shift your point of view.

15. About sentence fragments.

16. One-word sentences? Eliminate.

17. Don’t use run-on sentences you have to punctuate them.

18. In letters essays and reports use commas to separate items in a series.

19. Don’t use commas, that are not necessary.

20. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.

21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.

22. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas. Also, parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.

23. Its important to use apostrophes right in everybodys writing.

24. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.

25. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.

26. Avoid ampersands & abbreviations, etc.

27. Who needs rhetorical questions?

28. Avoid “buzz-words.” Such integrated transitional scenarios complicate simplistic matters.

29. One should NEVER generalize.

30. Be more or less specific.

31. Puns are for children, not groan readers.

32. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.

33. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.

34. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.

35. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”

36. In the case of a report, check to see that, jargonwise, it’s A-OK.

37. As far as incomplete constructions, they are wrong.

38. About repetition, the repetition of a word might be real effective repetition—take, for instance the repetition of the name Abraham Lincoln.

39. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.

40. In my opinion, I think that an author when he is writing should definitely not get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he does not really need in order to put his message across.

41. Use parallel construction not only to be concise but also clarify.

42. It behooves us all to avoid archaic expressions.

43. Mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and ought to be weeded out. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.

44. Consult the dictionery to avoid mispelings.

45. To ignorantly split an infinitive is a practice to religiously avoid.

46. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)

47. Eschew obfuscation!

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.

 

 

How long should a scene be?

One of my clients asked me this question. This may seem like a dumb question, but it’s worth discussing so as to help writers who are new to the game. Short answer: The god of fiction has not prescribed the length of a scene. A scene should be as long as it needs to be in order to accomplish its goal. Each scene should be planned before the writing begins. The plan must begin with establishing its purpose. The scene should incorporate at least one of these purposes:
• Move the main plot line ahead
• Present necessary information
• Introduce or develop characters
• Create atmosphere or develop setting
• Introduce or worsen a problem
• Solve a problem
• Set up a later scene.
In addition, you must answer the following questions before you begin writing a scene:
• Who will be the viewpoint character?
• What other characters will be in this scene?
• Where will this scene take place?
• When will it take place?
• What is the primary action that will occur in the scene?
• What will generate conflict?
When you have determined the purpose of the scene, answered the questions above, and fulfilled its purpose, the scene will find its natural length.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

Fiction writing tips: How to write a synopsis

First of all, you need to know what not to do when you’re writing a synopsis of a novel. Unless you’re writing this overview for submission to a particular agent or acquisitions editor who has specific length requirements of his/her own, your best bet is to stick with some general guidelines.

1. Don’t make the common mistake of writing a chapter-by-chapter, blow-by-blow chronological essay about the events of your story, because then the synopsis will be too long and detailed. You want to write just enough for an agent or editor to get a feel for the type of story you have written, for the action of your story, and for its characters. They don’t want to know what happens in every chapter; they want a concise summary.

2. Don’t talk about subplots or secondary characters unless they are major secondary characters and their subplots are so closely related to your main characters that you have to mention them in order to explain the main plot.

3. Don’t include physical descriptions of your story people unless they have significant character “tags” that are important to the plot (like extraordinary strength or expertise or a deformity). If a secondary character happens to be a Mongolian dwarf with only one leg, you should mention that.

4. Don’t go into detail about setting. If you wrote a synopsis for a Jane Austen novel, for example, you could simply say, “This novel is set in a small village in Regency England.”

5. Don’t go into detail about your main character. A few quick strokes are all you need. For example you might say, “Bridget Jones, a ditzy, rather boozy twenty-something . . .”

You don’t have to give away your final plot twist, although you should make it clear that there is one. For example, you could write, “When Olivia finally catches up with Jack at the abandoned lighthouse, he tells her the real secret of his disappearance, and their final bloody reckoning ensues.” Mostly, though, a synopsis is the ultimate plot spoiler, so you should spill the beans whether you like it or not.

How concise should the synopsis be? Try to keep it to one page, single-spaced, that describes the beginning, the middle, and the end—the problem, the struggle, and the resolution. Writing a one-pager and a longer synopsis is another option. If an agent or editor asks you for a more detailed summary, then you’ll have one ready to send.

I suggest that the first thing to do is write a “logline” for your story. This is a short and informative summary of a story used by screenwriters that encapsulates the story in 20 to 30 words. It has three crucial components:

• Character

• Want

• Obstacle

An interesting character who wants something badly but is having trouble getting it.

The logline must answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

If you can’t boil down your story to a logline, then you can’t write an effective one-paragraph summary for a query letter and the first paragraph of a synopsis.

After that, beginning with the second paragraph of your synopsis, move from general concepts to the more specific elements of your story, focusing on your main characters, what they do, and what happens to them. To do that, answer these questions:

• Who is this interesting character and why is he/she interesting?

• What is the catalytic event (the action that gets the story going)?

• Why does this character want what he/she wants?

• What is the central story line that drives the story forward?

• What is the main obstacle preventing the protagonist from reaching his/her goal?

The following movie loglines will help you write one for your novel:

THE GODFATHER: The aging patriarch of an organized crime dynasty transfers control of his clandestine empire to his reluctant son.

PULP FICTION: The lives of two mob hit men, a boxer, a gangster’s wife, and a pair of diner bandits intertwine in four tales of violence and redemption.

FOREST GUMP: Forrest Gump, while not intelligent, has accidentally been present at many historic moments, but his true love, Jenny Curran, eludes him.

THE MATRIX: A computer hacker learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: A young F.B.I. cadet must confide in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer who skins his victims.

CASABLANCA: Set in unoccupied Africa during the early days of World War II: An American expatriate meets a former lover, with unforeseen complications.

REAR WINDOW: A wheelchair bound photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: Two imprisoned men bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL: Blacksmith Will Turner teams up with eccentric pirate “Captain” Jack Sparrow to save his love, the governor’s daughter, from Jack’s former pirate allies, who are now undead.

APOCALYPSE NOW During the U.S.-Vietnam War, Captain Willard is sent on a dangerous mission into Cambodia to assassinate a renegade colonel who has set himself up as a god among a local tribe.

THE LION KING Lion cub and future king Simba searches for his identity. His eagerness to please others and penchant for testing his boundaries sometimes gets him into trouble.

All of these loglines are under 30 words. Most are under 25 words.

MORE GUIDELINES for a synopsis

• If you submit your synopsis on paper, format it using single-spaced lines; 12-point Times New Roman font; at least one-inch margins; page numbers; and running heads with your last name and the book title. You may justify the right margin if you want to, which will give you a little more space, but remember that your goal is to use as few words as possible.

• Write in the third person, using present-tense verbs.

• Remember that you’re writing the synopsis for an agent or an editor, not a reader, so don’t withhold important information or use cliffhangers as a way to create suspense.

• Keep the writing simple, factual, and as tight as possible. Avoid using adjectives and adverbs as much as you can.

A final point to consider: You should also know what one working agent has said about synopses. In his book The First Five Pages (a book I highly recommend), Noah Lukeman says: “Agents and editors often ignore synopses and plot outlines; instead, they skip right to the actual manuscript. If the writing is good, then they’ll go back and consider the synopsis. If not, the manuscript is rejected.”

That’s straightforward enough, isn’t it? I think Mr. Lukeman speaks for many other literary agents and editors in this regard. Nevertheless, the synopsis is important enough to be included in your email query, even if it’s not nearly as important as the writing in your novel manuscript. No matter how good your plot may sound in summary form, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

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.