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.

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.

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.

 

 

The horror of compound words

NINETY percent of all spelling problems, they say, concern compound words. Should it be selfseeking or self-seeking? Is the word spelled taxpayer, tax-payer, or tax payer? In other words, is the compound closed, hyphenated, or open? Who knows? Not many of us. That’s why we all need a good unabridged dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style. Here are a couple of compound words problems I’ve found in the manuscripts I’ve edited:

Many words that end with -like are written as one word, such as trancelike. Words using the suffix -like are generally closed unless they end with l or ll (sail-like, ball-like), contain three or more syllables (basilica-like), are compound words (vacuum-bottle-like), or are proper nouns or other words that are difficult to read (Whitman-like). One exception, though, is Christlike. Also beware of words that begin with co-. Such compounds are usually written as one word, as in coworker. In addition, no hyphen is needed when you combine an adverb with another word. An adverb modifies verbs, adjectives, other adverbs, and even complete sentences. The hyphen should be removed from a term such as heavily-guarded (The heavily guarded building . . .).

Here’s a handy guide that will help you with compound words: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/16/images/ch07_tab01.pdf

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.

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.

The secret grammar of love

THIS tale is a romantic one—or so it may appear. The story begins with an email that John received one day from his new girlfriend. Consider how pleased he must have felt to read this note from Jane:

Dear John:I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?
Jane

Unfortunately, John was far from pleased. In fact, he was heartbroken. You see, John was familiar with Jane’s peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks. And so to decipher the true meaning of her email, he had to reread it with the marks altered:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Yours,
Jane

This old grammarian’s joke was made up, of course.

To get a whole buncha grammar lessons, click here: DailyGrammar.com

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.

 

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.