Monday Motivation: The first principle of writing action sequences
There’s a story concerning a radio serial writer who for years had been producing the scripts for a fifteen-minute serial that ran five days a week, fifty two weeks a year. His producers, in a fit of magnanimity, suggested that he take an overdue holiday to clear the cobwebs from his mind and prepare himself for another mammoth stretch behind his typewriter.
He thanked them humbly, worked twice as hard for a month to generate an extra month’s worth of scripts to tide them over during his absence, and then set out for tropic climes for his well-earned rest.
Our hero’s habit previously had always been to deliver each script as it was needed. Now, for the first time, the producers of his show had the chance to read twenty or thirty scripts in advance, which they did – avidly. The final script had the hero trapped on the edge of a precipice. An armed horde was advancing upon him. Hundreds of feet below him, at the foot of the cliff, a pride of mountain lions waited, licking their lips.
There seemed absolutely no way out. The producers wondered what stratagem the writer, on his return, could possibly use to extricate his character from his predicament. There was no mention of anything that seemed remotely capable of coming to his rescue.
At the end of his holiday, the writer came back and took his accustomed place at his typewriter. He seemed not to notice the three producers jostling quietly at the door to his office. He set to work, and after a few hours handed over the product of his labour.
The producers could hardly contain their curiosity. They practically tore the script in pieces in their eagerness to discover the solution the writer’d conjured.
The first words on the script were these:
With a mighty leap…
Which is admittedly a rather convoluted introduction to the subject not just of this rumination, but of what I hope will be several over the next month or two, devoted to a challenge every writer faces from time to time. It’s the challenge that writing action sequences presents.
I’m not sure that I’m ready to deploy a neat list of do’s and don’ts*, so consider this, and the meditations that follow as a work in progress, as I meander towards a theory of writing action.
Action, of course, comes in many forms. It can be the action of a physical confrontation. Here’s one from Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Supremacy:
“Jason Bourne spun, dislodging his attacker’s arm from around his shoulder, clamping it under his own and twisting it further in place, forcing the man down and smashing the attaché case up into the Oriental’s face… (Which inspires a flashback which, frankly, does nothing but hold up the action.) The man fell to the floor, stunned, as his partner turned in fury to Webb after pummeling Pak-fei to the ground. He rushed forward, his hands held up in a diagonal thrust, his wide chest and shoulders the base of his dual battering rams. David dropped the attaché case, lurched to his right, then spun again, again to his right, his left foot lashing up from the floor, catching the Chinese in the groin with such force that the man doubled over, screaming. Webb instantly kicked out with his right foot, his toe digging into the attacker’s throat directly beneath his jaw…” (Etc etc.)
Well, you have to admit it’s not too bad. It appears to be more or less accurate – which suggests that Ludlum checked his description against the actual physical sequence of events. I like to think that Ludlum rose from his typewriter and checked the physical possibility of each movement as he went along. “If I lurch a little to the right, can I bring my left foot up…?” Etc etc.
I didn’t like the “dual battering rams” – it seemed too outlandish a comparison in the midst of the frenetic action. And I didn’t like the memory flashback in the midst of the action at all. It acts like a brake on the pell-mell action.
Here’s another example. (See if you can guess the book I’m quoting from.) The perspective character is Ralph.
“Then there was a vicious snarling in the mouth of the shelter and the plunge and thump of living things. Someone tripped over Ralph and Piggy’s corner became a complication of snarls and crashes and flying limbs. Ralph hit out; then he and what seemed like a dozen others were rolling over and over, hitting, biting, scratching. He was torn and jolted, found fingers in his mouth and bit them. A fist withdrew and came back like a piston, so that the whole shelter exploded into light. Ralph twisted sideways on top of a writhing body and felt hot breath on his cheek. He began to pound the mouth below him, using his clenched fist as a hammer; he hit with more and more passionate hysteria as the face became slippery. A knee jerked up between his legs and he fell sideways, busying himself with his pain, and the fight rolled over him. Then the shelter collapsed with smothering finality; and the anonymous shapes fought their way out and through. Dark figures drew themselves out of the wreckage and flitted away, till the screams of the littluns and Piggy’s gasps were once more audible.”
Yes, it’s William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Piggy was the clue.
The Ludlum paragraph is intended to be a clean, accurate representation of a fight; the Golding paragraph was written as the subjective, and confused, experience of one of the boys involved in the fight. The two writers had very different objectives.
So the first principle we can adduce from this is that the kind of description you want to write of frenetic action will depend very much on your dramatic intention. In other words, action, like everything else in a narrative, is there to serve the story. It has a job to do – and that job can be simple, as in the Ludlum passage, or complex, as in the Golding passage.
* I follow the style recommended by Lynne Truss in Eats Shoots and Leaves.
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