Monday Motivation: Exercising the old brain cells
I was paging idly through an old notebook this morning and came across a passage in my handwriting that will serve as the hinge of today’s piece. Yes, I frequently write in longhand – especially in the months since I bought during our Venetian writing retreat a fat hand-crafted Italian pen called, appropriately, a Leonardo. There’s something about a hefty pen resting lightly on the web of flesh between forefinger and thumb that lends authenticity or gravitas to the words being spun out on the page.
The passage I stumbled on was clearly an exercise I’d given myself in writing an action sequence. Here it is:
“You pivot on your left foot, lash out with your right, aiming for a kidney or the crotch – and then, after you’ve made contact, recover your balance, spin back to counter the inevitable return blow, duck beneath the foot flashing round in a tight arc towards your forehead, look round for something to extend your reach – a length of two-by-two would do, or a section of steel piping – but there’s nothing, so you feint to the left and take off to the right, accelerating as fast as you can down the corridor.
“Feet thud behind you, so you grab the brushed steel handle of the first door you pass, but it’s locked. And so is the second and the third and you feel a slight rise in your anxiety levels before a skylight beckons and you make the calculations, clench your fist, leap and smash through the glass in one shattering move.
“You have your fingers over the lip of the frame, glass slicing into your palms, but then, sensing movement below and behind you, give a stiff backward double kick, a kind of butterfly in mid-air, connect with something and hear a grunt, but you’re not interested in confirming the success of your move. You pull yourself through the skylight onto the roof. And you’re away.”
There. Lots of action. Lots of strong verbs. No internal reflection. Very little description of the setting: all you get is a corridor and a skylight. But we understand precisely what happened. We’re worried about the cuts on the guy’s hands. Surely he’d have sliced at least one finger right off doing something as foolhardy as that?
It’s interesting that I chose to write the scene in the second person. It’s a point of view that’s not used much – although some brave writers have experimented with it, sometimes very successfully.
I find myself curious about what came before – and what’ll come after our guy gets out on the roof. I want to know who he’s running from. I want to know where he learned unarmed combat. What is he? We know, in the minute or two that this scene runs for, what he wants: he wants to survive. That’s a great driver. It’s difficult to screw up a scene in which your protagonist is fighting for his life. In fact, a great number of books rely on hectic action sequences like this to disguise the fact that the writing itself is so-so. Who cares if the writing is mediocre if the story is electric, hey, Dan?
Now, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to use that scene (although, clearly, I have!) I mean, I’m unlikely to use it in a book. (Although who knows?) In fact, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever turn my hand to writing that kind of action-driven novel. (Although anything’s possible.)
So why exercise the old brain cells creating something you’re never likely to need or use? Well, I can think, off-hand, of at least three good reasons to do so.
One, any exercise in which you strive to write clearly and accurately is worth it. It hones your ability to write any complex scene.
Two, it boosts your confidence. I know the scene you’ve read is not great literature. But it is intriguing. It does create suspense. It does ask a whole lot of questions you’d like the answers to.
Three, giving yourself a prompt, and then writing a scene inspired by it, is by way of being a brainstorm, and it’s entirely possible that ideas will take shape on the page that will lead you on to something interesting.
In fact, now that I mention it, I might well write another scene – the prequel, if you like – to start answering some of those intriguing questions. And maybe a subsequent scene in which the protagonist takes himself off to hospital to have those hands looked at.
P.S. Here’s a prompt for you to try your hand at a little frenetic action: Your character is the driver in a car that has plunged off a bridge into a deep river. The car is sinking. His/her teenage daughter is seat-belted into the passenger seat next to them. Describe how your protagonist responds.
Having written a scene – don’t make it longer than mine, which ran to +200 words – post it below and I’ll give you a little feedback.