How to Write an Action Sequence

18 Jun
Five Chapters is an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

“Bullies” by Kevin Grauke first appeared FiveChapters, an online literary journal that publishes stories serially in five installments over the course of a week.

One of the hardest things to write is a fight scene. The blow-by-blow description often ends up sounding like a choreographer’s notes: hit here, kick there. The most commonly proposed solution to this problem is to condense the action into a line or two (He hit me, and I kicked him, and then we fell to the ground, fighting.)

But a terse summary is not the only way to write an action sequence. An example of the alternative can be found in the excellent fight scene in Kevin Grauke‘s story, “Bullies.” You can read it at FiveChapters. (The fight is at the end of Part Four.)

How the Story Works

The key to this passage is that it never becomes a list of actions. Lists are almost always boring. They’re too much like recipes, and so readers tend to skim them. Grauke solves this problem in two ways. First, he offers an interpretation of the action:

“He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now—a period, not an exclamation point—but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him.”

Notice how the commentary (“He meant this only to be a sign…but he pulled harder than he’d meant to”) sets up the action that follows (“stumbled forward”). Imagine if the commentary were left out. The action would be stripped of cause and effect, and thus of story and meaning.

Second, Grauke repeatedly moves from a particular action to the character’s thoughts. Here’s the first half of a sentence that illustrates this move nicely:

“When their bodies came to a stop in the darkness beyond the glow of the porch light, Mr. Shelley was on top of him, and thinking of everything that he’d ever talked himself out of, all the stands he hadn’t taken, Dennis threw the first punch of his life…”

Again, imagine if the character’s thoughts were left out. The action would suddenly exist in a void. Why does a college professor throw a punch? Why does he throw that punch now, in this moment? We wouldn’t know.

But the phrase containing the thought doesn’t only cue the reader into motivation. It also breaks up the rhythm of the sentence. The twin phrases, set off by commas (and thinking of…; all the stands…) slows the reader down and suggests the ways that time itself seems to slow to the character whose head we’re inside.

The Writing Exercise

This is a simple exercise. We’re going to make two characters fight. Here’s how:

  1. Pick the two characters. You can choose two that you’ve been working with. Or you can make them up. Either way, it will be tempting to make them complete opposites. But the best fights are between characters who share something in common. In “Bullies,” the fighters are both fathers of young children. In Rocky IV (as a magnificent montage makes clear) both Rocky and the Russian, Ivan Drago, are willing to push their bodies against human limits. The difference between the men is less in their personalities than in their motivation.
  2. Pick the ring. Give the characters a place to fight: the flagpole in front of school, a parking lot, a house, a swimming pool. Think about how the place would affect the fight. For instance, water in a pool would reduce the fighters’ mobility but also raise the stakes (drowning).
  3. Write the fight. List the actions that will occur. What would an objective camera capture if filming the scene?
  4. Go back and insert commentary. Grauke uses a version of this: He meant to do X, but Y happened instead.
  5. Insert the character’s thoughts. Use Grauke’s sentence as a guide: X happened, and he thought Y, and so he Z. Give some thought to the character’s motivation. A fight demands that the participants make choices: to fight or not to fight, how hard to fight, how bad to hurt the other fighter, and when to stop. Keep in mind the great line from David Sedaris’ essay “Can’t Kill the Rooster.” Sedaris’ brother gets beat up in the parking lot of a bar, and someone asks when the other quy stopped hitting him. The brother says, “When he was fucking finished.” A good fight scene allows you to write a line like that.

Good luck.

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3 Responses to “How to Write an Action Sequence”

  1. Dan Wojcik June 20, 2013 at 8:02 p06 #

    Michael

    When during a fight does either party have time to think about anything other than survival? Seems to me that this action scene is unrealistic. Thoughts?

    Dan Wojcik

    • michaelnoll1 June 20, 2013 at 8:02 p06 #

      Good question, Dan. One thing to remember is that realism isn’t necessarily important in fight scenes–or even in fiction in general. Think about all of the great fights you’ve read in books or seen in movies. Almost none of them are strictly realistic. This actually goes back as far as Shakespeare. When he’d stage his plays, the crowd would boo or cheer depending on how good the swordplay was. What was valued was a good show, not realism. Sword fights were probably like fistfights–they didn’t last very long.

      What’s really key is making the fight perform some function within the story. That’s why it’s important to show a character’s thoughts/motivations. A fight usually occurs when someone’s emotions have spilled beyond that person’s usual coping mechanisms. In other words, they lose it. Those moments are usually pretty important to a story.

      Finally, I haven’t been in many fights, but I used to beat up my brothers, and at some point in every beating, I’d think to myself, you know I probably shouldn’t do this. And then I’d hit them again.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Kevin Grauke | Read to Write Stories - June 21, 2013

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