How to Build Character within Action Scenes

12 Apr
Manuel Gonzales' novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

Manuel Gonzales’ novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is the much-anticipated follow-up to his terrific story collection, The Miniature Wife.

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that something builds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!. You can read first pages of the book here

How the Novel Works

Action scenes can be some of the most difficult moments to write because the action draws the eye. Once someone is fighting or running or whatever, it’s hard to look away. But that is exactly what action sequences need. They must offer more than choreographed motion. Watch how Gonzales avoid that trap in this early scene from the novel. In it, the leader of one group has just given the sign to begin an attack on the headquarters of another group:

Finally she gave that signal and the fucking mercs were off, pouring out of their vans like mechanized roaches, and then they were gone, and Colleen, jog-walking right behind the mercs as they charged into the offices of the Morrison World Travel Concern, patted Rose on her ass and gave her a peck on the cheek and told her, “Nice work, kid,” and then waved casually over her shoulder and called out, “See you on the other side,” as she ran to catch up with the grunts, leaving Rose standing on the sidewalk feeling like she felt that one summer she agreed to help out with the pre-K kids at church camp, how relieved she’d felt every fucking day when it was recess and all those little shits had run screaming and hitting and shoving out of the multipurpose room and into the play yard and all she’d wanted to do was sit down and revel in the peace and quiet for one goddamn minute.

The passage begins with a series of actions but ends with the memory of a pre-K kids church camp. It’s a significant jump. What makes it work? The less-polished version of this jump, which most of us have written, is this: action action action, which made her think about that time… It’s the same thing that Gonzales has written, with one big exception: it includes the phrase “which made her think.” Other versions of this include “which reminded her” and “which transported her” and “which made her feel.”  The difference between these and what Gonzales writes is that his version is faster (“feeling like she felt that one summer…”) and doesn’t necessarily imply that the character herself is stopping in the middle of a battle to think, “Oh, this is just like that one time at church camp.”

We tend to value realism, but in action scenes, verisimilitude can get in the way. If a writer tries too hard to recreate action as it’s experienced by a character, the result isn’t automatically good prose. Would this character think about church camp in this moment? Maybe not. But she has a feeling, and the writer is pausing to tell us, the readers, what that feeling is—a feeling that the character perhaps understands without thinking about it.

Gonzales steps out of the immediate action with another strategy as well. This passage comes shortly after the first one:

Rose dropped twenty or thirty feet and then caught hold of the rope, threw her feet against the aluminum of the vent shaft, leaving deep boot marks in it, almost breaking the shaft off its column. She should have been wearing gloves. She hated wearing gloves, though, hated the way they constricted her hands, the way she couldn’t grip things as well as she liked…

Again, the passage starts with action and then moves out of it into a short meditation on gloves. Is the character actually thinking about gloves in this moment? Sort of, as you’ll see when you continue reading the scene. But she’s not thinking, “I hate gloves, the way they constrict my hands.” Why would she? She understands this hatred and doesn’t need to state it explicitly, even to herself. The moment is meant for the readers alone, an attempt to reveal something about the character based on what she’s doing at that moment: hanging on a rope without gloves.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create space to build character within an action sequence, using The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales as a model:

  1. Choose an action sequence. It can be anything from attacking a building to preparing dinner. Your characters are doing something.
  2. Write the basic action as a list. Gonzales actually puts his action in the first example into a single sentence. Try doing the same thing. You can always add more detail later. Get the essential parts of the movement: where it takes place, who is involved, and which objects are used.
  3. Step away from the action (Method 1). Make a comparison. Gonzales does it with the word feeling. The way his character feels in the midst of this action is like the way she felt in this other, very different moment. To do this, you can drop the word feeling into almost any point in the list of actions, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread, feeling like she felt that one…. Or, don’t use feeling at all. The action itself, not the way it feels but the actual movement, can be similar to something else, like this: She spread peanut butter on the slice of bread the way masons apply mortar to bricks. 
  4. Move into the comparison. Gonzales moves his character out of the attack and into church camp. In my examples, the character could move into whatever spreading peanut butter feels like or into her past as a bricklayer. You’ve opened the door into someplace other than the present moment; now walk through it.
  5. Step away from the action (Method 2). Select one of the objects you mentioned in the list of actions. Comment on it. Gonzales does this through absence: no gloves. Then he tells the reader something about the character’s relationship to that object (or its absence). Try doing the same thing. Make a statement about your character’s relationship to an object in the scene. Then, as with the previous method, step through the door you’ve opened. What else is connected to that object or the character’s experience of it?
  6. Return to the action. Once you’ve shown or told us what you wanted to show or tell, walk back through the door and into the present moment. The action resumes.

The goal is to create simultaneity in action scenes by adding other moments, times, and experiences to the present moment of action.

Good luck.

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3 Responses to “How to Build Character within Action Scenes”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. An Interview with Manuel Gonzales | Read to Write Stories - May 4, 2016

    […] To read an exercise on building character within action scenes based on Gonzales’ new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, click here. […]

  2. Warum Klappern zwar zum Geschäft gehört, aber nicht ausreicht | Literatur-O-Meter - May 9, 2016

    […] rät auf seinem Blog Read to Write Stories in die Handlung einen Vergleich einzuschieben – die Hauptfigur erinnert sich zum Beispiel an […]

  3. 10 Exercises for Creating Characters | Read to Write Stories - January 3, 2017

    […] One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here. […]

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