Writing Action Scenes

What’s the difference between my action writing and that of a professional?

This video from Sherlock Holmes is a great example. Simply put, my writing is like the scene from 0:00 to 1:00, while a professional’s writing is more like 1:09 to 1:40. And before you ask, yes. I am excited about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Robert Downey Jr. may yet save the 2011 movie year.

Cue music. The reason I bring this up is because my action-writing is slow, explanatory and overly detailed. Where as the professional tends to hit us with the WHAM! CRUSH! KA-POW! of the original 1966 Batman series starring Adam West. The pro uses fast paced, quick words that hit the reader like a blow to the stomach. They use active words while I use passive ones. Which is not good.

In the rejection letter I received from Every Day Fiction, one of the editors made it quite clear that he did not like the long action descriptions. Another stated that they read the entire scene in bullet time. Reading such long details slows it down. It’s fine from time to time, like Sherlock Holmes’ thought out fight sequences. But to have all the action like this is akin to filming an entire movie in slow motion.

This needs to change. I took my latest short story to my friend, Lord Lucan, for some editing on the back-to-back horror and action scenes. My story isn’t finished, but I decided that asking for corrective thinking now would allow me to practice writing fast paced sequences in the draft. If I understand what I need to improve on, I can try to write that way rather than wait for editors to rip me apart.

I took almost all his small suggestions. But I rewrote his rewritten sentence suggestions. On one hand, I know I need assistance and I’m not too proud to ask. But on the other hand, I don’t want an editor doing all my rewrites.

When comparing active to passive words, publishers financial love active. Explained, it’s more concise. Publishers often pay per word, so less is more.

Taking this one step further, I brought three books with me today. The first is Blood for the Blood God by C.L. Werner, the second is Helsreach by Aaron Dembski-Bowden while the third is The Guns of Tanith by Dan Abnett. Here’s what I noticed.

The Guns of Tanith: Forget the use of a thesaurus, the words are clean and clear. Red is red. Scenes involving sneaking and maneuvers start out descriptively but concisely. The closer the characters get to the action, the shorter the paragraphs get. Eventually it boils down to one, sometimes two sentence paragraphs. Sometimes the action becomes little more than two words in a sentence, reliant on the reader’s imagination to describe the how.

The point is clear. Not everything needs a description and it respects the reader’s imagination to let them fill in some of the blanks. However, this style of writing likely works better with the sci-fi military action, where people can die instantly from a stray shot.

Blood for the Blood God: Paragraphs are longer and far more detailed. Every move gets more focus, such as wide swings and reactions. Sentences are separated by one or two commas; action, supportive description or result. As I read the sentences, part of me wants to mentally rewrite them to make them more concise, but then I second guess myself as I realize that some of the idea maybe lost doing so.

Some sentences seem to mix active and passive words. The effect forgoes spur-of-the-moment action for more epic story telling. This story is fantasy however, which is probably more open to passive words.

Helsreach: A combination of the two, though on the leaner side. Occasionally, some sentences are separated by multiple commas. The one I’m looking at actually has five commas in it. This story, I realize, is a pretty good combination of the previous books’ genres. It’s sci-fi military action with plenty of fantasy style melee combat. For many reasons, it actually strikes me as middle of the road.

While the words he uses are simple, he tends to accent the sentence with a single or couple of more extravagant words. Such as personification of a bolter, describing it as ‘starved’ when it’s ammo-less.

Keeping things shorter and sweeter can be a challenge when my mind demands the entire scene be told. But no one said this would be easy.

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Halloween

Yes, Halloween is a month and a half away. Guess what? I don’t care.

Fact is, I love Halloween. Dressing up, being goofy, funny and scary. There is no finer way to celebrate the autumn season than with the clash of colors and fun I get from a great Halloween night. This year however, Halloween falls on a Monday, so it’s effectively going to be a four day celebration. People will dress up on Friday right through to Monday. For me, that means I can do up to four costume ideas. The ol’ gear box in my head is cranking and thinking up of a few ideas.

In the mean time, I’ve taken to rereading some tales from the Old World, including Mathias Thulmann, Witch Hunter trilogy by C.L. Werner and the Blackhearts Omnibus by Nathan Long. The Warhammer Fantasy universe is far more Halloween-esque than its 40k counterpart. Why? I guess it’s because it’s less science focused and more mythical, and the colors I often see of it include more browns and oranges. The monsters tend to be more traditionally scary, like the undead, skaven and orcs. If I recall from the Witch Hunter trilogy opening, C.L. Werner is a huge Halloween fan. And something about it shows through his work. I’ll be posting reviews of these omnibuses soon enough.

Captain America? Batman? Or… would I dare go as Thulmann himself? Warhammer fans might know me, but other people would be lost. Unless of course, I could tie the idea into this oldie genius skit from Saturday Night Live. Or, this guy:

What could possibly go right?

Blood for the Blood God

Rock for the Rock God!

Rock for the Rock God!

Yes Union Jack’s, I will not use your wifi connection for terrorism or to make nuclear weaponry. I promise.

Okay, sorry about that. Today I’m reviewing a book by C.L. Werner, who is something of a mentor to me writing wise. The man is the heir apparent to the writings of Robert E. Howard, creator and original author of Conan the Barbarian. Robert Howard’s writing was bold, full of description and depth. It was very hard to step into the short stories at first because of how thick they were. But once you did, you were enthralled, you kept going and going as you get sucked into the world that Howard wrote.

For these reasons, be ready for thick tale if you read this book. It’s probably best done when you have a few hour chunks set aside to really dive through the pages, so you can fully and honestly concentrate on the graphic visuals. Turn off the television, play music with no lyrics if you must and just read.

Blood for the Blood God is a stand alone book that takes place in the Chaos Waste, far to the north of the Empire. Although there are many tribes that exist among the wastes, the story is a tale of eight, who are caught up in an ancient feud. Dorgo is the son of one of the eight chieftains. In an ambush led by one of the other tribal leaders, Dorgo witnesses the chieftain slaughtered by the Skulltaker, a menace as old as the feud itself. The news is not well received by Dorgo’s father. But when Dorgo’s words are proven true, the lad is set out on a quest that may allow him to kill the Skulltaker.

Blood for the Blood God is a strong tale, mixing several great components: The history of the tribes and their political bickering, the elements of a heroic quest against the dark setting of Chaos. C.L. Werner’s book is a window into tribal life in the servitude to the dark gods.

Ask him about his tailor. I DARE you.

Ask him about his tailor. I DARE you.

The book is a prologue, a precursor to the daemon known as the Skulltaker: who he was and what he became. But more importantly, Blood for the Blood God is an eye opener into the cults of Khorne. The usual stereotype is that all Khorne worshipers are just crazed blood lusting warriors with no regard to the necessities of food, maintaining their equipment or doing anything to survive beyond what they can take from their victims. But in truth, they are not as one dimensional as people believe. Other stories written about the cults of Khorne would also work to minimize this stereotype. But make no mistake, for despite Khornite warriors having to go through the same struggles to survive as everyone else, they are still awesome warriors. And despite whatever sympathies you may have for Dorgo’s strife, no tale about the struggles of Chaos can ever end on a happy note.

Quakin’

I wish it was that kinda Quake...

Quake II wasn't bad, but Quake D.C. kind of sucked.

Alright, so yours truly was temporarily delayed yesterday thanks to tremors that struck the east coast of the United States.

The rumbling started while I was at my desk at work. For a moment, I wondered if someone was jumping around or intentionally shaking my cubicle, but when other people mentioned it as well I realized it was quake tremors. I imagine that explosives, like some people guessed, are more likely to be a powerful shake and then done. That is unless they were placed to demolish a building, where proper placement and timed detonations would collapse a building. Hence when it started going down, I acted on my elementary school training and threw myself under my desk should anything fall. About five seconds later,  I was told we were to evacuate the building. So I snatched my bag and joined everyone else in orderly but hasty departure.

Everyone dashed outside after swamping the staircases. We assembled in the parking lot, laughing about it. My Facebook news feed was abuzz with news about it, and during the jog down ten flights of stairs I even managed to squeeze out a message via my phone. Everyone was fine, just shook up by the experience. Unlike the west coast, we don’t get many earth jiggles in these parts. Still, we slowly began to laugh and take it easy about the news. 5.8 in Virginia. Could have been worse than a few broken bottles and minor scraps. Phone signals were weakened by traffic of people calling but still got through to make sure my family was alright after a few tries.

Still, you can’t go through a mid-sized earthquake without some collateral damage. The news later said that the Washington Monument and National Cathedral both took some structural damage. The Cathedral definitely got it worse, with three of the four pinnacles falling. Those tops are the highest in all of D.C., so repairing them will be a pain. Still, anyone who has attended the church on a Sunday knows that they’re good for it, either now or soon enough.

Also of interest, certain animals at the Washington Zoo started acted erratically a full fifteen minutes before the tremors ever struck. Taken from the Washington Post’s article:

The first warnings of the earthquake may have occurred at the National Zoo, where officials said some animals seemed to feel it coming before people did. The red ruffed lemurs began “alarm calling” a full 15 minutes before the quake hit, zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson said. In the Great Ape House, Iris, an orangutan, let out a guttural holler 10 seconds before keepers felt the quake. The flamingos huddled together in the water seconds before people felt the rumbling. The rheas got excited. And the hooded mergansers — a kind of duck — dashed for the safety of the water.

We WILL persevere!

We WILL persevere!

So we’re fine over here. Let go early, so we jetted on home. Some people were a little shook up over it, but we’ll be alright.

My plans to see Conan the Barbarian tonight got canceled however as traffic flooded the streets, so I parked myself at my favorite bar and chatted with my bartender, and backlogged a review for C.L. Werner’s Blood for the Blood God.

So that’s all the news for now. Working on a few reviews and am considering a musing piece about Khorne that may rock your socks off. Might try to line up another 10 songs for writing, probably looking for more ambient tunes and music. Then I’ll be hitting up the rest of my piece for September. Got to stay focused, earthquakes be damned.