Fuel for My Jetpack, Mead for My Dragon (02 February, 2012)

Having been a child of 1980’s cinema, I was exposed and became enamored of science-fiction movies with a good dose of action in them.  From the eye-popping SLAM!-BANG! of the early Star Wars saga to the bloody shootouts of Robocop, action sequences were the go-go juice that inspired my imagination whenever I sent my heroes on their perilous quests.  Just as fitting in fantasy as in sci-fi, pulse-pounding action sees us through classic scenes of knights battling dragons and elves battling orcs.

The task of putting an action sequence in your story can be tricky and frustrating.  Not being a visual medium, literary stories don’t have the advantage of simply showing the audience what’s happening; the reader must be told what’s going on.  As a lot of the excitement of action relies on a chain of events happening in quick succession, the risk emerges of losing the reader’s interest through wordy, overworked description.  Conversely, it’s kind of difficult to sell the heart-pounding suspense of “He swung his sword and almost chopped the other guy’s head off.”  The entire sequence can come off as a ‘You had to be there’ moment.

Fortunately, there are those out there who have experienced success in writing action.  I’ve done a little digging around and found some sound advice from around the Internet that may help with chronicling not just a battle, but an awesome battle.

One of the key elements of creating another world is populating it with unearthly creatures, the way-out nature of which could distract from the tone of the story. Storm The castle.com has a wise bit of advice about that featured in the piece, “How to Write a Great Combat Scene – Advice for Fantasy Writers”:

Handle Strange Creatures Realistically – When writing a creature into a combat scene, whether it be a Troll, Ogre, Goblin, Orc, or any other type of exotic fantasy creature, it still must follow the rules of flesh and blood. You probably don’t have a real fantasy creature to model combat motions after, but you will have a familiar creature that you can use as a template for motion. Fantasy creatures are almost always distortions of real creatures. Trolls become very large men, Goblins are wiry and quick, and Centaurs follow the template of horses. What you can do is to transfer your thinking about the creature in terms of what it is similar to. How would a horse move in this situation? How would a very large man move in this combat scene? These transferences of physique work well and make the combat realistic.

If you go check out the rest of the great tips listed (there are a number of them), remember to check out the other pages as well.  Storm the Castle has a treasure trove of fantasy-based craft projects and other goodies.

Elfwood.com is a massive collection of science-fiction and fantasy on the web.  Their stated goal to “provide a place for amateurs from all over the world to share, teach, and inspire a new generation of dreams” is backed up by their large library of stories and artwork, as well as the Fantasy Art Resource Project (FARP), an elaborate series of tutorials intended to aid the struggling visionary in the creative process.  In her article “Writing Action”, S. B. ‘Kinko’ Hulsey provides an excellent example of writing action by, in fact, providing an example of written action.  She starts with a rather drab, wordy piece of text and uses valuable tools to improve it.  A great piece of advice is to carefully choose one’s words, which can really make a difference in presenting action and keeping the play-by-play from getting boring.  Consider the following passage:

Janis leapt into the air, clearing the large, granite boulder without touching it with his plain, brown leather boots. He saw a glint of metal out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a huge ugly monstrosity of a troll swinging a large, engraved sword, made by dragons by the looks of it, at the boy. Jumping backwards, Janis avoided the sword and countered with his rapier, its strong, plain blade holding up to the strength of the beast.

Pretty clunky. But once it’s jazzed up with more arresting verbiage:

Janis leapt into the air, clearing the boulder easily. He caught a flash of metal out of the corner of his eye and whirled to see a huge troll swinging a sword straight at the boy. Leaping backwards, Janis avoided the blade, then countered with his rapier, its blade holding up to the strength of the beast.

… it becomes more interesting, and shorter to boot.  Brevity in an action sequence is important – and the article even says as much.  There’s much more inspiring information in the article, as well as the rest of elfwood.com.  Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Finally, what better place to learn about something than a site called about.com?  I’ve gone there many a time for other issues (everything from food safety to finding the right kind of freeware to do a project), and lo, they even have an entry about writing action, Ginny Wiehardt’s “How Do You Write Action Scenes?” One of the more soothing elements of the article is that it starts right off saying “Action scenes are really hard to write: it’s not just you.”  Good to know I’m not alone.

Get up and act out the scenes as best you can (though I realize this is not always possible when writing fantasy novels). As you act it out, you’ll also get ideas for other things you can describe. You might also try watching action sequences on screen (you could even observe or take a martial arts or fencing class). How do people tend to fall, on their sides, on their hands, etc.? What sorts of exclamations do they make? Do they wipe sweat away, or do they ignore it? How does a body respond when a sword (or hand, foot, etc.) makes contact?

Sage words. One of the keys to writing fantasy or science-fiction is to ground the world into some kind of reality.  This makes the characters and the situation relatable to the reader. I, for example, have never been to a high-tech park nestled in the jungle of a Central American island that saw bloodshed and disaster after the scientists that brought dinosaurs back to life lost control of the facility, but Michael Crichton provided plenty of effective descriptors of the action and the environments in Jurassic Park for me to relate to the danger the characters were in.

These were just a handful of search results.  Action writing can be a hassle, but it can also be a satisfying challenge met.  Never give up until you’ve created something that flows on the page as fast as it flows in your mind.


All of the quoted material is copyright their respective authors.

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