Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Another one on writing action scenes

Here's something I've noticed from time to time when reading novels and short stories: scenes, sometimes entire chapters, which read as if they're outlines rather than fully fleshed-out narratives. There's a lot of "telling" rather than "showing" -- action or dialog that's kind of glossed over or summarized rather than allowed to play out like an actual conversation or action scene. One example that comes to mind immediately is Revelation, a Mass Effect novel by Drew Karpyshyn, which I finally got around to reading sometime last year. I'm a huge fan of the video game series, and he was the lead writer on the first game (and on the second, if I remember correctly), but the novels ... well, his writing style isn't bad, but from what I remember, there was a lot of exposition and I didn't find things like fight scenes as compelling as they could've been. There wasn't much in the way of details.

I started thinking about this (not for the first time) last night, and figured it'd make a good topic to explore here. I decided to focus on writing action/fight scenes, since that's kind of turned into my "thing" over the last few years. And I thought it'd just be fun ... and it'd give me an excuse to get off my ass and write something, which I haven't done much in the last couple of months. So what follows is a short (-ish) action sequence to help illustrate what I'm talking about. I came up with it off the top of my head late last night.

Since Valeria seems to have become my go-to character for stuff like this, it'll be a scene with her in an isolated outpost filled with civilians that's being attacked by a small merc squad. The basic situation is, the civilians are taking cover but she needs to minimize gunfire to keep any of them from being hit by a stray shot. Which means she needs to get in close so the mercs can't fire at her without hitting each other, and go hand-to-hand with them.

There'll be two versions, one a short paragraph that summarizes rather than letting it play out and reach a natural conclusion, and the other a fully fleshed-out scene. One tells you what happened, and the other shows you. One gets it over with quickly, and the other brings the character and the scene to life. (At least, I hope it does, heh.)

Of course, there's no single "right" approach, and no "wrong" approach, really. This is just my particular sense of what works better.

Having said that, let's get started.

Version 1:
The mercs marched out of the smoke. Valeria motioned for everyone else to stay hidden and keep their heads down before charging into the middle of the group. They tried to aim their guns at her, but she disarmed them and knocked them out with a flurry of punches and kicks. Once she was sure none of them would get back up, she called out to the civilians and waved her arm frantically at them, urging them to clear the room while they had time.

That works well enough to tell that part of the story, particularly in a short piece where you're limited to 7,000 words or fewer, and you need to pack a whole story into that small space. When you're writing a novel that'll be 100,000 words or more, though, you have room to cut loose and let the scene unfold and reach its conclusion at its own pace. I didn't intend for the fleshed-out version to go on as long as it did, but I admit I got carried away because I was having so much fun with it.


Version 2:

"I'm in the armory," Valeria said into her comm. "What's happening in there?"
"I can hear them outside the door," one of the trapped civilians replied, his voice quivering and his breathing rapid. "They're gonna start cutting through any moment!"
"Get behind the biggest shipping containers, stay out of sight, and keep quiet." Valeria rushed over to the racks lining the walls. She grabbed a Phalanx hand cannon and an M-76 Revenant assault rifle. She clipped them to her armor, hoping to avoid shooting with all the innocent bystanders around, but bringing them along just in case. She picked up extra thermal clips, an armor-piercing knife, and a variable-density baton, the latter two being a better fit to the strategy she'd decided on when the shit hit the fan.
A Scorpion heavy pistol caught her attention as she turned back to the doorway. Originally brought into service by the salarian Special Tasks Group, the gun's projectiles were essentially small sticky grenades rather than the standard, sand-grain-sized bullets used by most other guns. A new idea clicked into place in her head and she clipped the Scorpion to her left hip.
"I'm on my way." She closed the channel and sprinted through the corridors to the cargo bay. She reached the large chamber and found it half-filled with huge shipping containers and crates of varying sizes placed seemingly at random. In the corner of her left eye, she found a couple dozen people huddled behind one of the big containers.
An almost liquid-looking stream of sparks punched through the door on the far side of the bay as the mercs began cutting through. Valeria turned to the civvies, made a "kaboom" gesture with her hands, and then motioned for them to keep their heads down. She drew the Scorpion and charged across the bay. She ducked behind a large metal crate, peeked around and aimed at the center of the roughly circular chunk being cut out of the door. When the cutter had almost completed the circle, Val fired six grenades into it and returned the gun to her hip.
The cutter finished its work and the sparks vanished. Val ducked back behind the crate an instant before the grenades detonated. A sharp bang made her wince and the shockwave rattled her armor. She peeked out and found a hole in the door; the thick slab of metal had been popped out like a cork, landing outside rather than in the cargo bay.
Valeria rushed over to the door, keeping away from the opening for the moment, and scanned the area with her Omni-Tool. It detected seven lifeless bodies crushed beneath the chunk of the door, and four more live ones. Through the smoke, her helmet's audio receptors picked up coughing and confused shouting. Her Tool located each of the survivors and painted their outlines in her heads-up display. Two humans, an asari, and ...
Great. One of them is a krogan. This ought to be ... interesting. Still, there was one weak point she could attack if she could get close enough. What the hell. Got to get right in the middle of them anyway, so they can't start shooting without blowing each other away.
She took a slow breath, let it out, and charged through the hole. The asari was nearest. The merc spun around and brought her rifle up just as Val tackled her. She gripped the barrel, wrenched it upward, and twisted it until the trigger guard snapped her opponent's finger. The asari groaned through clenched teeth and let the gun drop. She shoved her other arm out, palm straight into Val's face, and her Omni-Tool interface appeared for a split-second -- before a blinding light overwhelmed her helmet's video sensors and then everything blacked out. Overload blast, Valeria guessed as she yanked her helmet off so she could see her enemies.
The asari clamped her good hand onto Val's right mandible and yanked. Fiery pain ripped through the side of her face and she screamed. Unable to back away without injuring herself even worse, she swung her helmet around and smashed it into the asari's nose. The other woman cried out and stumbled backward, releasing her grip on Val's mandible. Valeria launched at her, cocking the helmet back and slamming it into the merc's face again and again and then again. Finally, she wound up one more time and connected with the merc's jaw. After another loud grunt and the snap of bone cracking, the asari toppled over, groaned, and lay still.
Valeria took several gasping breaths and rushed the nearer human. He sidestepped her and lashed out with the stock of his rifle, but she blocked it and head-butted him, sending him staggering back into the six-wheeled vehicle they'd arrived in. She spun him around and clamped her arm around his neck, bearing down until he stopped thrashing and sank to the ground. She let him drop, sucked in another deep breath, and turned to locate the remaining two.
Something plowed into her from behind, hitting with the force of a speeding truck. The krogan, she realized as the whole world tilted and she found herself being ground into the pavement.
"Bitch!" He lifted her up, turned, and threw her into the side of their vehicle. The impact knocked the wind out of her and everything started to fade away. She shook her head and forced herself back upright just as the krogan lunged at her again. His huge hands clamped around her throat -- but she pulled her right hand back and jabbed her talon into his eye. He roared and staggered away, clamping his hand over his eye.
Valeria yanked her knife out, charged, and leaped into the air. The impact toppled him over and she wedged her knife under one of the plates on his head. She pistoned her palm into the handle, driving the business end deeper under the plate. He had just enough time to suck in a deep breath before she wrenched the knife upward, prying the plate up with a sickening, crunching-tearing sound. The krogan howled and thrashed hard enough to buck her loose and send her flying. She crashed into the ground with a sharp grunt. She pushed herself back up despite the pain throbbing through her back and face. The krogan continued screaming for a few more seconds before losing consciousness. Breathing heavily, Valeria turned to face the last merc.
His eyes were wide and some of the color had drained from his face, but he pulled himself together and fired off several shots. Valeria's shields flared with each impact as she rushed forward. He snarled a curse and backed around the rear end of the truck while continuing to fire. Val darted in front of it, putting the whole vehicle between her and the merc, and then leaped onto the hood. She crouched and then vaulted over the roof. The merc glanced up just in time to see her dropping toward him.
"Shit!" He raised his rifle and stepped back, but couldn't get out of the way. She slammed into him and both of them sprawled on the pavement. The rifle slipped from his hand and clattered across the ground. She rolled over and pushed herself up, but caught a faceful of his boot before she could get her bearings. The world spun around her and when it stopped, she was flat on her back.
The man's boots pounded the pavement twice, and then one slammed into the side of her head. She rolled away with a shriek, blinked and shook her head, and pushed herself back onto her hands and knees. Her vision cleared in time to catch a glimpse of him diving at her. The impact slammed her back to the ground with him on top of her. He cocked his fist back and launched it. She deflected it with her right arm, lashed out with her left, and poked him in the eyes. He screamed and snapped his head back to get out of her reach. She bolted upright and punched him in the throat. He gagged, flopped over on his side, and tried to crawl away.
Gasping for breath and aching, Valeria rolled him onto his back and drove her fist into his face. He tried to swing back at her, and she punched him again. He threw another feeble blow, but she swatted his fist away and pounded him three more times. He groaned, shook his head, and tried to scoot out from under her.
Oh, for ... Valeria grabbed the sides of his head, lifted, and then slammed the back of his skull into the pavement. He hunched forward as if trying to curl up, but she whacked his head into the ground again. This time he turned limp with one last moan. Valeria dragged herself off him, propped herself up on her left arm, and continued sucking in deep, gasping breaths. She took a quick look at the four mercs to be sure they were all out of commission.
Still breathing, but they won't be getting up for a while. With a relieved sigh, she flopped over on her back and gave herself a moment to recover before opening a comm channel to the civilians.
"I've cleared the road. Let's get the hell out of here while we still can."

Okay, then. Version 2, I think, is more effective at bringing the scene and its central character to life. It also has the added benefit of adding to the word count without going all purple-prose. I should add that the goal here isn't filler. Scenes like these shouldn't be extended past the point where they should come to their conclusion for the sake of padding out the word count. They'll become tedious or tiresome for the readers if the fight drags on too long. But if you let the scene play out rather than gloss it over, it'll paint a more vivid picture in the reader's imagination and at the same time push the book that much closer to the total word count you're aiming for.

And, for me at least, it's just a hell of a lot of fun.

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