Anton Chekhov said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”
Well, Fiction School says if there’s a fist in Chapter 1, it better punch somebody in the mouth by Chapter 3. If there are fancy feet, they better dance. If there are baseball players, they better swing that bat. If there are dragons, let ’em fly.
Because we’ve all read those stories where characters talk, and talk, and talk and talk talk talk talktalktalktalk…and they never DO anything. Sure, that may be what life feels like late on a Tuesday when you have to sit through a long, boring work meeting, but that doesn’t make for good stories. Fictionland is a different place, and we like to read about our characters taking action.
But writing action scenes is a difficult art–it’s easy to do them too plain, too boring, or too over-the-top.
Lots of writers avoid writing them, but they shouldn’t. Stories need action.
This week on Fiction School, we let our actions speak louder than words…by using words to talk…about action. Anyway, we discuss what makes for awesome action scenes, how to avoid the Show, Don’t Tell trap, how character and plotting give license for great action scenes, and give a ton of great examples of action scene writing in fiction, from fishing to baseball to hiking to spectating to poaching to drowning, and pouring water down your bare chest if you happen to be a shirtless cowboy. You want action? Listen up!
SHOW NOTES FOR EPISODE 24
- Why are action so scenes hard to write? It’s hard to put action into words without being cartoony or trying too hard. They can be done, but it takes a lot of work.
- Action scenes aren’t always gunfights or jumping off a bridge. Getting on a bus or sitting at a baseball game are action scenes, too, and those can be just as valuable.
- We can’t just have a whole story with a character thinking–we need some action to give us something else than thinking and emoting.
- Action puts characters in positions where outside forces and other people can interact with them.
- The number one rule of creative writing is Show, Don’t Tell, and that’s why they’re hard: action scenes kind of have to tell. Like, “First he punched me, then I kicked him.” But telling is boring, so that makes the action boring.
- How do you describe action without just telling what happened? Mix up the ways you tell the action, use dialogue, exposition, white space and letting the reader fill in the blanks with their imaginations.
- In movies lately, there are REALLLLLY long fight scenes, almost too long. You don’t have to have action in your fiction go on for pages and pages.
- Pacing matters. Action has to feel like its happen in real time, so you can do a lot with action in a short amount of space.
- Grammar can really kick your action description up a notch. Using short sentences, shorter words, harder sounds make the action scene have a music to it that makes the reader hear and feel the action in their ear.
- Good books that have action scenes: How about a classic? Moby Dick. Tommy describes tons of elements of chasing the white whale that really work great as action. Then: Fight Club. The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway. And Baker (again) lobbies for Faulkner and As I Lay Dying as an underrated book with very interesting action scenes, written with lyrical and musical language.
- Sports books obviously make a great use of action writing, but they’re hard to do, too. Fever Pitch is good; Tommy loves The Natural by Malamud. Most of the book is about character, and maybe only 2% of the book is actually describing the baseball action.
- Action scenes really don’t resonate with the reader without a great character. The best action won’t move a reader if they don’t care about who’s doing the action.
- Tommy goes on a long riff about how the classics did action scenes way better, and modern writers and readers don’t have the same abilities or patience.
- Baker makes a call for interesting action scenes by an unsung action writer : Jane “Uppercut” Austen. Lots of great action scenes in Pride and Prejudice.
- Tommy’s writing a book set in Armageddon times, and there’s a dragon. How’s he handling the action scenes? Anticipation, baby. Wait for it, wait for it, wait for it, and then you can do a ton with just a short bit of action.
- You earn the action scene with good characterization and plotting. By getting the readers on board, you have the right to do a good action scene. And then all you need is a half a page to a page.
- For some reason, we end the show talking about shirtless cowboys pouring buckets of water on themselves to cool off. Which is an action scene, we guess…
Lots more fine detail in the show! Hope you’ll have a listen and subscribe to us with your favorite podcast app.