Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Lights, Camera, Action!

#24 Action scenes require short declarative sentences.
#25    Short sentences move faster.

Do you remember the Kung Fu TV show from the '70s? David Carradine would walk into town, have a brief fight with someone objecting to his hippie-like appearance. Then the show would settle down to someone unpleasant hurling anti-Asian racist epithets. (David Carradine appeared to be about as Asian as Charlie Chan.) Then in the last few minutes there would be this huge fight scene where the unpleasant guy and a dozen accomplices would each receive the Boot To The Head.

These action scenes were in slow motion so you could see the boot traverse each millimeter on its trajectory on its way to the bad guy's head. The American viewing public having little experience with Kung Fu (or Ti Kwan Leap for that matter) appreciated the novelty. That was then.

Don't do that now.

Writing isn't film making and prose has its own pacing. Long sentences filled with rich tapestries of description while the POV character engages in introspection, or even omphaloskepsis are the literary version of super-slow motion. You might get away with slow-mo fight scenes in the 1970s, but you can't do it today. (And who knows what omphaloskepsis is?)

Just as long sentences and long words and complicated, well-formed thoughts tend to slow the pace of a written work, the opposite tends to speed it up.

Fragments convey emotion.

Here's an example from a story in Finding Time:

Maketa’s Nubian guard moved toward Nell as Benaiah drew his own sword. Makeda sprang forward as Nell leapt to her feet. She wheeled on the Nubian, drew her stunner, and cut him down. He convulsed and fell in a heap, his sword clattering to the floor.

Nell spun around and aimed at Benaiah, sword out, rushing forward and trying to pull Solomon behind him. All she would need do is stun them both, and grab the notebook to end this charade.

She heard a scuffle on her right. Nestor lay pinned beneath Dinah who straddled him in an unladylike fashion. To their right, Makeda had grabbed Sid by the collar and held a thin, jeweled dagger to his jugular. That complicated things.

Jack had his stunner out and aimed at Makeda, waiting for Nell’s nod to fire.

An earlier Writers Mantras #19 said "Vary your sentence structure." Here, I think I varied it too much. This is a case where two mantras are in tension. You have to balance the mantras against each other. In this case, I concatenated subject-verb-object clauses with simple conjunctions while keeping them independent clauses. Had I kept them separate 3-word sentences the scene would move faster.

You'll also note a lack of any graceful transition between one sentence and the next. Each sentence is jammed up against his neighbor.

If you want to break laws of grammar, do it in action scenes.

Your Point Of View character's internal thought life and her reflections on the meaning of life don't belong in an action scene. If you have to write about a character's navel-gazing either do it before the action scene or (if s/he survives) after it.

In an action scene be direct and to the point without distractions, sidelines or corollaries.

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