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Approaching Action and elevating tension

Have you ever read a novel that has tons of action, car chases, kidnappings, escapes and gun fights -- that doesn't keep you awake even though it is 10:00am on Saturday and you just finished two pots of coffee? Yeah, that's a common problem with newer writers and one that has some simple fixes. Since friends don't let friends publish crap, here are some of the tactics I use for action.


Most of the time, a story is dragged down by  -ly adjectives (slowly, quickly, carefully, dearly, only). Forty percent of the drag can normally be attributed to grammar tactics -- or the lack of them. 20% attributed to lack of detail. Of course shoving 20lbs of shit in a 5lb bag will do it too. We're going to enjoy a few scenes with Jack Dawson and the Road Demons - mess around with some phrasing, and have a bit of fun.I might even try to learn you something as we go.
Jack Dawson, your MC, has had an intense, emotional evening with Donna Drake, the DA of Seattle. Jack is on the wrong side of the law, and both of them know that this thing is going one way, and it has only one outcome. With the Road Demons, Jack's motorcycle club, is under investigation for a murder attempt on the Mayor, Richard Anderson, so the timing couldn't be worse. The Mayor was shot at a kids fundraiser by a sniper, only two weeks after Anderson was on TV, where he loudly declared war on crime in the city and blatantly named the Road Demons as his primary target. This was not the time to get involved with anyone. Getting involved with the DA of Seattle just wasn't the intelligent thing to do.

This paragraph isn't bad, but its not the scene of a man who has just torn himself away from a woman who cuts through logic and reason and skewers his heart, on his way to an ambush. Jack is coming out of a high-sexual-tension scene, so putting him into this paragraph is more of a let down than normal for the reader. Changes like that are a shock that will affect the reader for a while, because it hits against the 'trust' between you and her. So, we know it is off, but what is wrong?

It might surprise you how little it takes to slow down a passage. With this example, I cheated. I didn't start this 'in-action', and wrote it as though I was introducing you to your own story. It is a normal and acceptable start when you are expecting to read a post on writer tips, but the affect holds all the way through the passage. It keeps you distanced. It is a constant voice in your head "This is a tutorial, not a story." so you don't connect. In fact you make the effort not to connect. However, many writers do this inside their novels, and it takes the shape of 'back story' or history or the need to 'explain', and it has the exact same effect on the reader. "Oh, he's explaining again -- shit."

Eighty percent of what you think the reader 'needs to know' she doesn't, and doesn't want to know either. Hot, sexy, outlaw biker Jack Dawson just left an overheated petting scene with law goddess Donna Drake, and you want to go into a history lesson? Now? Are you shitting me? So we'll clean that up, but the next time you think the reader needs a prologue or some back-story -- write it, but do it in your Evernote, or mark it for deletion in your Scrivener program. YOU need to know it, so don't do without - write the information out, and continue. It would be more of a mistake to not write it  than to keep it in the story.

So what else?

All tell, no show. That's a huge drag on a story. Might as well put a rock on the reader's back and make her walk around while reading. Since that comes from the way I started the passage, again it is  expected so you can call foul if you wish, but those two characteristics combined kill it. But there is more.

Near the beginning you'll find the line: Jack is on the wrong side of the law, and both of them know that this thing is going one way, and it has only one outcome. Many little words strung together on a conjunction-train. It could be worse, I could have said  '...is going only one way, down, and it has only one outcome, heartbreak'. That turns it into a cliche, which stops the reader - the book closes and goes into the bag to take to the used-book store.

If you aren't sure how to make comments or in-line comments with Scrivener, there is a blog I follow called Simply Scrivener which has tons of great hints, tips and tricks for getting the most out of a great program. Highly recommend.
The only aspect saving that sentence is leaving the expected ending off, which is a tactic to remember for livening up a phrase and drawing the reader in. The reader expects it -- it doesn't happen -- that creates a tension in the reader. And yes, little things like that build up, and have long lasting effect. It is a maxim to not go from extreme to extreme too often. This isn't a roller coaster or a movie. Books have the time and the space to explore deeper emotional involvement -- so use the medium for what it is good at. Leave monsters jumping out from behind the closet door for the movies. They do that because they have 2 hours or less, you have all day long. Add tension using various tactics -- keep spooning to her in little ways, until the reader is squirming in her seat and can't put the book down.

I hesitated bringing up the conjunction-train string. I don't want to be taken the wrong way on this one. First drafts should not be judged or hindered by these suggestions. When you are in the zone during your first draft, conjunction-trains are common because we're inside the scene and the images are coming fast and we're writing as fast as we can -- Don't Stop. Babble away until you are free to come back and edit. During your edit however, look for them and clean them up.

Getting involved with a DA just wasn't the intelligent thing to do.

Can we be more pedestrian than this sentence? Some tips from the Copy writing industry:
  • 60 seconds is faster than a minute.
  • Beef tastes better than meat
  • Eviscerated is fun to say, gutted hurts
Getting tight with the DA invited complex pain.

Much better.

The last dragging aspect are the -ly adjectives. Like tension, drag builds up as well. After a few pages of reading slowly, quickly, loudly, softly, smoothly, heavily, tightly, your reader is going to yawn. These types of words spin in the mind as the reader attempts to visualize what slowly putting his jacket on, looks like. The reference requires context, so the passage is reread and gone over to put this in perspective. Was he trying to be sexy? was he reluctant? was he hesitant? did he feel threatened so he didn't want to be tangled up? -- getting the point? Slowly, doesn't offer actual data or description.

-ly words are also lazy. You're skimping on the reader. So, on your edit, cut them, and say what is needed. Most of the time, like words such as "that", you can cut them completely without replacement.

Building and keeping excitement going isn’t always intuitive.

Fight scenes especially, suffer from a misunderstanding of what the reader is experiencing. It is good practice to go back to some of your favorite fight scenes in novels and to study what is really being said, versus what you experienced the first time you read them. I was surprised to near shocked, the first time I did this.

The scene was one of William Gibson’s stories Johnny Mnemonic. The battle is between Molly (a hyper-teked-up Street Samurai), and a Yakuza (an unnamed Triad Assassin). Gibson has built up the Yakuza so much during the story that he makes a master ninja sound like a kid with a stick. Molly has demonstrated a bit of talent, but … well…

The stage is called the Killing Floor, a place created inside a gutted six story building by a gang called the Lo Teks. The Floor hangs suspended about where the 4th floor might have been. It is a comprised of heavy gauge steel springs attached to the four corners, with gas tanks, doors, iron frames of all sorts and a collection of other items welded and stuck together. It bounces and moves when you walk on it. The surface is uneven, with gaps between items, and sharp edges. Above the Floor, four bright spot lights come on, casting stark shadows making it difficult to judge if the place you are about to step is shadow or edge or surface.

Molly and the Yakuza are going to meet on that floor -- Molly is the defender, the Yakuza is there to kill Johnny Mnemonic. The challenge by Molly is accepted, so the Yakuza won’t kill Johnny until after the duel, so Johnny’s free to watch, but not to run.

The Lo Teks parted to let [the Yakuza] step up on to the bench. He bowed, smiling, and stepped smoothly out of his sandals, leaving them side by side, perfectly aligned, and then he stepped down on to the Killing Floor. He came for me, across that shifting trampoline of scrap, as easily as any tourist padding across synthetic pile in any featureless hotel. 
Molly hit the Floor, moving. 
The Floor screamed. 
It was miked and amplified, with pickups riding the four fat coil springs at the corners and contact mikes taped at random to rusting machine fragments. Somewhere the Lo Teks had an amp and a synthesizer, and now I made out of shapes of speakers overhead, above the cruel white floods. 
A drumbeat began, electronic, like an amplified heart, steady as a metronome. 
She'd removed her leather jacket and boots; her T-shirt was sleeveless, faint teeltales of Chiba City circuitry traced along her thin arms. Her leather jeans gleamed under the floods. She began to dance. 
She flexed her knees, white feet tensed on a flattened gas tank, and the Killing Floor began to heave in response. The sound it made was like a world ending, like the wires that hold heaven snapping and coiling across the sky. 
He rode with it, for a few heartbeats, and then he moved, judging the movement of the Floor perfectly, like a man stepping from one flat stone to another in an ornamental garden.

The difference between how much you can visualize and how much is described is amazing, right? The first paragraph gives us a view of the Yakuza stepping onto the floor with some long sentences and even a few -ly words to drag you a little. When Molly ‘hits the floor’ the action is in full overdrive. What makes that happen is the short sentence.
Subject, verb, noun, adverb

Basic, hard, fast. The visual it causes is clear and bright. Then Gibson keeps that tempo going with short fast paragraphs.Molly isn't calm, or serine. Molly is here for violence. The Yakuza is calm, Zen. The Yakuza is here for death. When Molly moves, we hear “...the wires that hold Heaven snapping”. With the Yakuza we get the calm again, and even an -ly word.
And Molly seemed to let something go, something inside, and that was the real start of her mad-dog dance. She jumped, twisting, lunging sideways, landing with both feet on an alloy engine block wired directly to one of the coil springs. I cupped my hands over my ears and knelt in a vertigo of sound, thinking Floor and benches were on their way down, down to Nighttown, and I saw us tearing through the shanties, the wet wash, exploding on the tiles like rotten fruit. But the cables held, and the Killing Floor rose and fell like a crazy metal sea. And Molly danced on it.
The intensity is found between what is said, inside the ‘unsaid’ spaces. Gibson let’s the reader’s imagination fill in all of the little details of sweat and fear and the howling Low Teks. What he started with contrasts between Molly and the Yakuza he now runs with inside broken sentences, and chopped up prose. He lets us up enough for two sentences of harsh description and then hits us with Molly’s dance. Again, short hard and simple.

And Molly danced on it.” That hardly describes a thing, and yet it rushes a visual into the cortex of the reader -- because Gibson allows that visual to happen.

Allowing the reader to ‘see’ what is happening is what makes all great action scenes work. Action scenes overburdened with detail of the fight tend to drag and lose the vividness we might have had.

I was positive there was more to this scene than what I found on returning to study it in detail. I was sure that Gibson described Molly’s wire-hard muscles straining under her skin, and sweat sprays flashing out from the whip of her hair. I was also taken by how short the whole scene was. It felt in my memory at least half a chapter long, and in reality, it is about two pages. In fact, you've now read most of it.

So, back to writing, and I hope this helped you.

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