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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What the Action Hero Knows, and the Writer Should

Please welcome guest blogger Rob Preece

While it’s possible to write a story that’s all dialogue, description and introspection, for many genres, especially fantasy and science fiction-related genres, action, sex and physical danger add spice. The trick, of course, is to make the action seem believable, while allowing it to define the character in the eyes of the reader and use it as a symbol to show that character’s growth through the story. Unfortunately, there are several pitfalls with writing action and fight scenes—even more so than in writing sex scenes (most authors are far more familiar with the basics of sex than they are with those of fighting).

How your character handles a physically dangerous situation depends on that character and that character’s story arc. Let’s say, for example, that our protagonist (Jane) is a female spy who’s penetrated an enemy stronghold and read that enemy’s secret plans but is discovered in the act. Jane can run, hide, fight, or surrender. Each act has obvious consequences and the decision will drive the rest of the story.

In our story, Jane decides to fight rather than run away. Our readers will sympathize even though they might run away themselves. Because she’s the protagonist, we want Jane to be braver, more capable than we are. The actual fight, though, is a bit tricky. Like a sex scene, we want the fight to reflect the characters involved. Thus the fight must be choreographed to show Jane’s stage in her development as a protagonist and must be individualized. Readers have seen too many stories where the woman kicks her assailants in the scrotum and will feel cheated by a clichéd solution. They instinctively know that tough security guards have been kicked before and are ready for this response.

As with all writing, one technique is to use the readers’ experience and expectations to trick them, twist the cliché and show it in a new way. The first idea that jumps into our heads is generally the one readers expect, and that we should avoid. If everyone, including the guards, knows that Jane intends to kick one or more of them in the scrotum, the story is advanced if she does something else (perhaps performs a back kick on the guard trying to grab her from behind after suckering the guard in front of her with a fake knee to his groin). In this way, we either avoid cliché entirely or use the cliché as a setup, then deliver an unexpected payoff.

The author doesn’t need to be a mixed martial arts expert to write good action scenes any more than she needs to live in eighteenth century England to write regency. It’s important, though, to do your research. Just as readers of medieval romance are put off by anachronisms, so readers of action fiction are pulled out of the story by action that’s clichéd, that’s physically impossible, or that simply doesn’t fit with the character you’ve established.

Want more tips and techniques? In my workshop with FF&P, I’ll help writers construct high-impact action scenes that add to the story rather than simply filling space.

What the Action Heroine Knows, and the Writer Should: Martial Arts, Fighting and Weapons, presented by Rob Preece, runs from April 2, 2012 through April 29, 2012

Rob Preece is a martial artist, writer small publisher, and bridge instructor. He holds a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and has also studied Ju-Jitsu, Kobodo (Okinawan traditional weapons), European Fencing, Judo and Taiji (Tai-Chi). When he's not practicing fighting, Rob is working on his next project, editing, or playing bridge. A longtime member of Romance Writers of America, Rob has finaled in the RWA Golden Heart competition as well as finaling or winning a number of other writing competitions. His mystery, Midlife Murder(writing as Amy Eastlake) was a top-rated pick at Fictionwise where he's reached the best-sellers list several times. He's presented his workshop on writing fight scenes for RWA National, Mystery Writers of America Southwest, EPIC, several local RWA and MWA chapters and on line.


YelenaC said...

Good article. It's so true that you don't want to see the same old fighting routines as a reader over and over again (though sometimes they work beautifully). And, as with everything else, it is helpful to do research so you as a writer are believable.
As a martial artist myself, I try to use my experiences in writing. I sometimes even go to my sensei (who also happens to be my hubby) to ask him to help me walk through some fighting scenarios.

Rob Preece/BooksForABuck.com said...

Thanks for the feedback, Yelena. Yes, sometimes just acting out the scene, in slow motion, can give you a sense of space and realism. Just like sex, if the body parts aren't in the right place, the action doesn't follow.