Reading List – July Through September

Liked/Loved +/++

Indifferent =

Disliked –

FICTION

NOVELS

  • Half-Resurrection Blues – Daniel José Older (F) +
  • Midnight Taxi Tango – Daniel José Older (F) ++
  • The Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett (SF) =
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty – Libbra Bray (F/YA) +
  • Rebel Angels – Libba Bray (F/YA) +
  • The Sweet Far Thing – Libba Bray (F/YA) +
  • The Diviners – Libba Bray (F/YA, reread) ++
  • Lair of Dreams – Libba Bray (F/YA, reread) ++
  • Star Wars: Rebel Rising (SF/YA) +
  • Star Wars: Guardians of the Whills (SF/YA) +
  • Star Wars: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (SF) +
  • Fear the Drowning Deep – (F/YA) +

NOVELLAS

  • Six Gun Snow White – Cat Valente (F) =/+
  • Final Girls – Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) (SF) =/+
  • Rolling in the Deep – Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) (SF) +

SHORT STORIES

  • Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies – John Joseph Adams ed. (SF/Anthology) ++
    • A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime – Charlie Jane Anders =
    • Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance – Tobias S. Buckell +
    • The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts – Becky Chambers ++
    • The Sighted Watchmaker – Vylar Kaftan +
    • Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair! – Seanan McGuire =
  • The End is Nigh: The Apocalypse Triptych – J. J. Adams and Hugh Howey, eds. (SF/Anthology) +
    • The Balm and the Wound – Robin Wasserman =
    • Heaven is a Place on Planet X – Desirina Boskovich ++
    • Break! Break! Break! – Charlie Jane Anders +
    • The Gods Will Not Be Chained – Ken Liu =
    • Wedding Day – Jake Kerr ++
    • Removal Order – Tananarive Due +
    • In the Air – Hugh Howey =
    • Goodnight Moon – Annie Bellet +
    • Houses Without Air – Megan Arkenberg =
    • The Fifth Day of Deer Camp – Scott Sigler =
    • Enjoy the Moment – Jack McDevitt +
    • Pretty Soon the Four Horsement are Going to Come Riding Through – Nancy Kress =
    • Spores – Seanan McGuire +
  • Uncanny Magazine (Online)
    • The Worshipful Society of Glovers – Mary Robinette Kowal ++
    • Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time – K.M. Szpara +
    • Notes from Liminal Spaces – Hiromi Goto =/-
    • How the Maine Coon Cat Learned to Love the Sea – Seanan McGuire +

COMICS

  • Star Wars: Poe Dameron, Vol 1 and 2 – Charles Soule (SF) ++
  • Monstress, Vol 1 – Marjorie Liu (F) +

 

Zombie Moans Into Existence

Man, I had so many grand plans for this website when I got it set up last year (with thanks of course to the inimitable Jeremiah Tolbert of Clockpunk Studios for the design and implementation). But then, well, the election happened, and I was emotional roadkill for the better part of four months, and then I was neck-deep in this screenwriting contest that I happened to actually win. With that and the fact that Tortall: A Spy’s Guide comes out in October (I helped make the thing!), I thought perhaps I should dust off this lovely page and get things going again.

It’s been a long, weird year.

I’ll confess I’m in a bit of a creative recovery period at the moment. A combination of health factors and life events has left me feeling burnt out and worn down, in spite of the good stuff happening in my writing life. There’s a certain irony in things coming to fruition when I’m too tired to do much about it. But that’s part of things, too: letting yourself recuperate. It’s something I’m not particularly good at. I hate being inactive. It sucks. But I’m trying to sit back, relax a bit, and let my creative batteries recharge. A lot of what I write here over the next couple of months will probably have to do with media consumed rather than media produced. Probably punctuated with fanfiction. Because I like fanfiction, fight me. (No don’t really.)

Somehow also over the past year I’ve fallen into wondering what is worthy of being written about online, what is worthwhile~~ enough to inflict on the seething cosmos of the internet, so a lot of what I write is gonna be, well. For me. Sorting out thoughts on books I’m reading, talking about the storytelling and gameplay mechanics in videogames I’m playing–if it’s interesting, I hope you’ll contribute your own thoughts. If it’s not, I’d love to know what you’re curious about hearing.

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble. And that annoys me as much as it does other people. I will be seeing you, oh great and terrible internet.

Home Sweet Home

Welcome to my new internet home, built by the inimitable Jeremiah Tolbert of Clockpunk Studios and furnished by my friend MJ Erickson, a fantastic artist. Please pardon my dust as – as I stop myself from going any further with that metaphor.

These kinds of posts always struck me as half resume, half dating ad. Reasons I know what I’m talking about and reasons you should totally hang out with me!

To start with, I’ve been studying storytelling since before I knew what poetics was. In fact, I wasn’t introduced to that particular term until college, and by then I was neck deep in the mechanics of story and how and why things worked as they did. I went to the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers when I was in my early teens, attending for two years as a student then again as junior staff. I didn’t have the words yet to describe what I knew, but I already had the – according to my parents – uncanny ability to predict films and television twists, to the point where I was forbidden to speak while watching TV. I applied the same skill to books, breaking down their contents and looking at where my predictions went wrong, then going back through the text and finding points where the new outcome was hinted at. College gave me the means to talk about what I’d been doing for years, and the advanced tools to dig deeper into analysis and narrative structure.

You’ll see a lot of that here – analysis, talk about writing and how scenes work, what scenes are, all of that. Also personal ramblings about fan things, working as a personal assistant, and my own projects. Probably too the occasional bit of fanfiction, as I have fun with it and find it a good way to explore and experiment with narrative techniques in a low-investment way. I’m also working on video essays talking about TV and movies! Those will role out in December, and I’ll make an announcement in my newsletter on what the first topics will be. At the moment, I’ve planned posts about critique groups (11/8), and about what “conflict” means for fiction (11/11), as well as a guest post for a friend about how I critique and what I look for. Not sure when that one will go up, but I’ll announce it here!

In the mean time, you can get a taste for how I do things with Anatomy of Action Scenes, or get my take on the narrative failures of Captain America: Winter Soldier. Welcome!

The Narrative Failures of Captain America: Winter Soldier

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Captain America. They also know how many times I tend to see Captain America movies in theaters. Winter Soldier capped out at twelve, mostly because I couldn’t justify seeing it again without a free ticket. There’s no question that I liked the film – loved it, even.

I loved the introduction to Sam Wilson and the way he was used as a foil for Steve – the veteran who’s made peace sharing the screen with the veteran who doesn’t know what peace is. I loved Steve and Natasha’s relationship. I loved the way the action scenes reflected the personalities and skill sets of the characters involved, that they were choreographed in a way that made them unique to their participants instead of a generic tour of explosions. I loved that they made Sharon her own person first, though I feel like they undermined her individuality in Civil War to include the weird, uncomfortable romantic angle from the comics, an angle that for me doesn’t work in the cinematic universe at all.

I disliked the sideline with Peggy. It was a blatant knife-twist that exploited her illness and her character and then immediately forgot her. I had very strong, very negative feelings about the way casualties and pedestrians were handled in most of the movie (the one exception being the chase scene with Nick Fury). The highway fight in particular stood out to me as paying far too little attention to collateral damage, except on Natasha’s part. But those things weren’t enough to undermine my over-all enjoyment of the film.

No, for me there were two major flaws that stood out as narratively self-defeating. Thematic dissonance, and Hydra.

Let’s talk about Hydra first. The way the ads were framed for this film made it seem like Steve would be taking on SHIELD itself, tackling the issues of a surveillance state and the kind of government that would support one. Such things are the ideal purview of a character meant to embody the best of a nationalistic spirit. Such things were tidily side-stepped by the introduction of Hydra to the mix.

Now, stay with me for a minute. Think about it. At the outset, we’re shown SHIELD’s plan to help create a “safer” world. Eliminating threats before they happen. Punishment coming after the crime? Can’t afford to wait that long. Essentially, SHIELD is preparing to execute thousands for thought crimes, and they’re close to making that (criminal) dream a reality.

But that’s Hydra talking!

And that’s the problem. No, it’s not. It’s not just Hydra. It is also SHIELD. There are hundreds, thousands, who are complicit in the creation and institution of this plan. Fury gets in Steve’s face and tells him to get with the program. SHIELD supports these measures. Not unilaterally, I’m sure, but enough to make it happen. They are absolved of guilt in the narrative because of the presence of Hydra in their midst, but how can the motives of one group be extricated from the motives of the other?

They essentially did want the same thing, Pierce was right about that much – but one man’s target was another man’s hero. Literally the only thing that changes when Hydra takes control is whose finger rests on the trigger. But we forget that, because Hydra is framed as the enemy in the text of the story, and SHIELD is framed as a perhaps complicit but unwitting victim. Which they are so, so not.

They are just as guilty as Hydra, and just as wrong. The narrative sort of gestures vaguely in this direction with Steve’s insistence that the whole mess has to go – but Fury looks for support in the conversation, still wanting to salvage some aspect of the monolith.

In saying that Hydra has been feeding crises for 70 years, The Winter Soldier removes from those organizations, states, and individuals in history who perpetrated those crises any responsibility for their actions and the fallout therefrom. Maybe this was hyperbole on Zolatron’s part, but we’re given supporting evidence for his claim within the context of the film. Again, it could be exaggeration, given that this information comes from an enemy, but as we’re given no conflicting evidence to work with during the narrative, we are thus required to give certain credence to the idea.

As a historian, this is where the movie kind of lost me. It effectively renders recent history into an artificial construct, and unintentionally posits that if not for Hydra’s influence, the world would probably be A-okay. It allows the “out” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of saying “Hydra did it” when it comes to any discussion of uncomfortable truths of the past seventy years, and opens up the way to absolve political entities of decisions that they made in the real world. In essence, it neuters the film’s ability to speak to a modern world that is veering toward a dystopic future, because of the events of a chaotic past.

It doesn’t help that I was bored with the secret organization that’s been pulling the strings from the shadows plot before I ever saw The Winter Soldier. Maybe it would be nice, to find out that all of the turmoil of the world is caused by a single group and that removing that group can in some way reset the clock. That all it takes is one massive upheaval instead of a constant, unrelenting struggle toward progress. Maybe.

But that isn’t reality, and reality is where the best fiction starts. Reality is what movies about superheroes speak to, our dreams, our fears, our hopes, our struggles. Reality is complicated, messy, interrelated, impossible to untangle. Reality is two steps forward and one or three steps back. I didn’t give a damn that Hydra still existed, because secret organizations of that size and influence don’t relate to the world I know. That’s the point at which I lost my fear of the enemy in the film.

As for the idea of thematic dissonance, The Winter Soldier‘s whole relationship with responsibility and the nature and importance of ordinary heroism is shaky at best. Which breaks my heart, because Cap’s whole thing is the importance of ordinary heroism. His significance is not his personal strength; it’s the personal strength he attracts and inspires in others. And to paraphrase Zolatron, the inspiration that Steve offers in this film virtually amounts to a zero sum.

Again, stick with me for a minute.

He absolutely inspires Sam to step back into the field – as far as Sam is concerned, Cap’s need for assistance is the best reason in the world to get back in the fight. In some ways he inspires Natasha to open herself up to a future where she is known but still accepted, where her personal safety is less significant than the world’s right to know what happens behind closed doors (I by no means grant Steve the honor of being her sole motivation, but his presence and his trust don’t hurt). He inspires those members of SHIELD not serving Hydra to stand up and take back their organization – and here, the narrative fails.

The narrative fails because the SHIELD agents fail. In spite of what Steve says, in spite of what many of SHIELD’s members are willing to do, what they try to do, they can’t win. Rather than telling us that the ordinary man can still make a difference in a world of extraordinary problems, the failure of SHIELD personnel to make any inroads in recapturing their facilities or taking down the helicarriers themselves sends a very different message. It says “even if you try to fight, you won’t win, no matter how many small soldiers fight with you.” It says “don’t worry about that big scary police state, someone will come save you from it.” It says “only the ones with superpowers matter in this fight.”

It takes away the opportunity for anything but tragically heroic actions – tragically heroic actions that make no difference in the grand narrative scheme. Sharon and her people take a stand, and the helicarriers fly anyway. The nameless SHIELD agent in the hangar bay cries out for his fellows to close the bay doors, and he and all of the rest are shot down. The agents trying to secure the building are annihilated by Rumlow and his men. The pilots trying to get Steve air support are slaughtered wholesale by the Winter Soldier. No matter what they do, they lose, lose, lose.

That, in my mind, is the ultimate failing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Rather than embracing the opportunity to reinforce Steve’s beliefs, his message, the idea that he’s just an ordinary man – a kid from Brooklyn – it puts distance between him and the ordinary men who follow his lead. Sam and Natasha are both extraordinary in their own ways, superheroes without superpowers. They are allowed to keep pace with Captain America. But the people to whom he matters the most, the ones to whom he should make the biggest difference? The narrative chooses to leave them behind.

It’s not a story about people who just need a push in the right direction from the right person, people who can change the world with their beautifully ordinary strength. It ends up being a story about how those people need to be saved, and that there’s nothing they can do until they are.

(expanded from this post)

Anatomy of Action Scenes (Reposted)

Below is a post I made almost six years ago on the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers blog, complete with the terrible scene I wrote as an example. YOU’RE WELCOME. Really though, people have said they found the material useful, so I figured it might be worth sharing. The only change I made was to give the sections headings.

Originally posted on the Alpha Workshop blog, 1/18/2011.

Action scenes. The snippets they use for trailers in summer blockbusters. The exclamation points of storytelling. The bits that are sometimes a pain in the butt to get through when you’re writing them.

Contrary to what some people seem to think, they do serve a purpose beyond adding excitement and explosions to a story – or at least they should. Like any other scene, they need to work for you and for the story as a whole. In some ways, action scenes need to work even harder than ordinary ones. They need to move characters from emotional point A to emotional point B, even while the focus is less on the character’s emotional well-being than on their physical survival.

That’s the primary difference between an action scene and a scene in which characters are hunting for clues or having a verbal fight – the element of bodily risk. If they lose or fail in an action based scenario, they might get emotionally hurt, but they also might risk being badly wounded or, in a Bond-like situation, getting themselves or their allies killed.

They’re also a way to break up and help pace your narrative, add a sense of danger, drama or urgency, or literally move your characters from one location to another. An action scene can test the mettle of your characters; will they fight or run? Will their friends stand with them or betray them at the threat of violence? These scenes are the culmination of a lot of emotional build-up that happens over the course of a story. They are, for the lack of a better metaphor, the TNT at the end of a lit fuse.

 

SCENE TYPE AND OUTCOME

Action scenes generally fall into one of two categories: confrontation and evasion. Almost every action scene will be one or the other; the difference lies in the goal of the protagonist. Every duel, pitched battle, and game of chicken is a confrontation. Every car chase, prison break, and on-foot pursuit falls into the evasion category. It’s easy to tell which one is which. Either your protagonist is facing some kind of antagonist head on – be it their main nemesis or a more minor challenger – or he or she is trying to avoid that meeting.

What about a scene where the protagonist faces her nemesis and then runs away? Still an evasion. The ultimate goal of the protagonist is to escape, not fight. Whatever the final scenario is, that’s the category that scene falls under. There’s a reason to figure out which category your scene falls into: there are two different sets of outcomes when dealing with one or the other.

In a confrontation scene, the protagonist will win, lose, or tie (draw) with the antagonist. In an evasion, they either escape (win) or get caught (lose). When running away from someone, you can’t really tie. Either you’re successful or you’re not. Even if you get caught by a third party and not your original pursuer, you’re still caught.

The other way to look at these outcomes is as Yes; No; Yes, but or No, and furthermore. Carolyn Wheat examines these in her book about the suspense and mystery genres, Writing Killer Fiction. According to her, a simple yes or no does nothing to move the story forward. While action scenes are meant to be exciting, they also have to serve a purpose. The key to moving a story forward is escalation. A Yes, but or a No, and furthermore raises the stakes for the characters involved.

Let’s use this excerpt from Feed, a recent horror novel by author Mira Grant, as an example. In this snippet, the mains – Georgia and her brother Shaun – are in zombie territory trying to get some footage of the zombie-virus victims, only to find themselves trapped by a mob of the infected.

These zombies knew the land better than we did, and even the most malnourished and virus-ridden pack knows how to lay an ambush. A low moan echoed from all sides, and then they were shambling into the open, some moving with the slow lurch of the long infected, others moving at something close to a run. The runners led the pack, cutting off three of the remaining methods of escape before there was time to do more than stare. I looked at them and shuddered.

Fresh infected – really fresh ones – still look almost like the people that they used to be. Their faces show emotion, and they move with a jerkiness that could just mean they slept wrong the night before. It’s harder to kill something that still looks like a person, and worst of all, the bastards are fast. The only thing more dangerous than a fresh zombie is a pack of them, and I counted at least eighteen before I realized that it didn’t matter, and stopped bothering.

I grabbed my helmet and shoved it on without fastening the strap. If the bike went down, dying because my helmet didn’t stay on would be one of the better options. I’d reanimate, but at least I wouldn’t be aware of it. “Shaun!”

Shaun whipped around, staring at the emerging zombies. “Whoa.”

Unfortunately for Shaun, the addition of that many zombies had turned his buddy from a stupid solo into part of a thinking mob. The zombie grabbed the hockey stick as soon as Shaun’s attention was focused elsewhere, yanking it out of his hands. Shaun staggered forward and the zombie latched onto his cardigan, withered fingers locking down with deceptive strength. It hissed. I screamed, images of my inevitable future as an only child filling my mind.

“Shaun!”

What might happen? Yes, they get away. …And then what? They got away. The stakes aren’t raised, the story isn’t moved forward; they got away, the end. Or, alternatively, no. They don’t get away. They become zombies. That would make for a very short book.

However, if you approach it as a Yes, but or a No, and furthermore, it changes the scenario drastically. Yes, they get away. But one of them gets bitten. What happens next? A lot more than if they’d simply escaped or gotten eaten. Or no, they don’t get away – and furthermore, the zombies don’t attack after trapping them. That raises a whole new set of questions and both engages readers and drives the story toward its next escalation.

It’s worth noting that in this particular scenario, the answer to the scene’s question – do they get away – is a simple yes. However, in this particular instance, it works. Why? Because this scene takes place within the first ten pages of the book. It introduces readers to the characters and the world in an engaging and exciting manner, and gives a little taste of what’s to come. Later on in the book, during a second encounter with zombies, the scene question – will the heroes escape/survive – is answered with a Yes, but that establishes the deeper plot and propels the reader forward down a path of classic political suspense in a totally unique setting. You have room to do this in a novel. In a short story, not so much.
Now to apply the Yes, but and No, and furthermore answers to a pair of confrontation scenes. Will the hero/heroine beat the bad guy?

In this excerpt from the novel Changes by Jim Butcher, the hero (Harry) and his former lover Susan are trapped inside a ring of fire and fighting a duel to the death with a pair of vampires and a monster Harry calls ‘the Ick.’ There’s nowhere to run and they have to win or die. No second chances. Very clearly a confrontation.

The Ick made a painful-looking surge of effort, and got close enough to hit me. I barely got out of the way in time, almost fell, turned it into several spinning steps instead, and recovered my balance. The Ick turned to follow, and Susan burst out of the cloud of greasy smoke the instant it turned its back.

Her tattoos had flushed from black to a deep, deep crimson, and she moved with perfect grace and in perfect silence. So when she gracefully, silently swung that steel table leg at the side of the Ick’s knee joint – on it’s unmarred leg, no less – it took the monster entirely off guard.

There was a sharp, terrible crack, a sound that I would have associated only with falling timber or possibly small caliber gunfire if I’d heard it somewhere else. The steel bar smashed the Ick’s knee unnaturally inward, until it made an angle of nearly thirty degrees.

It bellowed in agony and one arm swept back toward its attacker. The Ick hit Susan, and though it had been off balance, startled, and falling when it did so, it still knocked her ten feet backward and to the ground. Her club bounced out of her hand with a chiming, metallic clang, and tumbled, ringing like a tinny gong, into the circling flames.

Do the heroes survive? Yes. But. The fight almost kills them both, and they’re nearing the final confrontation with the book’s main villains; the Ick and the vampires attacking them were a tangential obstacle, not the primary one. After the end of this particular scene, they are wounded, tired, and nowhere near where they need to be, while at the same point the timer on their main mission has almost run out. Stakes: very much raised.

And now another duel, this one also to the death, but very different in both style and circumstance. In this scene from Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, the famed swordsman St Vier has tracked down a target he’s been paid to kill – Lord Michael, a student of the one-armed swordsman Vincent Applethorpe. In an attempt to protect his student, Applethorpe accepts St Vier’s challenge in Michael’s place. Even should St Vier win Michael will walk away alive.

And then the master swordsmen began. It was all there as Michael had studied it. But now he saw the strength and grace of Applethorpe’s demonstrations compacted into the little space of precious time.

Michael watched with luxurious pleasure the rise and fall of their arms, the turn of their wrists, now that he could follow what was happening. Master Applethorpe was demonstrating again, as fine and precise as at the lessons; but now there was a mirror to him, the polished, focused motions of St Vier. Michael forgot that death was at hand as, indeed, the two swordsmen seemed to have done, leisurely stroking and countering their way across the scrubbed white floor, with the high ceiling catching and returning the ring of their steel.

As the swordplay grew fiercer the sound of their breath became audible, and the nearer candle flames shuddered in their passing. It was almost too fast for Michael to follow now, moves followed up and elaborated on before he could discern them; like trying to follow an argument between two scholars fluent in a foreign language, rich with obscure textual references.

St Vier, who never spoke when fighting, gasped, “Applethorpe – why have I never heard of you?”

Now, this is a bit more complicated. There are two potential protagonists in this scene, and the answer to the category question – will the hero win/survive – is different depending on which side you’re rooting for.

St Vier ends up winning the duel and keeping his promise to Applethorpe. If he’s the protagonist, the answer is again Yes, but. Yes, he wins, but, he’s sworn on his honor not to complete his mission and primary reason for being there in the first place. Applethorpe dies, but Michael is saved.

If Michael and Applethorpe are the viewpoint protagonists, then the answer to the category question is No, and furthermore. No, Applethorpe doesn’t win, and furthermore, Michael has lost his teacher and after this point is on his own both in learning swordplay and defending himself against attackers.

 

WHO, WHAT, WHERE

Okay. Great. We’ve looked at the macro questions. What kind of scene are you writing? What is the ultimate outcome for your protagonist? Now it’s time to focus in on the muscle of it. Who, what, and where.

The Who and What are fairly easy. Who is the protagonist/viewpoint character? Who is opposing that person? Who might be part of the scene either as collateral damage or assistance for one side or the other? What are they doing? Be more specific than ‘running away’ or ‘facing off.’ Is it a car chase? Duel? Are they trying to escape a riot or cause one?
What led up to this moment, and what is the result of that progression?

An action scene is a crescendo of events. For example, if someone has been planning an escape from a prison, the crescendo of events could be that someone gets wind of it and things get set off early, or someone gets wind of it and decides to do it themselves, or – after twists, turns and near misses – the heroes are ready to set their own plans into motion. The first season of the show Prison Break depended almost entirely on these outcomes.

Alternatively, a confrontation comes when running doesn’t work any more, as in the scene from Changes. Up until that point in the novel, Harry has been avoiding the monster and the vampires on his tail. But the vampires just executed a massive attack on a federal building and drove both him and Susan into enemy territory. There was nowhere left for them to go. They’d come down to a do-or-die moment – either give up and go under, or take down the creatures standing between them and their ultimate goal.

The Where might not seem as important, but it is. It creates an external physical risk greater than just that caused by the antagonist, helps fashion the tone or emotional energy of the scene, or both. In the Changes excerpt, Harry and Susan are surrounded by a blisteringly hot ring of fire that can kill more or less on contact. It’s a weapon that either side can use and a risk to get too close. They’re in close physical quarters with literally no escape.

The setting of the duel in Swordspoint is less about adding additional risk for the characters and more about creating atmosphere. It’s evening when the duel begins; it takes place in a candlelit, wood-paneled loft, the flames and their accompanying circles of light creating a patchwork of shadow through which the two swordsman plunge and dance. There’s a romance to it, and a kind of very private ferocity that Kushner laces throughout the entire book. Violence wrapped up in something beautiful.

In the most basic sense, you need to make the setting work for you. Whether you’re trying to create suspense by having your characters flee through the basement of an old warehouse, thick with shadows and the clank of what might be machinery or the enemy they’re trying to escape – or threatening their lives as they swerve between oncoming cars to try and plow headlong into their antagonist’s speeding Ferrari – the setting is almost as important as the Who and What.

Let’s build a scene using some basic archetypes and situations, for illustration’s sake. In our scene the ‘Who’ will be (on the protagonist side) the classic reluctant hero; she doesn’t want any part of the adventure she’s been forced into, but has come to the point where she sees she either has to step up or let bad things happen. The antagonist will be her half-brother, who’s decided he’s the one that deserves the choice she’s been given. For a little added flair and extra risk, let’s throw their father in, trying to stop them from arguing.

Now, what are they doing? Okay, they’re having a fight – the protagonist will do what’s required of her, even if it’s not what she wants. She knows she’s the only one who can. The antagonist wants her to say no, so he can try and take her place. Let’s make it a little more interesting than that. The half-brother has decided that if she won’t step down, he’ll make her – either by crippling her or killing her. Whatever comes first. The father just wants them to stop fighting, and both of them want him to stay out of it.

How can we make this worse? What if the father gets accidentally killed by the half-brother, and our protagonist gets badly wounded to boot? If it moves us toward the ultimate goal of the story, whatever that might be, then sure.

Okay, we have our Who and the specifics of our What. Now for the Where. Let’s make it a sci-fi. That opens up a lot of possibilities right there. Where do they live? A spaceship, a city in the future, another planet… How about a futuristic city. Our little family is wealthy. We’ll set the confrontation on the private platform of the Maglev train that’s going to take our heroine off to meet her proverbial destiny.

She’s got her bags packed, her electronic ticket downloaded into her handheld. There’s no one else there when she descends from the family’s apartment to the platform they share with two of their neighbors. It’s quiet. The hum of the tracks worms its way into her head until it sounds like a fainting rush in her ears and she’s not sure if she’s really passing out or just wishing she would. She can’t do this. A glance at her handheld shows the train’s projected arrival time. Ten minutes. Ten minutes to change her mind.
The door to their apartment hisses open and then shut again, and her brother stands there, looking pale under the fluorescents. He looks a little more than pale, really. He looks sick.

“You can’t,” he says. She wants to agree with him. She even starts to, until she sees what he has in his hand.

He resettles his grip around the largest of the cook’s old pre-war display knives, single-edged and dull. Pretty well useless, except to look intimidating. She hopes.

She eases back a step, putting her luggage between herself and her brother. “You can come with me,” she says.

It’s a lie but it’s the best one she can think of. She just needs time, time until the train gets here, and she can put the doors between them both and call the district police.

He shakes his head. “They’re going to pick you. You know they will. Just. Stay here. Give me the ticket and stay here.”

That’s it. Her way out. Simple and guilt-free. Responsibility turned over at knifepoint.

She’s silent for long enough that he starts to smile. He knows her. Always has. Which is why she surprises them both when she squares her shoulders and says, “No.”

His grip on the knife tightens and he rushes her without warning. The strap of her duffle tangles around her foot as she tries to back away and yanks her balance out from under her. The knife, the glare of the fluorescents, a sharp and painful crack as her head hits the platform tile. The fog of impact starts to lift when her brother lands on top of her and hammers the air from her lungs again.

Wait, she tries to say, but she can’t find the breath to do it. Stop.

The tip of the knife jitters. He looks scared. Maybe too scared to do it.

He’s not.

The knife bites into her shoulder, shallow, and he yanks it free. Hesitates a breath. Slams it down deep this time, deep enough to make her scream in surprise and pain. Over her brother’s shoulder, she sees the doors to the apartment whisk open. Their father stands framed in the light, hands braced against the frame.

“What – !”

Her brother twists around, startled into distraction. She takes the chance to shove him and squirm free, blood greasing the tile. The ringing in her ears is getting louder. For a second she thinks it’s blood loss – and then realizes it’s the sound of an approaching train.

Their father reaches them in that moment, still apparently trying to find words for the attempted murder of his daughter at the hand of his own son. Her brother drops the knife with a clatter that sounds damp and sticky.

She’s getting up when her father hits her brother. A slap across the face that looks unsatisfying to her and her father both.

“You stupid little – ”

He doesn’t get a chance to finish. As the train roars in to a stop, her brother pushes their father back. She doesn’t hear what her brother says over the sound of the train, over the shock that freezes her in place. Her father vanishes under the white glow of the Maglev as its thousands of pounds glide to a halt over his body. Just a dark smear where he went under, nothing more. The doors to the train glide open. She and her brother stare at each other for a handful of seconds and she realizes for the first time how long a second can be.

“It’s your fault,” he says. “It’s all because of you.”

He goes for the knife.

She dives between the closing doors and hits the ground in a tumble. Blood, stark and black in the light from the overheads, marks her trail from the doors to the opposite wall like smeared footprints.

There’s a pause as the train shushes forward. A composed female voice hums through the comms.

“Plasma in excess of external norms detected. Be aware that the authorities have been notified. Please have your identification scans ready, as this train has been rerouted and will be examined by the district police.”

Category question: Did she win the fight with her brother? Yes. But her father is dead, her brother is blaming her for it, she has none of her luggage, is wounded, and is about to be delivered into the hands of local law enforcement. I think it’s safe to say her position has gone from bad to worse, and we also have the setup for the next scene – a new question and a hook for the reader. What will the authorities do, and how will she get away from them?

When I’m writing action scenes they tend to emerge organically. That is to say, I’m not totally sure where it will end or who will lose which limbs before I reach the end of the scene. I still keep the above points in mind while I’m writing, even if it’s subconsciously. That way, should I get stuck, I can go back and look at what I’m expecting of the scene, what I want it to do, and go from there. If it doesn’t feel right or doesn’t flow well you can always go back and revise. But you can’t revise if you don’t have anything to work with. Get it down on the page, logical inconsistencies and out of character moments included. Fix it once it’s done.  If you’re like one friend of mine and can’t go on until the rest of it works, step back and work on something else. She always has two projects going at once for exactly this reason; if she gets stuck on one, she can work on the other until something shakes loose.

 

WORD CHOICE

The last thing we’ll look at is the minutest aspect of action scenes; the words you use and the way you punctuate them. I’m not going to spend a great deal of time on this. The best way to learn what works is to read. The best way to test what works is to write.

During my freshman year of college, a writing teacher suggested another way of studying words that I hadn’t considered before. She told me to read poetry. It makes sense. Poetry is the form of wordsmithing most concerned with the sound, beat, and (for lack of a better phrase) mental taste of words. Before that point I wasn’t much of a poetry reader; I’m still not, if I’m being perfectly honest, but looking at poems that are designed to convey a certain mood or attitude – anything by Poe, for example – has definitely helped me get a better understanding of the character of words. Find something atmospheric to read and take it apart. What words are used where? Why? Say them out loud. What feeling does the word itself contain?

Punctuation is another something to keep in mind, probably not as you’re writing, but afterward when you go back to revise. I was told once that we breathe along with punctuation as we read; my brother, an actor, said more or less the same thing. Punctuation in a script is what gives him mental cues about where emphasis lands in a sentence and what his character’s mood and tension level might be at any given time. Read that paragraph again. Where did you pause, and for how long?

Rather than trying to explain more about punctuation and the effect and texture of words, I’m going to throw one last excerpt at you and then go over what the author does to create the tension of the scene.

In this bit of Trickster’s Queen, by Tamora Pierce, the heroine (Aly) and the family she’s trying to protect are the targets of an assassination attempt. The family is well-loved and the daughter is viewed as the fulfillment of a prophecy hundreds of years old. When the people see what’s happening, and that the nearby guards are doing nothing to stop it, they riot, trapping Aly and her charges in the middle of a human disaster.

The assassins pushed past the men-at-arms, where they collided with Junai, Jimarn and Boulaj. Jimarn leaped onto an assassin’s back and clawed at his eyes. Boulaj killed one man as Junai accounted for a second. The horses fidgeted, eyes rolling, wanting to panic. The three Balingtang ladies hung on to their reins for their lives. In these crowded quarters, the horses might kill the very people they served.

A crack opened in the double ring of household fighters in front. Aly saw the assassin pair slip through, one engaging Fesgao as another came at Dove. Aly pushed off the saddle horn, swinging her legs over the restless horse’s rump, smashing into the killer with both feet. She was down on him with a knife in each hand, taking his life before he even understood where he was. Trick and Secret screeched their disgust as blood struck them.

“Sorry,” Aly told them, panting. She mounted Dove’s horse properly so she wouldn’t need to use the time-wasting jump like that a second time. Everywhere she looked she saw chaos. People streamed in to fill the square, many carrying weapons. Others fought to escape it. Some failed and were trampled. The square filled with a roar of sound: screams, furious yells, battle-voiced commands. Above that animal sound was a high, warbling trill. The Stormwings had come to feast on the pain and fear.

A little girl, shrieking, tried to climb the statue to escape the mob. A boy who might have been an older brother pushed her from behind, trying to get her to the top, the only safe place he could see. A handful of other children splashed through the fountain. One of them was pushed into the water, toward that bit of safety, by a woman who fell then beneath a man’s club.

Let’s go paragraph by paragraph and examine both word choice and punctuation. The first thing I notice in the first paragraph is the terseness. The sentences are mostly short and to the point, filled with active and violent verbs; pushed, collided, leaped, killed. It creates a sense of close quarters and extreme danger, a very immediate threat to both the heroine and the people she’s trying to protect. There’s nothing still or calm about it; that’s true of the rest of the selection as well. It’s all rollicking motion and clear violence.

Focusing in on the second paragraph, though, we see a change in the way sentences are structured. In the first paragraph, everything is kept brief as Aly takes in the sudden swamp of violence. In the second, she catches up and dives in; our focus narrows to her, and as it does so, the sentence structure mirrors her own actions. She pushes off, swings around, and smashes down all in one long fluid motion – and all in one long, fluid sentence.

In the third paragraph our focus broadens again to the spreading riot; we’re not given any distinct images to hold on to, just flashbulb details that make up the whole. Think of the last time you were in a crowd and didn’t want to be there. What did you register? Did you take in your surroundings as a whole and then decide on a course of action, or was it all loud conversation in your ears and passing flags of colored t-shirts as you fought to get out of the way? Same principle here. There’s simply too much going on to focus on a single event.

In the final paragraph, however, something catches Aly’s eye. We’re not told as much, but the sudden clarity and focus implies it. It’s a distinct image in the middle of the chaos, unique enough to leave an impression beyond screams and flailing limbs. It also serves as an illustration of the mercilessness of a riot; once something like this starts, it doesn’t matter if you’re a child or a mother. You’ll go down the same as anyone else. Once again, the writing in the last paragraph is more fluid and less brusque than the sections where Aly is taking in a multitude of actions at once.

Now, you don’t have to think about all of this at once when writing any given scene. The most important thing to do is just get it all out, and then go back and look at what you have and see how you can better create the atmosphere you want. It might take a few tries. It might take more than a few.

It would be nice if everything came to us in a flash of perfect inspiration. Every so often, some snippet does, and we’ll spend the rest of the time trying to make the rest of the writing live up to that one perfect phrase. Most of the time it’s just a hard mental slog through the morass of our own at times sluggish creativity. (Every word in that sentence was picked to make it feel thick and sticky. Here’s hoping it worked.)

As far as figuring out the mechanics of a scene – how fast can this car go, does a person’s arm really bend that way – do your research. Get a friend to help you act out a fight, or look up martial arts sites and videos online. Make sure your sources are reliable. If all else fails, just think it through. Your action needs to obey the logic of your story-world if you don’t want your readers to stop and question you right in the middle of the explosions. And that’s the last thing you want them to do.

Also, remember that everything in this entry (except the part about getting stuff down on the page) is a suggestion, not a rule. It’s taken me years to figure out what processes work for me and they still change from time to time. Try what’s here. If it doesn’t fit, try something else, but always, always keep moving forward.

For more about the authors and the books used in this entry, please visit their websites:

Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire): www.miragrant.com(www.seananmcguire.com)

Jim Butcher: www.jim-butcher.com

Ellen Kushner: www.ellenkushner.com

Tamora Pierce: www.tamora-pierce.com

All excerpts are (c) their respective authors used with permission.