Six Tips for Writing Action

Six tips for writing engaging action and fight sequences in your fiction…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, as I get closer to the end of this draft and I start ramping up the tension and the stakes and the action and, well, I’m about to embark on a big old action sequence. Here are six tips for writing action in fiction. Number one, don’t just have action for the sake of it. It needs to advance the story. By that, I mean it needs to create change and have consequences. Your characters will have to make choices in the heat of the moment that will affect what comes afterwards.

If you can just take that action sequence out of the story, and the scenes that sandwich it still work together, then maybe the action sequence isn’t earning its keep. Remember, we had two big action sequences lined up for Robot Overlords. A chase in an ice cream van. And later, a chase with our heroes pursued by a new robot called Octobots. And these were fun sequences, but ultimately they had zero effect on our story and characters and they had to be cut.

That said, I’m still keen to try out an ice cream chase one day. I always file these things away for later. Two. Let the reader do the work. This is where, strangely, action sequences have something in common with sex sequences. Don’t feel the need to give the reader a blow by blow account.. Oh, behave. We don’t need every punch, kick, swerve, stab and parry. It gets tedious pretty fast. Give the reader just enough detail for them to create the action in their head.

And if there’s some sort of skill involved with a sword or a gun, then it’s worth doing a little research to make it feel real. Again, we don’t need to know the inner workings of a Glock whatever to know that it goes bang and that bullets hurt people. I rail against a lot of modern thrillers where the author seems to get sexually aroused when talking about guns. In fact, I try to put mistakes in my stories just to wind up NRA members. Ha! Three. Pace.

That is, don’t just give us big blocks of action, mix it up with some dialogue, write in short, punchy (ha!) sentences and keep the internal monologue visceral. This is not a time for ponderous reflection. That can come later. This is a time for panic, fear, anger, fight or flight. Use all the senses, the crunch of the bone, the taste of blood, the sweat and filth of battle. That will really help put the reader in the middle of the action.

Four. Think of the setting. Is it a chase down narrow streets in Paris, or the skies above the Grand Canyon? When your hero falls, is it on sand? Tiles? Stinging nettles? Can they hide in the jungle, or are they exposed in a wide open desert? What weapons are at hand? I love those unconventional fight scenes where Jason Bourne uses a rolled up magazine or John Wick uses a book. Use the setting and its props to make the sequences as fun and inventive as possible.

Five. Give it a beginning, middle and end. I’ve used the word “sequence” a few times already and I find that it helps to think of any action beat as its own little short story with a beginning, middle and end. One where the stakes are continually raised with a growing sense of urgency. Compacting all that story into a frenetic action sequence can make your hero make bad decisions — creating those consequences I was talking about earlier — and it will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. I’m quite breathless myself.

Six. Aftermath and keeping it real. In too many stories, the hero walks away from a fight with nary a scratch, and even if they do get wounded, they often bounce back with superhuman speed. That may be appropriate for some stories, but readers will better relate to characters who hurt, who get the shakes, who mourn the deaths of their friends — and enemies — who regret having to do terrible things. This is, again, where a little research will help as well.

What does it feel like to break your ribs, be shot or stabbed? I bet it hurts a lot more than we might imagine. I speak as someone who stubbed my toe recently. Well, I hope that was helpful. Any questions or comments? Then please pop them below until next time. Happy writing and stop fighting.

Five Tips for Writing Exposition

Here are five tips for writing exposition without getting bogged down in, well, exposition…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, let’s talk about exposition. I’ve got to the bit in my book where my protagonist figures out what the villain is up to and there’s a ticking clock and she has to stop him before everything goes horribly wrong. Very much that tipping point from Act two into Act three. See an earlier video for tips on tipping points…

The great danger here is that this could turn into nothing more than a big dollop of exposition, also known, delightfully, as an info dump.

You know those moments in the movies where the villain reveals their evil plan, and this is so common that it’s become a trope in itself. There’s a lovely moment in The Incredibles where Syndrome says, “You caught me monologuing”. Basically, we’re talking about exposition. And in this specific case, how will the villain reveal their dastardly plan unless they tell the hero about it? Now, at this point in the story, the exposition is coming in late. As I said, the pivot between the second and third act, which is to my advantage, because if if you haven’t already, you can go back and leave clues for your hero and the reader to piece together what the evil scheme is, or if you want to invert that idea, your hero can think that they know what the plan is…

And then the villain can reveal a wicked, additional twist that they can take great glee in revealing. I think that’s what’s going to happen in my story. In the meantime, here are five tips for writing exposition; One: Have someone get it wrong. There’s a great moment at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the two Secret Service guys come to Indiana Jones and tell him about the Staff of Ra, Abner Ravenwood, and something called the Lost Ark. And it becomes clear that they haven’t got the first clue what they’re talking about.

So Indy corrects their mistakes. This is such an effective way of getting exposition across that we, the viewer, hardly notice. It not only is Indy’s enthusiasm for the subject infectious, but it also gives him agency, and proves to us and the Secret Service men that he is the right man for the job. It’s a great subversion of an old trope because we’re so used to seeing James Bond stepping into M’s office and being told what the mission is, and it can be very passive with a big info dump. But this is a much, much better way of doing it.  Two: Dramatise it. As with any essential bit of story information, it will always stick in the reader’s mind if you can dramatise it. Don’t tell me that your hero is a witch. Show me the hero doing some magic and include a few telling details. Is she skilled or does she need more experience and practise? Does she work alone or with others?

Does she use magic compassionately or for her own gain? By creating a bit of action and drama you can reveal so much more about a character than just having someone tell us. This can also be applied to a character revealing a bit about their past. Don’t just have them tell us. Show it in a widescreen, full-colour flashback, or a dream, or a crystal ball. Any bit of drama will be better than a dry retelling. Three: Do it with style.

OK, hands up. There are times when you kind of have to just tell the reader, or viewer, a bit of essential information. So if you have to do it, do it with style. Think of the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas pinched that from the old Flash Gordon serials, which had to bring the cinemagoers up to speed in just a few seconds… Or sing it in a song, interpretive dance, beat poetry, or have them tell a story with the kind of zingy and engaging dialogue used by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Victoria Wood, Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Shakespeare.

You get the idea if you’re going to tell it, make it good. Really good. I mean, extraordinarily good. No pressure. Four: Parse it out. Don’t feel the need to unload it all at once. Think about what the reader needs to know and when. Your antagonist might be a spy, a Nazi, a sous chef and an expert in kung fu. But that doesn’t mean we need to know all this when they’re first mentioned. Have some fun in revealing these nuggets when — and this is the important bit — when they can have the most impact on the story and the reader. To quote Billy Wilder, “Always allow the audience to add two plus two and they’ll love you forever.” Five: “Or… just don’t bother. You know, I’m old enough to remember seeing the first Star Wars, and not knowing what the Clone Wars were, why Darth Vader was in that suit, or even if Stormtroopers were real people or robots. And it didn’t matter one little bit. You’ll be amazed at how little some exposition matters. And as for BackStory, I’m going to let you into a little secret…

There’s no such thing as back story. There’s the story you’re telling and that’s it. The reader doesn’t care what happened before or after unless it directly affects what you’re telling them now. And if it does, then it will be in this story. If it doesn’t, don’t bore them with it. Tell one story and tell it well. Don’t weigh it down with a bunch of digressions. Honestly, I blame Marvel. Ooh, controversial. Right. Well, I hope that was helpful.

Any questions? Pop them below or drop me a line. Until next time, Happy Writing. 

Quick, Quick, Slow: What have been the technological changes in publishing this year?

I’m part of a panel for the online London Book Fair looking at how technology has changed things for publishing and bookselling in the past year. I’ll be giving the perspective of a writer, and I’ll be joined by Simon Appleby, director of Bookswarm, Hermione Ireland, MD of The Académie du Vin Library, and the panel is chaired by Justine Solomons of Byte the Book. We’ll be looking at how Zoom has changed meeting culture, our favourite apps, selling direct to readers, and the future of publishing.


Come and join us on Wednesday 23rd, June, 1:30-2:30pm.

The Miss Charlotte Quartet is Complete

With the publication of THE MEMORY THIEF, the MISS CHARLOTTE QUARTET is now complete. A series of four short stories featuring the witch Charlotte Southill from my Witches of Woodville novels. Sign up to the Woodville Village Library newsletter and grab your FREE copies here… https://witchesofwoodville.com/#library

The stories were edited by Julian Barr: https://jbarrauthor.com/editorial-services/

Cover designer Andrew Bowden: https://www.ididthat.uk

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, the Miss Charlotte Quartet is now complete. Okay, I know some of you will be going, “What’s a Miss Charlotte Quartet?” Well, Miss Charlotte is one of the witches in the Witches of Woodville novels. And she’s very mysterious, and there are all kinds of hints that she has a murky past, and she might just be a wee bit older than she’s  actually letting on. The four stories in the Miss Charlotte Quartet  explore her history. Not all of it. Don’t worry, she’s still as deliciously ambiguous as ever.

But the stories go from 1593 to 1910. See, told you she was old. Weirdly, I also seem to have written a love story as it’s about Charlotte falling in love with a young woman called Lizzie. And, well, to say any more would be a spoiler. These stories began life as a project to get me out of my funk during the first covid lockdown. They started with just a few hundred words a day and have become something wonderful.

Thanks to the editorial skill of Julian Barr, and the splendid artwork of Andrew Bowden, both are available for hire, I would not hesitate to recommend both of them wholeheartedly. Julian saved my bacon on a number of occasions with his sharp eye, and Andy went out of his comfort zone to produce what I think you’ll agree are a fantastic set of cover designs. Thank you, gents, for helping Miss Charlotte and me on our way. Thanks also to Claire Burgess for her help on the audio books and of course, to Woodville Village’s head librarian, Miss Araminta Cranberry for, well, not throwing me out of the library, especially when it was raining, which was… usually. And most of all a huge thanks to everyone who has read all of these stories and said nice things about them. That’s all an author ever wants, really. So what’s next? Well, I’m currently writing the first draft of SKYCLAD, the third Witches of Woodville novel. That should be done in a few weeks.

Just a first draft, very rough. Then it’s copyedits for book two, BABES IN THE WOOD. Once they’re done, I’ll be sharing the first few chapters with everyone who subscribes to the Woodville Village Library newsletter. So that’s where you can also get all these free stories, not just the Miss Charlotte Quartet, but all of these too. Hey, hey, hey. I’ll pop a link in the description below. This is the part of the video where in the past I’ve put a clip of the audiobook.

Oh, did I mention these are also available as MP3 audiobooks to download narrated by me. Never mind. But I don’t want to do this for this because it would reveal something a bit spoilery. So just grab your copy now. Free, it’s free! Thanks for watching and happy reading.