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Writing 101: Action Sequences and Fight Scenes · 11:40pm May 30th, 2015

One thing I often see writers struggle with is physical action: things like fight scenes, races, or the like. Sequences where the characters are moving a lot and interacting with other physical elements in a short space of time. I struggle with it myself, come to that.

These are tricky things to write for several reasons. They work against the strengths of prose as a medium. Prose works best when details are left to the reader to fill in. Action sequences require specificity and choreography. They are detail-oriented, and rely on many interactions happening quickly. Prose is a slow medium, and it has trouble describing such scenes in an organic way. This is why action scenes are generally the purview of cinema, theatre, and video games: visual mediums that can communicate them more organically. Describing motion and action takes a lot of time in prose.

Another problem is that in a character-oriented piece, physical details can drown out character’s thoughts and emotions. Since describing physical action takes so much more in prose—more sentences, more space, more time—it pushes out things like character feelings and reactions.

My solution to these reflects a particular bias of mine. I think that violence should be portrayed in a way similar to real life; abrupt, dangerous, and deadly. Whenever I write a fight scene, it is short and the combatants win or lose quickly. Just like in real life, a single injury is enough. Alternating descriptions of actions and emotions gets old quickly, so keeping conflicts concise makes them more manageable and more realistic.

That’s not to say that longer sequences that revolve around physical action are impossible, just harder. Something like a character running through a trench or a multi-lap car race could be done in prose, but it would require a lot of care in order to avoid becoming repetitive.

Ultimately, this comes down to The Law of Conservation of Detail; every detail should be important and should advance the narrative. The angle that your character is holding their lightsaber at or the particular stair-step that their foot is on might be relevant, but it is not important.

If you find yourself writing an extended action sequence or fight scene and having trouble, consider some of the following points;
• Are you spending many sentences in a row describing the physical actions/movements/positions of the characters? How often do you describe their reactions and emotions?
• Are you being very specific about how and where the characters move? Are you spending more time describing their location or their body than other things?
• When the characters interact with each other, what is the prose focusing on? Is it focusing on their physical interactions and their relative locations? Or is it focusing on their internal narratives and feelings?

Funnily enough, a lot of these questions apply equally to amateur sex scenes.

I’m still learning how best to approach this problem myself. As always, any insights, advice, and counter-arguments are welcome in the comments!

Comments ( 6 )

When writing action/fight scenes it's best to approach it from several angles but do a draft in a scrap book styled medium. It takes longer but allows you to keep the right details and edit out the ones best left to the reader's imagination. It also lets the writer focus on each character on a one on one level and better form the chorography of a fight scene.

Oh, hey! I've talked about action scenes in my own writing workshops. My opinion is that an action scene should be like a little story in and of itself, in that it should have an arc. All sides of the fight have goals that are (assumedly) contrary to each other, so you have the fight grow and change as they receive new information. Eventually, one of the sides has to give up their goal or change it until both sides are satisfied.

Like, here's a good example: the apple-cider-producing contest between Flim and Flam and the Apple family. As each side starts to pull ahead, the other side panics and changes their methods: the Flim-Flam brothers start to cut corners, while the Apple family buckles down and increases their ranks. In essence, it's not one conflict, but a series of them. Similarly, think about "Fall Weather Friends." The race takes up the majority of the episode, but we never feel bored because we understand that Rainbow Dash is wearing Applejack down, and vice versa. When Rainbow Dash says, "But the rules have changed," she starts cheating. When Applejack catches it, she loses her moral center and starts cheating too.

Contrast that with a fight scene like the lightsaber dueling at the end of Revenge of the Sith. It's probably shorter than the Running of the Leaves race, but it's so much more boring because the stakes never change. They duel a bit, and then they duel some more, then they duel somewhere else, then they duel on top of robots... who cares? What's changing?

EDIT: Oh, one other thing. Fights should also have a clear limit. For example, both the apple-cider contest and the race are limited by time: once time runs out or one of the ponies crosses the finish line, somebody wins and somebody loses. The other kind of limit is options. So in a swordfight, perhaps the main character only knows three secret techniques. He uses the first one, but it doesn't work; he tries the second one, and it still doesn't work! Then the audience is tensed up over the fact that there's only one option left, and if it doesn't work, the MC will definitely lose.

3110634 I think for me, the bigger problem isn't the choreography or details of a fight scene. It's how you actually describe those in an organic way in-story. Blocking a scene on paper can help, but it's still ultimately a visual technique. Translating those movements into prose in an organic way is where the difficulty lies.

That's probably why I see so many amateur authors write fight scenes that sound like stage directions.

Could you point me in the direction of an action scene you've written that reflects what you've written here? I'd be interested in seeing these ideas put in practice, and I work much better with examples than lectures.

3110692 This is definitely a good point. Again, this is the sort of thing that movies have more leeway with because they are a visual medium. Sometimes the spectacle of a fight scene is what makes its story. Something like House of Flying Daggers or Kill Bill has very overpowered protagonists and the conflict is not between the characters; it is between the protagonist and physicality itself. The arc comes from the spectacle rather than the plot. Someone like Jackie Chan uses choreography to tell a story and it makes the action scene much more engaging.

Prose can't rely on this, because there is no spectacle. As you say, our tension has to come from the structure and the characters, and that requires planning.

3110746 I generally try to avoid using my own writing as examples, since I'm still learning, but since you asked I shall try.

The climax of If You Came to Conquer (where Nightmare Moon kills Luna) and the opening of Inexcusable (where Nightmare Moon fires a bow) both follow these principles. Both are abrupt and over quickly. Both use action as a punctuation--a brief moment that emphasizes a character's feelings and actions rather than taking an entire scene to themselves. The former used a lot of passive voice to help characterize the protagonist's mindset, but that may have dampened its effectiveness

Chapter 12 of I Am Not the Actor and the epilogue of “Princest Is Wincest,” It Said alternate between character actions and feelings. Both scenes involve one character physically advancing on another; the prose cycles between focusing on the physical movement ("she took a step forward" et al.), dialogue, and character feelings/reactions.

The Unexpected Sexual Harassment has a similar scene in chapter 3; Nightmare Moon spends most of the chapter hitting on the main six in turn. This is definitely an example not to follow: the way motion is described is not engaging, and there is not a good balance between feelings/reactions and physical motions.

When it comes to fight scenes, I haven't published any of those on this account I would feel comfortable using as an example. One of my unpublished projects has a small fight scene in it (ctrl + f "Definitely bandits" to go to it). The story is still a skeleton draft, but it illustrates some of these ideas a little.

The only other fight scene I would consider a halfway decent example is on my porn alt. I could PM it to you if this is not enough illustration, but it was written two years ago. I could certainly do better today.

Indeed these are all good points. A fight shouldn't take a whole chapter. Some fights however shouldn't be over as soon as they start. An example of an Epic fight would be in "Star Wars: Phantom Menace" when Darth Maul fought the Jedi and was struck down by Obi-wan. Another thing I normally do is close my eyes and try to see the characters moving and try to watch how it flows before trying to describe it. It doesn't always work well since you sometimes have to read what you have and see if it gives too much information or not enough. This is where you sometimes have to get outside help to read it and tell you what they see from what is given. When it comes to a fight or action scene never be afraid to ask for help or an outside opinion.

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