Action Scenes: A Fearful Thing
A Fearful Thing, the fifth novel in my Rebecca Series, opens with a car chase through the streets of London. On page two of the book, we read the following. (Bear in mind that this is London, the cars are right-hand drive, and everyone drives on the left-hand side of the roadways there.)
As she turned her right hand drive Volvo onto the main thoroughfare… her liquid gray eyes focused on the black Mercedes sedan trailing five car lengths behind, one lane nearer the curb… She switched on the right-turn signal, wheeled right, fast, across two lanes of approaching traffic, and accelerated hard…
Seconds later, her eyes grew wide at the sight of the Mercedes materializing in the mirror, cornering just as hard and successfully as she had, despite its having had to cross the same two lanes of approaching traffic, and having started in the extreme left hand lane… She pushed the Volvo’s accelerator to the floor.
Since the Rebecca novels combine action and mystery, I like to present my readers with one or both of those characteristics early on, so that each reader gets a good taste of what she or he is in for. In this case, both characteristics are present in the first couple of pages. Rebecca is in desperate flight from an enemy she cannot yet identify.
Action. Danger. Unknown pursuers.
Let me say a little about my action scenes. I have been complimented from time to time on the action scenes in my books, both in the adult and in the young-adult stories. Readers tell me the scenes seem real. They say they can easily picture the action that I’ve described. They tell me that my characters run or fight or climb or drive a car like actual human beings would. And then they ask me how I’m able to do that.
My answer is that I have coached a variety of sports. If you coach, and if you’re going to be good at it, you’ll need to be able to break down movement into small parts. And then you’ll need to be able to teach your athletes exactly how to execute those movements. And this, in turn, will mean analyzing what they are doing now, and then showing them how to do it better.
For example, if a young person is having trouble catching a football, baseball, or softball, a coach might say things like this: Here’s how you relax your fingers. Here’s how you “look the ball all the way into your hands.” Here’s how you run smoothly enough so that you can follow the flight of the ball without the ball seeming to jump around as it approaches you.
You get the idea.
Later in A Fearful Thing, Rebecca’s associates gather to watch her practicing a deadly new skill she has developed since the end of the fourth novel in the series. (The passage of fictional time between the fourth and fifth novels is about four years.)
Rebecca stood 25 feet from the wall… Her colleagues saw her stride forward with her left leg, and, in a powerful underhand throwing motion that engaged her right shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand, she released a Barrington Swords 12-inch competition-grade throwing knife at a sheaf of newspapers tacked to the south wall. The terrifying blade flew like an arrow – a no-spin throw of enormous technical difficulty – and penetrated the 5-inch sheaf as if it were gelatin, thudding into the wooden wall… with a sound like a small explosion.
That action would take place in 3 seconds or less, yet, in the book, I have taken seven lines to describe this. Good action-description has to be detailed enough so that the reader can picture how it would look if she or he were actually watching the scene unfold, just as in the movies.
If you were writing such a scene, you’d want to use words that create a sense of the action: words and phrases like, “stride forward,” “powerful underhand throwing motion,” “right shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand,” “flew like an arrow,” “penetrated the… sheaf as if it were gelatin,” “thudding… with a sound like a small explosion.”
Successful action scenes should lead to heightened anxiety, increased heart rates and tense stomach muscles wherever readers encounter them.
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