April 11th, 2016

Believe It Or Not: How Not To Write Action

Tiffany Lawson Inman

A lengthy list of components must come together to create well-written action and fighting in fiction. One of the most important components is believability.

Believability in writing action and fighting is something that trips-up many authors and editors. I am including editors because I have read too many published books with out-of-place action words and phrases and sometimes entire action or fight sequences. So it would seem that the editors as well as the authors either don’t recognize the issue or don’t know how to fix it and it is then a rough spot for your readers.

Always be asking yourself if your characters are using the right actions.

Are the actions you have written for them even in the same skill set as that character?

Are they fighting a fight in your novel or have they transformed into one of the knife-wielding thugs from one of Harlan Coben’s latest novels?

You do not want your character to go from little Ashley, the ninety-nine pound Physiology major at CU Boulder, to Bruce Banner’s Hulk in a blink of a word or phrase. Unless this is a paranormal and she has super powers, of course. A beefed-up and out-of-place word or phrase will pop off the page and wedge itself between your reader and your story.

This is not a good thing.

Examples of out-of-place action words and phrases for the character’s skillset and theme of the book they were written for:Your Character

  • She launched herself out of the car window.
  • He targeted the man’s jawline and threw a fast jab that connected with a crack. He knew he had just broken someone’s jaw.
  • She turned back towards her attacker with a quick spin and side-kicked. The kick landed against his neck and she quickly readjusted her stance to get in few more kicks.
  • She saw the punch coming and leaned back to avoid Jarred’s giant fist. Heather grabbed her book laden backpack and decided to fight back. She heaved her pack into the side of his head and from the sound of it she could probably say goodbye to her snack-bag of Cheetos. Jarred whimpered and fell back against the lockers.
  • I dive sideways through the doorway, hit the ground in a roll and keep running away from them.

 The above examples don’t seem like they would do any harm in a book, do they? They seem like straightforward actions and fight actions. But how about if I were to tell you that all of these were taken from Romance, YA, NA, and Women’s Fiction? And that the characters performing the above actions were not trained in Mixed Martial Arts or the art of escape, and none of them had superpowers.   Yes, some of them were being threatened and were either fighting for something or against someone. But that does not mean between the first line of the book and this scene that a mystery man came in and uploaded fancy skills into their character brains. These were just regular characters.

If you want your readers to connect to the believability of your story, they must also connect to the believability of your character’s actions.

Let us look a little closer at those examples.

  • She launched herself out of the car window.

According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, LAUNCH is to send or shoot (something, such as a rocket) into the air or water or into outer space, or to throw (something) forward in a forceful way. As it is written in the book, it would seem that a girl or woman is launching herself out of a car window. She actually launches herself out of the car window from the passenger seat of a compact car. Hmmmm… .

I see the word LAUNCH being used in many stories and there are only a few when that word made sense. It takes power to launch something into the air. It takes muscle and concentration and drive and flexibility and confidence to launch yourself out of a window. Not to mention, a few more actions involved in the extraction of your body from the car’s seat to aim out the window and getting your feet into a position to manipulate the action. Unless there was an escape hatch or the like…and there was not. So here I am, a reader, thinking the POV character is a regular woman with regular human capabilities and suddenly she is frightened by a situation and launches herself out of the car window. Pretty darn unbelievable.

  • He targeted the man’s jawline and threw a fast jab that connected with a crack. He knew he had just broken someone’s jaw.

For a non-boxer and non-brawler and not regularly violent man to be able to target a jawline in the middle of a fight and “throw a fast jab” that actually connects and connects hard enough to break a jaw…well it is pretty darn unbelievable.

Considering the fact that this untrained and ungloved character was able to break a jaw with one fast jab, and walked away without any broken bones in his own hand…pretty darn unbelievable.

And also considering that it takes a professional boxer or MMA fighter a much heftier punch than a simple fast jab to break a jaw…yup, pretty darn unbelievable.

Did you know that during a 10-12 round boxing match there are approximately 600 punches thrown by one competitor and only around 30-50 percent of those punches actually connect to the opponent in the ring? So although I know it isn’t very exciting (at first) to write a fight where there are punches and kicks that don’t connect, it would be more realistic. And if you were to take your reader’s deeper into a more realistic reality for your character, I am willing to bet your scene will take on a whole different feel and it will find a deeper connection with your reader.

  • She turned back towards her attacker with a quick spin and side-kicked. The kick landed against his neck and she quickly readjusted her stance to get in few more kicks.

Again this is not a kickboxing champion here and she doesn’t have any superpowers just a regular chick surprised in an alley by a big bad dude. So why is she without fear or stumbling and able to quick spin side-kick a man in the neck. Did I mention he was described as being over a foot taller than her? And then she is gutsy enough to (and has the skillset to) readjust her stance for more action. What do you think? Do I believe it? Nope.

  • She saw the punch coming and leaned back to avoid Jarred’s giant fist. Heather grabbed her book laden backpack and decided to fight back. She heaved her pack into the side of his head and from the sound of it she could probably say goodbye to her snack-bag of Cheetos. Jarred whimpered and fell back against the lockers like a ragdoll wearing a football jersey.

Cute, but still very very unbelievable. Seeing the punch coming and the ability to move fast enough is always a little suspect. But then to be able to bend down, grab a heavy backpack and heft it with such force and accuracy to not only connect with the side of his head but also make Jarred the-football-player-with-giant-fists whimper and seemingly be knocked-out from this backpack blow? I am not convinced. Action fail.

  • I dive sideways through the doorway, hit the ground in a roll and keep running away from them.

If you are a gymnast, ninja, or stunt person this sideways controlled dive n’ roll n’ run would be totally doable. But for this character, a young, semi-klutzy and self-proclaimed chubby woman? No. I don’t think so. I don’t even think I have to go into any more detail to convince you that this is also pretty darn unbelievable.

What have you learned from these examples? Before writing your action and fights, think about your character’s skillset. Think about your genre. Make sure you are not pulling action from the big-multi-purpose-grab-bag of action because you are too intimidated or hurried to write a good scene. There isn’t a multi-purpose-grab bag of actions because no other writer is writing your story with your characters their skillets.

If you have doubts about the action or fights that you are writing, stop. Remember that this is only one component of writing action and fights. Do your research, take classes, or use an editor that knows action and fighting. Don’t let your action or fight scene intimidate you into writing poorly.

As you are writing and before sending off to the editor or publisher, look at the action written, get out of your writing nook and physically work through the action. Slowly. Keep asking yourself if your characters would be able to do the action. Remind yourself that not all of your characters are Superman or Catwoman. **Within reason of course, I know some of you are writing characters falling off mountains, or narrowly missing trains, or getting punched repeatedly etc. So be smart about it. **

Chances are, if you hand off your scene to someone with your character’s skill set and they fail to act it out because it is too complicated or not complicated enough, or if they look at you like you are insane and deny your request to act it out, then the action you have written is also a fail. Time to rethink, rewrite, and then re-act.

Go forth and write believable action!

Thank you so much for reading today. Do you have a line or two of action getting your brain in a twist? I can help!

Toss your one or two lines down into the comments and I will see what I can do for you. Remember to tell me about your genre, characters, and your goal outcome of the action or fight scene. Depending on what I see, I might ask you a few more questions. I’m a hands-on teacher and editor and I don’t like my blogs to stop here, so come on down to the comments section and play!  

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About Tiffany

TiffanyLawsonInmanBioPicTiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit. As a freelance editor, she provides deep story critique, content editing, and line editing.

Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs, classes, contests, and lecture packets.She teaches Action and Fighting, Madness to Method: high intensity emotion, Triple Threat Scene Writing, Writing Humor For Every Genre, and More to Memoirs than memories, and Short Story Workshops for Lawson Writer’s Academy online. She is working on hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars this year.

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