The winner of Cynthia D'Alba's giveaway, determined by Random.org, is Mary. Congratulations! Cynthia is waiting for you to contact her with your information.
Welcome to Part Three of Crossing Physical Barriers. Surprise! I’ve decided to add an interview segment into this series. Who better to absorb knowledge from than the best of the best?! And today we get double the fun from two New York Times and International Bestsellers.The daring-dame-of-devastatingly-dramatic-and-twisty thrillers, Lisa Unger and the jarring-jack-of-multiple-genres-storming-the-YA-scene, Sophie Jordan. These authors pack a seriously HUGE amount of intense action into their writing. And you all know I like my dramatic action!
Don’t worry, along with the interviews I will also be tossing a couple of excerpts onto the dramatic dissection block. Always a crowd favorite!
I have long admired Lisa Unger, so it is no surprise I’ve brought her knowledge here for you today. If you have followed my blogs you’ve seen me do a couple dramatic dissections of her work. Okay, more than couple! I am incredibly honored she took the time to answer a few questions for us today. When reviewing Unger’s work, Associated Press says, “gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose.” Where there is muscle, there is action!
And wooow-momma I am just as honored to have stumbled into a lucky Twitter conversation to my new favorite YA power author, Sophie Jordan. I was tipped off by Lara Chapman that Jordan wrote some of the best YA writing she had ever seen. That big of a compliment coming from the author of Flawless?!?! Phew, I knew I was in for a treat when I picked up Jordan’s Uninvited.
Okay okay, I’ll stop with the flattery.
Trust me, it is well deserved.
Both of these authors have new books out and I believe they are both on tour. LUCKY! But that means, they will probably only be here in spirit today. #lifeofasuperstarauthor
Jordan and Unger have dominated their skills and pushed past these fears to write quality dramatic action. Their dramatic action is top notch, but that is where their similarities end. Jordan and Unger’s styles of writing and writing approach are fascinating and very different.
I believe you will learn from both.
Lisa, how do you approach an action scene? Action scene, meaning: actual action between two or more characters, OR, emotional action, back and forth dialogue between two or more characters.
A. You have a big conflict in mind and you tackle the piece as a whole, writing it as it comes to you. Explain this process.
B. You have several actions or emotional hits to make and you tackle it Dwight Swain style (Motivation Reaction Units.) cause/effect, stimulus/response. Explain this process.
C. None of the above. Explain your process.
Like plot, all action flows from character. My process regarding action sequences is largely subconscious, as it is with writing in general. I don’t have a specific technique for approaching one element of a story versus other elements.
When I sit down to write a novel, I generally have one dominant voice in my head. He or she has a story to tell, and likely has already been talking to me for a while. And though I have strong sense of who that person is, I have no idea what the book is going to be about, who might show up day-to-day, and what might happen. How the characters evolve, what happens to be going on it their lives, how they interact with each other, seems, for the most part, up to them.
That said, I have tremendous compassion for my characters and I know them all very, very well. So whether they are involved in physical or emotional action, or if a big conflict is coming to a head, my process is generally to slow down and pay very close attention to what is being said, what is happening beneath the surface. If you know people, it’s not difficult to intuit how they might act. Whether it’s a chase, or an emotional conflict, or anything at all, the writer must know her characters to paint an authentic portrait of any given event.
I am always impressed with how deep you go into your characters. I still have your prologue to Darkness, My Old Friend rattling around in my head. You don’t just go deep, you start deep! If the rest of you need a taste, here you go:
Failure wasn’t a feeling; it was a taste in his mouth, an ache at the base of his neck. It was a frantic hum in his head. The reflection of failure resided in his wife’s tight, fake smile when he came home at the end of the day. He felt the creeping grip of it in her cold embrace. She didn’t even know the worst of it. No one did. But they could all smell it, couldn’t they? It was like booze on his breath.
Ok, I won’t gush over it again. Moving on.
How important do you think it is to connect the characters to the setting and description actively and emotionally? Do you have a list of descriptive elements you want to showcase in the scene before you start writing, or do you go in after you’ve started writing and add it in?
We are all connected to our environments. Where we have chosen to live, what we love and hate about our surroundings, how it makes us feel to wake up and have a life in our locale says a lot about who we are. I have always been deeply affected by my environment, and so I imagine that’s why my characters are as well.
Most of my stories are set in these pulsing, larger than life places – New York City, Prague, Florida. Even The Hollows has, for a very small place, a huge personality. These are places that greatly impact the lives of my characters, for better or worse. But it’s not something I choose for them, necessarily.
But again, no. There is no forethought when it comes to describing setting. It’s all very organic. If my character is experiencing something related to his or her environment, it will wind up on the page. I don’t have a list of things I want to say about any given place. That, like action, plot, etc., flows organically from the character’s inner life.
You have a gift for writing emotionally active internalizations that not only move the story forward, but drastically deepen characterization. Is this a natural gift, or do you have to rewrite a few times to make these sections come alive?
I always say that writers are first and foremost observers. And what that means to me is that I am fully present in my life and in my personal interactions. When someone talks to me, tells me about him or herself, I listen.
Beyond that, I have a tremendous curiosity about and compassion for human nature. So, not only am I paying attention to the world around me, the people around me, I also care deeply about them. I think that these two things – careful observation and compassion – make it possible for me to create canny and accurate portraits of my characters and their emotional inner lives.
There are plenty of secondary differences that separate us as people -- upbringing, education, socioeconomic factors. But at the core, we’re all pretty much alike. We want the same things – to love and be loved, to be happy, to be safe. And most of the things people do, no matter how heroic or heinous, are generally motivated by these things. If you really spend the time to get inside your characters, to get to the heart of what they are trying to tell you, then it’s easy to do them justice on the page. If you honor, respect and have compassion for all the characters that live inside you, they’ll tell you the whole truth of their inner lives. And you can tell that to your readers.
Indeed, Lisa. I have a deep curiosity for human behavior as well. Normal and abnormal. *wink! Probably why acting and writing emotion come so naturally to me.
Is there any part of writing craft that you struggle with? Or a struggle that you have overcome?
My singular struggle – in work and in life -- is that there are not enough hours in the day. Writing is the thing that has always come most naturally to me. And it’s harder for me not to write, then it is for me to sit down and put my fingers to the keyboard. I live for the blank page.
YES! “I live for the blank page.” That should be on a t-shirt and sold at ALL writers conferences.
Now that we have seen a little bit of how Unger’s brain work, it is time to take a peek at an action excerpt! *I have changed names and a few details so I don’t spoil any of Unger’s amazing twists.
Here is a wee snippet from Unger’s latest gem, In the Blood:
I did it in one motion. I dug my foot in hard and lifted myself up high enough to grasp the edge and pull myself up. Darren already had the shovel lifted by the time I landed on the slick ground, but I rolled away before he could bring it down. It landed with a thud, spraying dirt and sharp cold flakes of snow inches from my head. But I was up quickly. And in the next second, I was diving at him, throwing all my weight in his direction. I caught him by the waist and we both fell hard to the ground, Darren issuing a thick groan when my body hit his. I had his wrists. The shovel had fallen out of reach, and the gun sat uselessly on the edge of the rock. He struggled at first, writhing beneath me, issuing a strangled yell of rage. But I held him down, and after a while he started to sob.
Okay, I’m jumping in for a quickie dramatic dissection!
I did it in one motion. I dug my foot in hard and lifted myself up high enough to grasp the edge and pull myself up.
This is one of the only ways I like to read simultaneity in an action scene. Usually I would call out: No Simultaneity! But, she opted not to use the words as, while, or when, which are the main creators of odd linear load and action chaos.
Instead, Unger tells us her character did it one motion and then broke it down for the reader, making the action clear.
Darren already had the shovel lifted by the time I landed on the slick ground, but I rolled away before he could bring it down.
By showing that Darren is already in motion lets the reader know time didn’t stop while the girl was making her move. This gives the illusion of a lot of activity happening without having to describe each detail.
It landed with a thud, spraying dirt and sharp cold flakes of snow inches from my head.
I’m giggling here, because “with a thud” is one of my pet peeves. BUT “with a thud” is usually a pet peeve because it us used at the end of a generic action. Like, “His shoe dropped with a thud.” Unger uses it as a spring-board for active description. Using sharp to describe cold flakes of snow shows the harshness of the situation.
But I was up quickly.
Simple and direct action. No need to show anything more, just moving to the next action.
And in the next second, I was diving at him, throwing all my weight in his direction.
Showing no specifics on what part of the body she was going for but also saying she is throwing all of her weight into it implies a different kind of emotion and thought behind what is happening here. The girl doesn’t have the option to care what part of him or her connects, just desperately needing their bodies to connect so she can gain some kind of control. It also shows she might not have the luxury of time to think about strategy.
I caught him by the waist and we both fell hard to the ground,
Simple and clear action. Some writers feel the need to thickly detail each action and reaction. It might work in spurts, but if a scene needs to move, simple and clear is what you need.
Darren issuing a thick groan when my body hit his.
Oh dear. I’m going to lightly slap Unger’s hand here. Why? The reaction is behind the action, the effect is behind the cause. Bodies need to hit first, then show the groan. Even though she uses the word when to tell us this happens in the correct order, because the words are on the page in the opposite order, the reader’s brain sees it backwards. Linear load effect.
I will give her kudos for using the word thick to describe a groan. That is a unique descriptor and it shows a lot.
I had his wrists. The shovel had fallen out of reach, and the gun sat uselessly on the edge of the rock.
Showing us that she has subdued her attacker, and the weapons are no longer in play.
Unger is also showing us what isn’t happening here. This character isn’t grabbing for these weapons and she isn’t attacking Darren. She has his wrists. She is preventing him from harming her, but not harming him.
I wish I could go on, but the next actions and reactions would tip you off as to who is fighting here and I don’t want to spoil any of her twists. Yes. Plural. This novel is a dark and twisty roller coaster. So much fun!
Sophie Jordan was a new name on my radar, so imagine my surprise when I picked up the first book in a YA series and instead of putting my Ipad down after reading it… click click. I bought the next two in a matter of seconds, and a few days later. Click. The first in her next series, Uninvited. Click. Click. Darn that Amazon.com is dangerous! Read the sample chapters and I dare you not to buy it.
Do you find that editing action is harder than editing the rest of your work?
Actually it might be the easiest because these are the scenes I slow down for and work through carefully the first time around.
Do you write the actual actions first, and then add in emotion, setting, voice, etc.? What is your system for mapping out your action? Is it the same every time?
I don’t map anything out … but I visualize the scene and then approach it systematically. I don’t like reading action in a book where I’m unclear about what’s happening … where I cannot get an actual image. I actually focus very intently on the description of my characters’ actions. That said, I make certain these descriptions are brief and to the point. Nothing wordy and long-winded. That doesn’t reflect fast action.
I probably use more fragments … even single word sentences followed up by a longer one here and there, to help with the rhythm. As far as injecting the emotion in these scenes, the same goes. I’m brief to the point of minimalism. I think sometimes I might write a couple medium length sentences describing the action, ie, a punch to the face/a blow to the jaw/my eyes flare as his fingers dig into my throat…, etc. and I follow it up with single words like: Agony. Pain. I open my mouth on a silent scream. Death would have been easier than this.
That kind of thing. I think of how the mind must work realistically in these moments … full of fractured thoughts, and that’s how I try to write.
During a fight the reader usually gets an idea of a character’s strengths and weaknesses. Do you find it difficult to show weakness?
It depends on the outcome of the scene and what I’m hoping to accomplish – in specific scenes, as well as the book’s overall arc. In UNINVITED, there are points where my goal is to show my character’s utter hopelessness and vulnerability against a force/people stronger than she is. So I’m totally prepared to show her weak here. Then there are points later, where I want to show her growth/strength … her developing character.
I’m not that interested in writing superhero-like characters. I’m a fan of the underdog. If anything, I have to be careful that I don’t show them losing all the time! 😉 I’m rather mean to my characters. But then characters who always win aren’t that interesting, are they?
The underdogs are my favorite characters as well. I will throw a book across the room if there aren’t enough flaws. It makes us cheer harder when they do win! Even with the little victories.
How important do you think it is to show a change in your character during, or, after each altercation?
Well, that makes me think of the importance of “scene and sequel”. In the aftermath of every significant event, it’s important to show how it affects your characters.
In action scenes, if you injure a character, it’s important to not forget that. They should be dealing with that physical injury for the necessary amount of time following the altercation … and the same goes for any emotional impact the encounter leaves. It’s necessary to show your characters change/growth even following an action scene.
Sophie, each time your characters were in an altercation I whooped and hollered afterwards because you nailed their injuries! You nailed their recovery time! Along with emotional impact you showed, you were able to keep the reality fresh in our minds as we read on. The characters felt all the more real because of these details. Thank you!
Next question, how do you approach gender and or skill differences in a fight scene?
It’s important to be realistic. You’re the creator of your world. You establish the rules. If you’re creating a very Katniss-like character, then yeah. She’s a badass and can probably handle herself against a skilled fighter who outweighs her by sixty pounds. Just make sure whatever you do seems plausible. In UNINVITED, Davy starts out, at least physically, a very ordinary girl. She’s not an athlete or a fighter. She’s smart, however. And with subsequent training, she gets tougher … but she’s still not, nor will she ever be, a Katniss-like girl. Jacinda, in my FIRELIGHT, series is a whole ‘nother girl! She’s got paranormal abilities on her side and can pretty much defend herself against anyone.
Do you ever feel guilty for putting your characters into a fight you know they won’t win?
I think that’s the nature of writing … putting your characters through hell to show and to create an interesting story. We want books with conflict. Books that get under your skin and make you shout, “no!” The last thing that can happen to your protagonist is often the very thing that should, for the sake of the plot and the sake of witnessing their growth/development in the face of unbelievable strife.
What do you think the most difficult part of writing a violent scene is?
Putting aside your fears. The fear of offending someone. The fear of hurting a character you’ve come to love.
TLI: Ohhhh yeah! An author after my own heart. Being an author that becomes emotionally involved in their character’s lives is part of the creative-gritty-fun of being an author.
Okay, Sophie Jordan, you are next on the dramatic dissection block! What?! Did you think I’d let you off the hook because this is your first time being included in one of my blogs? Pttt…yeah, right!
Here is a wee snippet from Sophie Jordan’s action packed, Uninvited.
I catch a blur of movement to my left and think it’s another runner joining me on the trail. It’s only a split second thought though. It flees the instant a body rams into my side like a vehicle butting another one off the track. Caught off balance, I fall onto my side. Hard. My shoulder throbs. Wincing, I roll onto my back, wondering if I might have dislocated it. I don’t make it to my feet. I don’t have time to examine my shoulder. I don’t have time for anything. Someone grabs my ankles and drags me off the trail and deeper into the woods. I open my mouth to scream, but another body is suddenly there. He slides his arms beneath my armpits, slamming one hand over my mouth. I’m mute. I bite down on salty fingers and am rewarded with a sharp cuff to the ear. My vision blurs, graying for a moment. Dizziness swamps me. The world jerks and heaves as I’m carried. I blink, fighting past the light-headedness. We squeeze through thick brush. Branches and leaves scratch at my arms. Suddenly, I’m unceremoniously dropped to the ground. I take the brunt of the fall on my hip and I cry out, certain a bruise will form there within an hour. Swallowing my wince, I look up. Jackson stands over me, and I know true fear.
Yup, you guessed it, I’m jumping in to dissect!
I catch a blur of movement to my left and think it’s another runner joining me on the trail.
I love the fact that the character as well as the readers are ambushed by this fight. Just going for a run. Yeah, right.
It’s only a split second thought though. It flees the instant a body rams into my side like a vehicle butting another one off the track.
Caught off balance, I fall onto my side. Hard. My shoulder throbs. Wincing, I roll onto my back, wondering if I might have dislocated it.
Simple action and reactions. Perfect use of the three part reaction: Feeling, reflex, and thought or speech.
I don’t make it to my feet. I don’t have time to examine my shoulder. I don’t have time for anything.
Kudos for her use of anaphora! This repetition hammers home the feeling that even though the amount of time passing is small, her anxiety and fear is increasing. The rhythm of the lines increases the reader’s anxiety as well.
Someone grabs my ankles and drags me off the trail and deeper into the woods.
Even creepier, she has just rolled onto her back and yet she doesn’t see who grabs her. Nice touch. By suspending our knowledge of who is assaulting and kidnapping her, our anxiety ticks up even more and we read faster to see who, what, when, why.
I open my mouth to scream, but another body is suddenly there. He slides his arms beneath my armpits, slamming one hand over my mouth.
It’s a little confusing here because I’m unsure if she doesn’t scream because that other person startles her into silence or it’s because they put their hand over her mouth. IF I were editing this, I would push for a tiny bit more clarity. I like either option.
I am a big fan of the fact that Jordan uses the word slammed. It is a powerful image to not only stifle one’s breath with their hand but to slam it onto their face before doing so, very nice.
I’m mute. I bite down on salty fingers and am rewarded with a sharp cuff to the ear.
Great way to share that she can’t speak. Simple. Absolutely gross to think about unknown salty fingers in her mouth – vivid imagery. And then to show us a bit of her attitude and voice by using the word rewarded in the actions reaction.
My vision blurs, graying for a moment. Dizziness swamps me.
Another winning reaction.
The world jerks and heaves as I’m carried.
Kick butt verbs! The cadence those words provide we can feel the jerk and heave of her body just by reading that line.
I blink, fighting past the light-headedness.
Sophie does a wonderful job of showing linger effects of previous actions. Here she is still lightheaded from the lack of oxygen in her mouth and the cuff to her ear. She is also showing that this girl is trying to hold it together, not giving up.
We squeeze through thick brush. Branches and leaves scratch at my arms.
Yahoo! Here the environment is shown to us in an active way. It also becomes a part of the attack.
Suddenly, I’m unceremoniously dropped to the ground.
Hmmm…I have to admit something here. I am not a fan of telling the reader telling us when something is going to happen before it happens. When, then, suddenly, as, while, etc. It’s kind of like a timing filter on the action. When simply, if the action is shown to us, we know when it happens. The fact that she is experiencing branches scratching at her arms and in the next line she is dumped to the ground, I see how sudden that is, I don’t need to be told it is sudden. These filters are small but even still they separate me from the action. So, IF I was Sophie’s editor, I might have made a few changes there.
What she did do that I LOVE, is she used the word unceremoniously and dropped. It adds insult to injury, making something bad just a little bit worse.
I take the brunt of the fall on my hip and I cry out, certain a bruise will form there within an hour.
You know the fall is hard if she is saying she will bruise within the hour. Nice detail.
Swallowing my wince, I look up.
This is something I don’t think I have seen written before. But I have done it. I have swallowed back pain to the point of almost freezing in a wince. Kudos for originality.
Frank stands over me, and I know true fear.
Oooh I got a little shiver! She’s gone through all of this and because we have been going moment to moment with her I felt my anxiety rise in terms of what immediate pain she is going through and knowing it will probably get worse. But then seeing who is standing over her and knowing that she is now in the middle of nowhere, at this moment the reader realizes with the character that it is going to get a lot worse. Beyond imagination type of worse. Not good for this character.
And sadly we have to cut it off there because copyright laws say so. But you guys are going to go buy the book anyway, so you will find out what happens anyway, right?
Looks like Lisa Unger’s characters are kicking psychologically thrilling butt and Sophie Jordan’s characters are kicking emotional and physical butt. If I ever had the pleasure of being in a room with either of these authors, I think my head would explode.
Thank you both so much for letting me pick at your brains and your writing. I can’t wait to do it again! Thank you for making the hunt for fabulous writing examples so easy!
And thank you, WITS readers, for joining me for Part Three of Crossing Physical Barriers.
It is always a treat for me to get to throw down some fiction craft and get to socialize with committed writers. Thank you, thank you!
For those of you drooling at the chance to get your name in the hat 2x for participating in the mini-challenge assignment, THIS IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY!
Today’s mini-challenge is to write a 150 word (or less) hand-to-hand altercation between two characters. I had such a good time last month going through your scenes line by line for some on-the-fly editing. We got to see fists, knives, swords, guns, tampons, and chunks of furniture flying through the air. If you want to see the edits and feedback from last month, click here.
Unfortunately I don’t have enough free time to edit all of your entries this time around, so here is what I propose: Post your scenes so you can get your name in the hat twice for the free online workshop drawing. Also, I will randomly draw two names from the scenes posted for those fight scenes to be edited. Maybe three.
The drawing winner gets…a free slot in one of my upcoming courses!
Tiffany 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.
She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in late 2014.
As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.
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