Saturday, September 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This too Blow by Blow? Writing Action Scenes

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Five

This week’s questions:

Is this scene is too 'blow-by-blow' and disconnected from the perspective of the heroine? And if so, what can I do about it?

Market/Genre: Not specified


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Smiling serenely, he snatched my wrist–it looked tiny in his massive fist–and broke the bone with a sickening snap. I screamed as stars twirled crazily in front of my eyes, dizzy from the pain. He struck me hard in the mouth again and blood poured out. I spat it out at him, satisfied with the disgusted look on his face.

He slammed his fist into my ribs and knocked the wind out of me. Then he grabbed my hair at the top, and smashed my head against the ground. He shoved his knee into my stomach and leaned close to me, and then his hard, cold hands attacked my throat, pressing harder and harder. His claws pierced my skin, but I didn’t feel it. I just felt the blood leaking down. My whole body was screaming, desperate for air, and I writhed under him.

Though I tried to pry his hands away and my legs kicked weakly, I was entirely powerless to do anything but plead with my eyes. His were cold as steel now and hard as flint; I could see no mercy or conscience there. He wasn’t a murderer; he was a reasonable man disciplining a violent animal.

Slowly my strength ebbed away, until I could barely move. The world darkened at the edges, and suddenly there was air. He watched in a sort of amused disgust as I gasped and sobbed and clutched my bruised throat. A wave of nausea hit me, but thankfully, I didn’t throw up – that would’ve hurt my throat even more.

My Thoughts in Purple:

Smiling serenely, he snatched my wrist–it looked tiny in his massive fist–[and broke the bone with a sickening snap.] This is a pretty terrible thing, but it's tacked on the end of this sentence almost as an afterthought, which probably isn't how the protagonist feels about it [I screamed as stars twirled crazily in front of my eyes, dizzy from the pain.] She doesn't feel "in" the story yet. This is a good spot to elaborate more on what she feels emotionally about what's happening, not just the physical aspects. He struck me hard in the mouth again and blood poured out. [I spat it out at him, satisfied with the disgusted look on his face.] Satisfied feels weak here considering what's happening. Perhaps add a thought about why she spits at him and what she hopes to gain by it. Something that shows me her mental and emotional state right now.

He slammed his fist into my ribs and [knocked the wind out of me.] This feels detached, as if she's relating the attack after the fact. What does she feel at this moment? What goes through her mind? [Then he grabbed my hair at the top, and smashed my head against the ground. He shoved his knee into my stomach and leaned close to me, and then his hard, cold hands attacked my throat, pressing harder and harder.] Same here. This is horrific, yet I don't feel scared or worried about this girl because she's not there. It's just details listed on a page. She's not showing me her fear [His claws pierced my skin, but I didn’t feel it. I just felt the blood leaking down. My whole body was screaming, desperate for air, and I writhed under him.] I feel a little more of a person here, but it's still detached.

[Though I tried to pry his hands away and my legs kicked weakly, I was entirely powerless to do anything but plead with my eyes. ] This feels detached and told. She's explaining what she tried to do, but I don't see her struggling to do it. I don't feel it. [His were cold as steel now and hard as flint; I could see no mercy or conscience there. He wasn’t a murderer; he was a reasonable man disciplining a violent animal.] This feels rational. Someone else watching this and relating it, not someone experiencing this right now. I imagine this would be a very chilling moment, but it lacks emotion.

Slowly my strength ebbed away, until I could barely move. The world darkened at the edges, and suddenly there was air. [He watched in a sort of amused disgust as I gasped and sobbed and clutched my bruised throat.] If she's gasping and sobbing, is she really paying attention to how he's watching her? A wave of nausea hit me, [but thankfully, I didn’t throw up – that would’ve hurt my throat even more.] Considering what shapes she's in, would she really think this logically or even have this thought?

The question:

Is this scene is too 'blow-by-blow' and disconnected from the perspective of the heroine?
Yes. The action is all there, but there's nothing from the protagonist to make that personal connection to the reader. She describes everything from afar, as if she's lived through this and is just telling us what happened. That steals all the emotion from it.

Now that you know how the scene unfolds, I'd suggest adding another few layers.

1. The emotional layer: She's got to be terrified, angry, hurting. Show us how she's feels by how she thinks and what she feels (other than pain). Is she looking for a way out? Trying to protect herself? Thinking weird random thoughts about how she got into this mess? The internalization will humanize your protagonist so the action feels personal and visceral and not just a list of bad things happening. A great example is when she realizes he's treating her like an animal. She states that as if it's a fact, but I imagine the moment where she realizes this is pretty awful. What thought goes through her mind? How does that affect her? She's just realized this man thinks of her as a bad dog, stripped her of her humanity and likely any hope of appealing to his. That's got to affect a person in a deep way.

(More on emotional responses here and some more on internalization here)

2. The reaction layer: It's clear what's done to her, but it's not as clear on how she responds or what she's even trying to do about this. It says her strength ebbs away until she can barely move, but what is she trying to do? Escape? Fight back? What is she thinking about as she grows weaker and weaker? What is her goal here? Her motivation?

You might try thinking about it from a different angle. You know this is a scene where she gets beat up. You know how it turns out, so you write it that way. She can't get away so there's nothing in the scene that shows her trying. But she doesn't know that. She'll still have a goal and be motivated to achieve that goal even though you know her struggle is pointless. She'd try like mad to escape and fight back (I assume, since she spits in his face and is satisfied by that. She seems like a fighter). What would someone in her situation do if they had no idea what the outcome was supposed to be? Write it that way.

(More on reactions and motivations here)

3. The sense layer.
Senses often sharpen when our lives are in danger. Senses also help heighten tension and put the reader in the moment. What does she smell? Hear? Feel? Not just the physical things being done to her, but the other aspects of the scene that will make it feel real. People also notice different things depending on who they are. The man would describe this scene completely differently than the woman. What sticks out in his mind won't be what sticks out in hers. Bones breaking are often describe with "a sickening snap" so that doesn't affect a reader the same way something personal to this woman would. Perhaps talk to people who have broken a bone and ask them what they remember about it or what they noticed first. Look for the unexpected details.

(More on senses and description here)

Try shifting into her head and looking at this scene from her perspective. Add in those other layers and put her in the driver's seat, even though she's the victim here. It's not a scene about a woman who gets beaten up, but one about a woman who is attacked and fights in vain to escape. The outcome will be the same, but what she does and how she thinks will change. She'll be fully in the scene and readers will feel her fear and struggle along with her. It'll probably be a tough scene to write, but if it makes your skin crawl, you're readers will be glued to the pages.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. Janice, great commentary on how to add layers. Super helpful!

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  2. I am so glad for your comments, Janice. Action scenes are so hard to write. Author, it sounds like you have a well visualized scene to build on. :)

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  3. Wow, Janice, this is a lot to chew on! Great advice for those of us unused to telling every moment of how we are feeling.

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  4. Yes! Finally some sound scene reviewing online! Love this. :)

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  5. This is incredibly helpful! I'm plotting a scene in which my MC gets beate--fights vainly to escape. I'll be referring to this critique quite a lot!

    FWIW, writer, even though this was all pretty detached, some of the details caught my attention. His claws?? That sounds somewhat unhuman. And the juxtaposition of this horrific beating with the description of the man as calm and reasonable was strange, in a good way.

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