Saturday, August 3

Real Life Diagnostics: Keeping Action Scenes Clear and Interesting

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 it 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: Nine (+ two re-submits)

Note: Right now I'm booked up to October 5 on submissions. I'll try to double up on the weekends when I can to clear out the queue, but I'm also currently swamped with other writer and day job responsibilities. Sorry about that, guys! I'll get to them all soon as I can.

This week’s questions:

Is the narration or the showing and the action clear? Does the dialogue keep readers interested or add to the action? How's the voice?

Market/Genre: Sword and Sorcery Fantasy


On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: First person narrative in Sword and Sorcery fantasy genre. Narrator becomes a Shade-in-training after his death. In this scene, he travels with Marin and Taren after being separated with their Captain, when a monster, which had been following them since long, attacks them.

A light tremor shook the earth beneath me gently. I felt a sudden chill at my chest. Something came whistling through the air above us. Flying or falling, I’d no idea.

From how far did he make that jump?

The monster landed on its knee, crouching. The sheer power of the collision of him against the earth sent a ripple through the hard ground!

“Can’t believe I’m going to die with you lot!” said Marin.

Taren frowned. “The feeling’s mutual, friend.”

Marin looked at me sidelong. “How did you get rid of it the first time?”

I shrugged. “Um…I had to die.”

“Now where’s a Shade when you need one?” said Marin.

Taren brought out his blade and charged ahead. He hardly reached up to the monster’s waist, how he planned to kill it, I’d no idea.

The monster took out its battleaxe -- as large as one of those smaller trees -- even larger compared to Taren’s sword. Then it stomped its foot to the ground, making Taren stumble upon the tremor. It stepped in, flicked away the sword off Taren’s hand and raised the axe high above his head.

A giant arc cut down at him. I closed my eyes involuntarily, expecting the worse.

When I opened it a moment later, I found the axe still above the monster’s head.

A dark wire – dark, and smoldered in an even darker mist –- held the axe, mid-way, against the will of the monster.

“Captain!” I screamed like a little boy. Never before had I been this happy to see that face.

My Thoughts in Purple:

A light tremor shook the earth beneath me [gently] Don't think you need the adverb since light tremor suggest gently. [I felt a sudden chill at my chest.] Is this dread or temperature? Something came whistling through the air above us. Flying or falling, I’d no idea.

[From how far did he make that jump?

The monster landed on its knee, crouching
.] You might consider flipping these two sentences, as he reacts before readers see what he's talking about. I was confused what he was referring to. The sheer power of the collision [of him against the earth] feels unnecessary sent a ripple through the hard ground! I wanted some internalization from the narrator here. Perhaps how he feels now that the monster has finally caught up to them. Also, will the reader know what the monster looks like from before? It's never really described.

“Can’t believe I’m going to die with you lot!” said Marin.

Taren frowned. “The feeling’s mutual, friend.”

Marin looked at me sidelong. “How did you get rid of it the first time?”

I shrugged. “Um…I had to die.” Cute. Perhaps some internalization here? I don't know how the narrator feels about what's happening, but he doesn't feel very worried. I'd also think he'd have a bigger reaction to facing the thing that killed him.

“Now where’s [a Shade] Perhaps a real Shade? He's in training but he's still a Shade, right? when you need one?” said Marin.

Taren brought out his blade and charged ahead. He hardly reached up to the monster’s waist, how he planned to kill it, I’d no idea.

The monster took out its battleaxe -- as large as one of those smaller trees -- even larger compared to Taren’s sword. Then it stomped its foot to the ground, [making Taren stumble] telling a bit. "and Taren stumbled" shows upon the tremor. It stepped in, flicked away the sword [off ] from? Taren’s hand and raised the axe high above his head.

[A giant arc cut down at him.] The words feel a tad off here. It's the axe cutting down at him, or arcing toward him. The arc isn't the threat [I closed my eyes [involuntarily,] telling a bit. He wouldn't be so self aware expecting the worse. ] Is there nothing he can do? It feels like he just stands there and lets his friends die.

When I opened [it] them? I assume he has two eyes? a moment later, I found the axe still above the monster’s head.

A dark wire – dark, and smoldered in an even darker mist –- held the axe, mid-way, against the will of the monster.

[“Captain!” I screamed like a little boy.] Will readers know the wire means he's there? Otherwise there's no indication why he'd say this Never before had I been this happy to see that face.

The questions:

Is the narration or the showing and the action clear?
There are a few stimulus/response issues you might consider tweaking, as sometimes the narrator referred to something before the reader saw it. That made it a little confusing in spots hard to figure out what was going on.

There were also some word choices that felt off you might think about revising. Words or phrases that don't quite say what I think you intend then to say.

(More on stimulus/response here)

Does the dialogue keep readers interested or add to the action?
I would have liked to have seen a little more internalization and/or interaction from the narrator. The focus is mostly on what is going on, not why or how he feels about it, so I'm not feeling there in the moment yet. (though had I read the book up to this point I could feel differently)

It seems like this is a big moment since the monster that has been after them has caught up, and the Captain who has been missing/gone returns. It also feels like this is the monster that killed the narrator, and I'd think that would have a bigger impact on him. The narrator doesn't feel "in the scene" yet to me, and I wanted to hear more from him. Know how he feels about what's happening.

I like the interchange between Marin and Taren, as they seem like two guys stuck together and making the best of it. Reminds me a little of Gimli and Legolas from The Lord of the Rings. Always trying to one-up each other. The "Uh, I died" line is also cute and adds a little levity to the situation.

(More tips on handling actions scenes here)

How's the voice?
It reads like a typical fantasy novel. There's nothing that jumps out at me as unique yet, since the narrator doesn't do a lot of talking or thinking. Does he have a particular speaking style? A way of looking at the world that's unique to him?

(More on voice here)

Overall, it's a nice snippet, and I suspect had I read what comes before it I'd be more invested here. The biggest thing that hits me is that I don't feel a strong sense of the narrator in it. I'd suggest tweaking to get more of his judgment and thoughts into what he sees, so his voice and character comes through stronger. I think that will also make the scene more compelling because it'll have some emotion to balance the action and make that action mean more.

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.

6 comments:

  1. Just a little thing... I noticed you used the phrase "I'd no idea" twice within the first half or so of this excerpt. Maybe intentional, or maybe there's a way to change it a bit ("I didn't know", "it was a mystery", "there was no way to know").
    I like the narrator's voice.

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  2. For me the repetitious telling particularly disrupted what I assume should have read as a fast scene.

    Some points:

    1. Telling
    "A light tremor shook the earth beneath me gently."

    Janice points out the adverb. I'd suggest cutting this back entirely:

    "A tremor shook the earth." / "The earth tremored."

    I won't quote them all, but I'd recommend revising the following sentences:

    "It stomped its foot to the ground"

    "When I opened it a moment later"

    2. Italics
    Generally not needed. Even for deep POV.

    3. Dialogue
    While I can see that you're developing the narrator's voice, the overall dialogue and scene read like a snippet of real-time conversation between players of a MMORPG. If a monster has avoided detection long enough to practically ambush them, shouldn't they be a little more worried? Taren's sarcasm, coupled with the narrator's shrug and use of "um..." seems farcical given the fact neither knows how to vanquish the creature.

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  3. The action part of the scene was pretty good and I agree with the suggestions Janice provided.

    In writing action scenes, I've read where "less is more" works best to allow the flow to move at a fast, actiony (yeah, just making words up lol!!) pace. Before the action, the internalization and descriptions can help set the scene for the reader.

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  4. Thanks Janice and fellow readers who took time to comment. I now see where I need to improve. I'll look into the internalization, voice, pace, telling...

    And yes, Janice, the monster's look is already described before the scene and the wire does suggest its the Captain.

    Straight on to rewriting the scene, then.

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  5. Hope I'm not butting in after you've finished your revision (that's so annoying)but I just wanted to mention two elements that I find work well in an action scene.
    1) Short sentences & short words convey speed and urgency but I'm not suggesting anything as crude as the pow! bam! of Adam West's Batman.
    2) Sensory description. When in danger all our senses are sharpened - it's a basic survival mechanism. So perhaps the narrator can smell the monster's meaty breath or hear his own heart beat...
    By the way I think you can keep the witty banter as long as you also inject emotional intensity and we know that your characters are making flip remarks despite and because they are scared. Just a thought as your narrator is already dead, what's the worst that could happen to him in this scene?

    ReplyDelete
  6. Bridget,

    Sorry I saw your comment too late. That's some excellent suggestion you've given. I think you're right about the need of emotional intensity. It gives me a new perspective for my writing. I shall re-revise it!

    And yes, the narrator can die yet again so...*shrug*

    Thanks again.

    ReplyDelete