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Saturday, April 29

Real Life Diagnostics: Is This Action Scene Clear?

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 site. 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: Eight 


Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through June 24.

This week’s questions:

1. Is it clear enough? Can you picture who does what when?

2. Is it vivid enough? I feel that the clearer I make the action of the scene, the more distant and clinical it gets. Does it have too much internalization, description, or narration? Or did I get the balance right?

3. Does the internalization/characterization of the protagonist work?

4. Do I have a blind spot—is there anything you think I should correct/improve on that I didn’t notice? 


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Note: This snippet is in the middle of a scene in progress. The POV character (Burke) and another (Epah) are being attacked (by Atha) and Burke is trying to lure him away so Epah can escape or get help.

“Move! Move!” He heard Epah sob, but the pressure on his back vanished. The path was free again and he resumed his retreat—the only direction that was open to him. His feet searched the ground behind him: shifty sand, the half-buried shards of rock, the prick of thorns when the path made a sudden curve. He didn’t dare to leave the knife out of his sight.

Another strike, and the blade left a white-hot line on his bicep.

Or maybe he could disarm him, once he had room to maneuver. On this downslope, with Ahta holding the higher ground—and his knife—trying that would be suicidal. His only advantage was that the weasel felt so invincible that he didn’t mind driving Burke backwards, and further backwards, down to the river. He didn’t think he’d give up an advantage when leaving the confinement of the path.

Well, perhaps he wouldn’t. Burke could hear the gurgling of the river behind him. Time to find out.

Ahta seemed to realize that on even ground, Burke could land another kick, because he suddenly lunged again. Burke threw up his forearm to deflect the stab, and the knife grazed his neck instead of burying itself under his collarbone.

That one could have killed him.

He grabbed the forearm he had just hit upwards with his block, and smashed his right palm hard against Ahta’s throat. He could have used his fist, but he didn’t want to kill the idiot—even if Ahta didn’t seem to have the same scruples.

The hit was still hard enough to make Ahta choke; Burke rammed his elbow a second time into his broken nose for good measure.

The knife fell to the ground; so did Ahta, burying his face in his hands and making gurgling—or sobbing?— noises. Burke bent down to pick up his knife. “Take your time,” he told the man. Then he sat down beside him, a wave of dizziness sweeping over him.

My Thoughts in Purple:

“Move! Move!” He heard Epah sob, but the pressure on his back vanished. The path was free again and he resumed his retreat—the only direction that was open to him. [His feet searched the ground behind him: shifty sand, the half-buried shards of rock, the prick of thorns when the path made a sudden curve. He didn’t dare to leave the knife out of his sight.] I think this means he’s backing up, but I’m not sure
Another strike, and the blade left a white-hot line on his bicep.

Or maybe he could disarm him, once he had room to maneuver. On this downslope, with Ahta holding the higher ground—and his knife—trying that would be suicidal. [His only advantage was that the weasel felt so invincible that he didn’t mind driving Burke backwards,] feels a little tellish and further backwards, down to the river.  [He didn’t think he’d give up an advantage when leaving the confinement of the path.] Ambiguous pronouns here. Who’s giving up the advantage?

Well, perhaps he wouldn’t. Burke could hear the gurgling of the river behind him. [Time to find out.] I’m a little uncertain what he’s doing.

Ahta [seemed to realize that on even ground, Burke could land another kick, because he suddenly] telling a bit lunged again. Burke threw up his forearm [to deflect the stab] stating motive, and the knife grazed his neck instead of burying itself under his collarbone.

That one could have killed him.

He grabbed [the forearm] Atha’s? he had just hit upwards with his block, and smashed his right palm hard against Ahta’s throat. He could have used his fist, but he didn’t want to kill the idiot—even if Ahta didn’t seem to have the same scruples.

[The hit was still hard enough to make Ahta choke;] a little tellish Burke rammed his elbow a second time into his broken nose for good measure.

The knife fell to the ground; so did Ahta, burying his face in his hands and making gurgling—or sobbing?— noises. Burke bent down [to pick up] explaining motive his knife. “Take your time,” he told the man. Then he sat down beside him, a wave of dizziness sweeping over him.

The questions:

1. Is it clear enough? Can you picture who does what when?


I get a little lost in a few places due to the pronouns, where I’m not 100% sure if it’s the narrator referring to Burke or Burke referring to Ahta. I’m pretty sure it’s Burke’s POV, but it’s just distant enough that it could be an omniscient or distant third person. But mostly I can follow what's happening. Ahta is attacking Burke and pushing him backward down a slope toward the river, where Burke gains the upper hand and puts him down.

(Here’s more on finding the right balance with stage direction)

2. Is it vivid enough? I feel that the clearer I make the action of the scene, the more distant and clinical it gets. Does it have too much internalization, description, or narration? Or did I get the balance right?

That is one of the problems with fight scenes. It’s tough to say because I don’t know these characters, and caring about the characters is one of the things that keeps readers interested in the fight. But in general, it feels like a decent balance of dialogue, narrative, and internalization, though it does feel a little distant for my personal taste (readers chime in here, as this is subjective). I think a little more dialogue would be nice if it fits, as that would help break things up.

Some of the tellish lines did pull me out of the fight and would probably work better as internal observations from Burke, such as:
His only advantage was that the weasel felt so invincible that he didn’t mind driving Burke backwards, and further backwards, down to the river.
This explains why he’s backing up and how this is a good thing, and while I like that it’s Burke assessing the situation (“the weasel” shows judgment and puts this in Burke’s head), the “he didn’t mind” makes it feel more distant and tellish. It’s saying what Ahta thinks and feels. Perhaps shift this a little to show what Burke thinks, such as “The weasel was stupid enough to drive him backwards toward the river” or the like. Same information, but it’s centered on how Burke sees the situation, not how someone who knows what Atha is doing sees it.
He didn’t think he’d give up an advantage when leaving the confinement of the path.
Same here. This feels like someone explaining what Atha is thinking, not Burke taking advantage of Ahta’s lack of skill.
Ahta seemed to realize that on even ground, Burke could land another kick, because he suddenly lunged again.
This is explaining what’s going on in Ahta’s head, so it doesn’t feel like Burke figuring it out. Think about what Burke sees and what makes him expect an attack. A subtle shift of muscles? A glance?
Burke threw up his forearm to deflect the stab stating motive, and the knife grazed his neck instead of burying itself under his collarbone.
Small thing, and this will vary by what narrative distance you choose, but combined with the other tellish phrases, this adds to the told feel. Burke describes the reason he acts—he threw up his arm “to deflect” the stab. A simple “and deflected” fixes it.
He could have used his fist, but he didn’t want to kill the idiot—even if Ahta didn’t seem to have the same scruples.
This is a gray area, because it does sound like Burke’s thought, but “he could have used his fist” feels a little tellish in this scene, explaining why he used a palm.
The hit was still hard enough to make Ahta choke;
This tells a bit, explaining “it made him choke” instead of showing him choking. Again, a minor quibble, but it stands out more when combined with the others.
Burke bent down to pick up his knife.
Same here. “And picked up” shows.

Many of these are minor and a matter of personal preference, but as a group they kept me just distant enough to feel detached the scene (readers chime in here). Even if you wanted to keep the more distant narrator, I think just shifting it to what Burke sees and not what Ahta thinks and feels would be enough to immerse me more in the scene.

(Here’s more on showing versus telling in internalization)

3. Does the internalization/characterization of the protagonist work?

Mostly. I do feel like it’s Burke most of the time, but it has a step farther that makes me think it could also be a distant narrator. I get the sense that Burke knows how to fight based on his assumptions of what Ahta is doing and his calmness during the fight. He’s also a decent guy since he doesn’t want to kill Ahta, even though he probably could. And he's protection Epah.

(Here’s more on balancing action and internalization)

4. Do I have a blind spot—is there anything you think I should correct/improve on that I didn’t notice?

For me, it would be the narrative distance that’s slipping over into the tellish parts, but if you’re doing that by choice, it’s your call. If you want this to feel tighter in Burke’s POV, than I’d suggest fixing those. Readers, chime in if you see anything.

Overall, I think your instincts are good, and it’s more a matter of having beta readers help you spot the confusing or detached parts (which are harder to spot when you wrote it). If you shifted those detached parts more in Burke’s POV, then you’d not only fix the tellish lines, but strengthen the internalization, characterization, and clarity what’s happening all at the same time.

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 (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

7 comments:

  1. Gut reaction...felt a bit confusing, rather than exciting, to me also. Granted we didn't read the preceding segment, but I was immediately thrown off in the first sentence by one tiny word..."sob". I'm assuming Epah is a man and it sounds like he's crying. Really? Is he? If Epah is a woman, it would work.
    Also, later you have Ahta sobbing. Lots of crying going on by warrior men...haha!
    Nit picking, but just my impression. It's challenging to write a good fight scene, and if this were tightened up a bit, I think you nailed it.Carry on!

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    1. Thanks! Yes, Epah's a woman, so she's allowed to cry, and Ahta gets a fist on his *already broken* nose, which can make the hardest man cry, too (or so I like to think ;) )

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  2. This *is* a tricky thing to write, balancing clarity and mood.

    I'm an action writer myself, and it's a good (and rare) feeling for me to see a fighter capture how tricky it is to back up on rough ground, or how knives mean "you're always going to get cut." So, excellent research, good control in keeping those fundamentals in the center of the scene, and you always present things in terms of Burke's trying to control them and imply his own attitude about dealing with "the weasel." :)

    Like Janice said, parts of it do feel tellish. Some of the best fights put us deep in the frantic sense of trying to get by or the zen feeling of simply knowing how to respond. And that can be weakened with extra words like "he tried to," or head-hopping where we're too confident knowing what Ahta thinks (and it doesn't feel like Burke's in-character assumption). So one way to go would be to strip away more of those and leave only the instant sensations and thoughts as they come to Burke in the moment... but that does risk losing so much background it's harder to track what's happening. So, balance.

    You'll probably hear the advice that action needs shorter sentences to boost the pace. I've never trusted that idea; I think a period (the Brits call it a "full stop") gives the reader an instant to breathe, and that can be wrong for the combat sense of a fighter trying to juggle threats and options. Short sentences are great for emphasis, but I'm glad you didn't make them your default.

    A few thoughts: watch all your pronouns so we never lose track of who's who in the rush (and keep terms like "the weasel" handy so you have some alternative to pronouns and names), and also for when that back and forth edges into head-hopping. Think about thinking; Burke's strategizing is key to adding suspense and characterization to the blow-by-blow, but the more time he seems to have for a thought the less urgent it feels. I also didn't see any of Epah in Burke's thoughts after the first line, when that could have added an extra layer of worry for him.

    And, one of my favorite moments was Burke feeling his way backward down the slope. But I wanted more of an implied sense of how hellishly dangerous that move is if the slope and the rocks are even a little challenging, or else a reassurance that that slope was still only a minor hazard even in a fight. It's all a matter of degree :).

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    1. Thank you for this detailed critique. It's a first draft, and I'll definitely keep an eye on those pesky pronouns (this will be a joy, since the whole thing is a bit over 90k...).
      I reasoned that most of that fight would be the guys watching each other, waiting for an opening when one of them makes a mistake; that may have contributed to the distant feel. Those drawn-out action fights on screen are not terribly realistic, but they set reader expectations, I guess? Not arguing with your assessment, just thinking aloud.
      Generally, I'm not that averse to telling in between - it's part of our normal thinking process, too, when we assess others and interpret what they're up to. But I'll definitely put this on my radar for revision. Thanks again for your time!

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  3. I have exactly the same problems in fight scenes. I DO know that this scene is all Burke, and no distant narrator, because I too think that it's so damn clear that it's his thinking about the opponent. :)Am I right?
    This, for example:
    His only advantage was that the weasel felt so invincible that he didn’t mind driving Burke backwards.

    For me, this is Burke thinking and his conclusion about the weasel, and it's completely clear. That's, perhaps, because we obviously have the same blind spot.
    Even better - I liked this so much because it felt like I was reading my own scene; sounded familiar.
    So, I have an idea. If you want, contact me. (valwenel@gmail.com)Maybe we can help each other searching for our blind spots, as beta readers or something like that.
    Put BURKE in subject line so I know that's you.
    Good luck!
    PS. Janice, I hope it's okay to put my mail here - if not, delete it.

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    1. Wow, thanks for that offer, and I'll definitely take you up on that. Even if we don't discover the blind spots we share (tricky, that), I think critiquing someone else's work is great for sharpening one's revision skills in general. Revision boot camp LOL

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  4. Janice, thanks so much for going over my excerpt and giving your assessment on it! It's much appreciated! I admit I broke out in cold sweat when I got your notification LOL I'm glad my piece wasn't as crappy as I remembered it.

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