Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TTYU Retro: Writing Action Sequences: a process of layering and research

I find action sequences to be challenging. It's not that I can't write them well, I just don't find that they come together spontaneously in my mind. I need to break it down. The action sequence is built by a process...and that's why I thought it might be interesting to blog about the process.

I have some issues with the idea of extended fight scenes rendered in words, and these issues form a basis for a lot of the decisions I make in putting together an action scene. First is the boredom issue, and second is the plausibility issue.

What makes a fight boring? When I watch a martial arts movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I'm visually entertained enough to put up with flailing arms and legs and flying bodies for quite lengthy periods of time. Not so when I'm dealing with text. I can appreciate the fact that a fight has changing dynamics of one person over another, and I find the psychology of the participants interesting - what they want, what weakness they think they are going to exploit, etc. - but extended descriptions of one fight move after another start feeling like they're all the same, and I start skimming.

What makes a fight implausible? Well, mostly when the fight seems to be the whole point of an action sequence, and the reasons behind the fight, or the context surrounding the fight, get neglected.

So now that I'm through the caveats, let's get on to specifics. As an example, I'll be using the sequence that I just wrote for For Love, For Power (which is now finished). I came into the writing of the sequence knowing several key things: the identities (and thus the basic fighting prowess) and main goals of the two opponents, the general location, and the starting positions of the two opponents.

The two fighters are both members of the Imbati servant caste, and their names are Aloran and Sorn. These two guys have been at odds through most of the book, and I came into this knowing that people would expect them to have a fight. Possibly a big fight. They are both trained bodyguards and martial artists, and their martial art is somewhat inspired by Kung Fu but differs from it in specific moves.

Sorn has two goals: first, to deliver a vote to a group of people below the stage, and second, to receive an inquiry letter from someone on the stage. This might not sound like much of a big deal, but the delivery of the vote was his master's final charge, and thus he has to carry it out first; by contrast the receipt of the inquiry letter is actually close to a life-or-death matter for him. Essentially Sorn is wanted for crimes by "the wardens" and the only time they can actually nab him is 1. when he has no master, and 2. when he is out of sight of the nobility. The minute he receives the inquiry letter, their chance at him is gone. If they get him, they will take away all his honor and imprison him for life, so he's pretty motivated to carry out these two tasks.
Aloran has the following goals: to intercept Sorn before he can receive the inquiry letter, and to get him to step into a place where he will be out of view of nobles (thus making him vulnerable to the wardens). I knew coming in that Aloran would realize that Sorn had to deliver the vote first, and that he would try to steal it to force Sorn to pursue him.

General location and starting positions:
The confrontation occurs in and around the Hall of the Eminence, where a major event is about to take place (the vote is intended to be used during this event). It's a long hall with high arched ceilings and a raised stage at one end. Aloran enters the room through a door at the back of the stage, which puts him behind a number of people who are onstage waiting for the event to begin. Sorn enters the room through an archway from another room, which is located on Aloran's left at the base of the stairs to the stage. They're maybe fifty feet from each other.

At this point you may notice something. I've got a lot of information about the surrounding circumstances but no idea what kind of moves these guys will be putting on each other. So I started writing by just getting the two balls rolling toward each other, so to speak. Aloran makes a move and gets close to Sorn, realizes he's delivering the vote and that the vote is his chance to get his attention. Grabs the vote when Sorn isn't expecting it, and runs. Part of me thought that at this point they would have a really dramatic martial arts battle here in front of everybody. But then I ran afoul of my plausibility guideline. Letting two experienced fighters battle it out in front of the entire nobility, with important leaders present, when they have to pass through security just to get into that room? Are you kidding?

This was the point when I called my friends Janice Hardy and Lillian Csernica to talk through things, and over the course of a couple of conversations I came to the conclusion that Aloran was going to try to make a run for it, and Sorn was going to come after him, and then they would both be apprehended by the guards who are there to guard the audience members. Bystanders are actually really critical, and they were the deciding factor in this change for me. This was actually good for me, because I realized that Aloran and Sorn would have a verbal argument trying to get the guards to let one or the other of them have his way. I can handle arguments. Neither one of them wins this one, and the guard has them expelled from the event.

As a part of an action sequence, I like this, because it gives them an unexpected setback. The setback is, of course, bigger for Sorn than for Aloran at first glance, because it takes him farther away from the place where he must deliver his vote, and the person from whom he must receive the inquiry. I immediately decided that it had to be something of a setback for Aloran, too. So essentially I worked with what I knew of the architecture of this building and decided that it's a lot harder to access places that are out of noble view when you're in this section of the place. Aloran has to leave the foyer through a very heavy bronze door, cross a waiting room full of chairs, and then there's a hidden door on the other side of the room into the servants' halls (which is where we know the wardens are waiting).

So by this point I knew that they were going to have it out in the waiting room, in relative privacy. I had to ask myself whether either one would possess any weapons or armor. The answer in both cases was "no": Aloran has just run out of his home with zero notice to try to intervene, and Sorn has been spending the last several days at the hospital with his dying master, unwilling to leave for any reason because if for some reason he's not present when his master dies, he might be apprehended before he knows it has happened. So while Sorn is a pretty unscrupulous guy, it's not plausible for him to have weapons or armor on him.

Unscrupulous had to enter into the fight somehow, however. This was the point when I decided I needed some actual fighting moves, and my major sources for these were my friend and fellow Analog author Brad Torgersen, who is also a Chief Warrant Officer in the US Army Reserve, and my friend Deborah J. Ross, a fabulous author and heir to the worlds of Marion Zimmer Bradley, who is a black belt in Kung Fu.

Brad's major - and awesome - contribution was to introduce me to the Army Combatives choke out. It gave me some serious heebie-jeebies to do so, but I went at his suggestion and watched some videos of the technique. This was actually an enormous help to me, because it not only gave me a sense of how the move was accomplished, but what it would look like if it were done voluntarily vs. involuntarily (some of the videos show "example" applications and others show fighting). I realized that I could use this move in two different spots in the novel, one where it was done voluntarily, and one involuntarily. I immediately hopped in and changed the place where I had written something lame like "she jumped on him and he collapsed" to incorporate the move.

At that point I needed to have a sense of realistic response to this move. Given that my fighters are martial artists, I wasn't sure whether I'd be getting a martial arts response to the choke move through the army fighting videos, and my only other visualization of this was the battle between the Man in Black and Fezzik from "The Princess Bride." So that was where Deborah's major awesome contribution to the fight came in. She talked to me about possible responses to a choke, including tucking your chin down as far as possible, grabbing backwards and twisting flesh (preferably tender flesh), stomping backwards on feet, flinging oneself backward against walls or obstacles. We discussed not only what these moves were, but how they could go wrong.

In the end, the way it played out took me by surprise, and I hope it will take my readers by surprise as well. If I'd had the kind of initial engagement that one sees in an Old West duel, with the two fighters facing off down an empty stretch of road, then this whole fight would have turned out differently and would probably have been a lot longer, as they both used all their skills to keep from direct engagement while hurting one another as much as possible, looking around for things to throw, etc. However, the fact that Aloran has stolen the vote and is making a run for a place where they won't be seen completely changes the dynamic and weakens his position as a prepared fighter.

So at this point I'll conclude with a summary list of the things I needed to think through to write this sequence:
  • identities of the fighters
  • martial skills of the fighters
  • goals of the fighters
  • physical location of the fight
  • positions of the fighters as they begin the fight
  • presence of bystanders
  • interference of bystanders
  • conditions for the resumption of the fight (physical location, position, bystanders)
  • attack moves 
  • response moves
At any point in the fight, the attacks and responses may change the surrounding conditions, so the last few elements of this list can cycle through multiple times if you're constructing your own combat. In any case, I hope laying this out can help those of you who have to think through fights a bit at a time the way I do. It took all of these steps and all this research for me to get to the point where I could see the conflict with clarity, step by step in my mind - and if I don't achieve that, then I don't feel like I can write the sequence in a plausible and engaging way.

It's something to think about.


  1. It is my feeling that the best combat sequences are those that are quick, incredibly violent and unpredictable. A good example would be when the Terminator shot the security guard at the Mental Health Hospital in Terminator 2. After promising not to kill anyone, he kneecapped the guard instead, stating in a deadpan manner, "He'll live."

    All the better because the guard thought it was a routine, dull night until the Terminator calmly pulled out his sidearm and started firing. He moved slowly enough that the guard had time to realize he was in trouble, attempted to draw his own weapon and got shot for his trouble.

    Another example is to simply end a confrontation before it even begins. I once advised an author, who was planning on something elaborate for for a scene in a tunnel complex, to simply shoot the enemy soldier in the face and have done with it. Which was exactly what a soldier would have done in that situation.

    For longer fights, I tend to script them out, which is what Hollywood does for their films. I try to keep them within the realm of the relatively possible unless I am going for satire.

    S. F. Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

  2. S.F.,
    Thanks for stopping by to comment! I can see your point about quick/violent/unpredictable. I end up doing something of that myself, in part because I don't think fighters are interested in lengthy combat. It mostly has to do with what they're trying to get done, and getting it done as quickly and efficiently as possible. The example that springs to my mind is Indiana Jones shooting the guy with the sword. The risk of satire is one that I hadn't really thought of, but I can see it's there (and I'm relieved that I don't seem at first glance to be falling into it!). Great to hear from you.