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Writing Level-Up: Action

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Jun 18th, 2010
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[Occasionally I'll post about my experiences trying to improve as a writer. If you’re a writer you might find something useful. Sometimes the topic will converge on game design, my other vocational passion.]

Action scenes are fun to write. They’re fun to read too, when the text doesn’t get in the way of the unfolding drama. After receiving critiques from some talented writers over the years I’ve collected several pointers that have helped me and that I try to keep in mind in my writing process.

To serve as an example I’ve dragged out an old dusty piece of writing from a prehistoric draft of Jack of Hearts. First, a little context: the protagonist—a falchion wielding waif of a boy named Jack—has come to the edge of a deep chasm. A rickety bridge spans the chasm, except half the bridge (the far half) is drawn up. Jack decides he can probably leap across the gap to the upraised bridge with a good running start. Here’s a short passage from the original draft of that scene:

When he came to the edge, Jack sprang. Legs still churning, he flew out over the chasm, his cloak unfurling behind him like a sail … and fell short. But before dropping away he swept his sword overhead in a huge arc. It hummed through the air—


—and bit deep into the wooden end of the far bridge, sticking. Jack dangled from the blade. He glanced down between his feet at the river far below. Cool mist swirled around him, dampening his belly.

Now let’s look at this through the lens of these three pointers:

1. Don’t neuter your drama before it begins.

Once Jack starts to fall, the next sentence begins with: “But before dropping away he…” This phrasing is unfortunate because it reassures the reader that Jack’s going to be okay. It completely obliterates any suspense. It’d be better to force the reader to wonder, if only a second more, what’s going to happen next.

2. Put the details where they matter

Case in point: do we really have to be told that the cloak unfurls BEHIND him? Could it unfurl in front of him? No. It’s obvious from the preceding action which way the cloak unfurls, so it’s an extraneous detail. The word count here could instead be spent on describing Jack’s sensations. I should have put in details that serve the main drama front and center, and omitted details that are extraneous or irrelevant.

3. Word choice is critical

This is of course just good advice across the board, and seems obvious–but it’s important to see how it can matter. A lot of words you could choose as a writer might work in a sentence, but often there’s a word that best serves the goals of the text (in this case to heighten the drama of Jack’s precarious leap). Take the section where Jack is dangling from the sword. It says he “glanced” down. Normally, glancing is a casual action. I glance at my watch, at the tv, whatever. Even though it technically works here, it’s not a good verb if the point is to convey that he’s hanging from a dizzying height, facing death.

All of these problems stack up to create a barrier between the reader and the story, when what we want is immediacy. We want to feel viscerally what it’s like for Jack to spring across the gap and fall short. I think these are good pointers to keep in mind as you’re writing an action scene, or to use as a lens to analyze a scene you’ve already written. Of course, they’re rules of thumb that have helped me. Your mileage may vary.

Anyone else have any tips or stylistic preferences when it comes to action?

About Me

Ricardo Bare
Austin, Tx

Ricardo Bare is a writer and game designer living near Austin, Texas. Currently he works as a game designer for Arkane Studios, which in 2012 released Dishonored. Ricardo started his career in the games industry working on the Deus Ex series, winner of the BAFTA and numerous other Game of the Year awards.

Ricardo is the author of Jack of Hearts and Fool of Fate, the first two books in a young adult fantasy series.


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