Action is Emotion

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As I've said in the past, action scenes are usually what starts me on a writing project, or what gets me out of being stuck.  But how do 'action scenes' work anyway?

Action scenes are often more about emotion than physical action.  Putting my characters through the emotional wringer is a great way to break up the log jam in my head.  I may not end up using the scene, but like everything else I write, these scenes will inform something else, even if it's just what my state of mind was at the time I wrote them.

I can hear some people saying, "Okay, okay, I get what you're saying, but you said this was about action scenes.  Can we get back to that?"  Sure.

Why do guys love war movies?  Is it because we get to see sh*t blown up?  Yes.  Do we get to see the good guys kick the ass of the bad guys?  Yes.  But I think there is something more going on behind the scenes.  Don't worry, this ties directly to the subject of action scenes.  War movies make us guys - feel.  

A great example of this is the movie Hacksaw Ridge.  This isn't the normal war movie narrative, about killing the bad guys or taking ground.  It hits us in the guts because it's about Desmond Doss, a guy who refused to carry a gun, but still served on the front lines of World War II and saved lives.

 

Camaraderie, loss, victory, etc, etc; war movies get our heart's pumping in a lot of different ways.  They are a place where we're it's acceptable for us guys to have strong emotional responses.  Now, I'm speaking for myself and from my generation and I know a lot of guys out there are much more tuned into their emotions than some of us.  

Actions scenes need to work the same way war movies do.  There have to be kick-in-the-guts emotions running through them or they are just stage direction.  Who gives a damn that our protagonist is strong and fast if we don't feel the risk to them, if we don't feel their fear and uncertrainty, if we aren't entrenched in the reason they are fighting?  In my opinion that is the key to action scenes.

A good example of an emotionally driven action scene is the duel between Achilles and Hector from the film Troy.  Achilles' fury at Hector for killing his cousin would have have been far less powerful without the counterpoint of Hector having been shown as an empathetic character earlier on.  As a result of these clashing points of view the crescendo fight scene is a seething display of emotion.

 

Yes, there are technical pieces in all action scenes; punches, kicks, gunshots and sword blows, but if the action is driven by emotion, the details of the fight become less important.  After all, what is the reader really there for?  Sure, some readers want the technical nitty-gritty, and that's great.  But for most people they are (hopefully) invested in the character who is in the fight, like Hector above, and so they want to -feel- along with them.  In narrative writing, we don't have the advantage of a stirring soundtrack or stunning visuals to get our emotions ramped up, we have words.  Now, the other side of this conversation is that we have 'lots of words' to tell the story with, to give wonderful description.  With words the reader can smell the distant flowers and trees, taste the dust and sweat and feel the heat of the sun.  But we still have to get the most punch in the fewest number of words. 

Conflict on every page.  That's a common thing most writers are taught.  In an action scene, it has to be reduced to surgical precision.  Every breath and action must carry all the emotional weight while moving lightning fast.  If it drags, the reader becomes distracted.  Too much detail, the reader loses the flow of the action.  And so on and so on.  I'll often punctuate my action scenes with short 'punch sentences.'  These punch sentences can be just a few words, but they imbue the action with rapidity and a feeling of stop and start motion - in other words, action.

In this example, from 'The Tomahawk Incident,' things are happening fast, there is confusion, self-recrimination and assessment, all occurring at the same time.

"The lightkeeper's eyes suddenly went wide.  “LOOK OUT!” 

A powerful swing of his staff sent Katja tumbling.  When she looked back over her shoulder, he was falling.  The lightkeeper crashed to the sidewalk with a sharp cry of dismay and pain as a tall, severe-looking woman lunged past him.  

Katja saw the outline of the long knife in the woman's hand.  Her mind caught.  She’d allowed thoughts of David to block her awareness of her surroundings.  But her body reacted instinctively, before she could think, bringing her attaché up like a shield.  The point of the dagger slammed into the paper-filled leather case.  Katja twisted it hard and threw the case aside, pushing up to her feet from the bricks.  All thoughts of David vanished as the nondescript woman pivoted, following the motion and dislodged the knife.  Katja hadn't realized she’d grabbed the collapsed baton at her belt through the opening in her overcoat until the weapon snagged.  She gripped her coat and yanked.  The baton came free with a pop of stitches.  The knurled grip in her hand and familiar Snap! as she threw her arm downward to extend it focused her."

There's a lot happening here and there should be.  Action is about chaos, but chaos the reader can (hopefully) easily follow.  

The other thing that makes action work is that the reader has to be invested in someone or something involved in what's happening.  The someone could be our hero in danger such as Hector in Troy above, or someone attached to them such as Lois Lain being thrown off of a rooftop that Superman has to save - again.  The 'thing' could be a vial of serum that's going to save the world that our hero is lunging after before it rolls off the edge of a cliff.

Action is part of the narrative.  In film, fight choreography is carefully crafted to fit the story that's being told.  Like a fight scene in a book, every breath and action as well as each camera angle and the way shots are edited together combine to hopefully enhance the story.  This works better and worse depending on the film.  Let's look at the Bourne Identity.  Action all over the place, but in service of the overall story of our amnesiac ex-assassin.  In this clip, we can clearly see the character's surprise and revelation about his capabilities.  This is the first time we see what Bourne is capable of.  That's why the scene is there and the character's emotions are what make it work.   

 

And this is what that whole fight scene looks like in (a version) of the script:

"COP #2 has heard enough --

giving a sharp poke with the nightstick -- into THE MAN's back -- and that's the last thing he'll remember because --

THE MAN is in motion.

A single turn -- spinning -- catching COP #2 completely off guard -- the heel of his hand driving up into the guy's throat and --

COP #1 -- behind him -- trying to reach for his pistol, but THE MAN -- still turning -- all his weight moving in a single fluid attack -- a sweeping kick and --

COP #1 -- he's falling -- catching the bench -- trying to fight back but -- THE MAN -- like a machine -- just unbelievably fast -- three jackhammer punches -- down-down- down and -- COP #1 -- head slammed into the bench -- blood spraying from his nose -- he's out cold and --

COP #2 -- writhing on the ground -- gasping for air -- struggling with his holster -- THE MAN -- his foot -- down -- like a vise -- onto COP #2's arm -- shattering the bone -- COP #2 starting to scream, and then silenced because --

THE MAN -- he's got the pistol -- so fucking fast -- he's got it right up against COP #2's forehead -- right on the edge of pulling the trigger -- he is, he's gonna shoot him --"

Obviously, writing action in a screenplay and in a novel are radically different, but what I'm aiming at is still there.  Action in service to the story.

Action = Emotion.  Rage, terror and even dispassion.  In 'The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter viciously attacks his guards.  We learn earlier on that 'his pulse never got above eighty-five' while he was committing some awful act.  In the case of attacking his guards: 'Dr. Lecter's pulse was elevated to more than one hundred by the exercise, but quickly slowed to normal.'  His lack of emotion is the dark mirror of the terror and powerlessness of his victims, making it that much more frightening.  And that tension gives the scene its impact.  

Representation Saves Lives

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I was recently sitting in a panel about representation at a con when one of the panelists repeated something I'd heard before, "REPRESENTATION SAVES LIVES."  Unlike the other times I'd heard it, those words hit me square between the eyes like a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick.

So, I'm going to jump into some messy territory this week and talk about my struggle with trying to be representative in my writing.  This a minefield of complicated, uncomfortable issues.  As I've dug into this, I've realized that my greatest obstacles are the filters I have between what I 'believe' I know or think, and the reality of what's going on in my head.  Put simply, there's a disconnect between what I 'think' I know about myself, and what's really happening behind the curtains in my mind.  It's like Oz the privileged white guy is back there still pulling levers.  It's personal, messy, challenging stuff.    

I'm writing about me, but this is also a call to others to really dig in and look at how we view others.  This isn't simple stuff, it takes work, but it's important.   

I kind of look like a poster boy for white privilege and the patriarchy.  I'm a middle age, cis, white guy with white-grey hair and blue eyes.  I've seen myself represented in film, TV, comics and every other media from the moment I could understand what it meant.  I grew up in Arizona where casual racism was everywhere.  I grew up hearing people called "Spics", "Beaners" and "Wetbacks", the undercurrent of cowboys and Indians translated to 'The only good Indian is a dead Indian', brazil nuts were referred to as n***er fingers, and on and on. 

How do I begin to wrap my head around how important it is for other people to see themselves represented positively?   With my upbringing and a base level advantage of being white, male and middle class, it's not something I can understand at anything more than a rational level.  It's nothing I've lived.  

The first thing I learned from my friends who are People of Color, Native American or LGBTQ, is to shut up and listen to people.   That doesn't mean trying to explain my perspective, it means exactly what it says.  Shut up and listen.  And that's hard, uncomfortable work.  If I really listen, I can't help but hear the pain, the fear, the rage, the heartbreak.  That's intimidating.  

People of Color, Native Americans, and members of the LGBTQ community have endured things I can't begin to imagine.  And in that is precisely where some of the disconnect happens.  I literally can't understand what they've been through.  Had I experienced some of the things they had, I could easily see myself either in prison or dead.  And that, right there, is white privilege talking.  As a white guy, I come at situations with the expectation that the playing field is going to be level.  That simply isn't true. 

I can't fix what my friends and others have experienced, but as a writer I can make the effort to see that they are represented positively and powerfully.

Why representation matters:

According to the Trevor Project (statistics),  "LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25."   

According to the CDC, "American Indian/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States. The rates of suicide in this population have been increasing since 2003."  "Compared with whites, AI/AN decedents had... 2.4 times the odds of a suicide of a friend or family member affecting their death."

There are loads more statistics out there including a spike in suicide among Black boys between the ages of 5 and 11 (Journal of American Medical Association).

"Researchers looked at the suicide rates among children ages 5 to 11 between 1993 and 2012. The rates overall did not change over these years, but the rates among black boys rose from 1.78 to 3.47 per 1 million. In contrast, suicides among white boys declined from 1.96 to 1.31 per million."  (CNN)

When it comes to positive representation one obvious place to start is Black Panther.  Like the words "Representation saves lives" finally hitting home at the con, it took seeing the reaction of people to an African superhero for another part of the whole equation to unspool for me.  Seeing kids playing with toys from stories about people that looked like them somehow made it all make sense.  These people that looked like them were not only smart, but powerful and compassionate.  They did things just because they were the right things to do.  And when we talk about masculinity that isn't toxic, King T'Challa is a great example.  He treats people in his sphere with respect, even though he is king.  He doesn't claim to know everything, instead he listens to those who are more knowledgable and considers their counsel deeply.  This in no way erodes his power as a leader or a man.

"T’Challa’s nature is to be merciful. He’s internalized this principle to the point that it guides him instinctively. Rather than kill M’Baku, he asks him to yield. Rather than let Agent Ross die, he takes him to Wakanda and lets Shuri heal him. Rather than turn Erik away, he accepts Erik’s challenge for the throne." One Tribe: Black Panther's Altruism

"It’s about more than gender equality, however, as the film takes a pretty serious look at fragile masculinity and the way in which men are raised to deal with (or not deal with, more often than not) their emotions.  T’Challa and Killmonger both openly weep at multiple points in the film, as two incredibly strong men struggling to come to terms with their pasts, and specifically their relationships with their fathers."  Why ‘Black Panther’s T’Challa Is a Better Man Than Most Superheroes

And then there's the 'Scully Effect.'  Research now confirms that women who watched the X-Files and saw Dana Scully portrayed as a smart, independent, powerful woman, were motivated to enter STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. 

"But Scully didn't just inspire women to work in STEM; she also helped to spike an interest in STEM among female viewers. For 63% of those women surveyed, Scully was the character who clued them in to the importance of STEM work, and 50% said their interest in STEM increased after watching Scully onscreen."

Both of these are great examples of representation.  

One of the characters in the modern fantasy novel I'm currently working on is a trans woman.  I really liked the character's arc, but her story concluded with her becoming possessed and doing something terrible.  Her arc ending that way would be tragic, a great end for any character.  But I wanted to check with someone who had 'skin in the game', which I as poster boy of the patriarchy didn't.  I reached out to a trans friend of mine, Elayne.  She got back to me and said she liked the character's representation and understood the reasons for her to go out that way, but warned me away from that ending.  Her response hit the nail on the head: 

"...there's already a lot of evil, murderous, demonic, possessed, psychotic, broken transgender characters in stories. In my humble opinion, we don't need any more. Not one more..

The world needs more stories about trans people making a difference. Trans people parenting, arguing with their spouse about important things, building structures, leading people, inventing things, and shooting the bad guy, and generally becoming icons that young humans growing up and discovering their identity doesn't match their body...and they can see someone living a life worthy of emulation. 

If, for no other reason that this: write a character that future generations can look back on and hold up as an example."

Needless to say, that character is now in the trenches right alongside the main characters through to the end of the book.  As I was working on the banner for this post I asked Elayne for suggestions for a trans character to use.  I decided to go with Sera From Marvel's “Angela: Asgard's Assassin”, but Elayne had an awesome idea to leave the space blank with text something like "Insert transgender hero character here," to address the fact that there are so few characters like that out there.

It's a challenge to try and see past my own blinders.  It takes work to change how I refer to people.  I have a hell of a time using They/Them pronouns, it's just not something I'm used to.  But I'm putting in the work and making the effort because it's not about me.  And that's a critical piece in all of this.  I care about my friends and others who need and deserve representation, so I do the work for them.  Given the spectrum of experiences they have had, making sure I use the proper pronouns seems a pretty insignificant effort to support them.

On the Writing the Other facebook page, they sum up what I and other writers struggle with.

"Writers know that it’s important to write about characters whose gender, sexual orientation, religion, racial heritage, or other aspect of identity differs from their own. But many are afraid to do so for fear that they will get it wrong–horribly, offensively wrong–and think it is better not even to try."

There is so much more to this than I can get into here.  I'm not an expert on any of it.  I'm just a guy trying to make sense of it for myself and I hope this encourages others to take a hard look for themselves as well.  I would recommend looking at what the folks at Writing the Other have to say, sit in on panels on representation like I did, and all importantly talk to people you know from communities that need representation - Then shut up and listen.  

World Building - You gotta trust yourself.

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I love world building.  I assume that most people who write, run roleplaying games, or tell original stories in any other way do as well.  I've got a drawer full of concepts that are really just about worlds I want to explore.  And for me that's a huge piece of all this, I want to explore these worlds and their people - to tell myself a story.  In the end, hopefully that story will be something other people will want to read/hear/see as well.  But therein lies part the problem.  I've got to trust myself enough to say, "This is pretty cool!  I think other people will think so too!"  

Action scenes are usually what starts the ball rolling for me.  The Æsterverse and 'The Tomahawk Incident' were born from a scene I wrote about a life and death battle between naval ships in a sky filled with churning, supercharged clouds.  The world grew from there, being built to make the things in that initial action sequence possible.  My protagonists were part of the British Admiralty and their attackers were from some unknown faction.  Okay, I've got a world of empires but there are unknown players out there in the darkness somewhere.  There are huge ships suspended in the sky by some force in these clouds - the basics of æster physics were born.  

I don't know if there is a 'right' way to go about world building.  I figure it's as personal as the worlds coming out of it are.  I'm not going to try and imagine what the kinds of things were going on in Frank Herbert's mind when he was creating 'Dune'.  (A favorite book of mine, btw.)  It's easy to see the analogs to the real world in 'Dune', but it's such an iconic universe nowadays it's hard to realize just how groundbreaking it was when it came out.  A book published in 1965 where a huge portion of this epic science fiction universe is run by women?  

Currently there is word that Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario) is set to helm a two film adaptation of the book.  

 

Then there is the film, 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).  Based on the book by Pierre Boulle (Bridge over the River Kwai).  It's certainly dated to our modern sensibilities, but it was mind-bogglingly original when it hit the screen.

 

It takes tremendous trust in oneself to go this far off the reservation.  I mean think about the pitch for 'Planet of the Apes':  "Were gonna put folks in ape suits and toss Charleton Heston in there on an Earth where human beings have devolved to take the place of apes.  Oh, and it all happened because we blew up the world with nukes - Whaddaya think!?"  Yeah, I can imagine that took some meetings to work out.

A lot of worlds we see are derivative.  We see the oft repeated Tolkien model of Elves, Dwarves, Dragons and Mages in books, games and films.  When I compare the 'Lord of the Rings' movies to Guy Ritchie's 'King Arthur: Legend of the Sword', I see similar worlds, but the dynamics in them, political and magical, are vastly different.  Yes, Aragorn and Arthur are both guys who don't want to be King, but the story of their paths to the throne is where the worlds really get fleshed out.  But of course there is that little question of whether Lord of the Rings is itself a retelling of the Arthur story... and round and round and round we go.

But then we've got things like 'The Dark Crystal'.  Here, we've gone -way- outside the norm.  The story elements are age-old, a young person coming of age, etc, but the world is completely unique.  The fracturing of the crystal devastated the world and split a single race into two halves, the Mystics and the Skeksis.  That's pretty cool stuff.       

Years ago when we started building the Rise of Æster world, what would become the Æsterverse, I spent huge amounts of time with one of my friends who is a master of history, politics, natural sciences and how they interact.  Thanks, Jeff!  Because we were building a whole world to tell stories in, we needed to know everything from what governments were doing and why, to how the Earth and its ecosystems responded to the cataclysms that shook it.  Let me add a quick public service announcement here - You don't really get how much of civilization is near the ocean until you introduce a one hundred foot sea level rise... not pretty.  We went into huge detail because that's the kind of nerds we are.  All that work created a foundation that I can now build any kind of stories I want on.  And it's easy for them to be internally consistent.    

World building for fiction is different than it is for something like a role playing game.  I'm using tabletop gaming for the example here.  In an RPG, the players can go haring off in any random direction at any time.  The old adage that 'no plot survives first contact with the players' is an absolute truism.  As a result, the world has to be sufficiently built out for players to be able to do this.  In narrative fiction, the world only exists within the field of view and experience of the Point of View character.  There can be huge holes in the world because the writer controls the PoV.

As I write stories now, I don't go into the level of detail I did when I was creating the Æsterverse.  If it's not within the scope of the character or the story specifically, it doesn't have to be fleshed out - yet.  The world evolves as the story grows.  But as soon as the story touches something there'd better be at least a rough sketch of what's there, otherwise I can end up painting myself into a corner.  

One of my favorite stories about this sort of thing comes from the new Battlestar Galactica series.  In the season two prologue they talk about the Cylons saying, "And they have a plan."  

 

Well, according to one of the producers, there was a day that they all met to start talking about season three and someone asked 'Okay, so what's the Cylon's plan?'  The answer was that no-one had the vaguest idea.  They'd painted themselves into a corner.  A surprisingly common occurrence, even among professionals it seems.

As I said above, I love world building because I want to explore the worlds that I'm creating.  And I think it's critical for writers and storytellers to trust themselves enough to know that if we love the worlds in our heads, others will too.  That doesn't mean there isn't a staggering amount of work that has to happen to bring them into being, but they are uniquely ours, our truest voices speaking to us.  And by exploring those worlds, I believe we find our truest stories.  

 

 

Fearless or Foolish - Why the hell would anyone write anyway?

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I just got another rejection from a publisher for 'Tomahawk Incident' so I thought I'd talk about that this week.  It sucks, we all know it, but it's just a part of the business.  You gotta have thick skin if you're going to be in a creative field.  

My degree is in fine art, sculpture and metal arts.  Like everyone else who has been to art school, I developed that thick skin pretty quickly.  The weekly flagellation of critiques often felt more like abusive, self-serving 'criticisms' from classmates who were just as beat up and overwhelmed as I was.  And  instructor's tirades sometimes felt equally self-serving - less about teaching anything than showing their expertise by tearing their student's work apart.  But in the midst of all that, there were invaluable, useful criticisms.  But I had to have a thick enough skin to hear them among all the other punches coming my way.  

I feel like having a relationship with my writing is kind of like trying to be friends with Deadpool.  He's a mouthy asshole, but you love him anyway.  Sorta...  On some days...  Uhhh..  Well, maybe not the best analogy.  

Writing isn't for the faint of heart.  No creative endeavor is.  It's about putting our heart and soul out there and having other people judge it.  That's tough.  And at each step along the way, some new obstacle seems to sprout up that's purpose built to chuck our self-esteem into the chipper-shredder.

You get your rough draft written, Hooray!  Tens of thousands of hard won words strung together into something that resembles a complete narrative.  Time to celebrate!

Uh, what do you mean the work is just starting?  

Next comes what I refer to the as the 'Machete Edit.'  You (and hopefully someone else who isn't attached to whatever you're wrting the way you are) hack away a third of those hard won words like Paul Bunyan going after them with a chainsaw.  Your novel is a lot tighter after this, but your heart's blood is sprayed everywhere and you feel like the last survivor of a Saw movie. 

Dammit, now there's the first polish edit.  With great crocodile tears you draw your sacrificial sword following the demand of the writing gods - and murder your favorite children.  

What do you mean things don't make sense now because you've cut so much away? 

Words, words, words.... hack, hack hack... Hooray?

Nope.  Over and over, you go on until finally, you have a manuscript you're ready to put out into the world.  You send the precious baby to agents and publishers... What do you mean I have to have a social media presence?  Rejection, rejection, rejection...  Your baby is too fat, too boring, has too many freckles, not enough freckles!

That's the world of writing.  So, while I'm waiting to hear back from more publishers I'm still plowing ahead, working on rough drafts for my next books.  As I look up the broken glass and barbed wire incline of edits, polishing and rejections again, thoughts of red wine and ritual suicide by stale biscotti grow larger in my mind like the brake lights of a semi on an icy road.

After all this, why the hell would someone want to write then?  My answer's pretty simple.

 

I started writing because I enjoy it.  And don't get me wrong, I still do.  I didn't learn the daunting truths about it all until after I was too far down the rabbit hole to turn back.  The reality of writing can be pretty succinctly described by the uplifting title of Steven Pressfield's book 'Nobody wants to read your shit.'  This was very helpful in driving me further toward the precipice of a red wine and stale biscotti apocalypse.

I write because I love writing.  It's not something I can just drop now and say 'Well, that was fun.'  It's part of who I am.  As I proceed down this rocky path, there are new challenges at every turn.  That's part of what makes it compelling - specifically because it isn't easy.  I'm constantly learning and growing, not just as a writer, but  as a person.  You can't throw your heart and soul out onto a hotplate for other people to poke at and not grow from it.  At least I don't think anyone can.

I was reading Tom McAllister's article 'Who Will Buy Your Book?', it's about a challenge I hope to have in the future.  His article talks about the realities of what happens after you're published.  Again, it's pretty stark, but at the end of the day, he hits on the thought I've heard repeated over and over again.  I'm just going to steal his summary because he's not only more eloquent than I am, but he's -actually- published.  

'As a writer, you need to approach every project with the understanding that you’re doing this work for yourself, and everything that happens once it’s in the world is out of your control. Whatever project you’re working on now doesn’t derive value from your friends’ approval, but rather from the love and energy you pour into it. You can do the work, and you can keep showing up, and that’s all you’ve got. Most of the time, it’s all you need.'

Creative endeavors of any kind tend to be a lonely thing.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who sometimes feels like I'm sitting on an island hollering out at the world trying to be heard.  Sometimes people hear, but most often they don't.  And that's okay.  They are busy living their own lives, doing their own things.  That's reality.  I am fortunate enough to have creative friends whose triumphs I get to celebrate, and they celebrate mine.  But at the end of the day, I create for myself.  There is a hope that others will connect to what I write and be interested.  But like Tom says above, once something's out in the world, it's out of your control.  And that's okay too.  

So, for all the creatives out there, I can only give you my support and say, 'We who are about to create salute you!'