I’m just back from an awesome trip to the States, which I’ll blog about very soon. The main reason I was over there was to teach some writing workshops at the annual League of Utah Writers convention. I had such a cool time there, and got some great feedback for the workshops, so I thought I’d post them here in case anyone wants to have a look!
Now obviously I’m still a beginner, and I always feel like a bit of a fraud when I’m standing in front of other writers telling them how I write. I’m certainly not saying that this is the best way of writing, because there is no right or wrong way to tell a story. But these are the things that help me, things I have picked up from other people along the way, and when we teach workshops I guess that’s all we can really hope to do: pass on the things that we have learned. So, here we go!
I’ll post the ‘Writing at the Speed of Life’ workshop today, and the others later on. This was definitely my favourite, because I love writing action scenes!! Oh, and I have split it into two parts because it’s quite long…
Writing at the Speed of Life!
This workshop is all about pacing, especially during action scenes, and I called it ‘Writing at the Speed of Life’ for a couple of reasons. The first is that I want to talk about how your writing should try to imitate the action inside a scene. The second is that I want to talk about ‘living’ rather than plotting – the act of throwing yourself into the story and literally writing it as you live it.
1. Imitative Writing
Writing should aim to imitate the action it is describing, especially during an action scene. You need to throw yourself into the scene – don’t imagine it as an observer, a writer, but as your character. If you’re watching an action sequence in a film you have time to picture the glorious scenery, the impressive explosions, the chorography of the car chase. Because in films you’re an observer, not a participant. But if you are the person inside the story you don’t have any time to appreciate these details because if you stop to admire the scenery you get shot (or run over, or blown up, or bitten by vampires, etc). Likewise you don’t always stop to think about how scared or angry you are in the middle of danger – you don’t do much thinking at all except about how to get out of the situation, how to survive.
Action and danger get the adrenaline pumping, and that tunnels your senses. You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive. Superfluous description and too much emotional detail slows down the scene and also makes it unrealistic for a reader. Trim out everything that feels unnecessary, you want your action scenes to be as sharp as a knife-edge. It also slows down time, allowing you to picture every instant.
When writing these scenes pull the camera in close, rather than looking at the wider picture. Look at details like blood in the mouth, the edge of the blade, the ringing in the ears. These sense details create a feeling of intimacy and urgency. Always write an action scene from inside the head of the character, never just looking on.
Activity: Think of an action scene in your own work, or pick one at random (an attack, a gunfight, a plane crash), and put yourself in a character’s shoes. When all hell is breaking loose around you, what do you really have time to notice? Do you appreciate the fireball and the way it paints the scene gold and sends birds flying into the sky, or does the world just erupt in white heat, pain clawing up your back as you run? Take a few minutes and write a couple of rough paragraphs.
2. Short and Sweet
Cutting out extraneous detail isn’t the only thing you need to do to make your writing mimetic. Sentence structure also changes depending on the action in a scene.
Think about your breathing and your heart rate. If you’re sitting in a café with a friend, having a nice conversation, then your breathing is slow, your heart rate calm. You have time to look around, to take in the details. Everything happens at a nice relaxed pace. When you’re crafting a scene like this, your writing is naturally mimetic – your sentences will be longer, the language more flowery and descriptive, flowing. Your character has time to notice things in more detail, and therefore so do you.
However, if armed robbers suddenly burst into the café and started shooting, or there was an explosion / UFO / werewolf outside the window, or your friend suddenly leapt over the table and started strangling you, then biologically everything changes – your heartbeat goes into overdrive and you claw in short, desperate breaths. Again, your writing should imitate your character’s biological state. Sentences need to be short, punchy, abrupt, even truncated. Your character’s thoughts are broken up by panic and fear, so your sentences can be too. There’s no need to say ‘The boy’s teeth bit down on her skin, working away at her cheek like a bit of old meat, and she could smell her own blood on his breath.’ Cut it down: ‘Teeth in her flesh, ripping, chewing. The stench of blood blasted out of his mouth.’ Those are the things your character would notice, that’s all you need to write – keep everything short, ragged. Use powerful verbs (punched, blasted, ripped – even if those aren’t the physical actions you’re describing, breaths can be punched from lungs, a character can rip herself from her seat etc) and cut any adjectives and adverbs you don’t need (which could be all of them!)
(Note: That isn’t to say you want to race through an action scene – you want the pace of the scene to be fast, but you also want to draw out the action because this is why people are reading your book. They don’t necessarily want the action scenes to be short. Just because you keep the description down and the writing tight doesn’t mean you can’t stretch out the action. Remember, time slows down in an action scene.)
The opposite can also work, though – creating longer sentences that flow in an almost manic way. But even these are broken up by commas into short bursts.
Tip: Use progressive verbs, those that end in ‘-ing’. ‘She pounced, screaming, flailing, pounding at him with bloodied fists.’ Used liberally these give the sense of action happening right now, rather than in the past.
Activity: Look at the action scene you wrote for the last activity, or a scene from your book. What kind of sentences have you used? Are they long, fully formed, descriptive? If so, try chopping them down. Replace commas with periods. Try taking out words, pruning anything that isn’t needed, pare some right down to the bone. Think about the rhythm of the scene, of your character’s breathing and pulse, and take out or change anything that doesn’t match that rhythm. Try writing the next few lines from the scene in a way that imitates physiology.
3. Sentence Structure
It’s also worth taking a quick look at how you structure your sentences, because this can affect the pace of your action scenes. Anything you do that draws a reader’s attention to form rather than content slows the pace of the piece.
Beginnings: Look at the way you start each sentence. Do you usually begin with ‘I’ or ‘He/She’? ‘I walked to the door and turned the handle. I didn’t know what would be inside and I didn’t know if I wanted to find out. I pushed it open. I heard the screams before I saw what lay inside, etc.’ Starting every sentence in the same way is repetitive, and repetition slows down the pace of a piece of writing because a reader feels like they are settling into a pattern, they are conscious of the sound of the writing when they shouldn’t really be aware of the writing at all. Mix it up: ‘The door stood before me. I reached out, the metal handle warm to the touch. It turned easily, like it wanted me to open it, and when the screams slid out from inside I knew why.’ This feels more flowing, you’re less conscious of the structure of the sentence and therefore more immersed in the world of the story.
Repetition: Likewise, look for any writing ‘tics’ that you might have, things that you do over and over again that may pull a reader out of the story by making them focus on the structure of the writing. I have plenty of bad habits, including writing in threes (‘cold and dark and ancient’). If you use these too often they slow down the pace of the writing by drawing attention to it. I’m not saying don’t use them, just don’t overuse them!
Active vs Passive: Keep your sentences active, rather than passive, because active sentences have more movement in them. ‘The door was smashed open by the man outside’ sounds better as ‘the man outside smashed open the door’.
Activity: Look at your action scene and underline sentences that begin the same way, or any writing tics that you may have. Try mixing up the structure of your sentences to see how it changes the pace of the scene.
Click here for Part 2!