Here’s the second part of the workshop, click here if you missed Part 1!
4. Writing on the Edge
That’s probably enough about the structure of writing, now let’s move onto method. Everybody has a different way of writing a book – some plan everything in meticulous detail before they start their first sentence, others start writing and fly along by the seat of their pants hoping it takes them somewhere good. There is no right or wrong way, but it’s good to try both methods to see which works for you, and there are definite advantages of each when writing action scenes.
Personally, I don’t like to plan my action scenes. I try to live them. I find that if I plan out every detail of an action scene it loses its urgency. I know what’s coming, and so it feels less exciting to write. I worry that readers might sense that events have been preordained, choreographed to perfection, and feel somehow cheated. Also, it’s more exciting for me as a writer to go into an action scene not knowing how it will turn out.
It also goes without saying that you have to know your characters incredibly well
But that’s not saying I want to go into an action scene totally blind, because I could end up floundering. Instead of planning out every detail of the scene in terms of plot, I plan out every detail of the scene in terms of setting and character. Say we’re in a gas station, and a character pulls up on his scooter not knowing that he is ‘infected’ with something that makes everyone want to kill him. I don’t want to choreograph a sequence of events for him – filling his bike with gas / seeing the owner of the petrol station walk towards him looking angry / gets attacked / tries to run away / can’t get his bike started / chased by others etc. If I did that, I’d feel like the character was following my instructions, that maybe he wasn’t acting naturally according to the character traits I had built up for him.
What I’d rather do is picture the scene, get a perfect mental image of the gas station – the forecourt with its four pumps, the sheen of petrol on the concrete, the way the cover overhead plunges the world into shadow even though it is pouring with sunlight beyond, the smell of gas and car fumes and the nearby ocean, the sound of the metal hatches clanging as the bike rolls over them, laughter from nearby, gulls squawking, the vague image of the attendant behind the glass, serving somebody else, with the character’s own reflection laid over him. Before I start writing I try to imagine the scene in as much detail as possible, I want to be utterly immersed in that piece of my story’s world.
(It also goes without saying that you have to know your characters incredibly well – better than you know your partner, your best friends. You have to know instantly what decisions they’d make in any situation, their strengths and weaknesses. If you haven’t taken the time to intimately get to know your main characters, then writing a scene this way won’t work.)
When I feel like I’m right there, inside that world, when I know every sight, every sound, every smell, I start to write. This is what I mean when I say ‘Writing at the Speed of Life’, because for the duration of the scene you are right there with the character. You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know how things are going to turn out. The action starts and you are forced to live it at the speed at which it happens (well, as fast as you can type it anyway!). You don’t act out a rehearsed scene, you react to whatever is happening. The attendant is coming out of the garage, storming towards you with an expression that suggests he wants to execute you on the spot. What do you do? Because you’re writing and thinking at the same time the scene feels more realistic, you might not necessarily make the right choices. You shout out to the man, asking him what’s wrong, even though your instincts are to get on your bike and get out of there. But if you don’t make that decision straight away, and have already started writing something else, then you can’t go back and change it because you’re living out this scene in realtime. By the time you do decide to get on the bike it’s too late, the man has reached you. You have to fight.
I love writing like this because it feels so immediate. When things kick off you act and think the same way your characters do – you know the layout of the garage so you mentally plot your escape route. You know the floor is slippery with petrol so you tread carefully and maybe slip. You can picture the attendant, so when his hands wrap around your throat you are there, inside the story, writing to escape. This isn’t just your book, this is your life. The choices your character makes will be more realistic because they are real – you are making them in the same split-second panic as your character.
Don’t worry about writing something perfect. Don’t worry about spelling and grammar, don’t even worry about the rest of the stuff we have covered today – all of that can be polished and edited later on. Right now all you need to worry about is writing your way out of whatever emergency or danger you have concocted. Of course it doesn’t always work, and you may end up writing your character into a scene they really can’t do anything with (in which case go back and try again). But when it does work you end up with action scenes that are as breathlessly exciting as they are believable.
Activity: Continue with your action scene, or start a new one. Take a few minutes to place yourself inside the scene, really get a feel for it. Then put your character in, kickstart the action, and just write. Really believe that this is life or death for you as well as your character. Write at the speed of life.
I hope that comes in useful!