In a nutshell, this workshop is 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 Mimetic Writing, how the writing should 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.
But I guess I want to start by addressing that idea of life. Writing IS alive. You can see that every time you read a good book. You can see it every time you read a bad book, too. Writing is almost a biological organism. It has a physiology. It has a pulse. It changes its nature in response to what is around it, or at least what story it is telling. And it has to. Any living organism whose physiology isn’t adaptable will perish. It will flatline. A creature unable to quicken its heartbeat and pump adrenaline into its system in times of danger will likely be somebody’s dinner. Likewise something unable to switch off, to relax, to recover, after times of stress will probably find its heart exploding after a few weeks.
Writing cannot be one unchanging heartbeat thudding away in the mind of your reader. It will send them to sleep! Writing has to be that living, breathing thing that adapts and responds to the events of the story. Find this physiology, and your book will be alive.
1. Getting Inside their Heads
Writing should strive to mirror the action it is describing, especially during an action scene. You need to throw yourself into the scene in a physical, emotional and logical way – don’t imagine it as an observer, a writer, but as your character. If you’re watching an action sequence in a film you’re removed form it, and because of this you have time to picture the glorious scenery, the impressive explosions, the chorography of the car chase.
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.
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. Adrenaline slows down time, allowing you to picture every instant. 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 hell is breaking loose all 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. A Story’s Heartbeat
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.
Dust motes drown in sunlight as it streams in through the window, the waitress hides a smile and tucks her hair behind her ear. He sips his coffee slowly blowing steam in lazy spirals while he searches for excuses just to call her over here.
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 – or even if the waitress did come over and start chatting – 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. Blood stench 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. I don’t know how many of you have ever been in a situation where you feel like you have been in danger, but something strange happens to time. It slows down. Again, it’s a physiological thing – everything in your body is working at full capacity, it’s working fast, so you notice more, your reactions take less time, so you draw far more out of every second than you normally would. You want your writing to do the same. 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.
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.
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.