Monday, October 27, 2014

Adding Action Scenes

Back in July, I compared a book's pacing to a first kiss.  Pacing builds tension, but at some point that tension either needs to be eased or broken.  When writers set out to do either, it is usually to settle some sort of conflict and this could lead to a physical altercation between characters or groups within a story.  While there might be some ways to keep the kissing analogy to explain my thoughts on action scenes, I'm trying to keep it relatively clean here.  Yet, you may recall that I also explained that pacing serves as the fabric of the story that weaves characters and plot together.  Similarly, if pacing is the cloth of your tale's tapestry, then the action sequences are the highlight scenes that may mark the rise and fall of certain characters or subplots.  

Tension is important in almost all forms of storytelling.  It is what gets us cheering on the heroes and nervous about the machinations of the villains.  Again, at some point that tension has to get resolved.  If you consider the horror genre, the point of most horror movies and books is to get and keep the reader/watcher on the edge of their seat.  These books/films have to constantly stoke fear and nervousness in the reader/viewer as part of their hook.  Even so, even die hard fans of the genre don't want to be kept on pins and needles indefinitely.  Something has to happen: either the main character triumphs and gets away, or the monsters/murderer claims a new victim.  Either way, the audience is given that opportunity to release some sort of emotion that has been building up throughout the story.  

The action scene, then, has a lot of heavy lifting to do in order to give the reader some sort of satisfaction.  It can be difficult to properly tailor the action scene to fit with the book.  Wait?  What?  Stay with me for a moment, as I know what I just said sounds ridiculous.  The danger of adding an action scene, let alone multiple action scenes (as a sort of pressure valve),  is that there can be a disconnect between the pacing and the action itself.  Put another way, it's easy to get lost in the forest while crafting effective tension only to bolt from the path to get to the first clearing (i.e. the action sequence).  As exciting as writing action scenes are, writers have to be disciplined (easier said than done).  First, there needs to be some sort of logical connection between the pacing that immediately precedes the action/combat scene.  Second, the "laws" that the writer has established throughout the story must continue to be enforced during the action scene.  

Keeping a logical connection between the pacing and the action scene means avoiding the temptation of throwing some action for the sake of spicing up the story.  The effect of throwing in a fight scene or chase scene without giving it a logical connection to the story can seriously water down, or even derail, the overall plot.  Put another way, if the previous sections of your book have established good tension such that it causes your readers to willingly suspend their sense of disbelief, do you really want to ruin the spell you've woven by throwing in a fight scene just because you can?  It waters down your writing and, more importantly, it cheapens the experience for your readers.  With all of that said, random acts of violence or unexpected events do happen.  If you are intentionally trying to keep the reader guessing or simply don't want them to know what's coming, you may want to consider telling the entire story from the first person perspective of only one or two characters to control how much information the receive receives.  Even so, you'll either want to drop a hint before the action starts that the character misses, or work in an explanation as to why things went the way that they did that caused the action scene.  

Throughout the book, the writer ends up setting the table in terms of the "laws" that govern the world in which the story is set.  Tales taking place in space mean that oxygen and gravity are in scarce supply.  So a gun fight taking place on a star ship or space station can be catastrophic for all involved if a stray bullet results in explosive decompression.  Likewise, urban fantasy tales involving supernatural beings existing in the modern world will have to explain how such creatures manage to exist under humanity's very nose.  I call this the "Christopher Nolan approach" (due to the director's explanation as to how he set about creating his take on Gotham and characters of the recent Batman trilogy). This means grounding your world in some sense of reality that your readers either can, or are willing, to accept.  The same holds true for the combat/action sequences.  In the case of the gunfight in space that I mentioned, some writers have "developed" specialized weapons that damage tissue, however, it won't destroy/damage non-living matter.  Likewise, action scenes involving supernatural monsters may want to highlight the kind of camouflage ambush hunting styles of certain creatures in nature as an explanation on how such creatures can exist in the modern world.  In either example, the rules shape how the action plays out and, when done correctly, should flow seamlessly with the first rule mentioned above.  Sometimes the rules can, and even should, be broken.  Yet, as crazy as it sounds, there has to be some sort of logic (or even a rule) as to how and when the rules can be broken.  

Action scenes can help further the story and introduce memorable plot twists.  They shouldn't be used where they detract from or fail to advance the story.  Likewise, the action should make sense and be grounded in the same reality that the writer has developed in their story.  Any genre can benefit from an action scene, as there are multiple ways of introducing exciting sequences that aren't related to fights or car chases.  

For readers, what are your thoughts on what goes makes a good action scene in a novel?  To my fellow authors, what has been your biggest struggle with action/combat scenes?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Creating Believable Characters: Silence the Stereotypes

Stereotypes are everywhere.  No matter how well read, open minded or educated (street smarts included) an author may be, they are bound to encounter stereotypes.  They are everywhere: TV, radio, movies, and even literature.  Don't get me wrong, they actually do have their place (more on that later and for another post), yet to create a believable character, writers have to shrug off the temptation to resort to stereotypes.

Last week I spent the better part of four days in trial.  The reasons or facts behind the trial itself aren't important, the people who ultimately played a vital role in the process - the jury - were the ones who really mattered.  Some attorneys hate the jury selection process, whereas I find the whole thing very fascinating.  When it's done right, you transform thirty reluctant souls who would do anything to be anywhere else into more than two dozen people who end up sharing their life story in varying degrees of willingness.  The things you can learn from listening to the trials and triumphs of others not only puts life into perspective, it shaves away at the preconceived notions you may have had at the beginning of the conversation.  

As an example, we tend to look at older men and women as falling into one or two stereotypes: either kindly grandparents, or bitter grumps waiting for the grim reaper.  Certain these types of people exist; however, there are a number of folks that fit into the middle of the spectrum.  How much more interesting does that silver haired older man become when we find out that he goes surfing every chance he gets and has embraced a "beach" lifestyle?  This, naturally, raises questions about whether he's lived on or near the beach his whole life, or is he a retiree that's always dreamed of living near the water.  Also, just how far does this particular person take the lifestyle: is he conservative or a liberal; does he drive around in a scooter or a luxury SUV; and is he still married to his high school sweetheart, or dating a new and younger woman every month?  Regardless, from a writing perspective a character with this back story has now become more three dimensional, and possibly more interesting/memorable to readers.  

One of the other interesting takeaways from last week's trial was that appearances can be deceiving.  This is another reason to break stereotypes.  People who appear to be in their late thirties or early forties might be much older.  Hair coloring products aren't the only trick in the book, though some people eschew plastic surgery and seem to get amazing results with healthy eating and exercise.  Likewise, someone who seems young and inexperienced may have walked down different roads that we'd expect from someone ten years older.  This may come in the form of a young twenty-something woman who is struggling to keep a roof over her head, while caring for her mother after a debilitating stroke or injury.  Did she give up a better paying job in order to have flexible hours to take care of her mom?  Did her mother get sick or hurt early on such that her daughter never really had much of a chance to build up a career or income?  More importantly, how have these struggles affected the daughter and her outlook on life?  As I learned from last week's jury selection process, family member care giving seems to exact a heavy toll regardless of the care giver's age.  You may have noticed by now that I haven't mentioned race as a component for any of the above examples.  This is because none of the above are exclusive to any particular race or ethnic group.  The same can be said for gender, which tends to foster its own stereotypes to the detriment of both characters and readers.

When I wrote "Of Murder and Monsters," I wanted to throw out some of the stereotypes that are usually associated with Hispanic characters.  Sean Valdez doesn't speak with an accent, and doesn't have a perfect tan or dark features.  He's not living high on the hog, or getting by in a run down neighborhood.  While he's going through marital problems, infidelity, a wandering eye or machismo bordering on abuse are not the roots of his marriage woes.  While any of the above stereotypes could serve as subplot fodder, they also tend to have a watered down affect on the character.  Doing so makes your main and supporting characters predictable, flat and boring, which in turn will likely have a negative impact on your story.  By casting aside the stereotypes, you free your characters to do the heavy lifting that needed in order to move the plot and help you tell a believable tale.