Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Writing Action Sequences

Writing Wednesday

In a recent episode of the Writing Excuses podcast, L.E. Modesitt talked about writing action sequences in an episode dedicated to practical fantasy.

Practical fantasy, by the way, means paying attention to the structural relationships in your fantastic world. For example, Lee mentioned a story in which two armies of 10,000 knights each met in battle, and pointed out that in this world it takes 1200 acres (or about 2 square miles) of cultivated land to support a knight and that it would be very difficult to maintain the political cohesion of that much territory with only horse-based transportation. In other words, if your story violates economics as we understand it in this world, then you're going to have to take the time to establish how it works in your world.

1944 USS Mount Hood explodes
You've got similar structural issues with actions sequences. I think of action as the flow and collision of opposing forces. There's a rhythm, pacing, and a certain inexorability to the action sequence. (If not, the characters could simply side-step the unpleasant consequences.)

Lee pointed out that most people don't realize how quickly real action happens; that there's a long wait before something happens, a moment of chaos, and a lot of work afterward to deal with the consequences. He said war is 99% boredom and 1% terror.

Lee also said that big action is made up of smaller action. I was reminded of J. Michael Straczynski's comments about the logic of a space battle between the Narns and the Shadows in Babylon 5. He broke the action down into more or less the following phases:
  • detection,
  • deploy long-range weapons,
  • close to effective range
  • major and minor encounters,
  • break off or destruction
  • aftermath
It's tempting to think about cool action--guys flying through the air, things exploding, etc.--but eye candy, whether in print or on the screen quickly grows tiresome it if doesn't arise from an inevitable underlying structural logic.

Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden /


Scott said...

Good post. This kind of thing bugs me in fantasy. Your last paragraph sums up nicely why Legolas's action scenes in the LOTR movies become annoying quickly. I also like the bit about huge armies.

Another part of practical fantasy: magic. If people can blast walls, or vaporize them (or whatever) with magic, then there'd be no reason to spend the time, effort, and money it takes to build walls. How many cities were built with walls after cannons caught on? If sword wounds could be healed with a touch, people would come up with different weapons. I have nothing against magic, to a point, but I'm not much of a fan of big spells.

Stuff like this that defies logic will quickly turn me off from any fantasy book.

Fantasy has to be based on realism, to a certain extent. If it doesn't come off as real, it's not going to hold my interest.

Paul West said...

I agree with Scott about both fantasy and sci/fi. Both bore me because of a lack of logic in most cases.

I like a good action scene, but like you said, it needs to be based on realistic reasons for the conflict, and the conflict needs to sound realistic - cause action/reaction consequences.

Good post.