Friday, April 22, 2011

Mary Connealy on Writing Action Scenes

Today, I’m writing about grinding action to a halt.

An action scene is hard to write, at least for me. I picked a scene from The Husband Tree, which is re-releasing in May in a book called Montana Marriages Trilogy that contains three of my already published books. There is a scene where wolves attack, very tense action scene.

I'm going to use that as an example.

Here’s what I’ve learned about action scenes.

When I first write them they are always wrong. Did you hear that? Always. Always. Always.
I cannot do it right the first time. Admitting that helps me, because a really good action scene always stops me when I’m writing. I start backing up. I revise the chapter before. I maybe go reread my copy of War and Peace, anything to avoid writing the action scene, because I can’t picture it. I can’t get the words right to kick it off. 

Admitting I have a problem is the first step.
Um. . .I didn’t say that first.

I’ve just got to forge ahead and do it WRONG. Then I begin to revise. It’s not uncommon for me to rewrite an action scene ten times. Some of it major rewriting, some minor tweaking. I’ve learned that they always get better on revision. If I rewrite it an eleventh time, it will get better again. You can just keep tweaking, upping the stakes, speeding up the pace, picking stronger words, forever. Eventually I have to call it good, but I definitely don’t call it good at first.

So here’s what I look for.
Short sentences.
No asides.
No interior musing.
NO NO NO NO backstory.
Action, focus, wolves, prowling, tension.

Go look at a scene with a lot of action--I'll add here that comedic action counts, so it’s not just scary action.
Is there backstory in it? This is NOT the time.
Do we pause in the middle of the woman falling out of the tree into the pack of snarling, ravenous wolves for her to ‘regret that she’d never see her children again.’ Okay, you can do that. But SHORT. No lingering. She’s falling. Don’t forget it for a SECOND.
A lot of that you just can’t see on the first pass. So plow forward to get it written, then go back later and fix it.
Here’s an excerpt from the Wolf Attack scene.

      The wolves were closer now, and a chill that had nothing to do with the weather raced up Belle's spine.
      They’d found something for their supper—her.
      With two babies to care for, she ran faster. She saw a lighter area ahead and knew she needed to make that so she could have a field of fire. In the woods, the wolves could be on her before she knew they were coming. She needed to find a tree to climb or a rock wall to cover her back with a good open area in front of her.
      Suddenly the baying of the wolves stopped. She felt the evil in the silence. She knew they were coming.
      Stalking her.
      The heavy shroud of trees thinned and she saw the sky for the first time in a while. There was enough light for her to see a Ponderosa pine with branches low enough to grab ahold. The back of her neck prickled as she waited for the first wolf to pounce.
      She sprinted for the tree. She heard the nearly soundless rush of something behind her and she whirled and stared into wicked yellow eyes and bared fangs already airborne. Her hand was on her pistol. She fired without making a conscious decision to shoot.
      The noise and the smashing bullet knocked the wolf back. Two wolves behind this one whirled back into the cover of the trees, breaking off the attack. Belle saw eyes glowing in the moonlight. Staring at her. Hungry.
      She backed to the tree. Glancing behind her, she holstered her gun and caught the first branch. She swung up. The wolves came at her with a rush. She clung to the branch with her arms and legs. She had surprising speed for a woman with a baby on her chest.
      One of the wolves caught her dangling buffalo robe in his teeth. The weight of the wolf almost knocked her to the ground. Belle knew it was hang on or die and she had the grit to hang on.
I'll make a comment about the TWO BABIES...Belle has just realized she's pregnant. So she's got her one year old strapped on her chest and the second baby she refers to is the one she's carrying inside. (this is a test, a quiet test. I'm giving away a book today, but you'll only know about it if you were brave enough...stubborn enough...gullible read this post all the way to the end-then leave a comment that includes your favorite animal for tearing women limb from limb--in fiction--or whatever)
Okay, I'm back. Any comments? Any dead spots? I see a few.

This sentence: The heavy shroud of trees thinned and she saw the sky for the first time in a while.
I'd rewrite it, my first instinct is to simply drop... 'in a while.' But if it drop it, I might end up rewriting the whole sentence before I'm done, because it's not like it's the first time she's seen the sky, for heaven's sake.
I like the word 'shroud' sounds like a death shroud.

This sentence:
Two wolves behind this one whirled back into the cover of the trees, breaking off the attack.
To me, this is a little slow. Whirling takes a couple of seconds. Why didn't Belle shoot them in those seconds. I should have said: Two more wolves vanished into the cover of the trees, breaking off the attack.
Or wait, maybe: The rest of the pack vanished like ghostly smoke. Belle fired twice more into the underbrush then stopped, afraid to empty her gun.

I want to rewrite both of those sentence again. You can see that what I end up with barely resembles what I've started with. But I need to get the....framework let's say...of the scene written before I can make it MOVE.
You see the tweaking?
I just can't stress enough this

Carve that into your monitor. Well, maybe just write it on a sticky note. Monitors don't really respond well to carving.

Any changes I want to make...too late now. But I can live with that because, like I said, it could always be better.
And, okay, I've never read War and Peace. But I've read Anna Karinina, so I think I've been punished enough.

Mary Connealy writes fun and lively "romantic comedy with cowboys". Deep Trouble, her latest novel released May 2011. She is the author of the successful Lassoed in Texas, Montana Marriages, and Sophie's Daughters series. Her novel Doctor in Petticoats is a finalist for a Rita Awards, her novel Calico Canyon was nominated for a Christy Award and her novel Cowboy Christmas won the Carol Award. She lives on a ranch in eastern Nebraska with her husband, Ivan, and has four grown daughters, two fine sons-in-law and two spectacular grandchildren.


  1. Good morning Mary!
    Every time you discuss these things, I learn something.
    **Skunks... it could be skunks... There's a scene for the imagination - wwhhhhoooooeeeeee...
    This time I picked up on the one word paragraphs. Wow. 3 in a row.
    LOVE that.
    Thanks for sharing the wisdom.
    Might have been tentative, but definitely NOT afraid. ;D
    Have a wonderful Easter!!!

  2. I keep thinking I should write it right the first time.
    Okay, back to rewriting. My heroine has a pistol. She needs something to shoot at other than the hero.

  3. Thank goodness for rewrites when it comes to action scenes! They never come out right the first or fifth time. My timing is always off and I always seem to have too much other stuff going on that get's the ax when I go back through.

    A good piranha attack is always good for ripping a woman apart. But I suppose for a western the grizzly attack in effective.

  4. You reminded me why I hate when writers try to add too much to an action scene. Thanks for your words of wisdom. Mountain lions are always good for tearing someone apart.
    Tonja Frank

  5. great thoughts on action scenes. I really hate it when authors slow down action with long sentences and internal yammering.

    Hmm, tearing a woman limb from limb--my sister shared an excerpt from a book that was poorly edited. So, the hunters were leaving wolf meat out with poison--for the carniverous buffalo.
    so I'd like to see that--carniverous buffalo. :)

  6. poisoned wolf meat? For the buffalo?


  7. Well, I'll have my hands full topping the wolf attack in The Husband Tree. But I've got a runaway stagecoach heading for a cliff in Doctor in Petticoats that was really good.
    And my heroine got shot and fell off a cliff in Wrangler in Petticoats.
    The word cliffhanger.....embrace it!!!

  8. Action scenes are hard. I agree. I tend to draw them out, think that if I write more it will get better. Not! Great post, thanks Cheryl!

  9. Love this post! I've memorized the phrase, "Don't get it right, just get it written." I'm too much of a perfectionista when I write. You are so right. It ALWAYS comes out better after tweaking.

    I'll say the Princess Bride had it going on with carniverous leaches threatening to gobble up Buttercup, but if your thinking a western type animal, wild boars with razor-sharp tusks are definitely a good option--especially an angry Momma sow. Whooie! Also, I remember my great uncle telling stories about how an armadillo could tear a body to shreds given the opportunity. Said they can jump about four feet off the ground from a dead stop. So there you go. Crazy jumping armadillo. LOL! :D

  10. Armadillo? Jump four feet?

    That has given me a visual that I think will be burned into my braind forever, Natalie....thanks for that!!!