The Action

Fury of Achilles  by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737), Hermitage Museum. Source:  Wikipedia

Fury of Achilles by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1737), Hermitage Museum. Source: Wikipedia

A good thriller needs some good action. Different authors have different ways of doing this. This post is about how I do it. Let’s start with this:  

That was Gerard Butler from Olympus Has Fallen directed by Antoine Fuqua (2013). So how does an author turn that scene into words and put them on a page? Well, the author doesn’t do that, and nor should the author try.

Film is a visual spectacle. It begins with words on a page that becomes a director’s vision. This is what we see on the screen.

I wouldn’t bother trying to render this scene into words. Reverse-engineering like that can get very wordy very quickly and will rarely recreate the scene. Instead, the goal is to find the arrangement of words that stir the images in the mind of the reader and create a scene for them. These are the things that I think about when I do that:

  1. Use short and powerful words and active verbs. Some verbs are so evocative that they’re worth one hundred adjectives. Succinct sentences are best, but varying the length will prevent monotony. It is better to say that a good guy threw a bad guy to the ground than describing the precise grappling technique move by move. Keep it short, sharp, and shit-hot.
  2. Spies and soldiers don’t prolong fights. Films love the visual spectacle and directors will drag out fight scenes for quite a bit as an indulgence. However, in real life, the goal is to get the other guy on the ground as quickly as possible and ensure he won’t get up again. It’s quick, it’s violent, and it’s merciless.
  3. Violence, by its nature, is brutal. A man or woman desperately attempting to preserve their life will use whatever is to hand: a sharp stick, a blunt object, a bottle, anything. This makes things interesting.
  4. When a firearm functions, the trigger releases a mechanism that hits a firing pin that strikes the base of a round, igniting a primer charge. The sudden expansion of gas fires the projectile through the barrel, the rifling in which imparts a spinning motion along the projectile’s axis to stabilise its trajectory. Meanwhile, some of the gas is preserved and moves the bolt to the rear against spring pressure, ejecting the spent round, before the spring moves the bolt forward, collecting another round from the magazine and shoving it into the chamber, ready for firing. Lots of weapons function in this way but none of it is relevant to the stories I write. To paraphrase Tolstoy: all functioning firearms are alike; each dysfunctional firearm is dysfunctional in its own way. That is, a firearm fundamentally works as I’ve describe above. But, when it goes wrong, each firearm goes wrong in its own way. Some weapons are too heavy, clumsy, seize when dirty, fire underwater (or don’t), get hot too quickly, or lack stopping power. I could go on. But if it doesn’t aid the story, what’s the point? Some thriller writers like to describe the technical details of the firearms wielded by the characters in their story. That’s their prerogative. Personally, I find it slows down the story, makes it harder to read, and rarely adds anything of value to the stories I tell.
  5. See how wordy the last paragraph was?
  6. Still, it’s important to know the difference between a pistol, an assault rifle, and a machine gun. Point of note: your hero or her enemy will rarely use a machine gun unless it’s mounted on a tripod. Shotguns and sniper rifles should be called shotguns and sniper rifles. Readers can conjure a picture from that fundamental description. 
  7. All of us are subject to the laws of physics. If a story is set in our universe, the characters must be subject to those same laws. Therefore, it’s important to understand the laws of physics.
  8. Most things are not bullet proof. That includes trees, cars, brick walls, and doors. However, shooting a bullet through any medium, including windows, will alter its trajectory. A bullet will slow down (a lot) when it hits water.
  9. Characters can not shrug off a bullet wound. Getting shot shatters bones, destroys organs, and there is often a lot of blood. Exit wounds are big.
  10. The human body is surprisingly resilient and can sometimes cope with a lot of damage before it surrenders completely.
  11. If point 9 and 10 seem contradictory, let me explain: if a character is a professional killer and an expert marksman (because I say so), then his shots will often be fatal (I say 'often' because not everyone who gets shot actually dies). Meanwhile, amateur shooters will often be off the mark, and that’s when point 10 comes into play.
  12. If your good guy is going to shoot, hitting the bad guy in the chest is easier than hitting him in the head (or arm or leg). The term taught is ‘centre of seen mass’ and aiming for this increases the chances of hitting the target.
  13. Shooting fuel tanks does not cause them to explode. Shooting locks is not a good idea. I don’t know why anyone would try to break chains with bullets. I swear I will never write any of these.
  14. I’ve never heard of anyone actually snapping a neck with their bare hands. I read an account once about a soldier who tried it and ended up tearing the muscles of his enemy. There was a lot of pain and lots of screaming, so not the silent death the soldier was hoping for. Anyway, there are lots of cooler ways to kill off bad guys and this one has been overdone.
  15. Finally, only use one-liners if it suits the character. If they’re going to be used, they better be good. And original.

There are lots of other little things I think about when I write action scenes but these are the ones I think about often. To me, violating these rules (without good reason) is just laziness on my part. Following these rules encourages me to get creative and has led to some great writing. And, if you're wondering, there is only one way to find out if I live up to my own rules - click here.