Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Scene Writing Series, Part IX - Action

By Jax Hunter

Greetings, Campers, this month, we look at writing ACTION.  Hold up there, Hoss! I know some of you are thinking, “I don’t write big action scenes.” The truth is that you probably do, but by ACTION here, I am not talking about the blockbuster action scenes; I’m talking about writing action. 

In The Tools of Screenwriting, authors David Howard and Edward Mabley contrast ACTION and ACTIVITY.

“Action and activity are not interchangeable. . . An activity is anything that a character might be doing in a scene, from knitting to filleting a fish to typing to memorizing song lyrics out loud; this is often called ‘business.’ On the other hand, an action is an activity with a purpose behind it, an activity that furthers a character’s pursuit of an objective."

They go on to say that purposeful activity that expresses emotion (action) must be laid out before a scene is written. 

Novelists too, can make use of this technique in several ways. We can simply jot down the actions on cards for each scene. However, here, I want to point to another technique you may want to try.

When you sit down to write your next scene, write it as a screenplay, but do not write any dialogue. Just list the movement of the actors and brief thoughts and reactions. This will give you a framework upon which you will later add the dialogue and details. If you try it this way, you’ll be focused throughout the process on the action.

By the way, in movies, action is filled with visual elements, things the audience can see. How much more powerful is it for your reader to SEE your hero grip the back of a chair with iron fists, grating his teeth, maybe even throwing the chair through a window, than if we simply hear him speak of his rage. Of course, we need to engage all the senses, but remember that what we see has a greater influence on us than what we hear or smell or feel. 

So, here’s how it can be done (remember, I’m with you on this journey and am NOT the expert here.)

In this scene (from A Good Place to Land), our Heroine, Lily, is working the radios at Search and Rescue Headquarters when she learns that the Hero’s helicopter has gone down.

The screenplay/outline of this scene would look like this:

Lily senses that something is wrong. The team chatter isn’t normal.
She sorts through the recent happenings to pinpoint what’s wrong.
Finally, she radios Daniel to find out.
He stalls her, then asks her to try to reach the helicopter.
That’s when she knows.
She does her job, keeping her reaction to the facts muted.

It’s nearly impossible to list actions devoid of the emotions that both caused the action and then came as a result of the action. So those are listed as well, with no real detail and certainly no backstory. That will all come as you take this outline and write the scene. That is when you’ll put in all the details we’ve talked about. And, of course, you’ll add the actual dialogue. Having this tool ahead of time, though, will help you stay on target for the scene. 

Here’s what the actual scene looked like:

            Tucked back in the radio room at the SAR building, Lily Atherton could tell something was wrong.  She’d been running the SAR communications for long enough that she knew most of the voices by heart.  With Daniel, she could pick up on the subtleties of his moods.
            Everything was okay just a few minutes ago.  The Colonel had dropped off two PJ’s - Nic D’Onofrio and, she thought, Matt Wiley - along with a Stokes litter.  One of her guys had reported the chopper away after the drop.
            Then there was chatter, they were talking to each other, not to her.
            Something was wrong but they weren’t saying what.
            “901, Search Base, status,” her way of finding out.
             “Yeah, Search Base, stand by one,” Daniel responded, his voice tight with tension.
            Seconds, maybe even minutes ticked by. 
            “Search Base, 901.”
            “Go, 901,” Lily tried to keep her voice smooth, calm.  It was an exercised skill and, over the last year and a half, she’d had more than a few opportunities to practice.
            “Base, please see if you can reach Zero Eight on our frequencies.”
            Her stomach clenched.  Reach the bird?  That didn’t sound good.
             “Air Force Rescue Zero Eight, this is Search Base on MRA channel one.”
            She repeated the plea twice on each of three Mountain Rescue Association frequencies.  She even tried on National Law frequency.
            “901, Search Base, negative contact with Zero Eight.  Do I need to contact the RCC?”
            The Rescue Coordination Center was the military equivalent of her office there.  A sharp dread settled in her heart as she waited for Daniel’s answer.
            Rick McIntyre was flying that chopper.

Remember that actions devoid of emotion are simply activity. We want to limit activity, if possible. Of course, we also want to avoid talking heads. There will be times when you must use activity within a scene to do so. However, if you can load that activity with emotion, your writing will be much better. 

Next month we’ll go into greater depth on dialogue. 

In the meantime, try this technique and feel free to let me know how it worked. 

Until next month, when we take a look at set dressing, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).

Jax (
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)

About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.

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