Thursday, September 6, 2012

Friday Feedback: Ready, Set, Action!

Hey Friday Feedbackers!
I am definitely not in this position today.

We're having some fun today, all about action -- which is kind of ironic since I pulled my back out on Tuesday and have been the picture of unhappy inaction this week.

But no worries about lame old me . . .  ;)

My friend Ian T. Healy* joins us today in conjunction with the release of his new novel The Archmage ("The would-be Archmage has slain nearly all the magic-users in the world, taking their power for himself. If he succeeds in killing the Lucky Seven’s own mage Stratocaster, the Archmage’s power will become absolute and plunge the world into darkness under his cruel reign. But not if Mustang Sally and the rest of the Just Cause superheroes have anything to say about it. OUT OF TIME Only time will tell if Sally can run fast enough to escape the Archmage’s clutches, fast enough to outwit his evil plan, fast enough to save the world."), book 2 in his Just Cause Universe series.

Ian was with me once before for the launch of his first Just Cause book. He is also the creator of the Writing Better Action Through Cinematic Techniques workshop, which helps writers to improve their action scenes.

So, I asked Ian to share with us his top 5 tips for writing effective action scenes. I must say, I thought these were pretty darn helpful, and one of them even surprised me. I've added a few of my own comments in pink (because I'm a girl, yes, sue me).

See what you think, and if you have an action scene to share today, Ian is your guy! (of course, share any excerpt you want!)

Ian's Top Five Tips for Writing Authentic and Awesome Action:

    1. Set your scene before the action begins.

    -As writers, description is important. But there is a time and a place for everything, and that place is before your action sequence begins. Putting lengthy description into the middle of an action    sequence bogs it down to a standstill.

    2. Pacing, pacing, pacing.

    -Action sequences move at a rapid pace. Think about the great movie action sequences you've seen. Try to duplicate that kind of energy in your writing by keeping things and people moving, reacting, and taking action. Remember that all action scenes have an ultimate goal, like Escape The Bad Guys or Catch The Robbers or Kill The Other Guy Before He Kills You. Your characters should always be working toward that goal. An action scene without a goal is like a fish with a bicycle.

    3. No shaky-cam or jumpcuts

    -It's important to keep your scene flowing from one event to the next. Keep the action centered on one character. Moving your focus between multiple characters makes a scene read as choppy and hard to follow. Imagine if you were a film director and tried to do an action sequence with as few cuts as possible. (Me: this is great advice. I've seen some of my action writers on here make this mistake. Focus on too many characters in the scene, which definitely confuses the reader and slows down the scene!)

    4. Long sentences read faster than short ones.

    -This one is tricky, because it seems to go against common sense. (Me: It does! It does!) But when you read a sentence out loud, the way many people read in their minds, every time you come to a period, you pause. You pause with commas, too, but it doesn't feel as slow. The effect of this in an action scene is that short sentences feel like stuttered pacing - the literary equivalent of the shaky-cam. Longer sentences feel like smooth, fast action, and increase both the pacing of the scene and the tension. Save your short sentences for things that need to be highlighted, or events that might be filmed in slow motion.

    5. Use words that imply motion, movement, and action.

-Don't let your characters walk or crawl or step aside. Instead, make them sprint or scramble or leap clear. Say you had to describe someone going from one end of an obstacle course to the other as fast as possible. You would use words like climb and jump and duck. Now give that person a gun and set up a couple other people shooting at them. That adds a whole new spectrum of potential terms. Don't be afraid to use words that add a sense of energy, excitement, and danger. They're an important part of your writer's toolbox.

So, now that Ian's given you some pointers, are you curious to read an excerpt from him? Okay, well, it's Friday Feedback, so you know the RULES.

Here's a short action scene from early in Ian T. Healy's The Archmage:

Doublecharge had said speed was of the essence, and nobody was faster than Sally.


She ran down the line of guards and pushed clip releases with one hand while she popped the chambered rounds out of the slides with the other. She’d practiced the technique for hours until she could perform it faster than even a seasoned gunman like Jack could pull a trigger.  In spite of her speed, one guard got a surprised round off.  Sally cursed and changed direction instantly, something she could do no matter how fast she was running. She could see the bullet spiraling through the air right toward a hostage. She slapped it aside with one of her horseshoes to send it toward a wall.

She paused in front of the guard who’d fired just long enough to disable his gun and waggle a reproachful finger in his face. Then she sped away and headed for the three villains who held civilian hostages. One of them twitched suddenly in her direction faster than anyone should have been able to with a motion almost a blur even to Sally.

Something wrapped around her legs, constricted, and she skidded hard into a printing press. Her goggles cracked with the impact. At least it wasn’t my skull, she thought in a daze. Blotchy stars danced in her visions from the force of the impact. What the hell was that? She looked down toward her feet. A sinuous ribbon of ruby-colored energy wrapped around her ankles and held them fast. The end of the ribbon curled away to end in the fist of a tall, reedy cowboy with a real soup-strainer of a mustache.
- Ian (& gae)

p.s. If you want to get in touch with Ian you can find him here:

on Twitter as @ianthealy
Author website:


  1. Ha! I have a scene for you! The eyod is the "bad guy". He possesses Barth when Olvir kills his mortal form.

    Lira manages to exorcise that spirit by calling on Barth's God (the Consort).

    Olvir is a fierce warrior who is there to protect Lira (long story... but he's awesome).

    They have been transported to a plane of existence that is out of time compared to the rest of their party. Lira was not initially aware that Olvir was also out of time, and thus able to move.

    As always, it's hard to come into the middle of a scene. Hope this makes a little bit of sense!

    - - - - - - - -

    Lira threw herself to the ground as they eyod made a motion. She rolled to the left and felt a whoosh of air as something streaked past her. Lira rose cautiously, a magical shield in place. She saw a dagger protruding from the eyod’s chest. As the eyod reached to pull the dagger from its flesh, the wound appeared to heal before her very eyes. Olvir was moving, causing Lira to scream in surprise. Her scream made the eyod flinch giving the big man time to grab the little creature, covering its mouth with his hand.

    The eyod bit his hand and Olvir flinch. Lira saw he wore iron gauntlets with the metal now dented around the finger, but the fingers were still intact.

    Lira again tried to fling magic at the eyod and failed. With that nasty laugh, the eyod’s eyes faded and the laugh came from behind Lira. Whirling, Lira saw Barth clumsily unsheathe his weapon. Lira drew her own long dagger and took a defensive stance. Olvir shouted at her. “Expel him Lira… just like Hettie showed you. Do it fast!”

    Lira’s mind went blank as Barth approached her. “Good girl, don’t say a word. I’ve always been fond of you. We could be great together, just take some of the nectar.” Barth scooped something from a crevice in the wall. His offering was a pulsating mass of blue light. Barth’s voice beckoned her, encouraged her to eat.

    Licking her lips, Lira found herself falling under his spell until she was knocked aside by Olvir, his sword bloody. Barth met the attack with grim determination, his body far more coordinated than mere moments before. On her knees, Lira shook her head and finally spoke. “He does not belong to you, leave him.”

    Barth hissed, increasing the intensity of his attack. Olvir hampered by his gauntleted hand, the metal so crunched by the eyod’s teeth, he could barely hold the sword.

    “Bartholomew does not belong to you. He serves the Consort, leave him!” Lira drew breath, wondering if she said the words right. “Prince Bartholomew of the Kingdom of Anderen is claimed by the Consort. Leave him now!” In a rush, Lira said a fourth time, not waiting to see if it was working, “Barth belongs to the Consort! You can’t have him!”

    Screaming the last words Lira saw Barth with a weird double vision. Olvir jumped beyond the reach of his sword as a strange battle occurred just outside their vision. “Please Barth! You cannot let the eyod win! Be Barth! Be my friend. Don’t give in to him!”

    1. Hi Nanette! I could definitely follow the action and things felt like they were moving very quickly in this piece. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Nanette!

    You've got a decent action scene here. You do a great job of keeping the focus on Lira. I had no trouble following the action as you wrote it. I think you could improve the scene a lot overall by paying attention to passive versus active voice and watching out for dangling modifiers (dang those dang danglers!).


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  4. Hi, Nanette,

    agree with Ian (btw, to those stopping by today, Ian may not be able to back here until this evening) that you have a really good scene here and do a great job with the focus staying clear. I also get what he's talking about with the passive voice, so I thought I'd do a mini (and minimal) superspeed flash edit to just the first para. to show any readers who are interested how it can quickly start to make a difference:

    Lira threw herself to the ground as the eyod made a motion. She rolled to the left and felt a whoosh of air as something streaked past her. Lira rose cautiously, a magical shield in place. A dagger protruded from the eyod’s chest. He pulled it from his flesh, and the wound appeared to heal before her eyes. Olvir moved, causing Lira to scream in surprise, which made the eyod flinch and gave the big man time to grab the little creature, covering its mouth with his hand.

  5. And, Nanette, thank you for always playing along here! Looking forward to reading your novel in whole! :)

  6. That's awesome Gae. I Need to do some "book stuff" this weekend. If I don't spend all my "free" time playing stupid games.

    1. Hey, Nanette, It's true it's hard to come in in the middle, but I was part of the suspense right away. I appreciate Ian's advice, too, and now have to look at my own piece to see how the voice plays. I think that's the hardest part to keep consistent, especially when things start happening fast in a scene. I love your descriptive language - I can feel Lira's tension.

  7. Well, another late Friday night post. You've met Thaddeus the dog before. In a quiet historical fiction set in a small town in rural turn of the century eastern Washington State, I found it difficult to think of action, but I share this little piece of a kind of an action scene, quite different from those posted above. Maybe the scene about the secret recipe for invisible ink could be defined more like action, though it is, in some ways, all internal. Does that count too? Anyway, here's what I decided to examine as action today.

    The scene: It's a sleepy evening after a delightful picnic on a hot day.

    Suddenly the stillness was broken by a horrible shrieking sound and Mrs. Wyatt whirled to see Thaddeus running toward her at a full gallop, yipping and crying, with the hen, as usual, on his tail. As he neared, though, he slowed to a crawl and slunk toward her sideways, whimpering. As usual, the chicken played the innocent and turned away.
    Right away Mrs. Wyatt saw that the hen had only laid chase to the dog because he was already running, and now it was clear what from.
    "Sam! Sam, come out here right away!"
    At the sound, Sam and the girls had stopped their conversation and headed for the door,Sam now running toward Mrs. Wyatt at a swift trot, a worried frown on his face.
    "What's the matter, Miz Wyatt?" He called as he neared.
    "Porcupine. That's what Thaddeus has been up to," she spoke authoritatively, "Clara, do you remember where my tools are kept? Fetch me a pair of pliers - no, two pairs, and make it quick. I don't think he'll stand for this long before he tries to bolt, and we've got to work fast before it really starts to swell."
    Sam was stroking the shuddering dog's flank now, murmuring quiet words into his huge floppy ear,"It's all right, boy, we'll take care of you. What were you thinking, you silly animal? Don’tcha know not to tangle with them animals? They may look harmless, but boy oh boy, now you know, don’tcha, boy? It's all right, I promise."
    Sam kept up a quiet stream of comforting sounds as they waited for Clara to bring the pliers.
    Kate asked Mrs. Wyatt if some hot poultices and iodine might be of help, and as she nodded, Kate moved off without another word to gather items with which to clean the wounds, and Edna stood by, ready to hand.
    After what seemed an eternity, Clara appeared with two pairs of pliers and a wire cutter.
    "My Pa had to get quills out of our dog's snout once," she said, "and the only way he could do it was to push them through and cut off the barbs." She shivered at the memory.
    "Yes, we'll see how deep in they are," said Mrs. Wyatt, turning to examine the dog carefully.
    Sam held Thaddeus lightly at the shoulders, peering around to find all the places he'd been struck.
    "Ah, dang, there're some in his muzzle. Not too close to his eyes, but I see some on the top of his head, too," he said gruffly.
    Mrs. Wyatt replied, "Some here on his flank, too. Must have hit him again when he turned to run, looks like. Let's see how deep these are," she set to work with the pliers, working her way across the dog's flank.
    Sam took a firm grip around the dog's shoulders, carefully avoiding his face so as not to touch any of the painful barbs while they worked. They knew they'd have to save the quills in the face for last. The dog would not be willing to let them touch him again for awhile once they started messing with his lips, where some of the nasty barbs were lodged.

    1. Hi Valerie! We actually had a dog attack another dog in our neighborhood over the summer so as I started reading this, I was instantly reminded of that! I think there is a lot of energy and sense of urgency to this piece and I want to read more. The only thing I might rethink would be the dialogue. I wonder if they would speak in such long sentences and so many sentences all together. I feel like their language might be more rushed and less thoughtful. In the moment they might just call out random words or fragments to each other until they calm down and get focused on the work they need to do to help the dog. Just my two cents. :) Thanks for sharing!

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    3. Hi Valerie! This scene really evokes the concern the humans have for the animal, and I really feel for the poor dog. I think the dialogue is fine.

      The only thing I would really change would be to eliminate the word "Suddenly," which is a weak way to start a paragraph.

    4. First of all, hurrah! Now I see it was Valerie with the dog and the hen who reminded me of Margaret and the chicken (a compliment to either -- i love both of your writing!). Ah, this dog and hen make me laugh. Just love them. Poor Thadeus. I'm gonna agree with Ian here and say, I like the dialogue. Because it all comes once the dog has slowed and is being cared for, it's not too wordy for me. In fact, to me, sort of calming, the way people talk through the actions they must take. Having said that, and stating that I do love, love, LOVE this, it would also really shine with another edit. A few examples: why say, "the stillness was broken by a horrible shrieking sound" when you could say, "the stillness was broken by a horrible shriek" (and, agree with Ian -- no sudden! not needed because the writing around it is strong and we feel the sudden!)? or, why say, "Sam was stroking the shuddering dog's flank now, murmuring quiet words into his huge floppy ear," when you could say, "Sam stroked the shuddering dog's flank, murmuring quiet words into his huge, floppy ear..." which gets rid of one of three "ing" words in a row (passive) and since we don't need the now, we can tell in context the sequence of events, etc.? Going through with an edit like that to take out unnecessary extras will really make this writing shine (it's already really so close to there :)).

    5. Oh, thanks much for the helpful comments - I'm glad I keep posting stuff every week, even though it means that I have to go back to rework ...I am determined to take care of those "suddenly" and passive "ing" things. I seem to have loaded up on lots of those strving for my 50K during NaNoWriMo. That isn't a bad thing, but this is a better thing. You are all helping me make this piece clean and so much better! The farther I delve into making it right, the more excited I get. Soon I will be back to working on it in bits at work. First two weeks of school are impossible for that...

  8. I fell asleep early last night! I totally thought about posting Thursday night and then I was going to post instead last night when I got home and then it never happened! Okay, so here's the beginning of my new WIP. I'm super excited by it. There's actually some action in it so I think it works for this. Glad to be back! :)


    If you were at Splashing Waves Waterpark the day after school got out, the wonderful, glorious, splendid, euphoric first day of summer vacation, you probably saw Mary Elizabeth Harmon stick the most textbook perfect backwards two and a half somersaults with two and a half twists in the pike position dive - the hardest dive to perform ever since it was invented in 1998 by Leon Taylor. If you saw Mary Elizabeth Harmon glide into the water with the tiniest splash, then you probably saw her climb out of the water and dump a blue raspberry slushy on my head. And if you saw her dump that freezing sweet drink all over my head, then you probably saw me run for the showers, slip on the wet tile, and wipe out like a cartoon character on a mischievously placed banana peel. If you did see all of this, I’m so sorry. You witnessed the saddest, most humiliating moment of my short twelve-year-old life, maybe even the saddest, most humiliating moment of any twelve-year-old boy’s life.

    But it was worth it because you got to see Mary Elizabeth Harmon dive. Mary Elizabeth had decided to never step foot on a high dive again all because of me and a giant misunderstanding. It’s not easy to admit but it really was all my fault. I couldn’t let her give up on diving though. I was determined to do whatever I could to get her to dive again, even if it meant dying of complete and utter embarrassment.


    1. Okay, Jen, first of all, can I just say again how excited I am that you finished WIP #1, and how excited I am that you are now already diving into (*coughs*) WIP #2?!?!

      Can I also say that, as always, I LOVE your writing and am, as such, already uber excited about this piece.

      Well, I did, and having said that, I also want to say that I was surprised when I got to the part that said this was a 12-yr-old boy and so you are probably going to have to work to differentiate between your amazing "girly" voice we have all grown to love and your "boy" voice. I can't possibly tell you here ideas on how to do it, but because you and I are BFF's now, I would happily give up some minutes to Skype with you. In the meantime, to satisfy my own sheer curiosity, I'm going to play with a superspeed flash edit of a different kind and see if I can replace and/or eliminate a few words that might show a bit how to start moving there (e.g. I know one might exist somewhere, but what 12-yr-old boy, save one that watches Project Runway and listens to Liza sing and, thus, doesn't like girls -- NOT THAT THERE'S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!! -- uses the words splendid and euphoric in the same sentence even in their own heads (and, yes, in a vacuum, I LOVE the sentence and the rhythm and the feeling, but the problem is, it immediately reads feminine). ANY of my readers PLEASE chime in if you disagree. So... let's see if I can play with it the tiniest bit. (next comment). :)

    2. If you were at Splashing Waves Waterpark the day after school got out, the awesome first day of summer vacation, you probably saw Mary Elizabeth Harmon stick a textbook perfect backwards two and a half somersaults with two and a half twists in the pike position dive - the hardest dive since it was invented in 1998 by Leon Taylor. If you saw her enter the water with barely a splash, then you probably saw her climb out of the water and dump a blue raspberry slushy on my head. And if you saw her dump that freezing drink all over my head, then you probably saw me run for the showers, slip on the wet tile, and wipe out like a cartoon dude on a tossed banana peel. If you did see all of this,sorry, since you witnessed the saddest, most pathetic minutes of my short twelve-year-old life, maybe the saddest, most pathetic minutes of any kid's life.

      But it was worth it because you got to see Mary Elizabeth Harmon dive. Mary Elizabeth had decided to never step foot on a high dive again because of me and a giant mess up. It sucks to admit but it really was my fault. And, I couldn’t let her give up on diving. So, I was determined to do what I could to get her to dive again, even if it meant dying of embarrassment.

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  10. Hey, all, will be back soon... on overload due to back setting me, well, um, "back" ;) BUT, Ian just wanted to mention that I think some folks are posting scenes that have some action in them as best they can but they were totally invited to post NON-action scenes... so I think they're playing along with the action thing as best they can within the confines of their WIP's... but may not be presuming their scenes are, in fact, action scenes. Okay, enough from the peanut gallery, I'll be back soon.

  11. Hi Jen!

    I like the rhythmic cadence you establish in the beginning right off the bat with the "If you saw..." I do think you carry it too far though, because you use the word saw/see six times in the first paragraph. If you could cut that down to three usages, I think that would be perfect (the Rule of Three applies not just to comedy, but to regular writing too).

  12. also, apologies, the comments are weirdly out of order, hope you can all follow...

    and Ian, thanks for being here!

    If any of you want more resources for writing action, click on Ian's name and it will take you to his website.

    xox gae