Last month, Dionne Lister and I attended GenreCon in Sydney, Australia. One of the workshops was run by fantasy author Karen Miller (also writing under the pen name K.E. Mills) on character movement and action scenes. 

She explained we are now a culture steeped in visual imagery and story-telling. If you’re a fan of Dickens, Tolkien, or other classic authors, sorry, this doesn’t cut it for the modern audience. Modern fiction has shifted away from that style of story-telling to meet the more visual expectations of the modern reader. As far as visual imagery goes, it’s also worth knowing that people will believe something if they see it, even without explanation, but that in a novel plot holes will be more readily questioned. This explained to me why I’m not able to be as critical of movies as I am of books!

Despite the fact your audience is visual, you can’t just take a fight scene (for example) and transcribe it into words – this will create a boring description which does not in the least engage the reader. Instead, you have to translate what you see into words that create an impression. The scene must be fast enough to ensure the reader is not bored, clear enough so they understand, and real enough they feel they’ve experienced it. 

Relatively speaking, you should incorporate very little actual physical description because this will bore the reader. It’s also unrealistic. When someone is in the middle of action, they can’t and won’t notice everything. At the same time, they can experience time distortion and time will seem to slow down so that person may notice quite a bit in what actually took only a split second. These are qualities you should be sure to note in your fight scenes. 

Action scenes should be anchored through the viewpoint of a particular character to help place the action (unless you’re using omniscient POV, you should be doing this anyway). You should include emotions, thoughts, and sensory impressions of the viewpoint character as to what’s occurring around them. Short, punchy descriptions and verbs will help you to keep the energy going. Choose words that tell us something about the characters, words that make an impact and are energetic. 

It’s very important to get your characters moving even outside of a fight scene or an action sequence. If you don’t, you’ll create a static scene in which people do nothing but talk to each other i.e. talking heads. To avoid this problem, try including body language to bring a scene to life (what Karen called the equivalent of subtitles for books). Not only does this help to define the action, it also helps you to flesh out the characters.

When doing this, try to work out what actions go properly with the dialogue i.e. there may be automatic actions and responses you associate with the dialogue. Think about them and try to identify what they are. You may find there is more than one correct interpretation, in which case you need to decide which is the impression you actually want to convey. This will depend on the plot, the story you want to tell, and the level of conflict you generate. 

While long speeches are uncommon in genre fiction, sometimes characters need to say a lot. If you let one character just ramble on, this can have the same effect as a ‘talking heads’ scenario, and the reader may get bored and wander away. To avoid this, either have the character interrupted a lot, or find the right moment, a lull in the speech, to interrupt and include a physical action on the part of the character. 

Some other words of wisdom from Karen included:

  • Use said almost all the time – it becomes invisible;
  • Dialogue tags like retorted, objected etc. should be used judiciously and ‘he ejaculated’ is not recommended any more;
  • There is a school of thought that it should be clear from the text how the dialogue is presented, but this is not always the case, and then sometimes you may need a descriptor or an adverb – but this should be used carefully;
  • Exclamation marks can be useful, but don’t overuse. Don’t use multiple exclamation marks or exclamation or question mark combinations;
  • Be vigilant about unintended repetition and sentence construction – don’t use repetitive sentence rhythms, as it will put the reader to sleep;
  • Try to give each character their own rhythm and speech patterns (easier said than done!).
  • Including everything slows the pace too much;
  • All you can do is the best job you are capable of at that time, with all the input available to you. You cannot control how the reader will interpret it;
  • Every reader’s view is correct – subjectively speaking;
  • Remember every character is the star of their own show. Give each character a thumb-nail sketch of realness. Don’t ever treat a character as a cardboard cut-out;
  • Use italics to stress a word of dialogue judiciously – only do this when needed to clarify an ambiguous line where it’s important the reader get the correct message;
  • It’s said that you can get the reader across the galaxy, but you can’t get them across the room.

Karen is a brilliant writer, so I strongly recommend taking her advice into consideration. Not only did she read us a fight scene from her draft WIP, which was good enough to turn me green with envy, but I read the book she gave me in two days flat. It’s not often I have the time to do that these days, and when I make the time, you know that book’s got my attention. 

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