Writing Excuses 5.30: Writing Action

Dan and Howard are joined by Larry Correia and Robison Wells (Rob is the younger of the Wells brothers), and with the enthusiastic support of a live audience at LTUE they discuss writing action.

Larry’s books are made of action (and no small amount of gunplay.) Howard’s comics feature mercenaries (and sometimes elephants.) Robison’s latest book, Variant, doesn’t have any experienced fighters in it, but the characters still manage to get into action-oriented trouble. Dan’s action scenes are personal, visceral, and confusing. And so we talk about how we do it.

We also talk about how we’ve seen others do it in books and in film. We discuss the scene/sequel format, blocking, and how “write what you know” need not be an obstacle to writing about sword fighting against dragon. Or Howard’s dog.

Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia, narrated by Oliver Wyman

Writing Prompt: Write an action sequence that you can appropriately title “Flaming Slapfight.”

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36 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 5.30: Writing Action”

  1. Don’t rewrite anything just because you didn’t do it like we suggested. Rewrite things based on whether or not they work. Then, once you’re rewriting, feel free to mine our advice for stuff that makes those things work again.

  2. Very informative, the idea of how professionals and ammeters fight is very useful and is like how an ammeter and professional will see things differently. A story I am writing has an ace go up against some rooky pilots, they way I did it was to have the ace go through who he was going to target and how to deal with them then switch to the rookies view and watch how they get taken apart just as the ace had described. Saying that I find it hard to write the ammeter side of a fight as there’s no thought behind it other than Hit! Hit! Hit! I am going to try the writing prompt to see how I get on without the professionals point of view.

  3. It seems that in my writing I’ve done both blow by blow and the what’s in their heads approaches. The better scenes have tended to be the ones focused on the intent of the actions, emotions, or dialog of the fight rather than the individual blows.

    I had a scene in one story that was a sparring match gone bad when our not very skilled heroine’s thoughts shifting from “He’s being really aggressive,” to “I don’t think we’re just sparring anymore,” to “I think he’s really trying to kill me!” Which he was. The feelings of loss of control of the situation and fear mattered far more to the story than whether one was using a straight thrust or a slashing arc and how it was parried.

    Another good podcast guys!

  4. When I write action scenes, in addition to considering what the character would think about the action, I also try to incorporate the “feel” of the combat in the language that I use.

    For example, in the book I’m currently writing, the characters use a very graceful, fluid fighting style. If I were directing the fights in a film, I would want to bring in dance instructors in order to help the actors capture the balletic style that inspired me. In the writing, I’m using longer sentences and wider perspectives that allow my paragraphs to capture a longer period of time as the fights tend to last quite a while and I don’t want to devote pages and pages to each one. I’m not sure if this technique is going to have the effect I’m aiming for, but I think it helps to illustrate my point.

    To contrast, I wrote a short story last year from the perspective of a very focused, jaded, military man. Each of the action scenes used dry, almost clinical language to describe each phase of the fight because the style of combat was meant to be efficient and I didn’t think the character would really dwell on his actions, having been through similar situations on many occasions. I wanted to reflect all that in the style of writing, and not just the events. The result was surprisingly brutal, and I think it worked.

    Nice to hear from Rob again. I just recently re-listened to the Marketing and Branding episodes from Season 1 (or maybe 2) and was very impressed by his comments. Hopefully we can hear from him again soon, yes?

  5. Great episode! I have a lot of fun writing action…for some reason it’s always been easy for me. I like how you guys talk about how an action scene will be experienced differently by different characters…In my current story, almost every character is a highly professional bounty hunter, but I also have one character who can’t tell one end of a gun from the other, so it’s a lot of fun to write scenes where my main character and everyone else know exactly what’s going on while this guy is just blundering cluelessly through and trying desperately not to get conked on the head.

    (Also, wasn’t the writing prompt a “Flailing Slap Fight” rather than a “Flaming Slap Fight”? Though both are pretty awesome.)

  6. @Howard

    I know. It’s just that a) I am rewriting, and b) my action sequences sound a bit…dry. Then again it is a first draft so it needs to be polished.


  7. I heard the advice that you should be writing action the same way you should write sex, and vise versa. In either case it should be more then a blow by blow encounter.

  8. @Elin: That’s an interesting concept, and probably a valid exercise, but I can think of many situations where the action and the sex should be written a lot differently. I suspect it’s going to depend more on the genre than anything else.

  9. Some awesome puns in this thread.

    Excellent point by Howard that different things work depending on the situation and how they’re written. It’s conceivable that one could break every single rule and concept that this show stresses and still create something great.

    If something is bad, it’s because it is bad – not because it broke some unwritten rules of writing.

  10. @Howard: Yeah. As a an advice it is fascinating, and there are similarities. Both are situation where physical actions have a great emotional impact, where each action is reaction depend of interaction with the other partner/s.

  11. @Elin: I wouldn’t say I’ve been consumed by the concept, but I have been wondering what OTHER things might benefit from being written like an action scene. A sex scene certainly qualifies. So might any number of religious rituals — a Japanese tea ceremony, or a Catholic baptism might both be story-important, and want for the same treatment.

    What else?

    Well, once you flip the “story-importance” switch on an activity, all of the blocking, all of the details, all of the things the characters feel about the activity might need to come to the fore. Anything from pouring a bowl of cereal to repairing a radio could be written in such a way as to draw readers deep into the activity, even if they don’t know the first thing about it when opening the book.

    Which brings us back to sex and violence: many of us have extremely limited knowledge of one or the other, if not both, and that shouldn’t hinder our enjoyment of a well-written story.

  12. To illustrate what Howard just said about story-importance of an activity, anybody remember the Captain Crunch eating scene from Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon? It is like 7 pages analyzing the science behind why Captain Crunch is so awesome. Stephenson pulled it off and made it great.

  13. @WEKM –> Yeah, crumbs are going to go in all the wrong places.

    Very good cast this week, and something I should consider while revising my first draft of my novel. There may be a few actions scenes that get punched up from your advice. Thank you.

  14. I’ve often said that the main principles of martial combat are Balance, Economy, Patience, and Advantage. By Advantage, I mean the way that a fight often becomes focused on a key feature of the combatants or the terrain, which leads to one fighter having an important advantage over the other.

    For example, when I was training with the Longsword, I faced an opponent who was in significantly better physical conditioning. This warped the entire fight, forcing me to be on the defense quite often, and requiring me to be careful in my economy of movement so that he expended his energy faster than I did. Likewise, when I fought someone with a Quarterstaff, I had to change my strategy significantly. Things also change when someone has a terrain advantage, or something like that. Fights often revolve around gaining, maintaining, and capitalizing on such advantages.

    Of those four principles, the only one that seems entertaining for me to read is Advantage. These turn into compelling stories of action.

    Example, Indiana Jones fights the big Nazi under the airplane. When we see the huge guy, we know that Indiana isn’t going to be able to fight him the same way, so he has to change his tactics.

  15. This question is out of topic, but I don’t see anywhere else to post. I’m just wondering if you (anyone) have a word to describe someone who writes for fun, or for improving his own writing skills; someone whose writing is not his profession. My friends call me “a writer,” but English is not even my first language. I can’t write a sentence without a mistake. So it’s weird to be called a writer. A writer is meant for someone who knows what he’s doing, right? someone with the command of the language?

  16. @Johnny

    Be willing to accept the title of writer. It doesn’t have to be your “profession”. You don’t need to be getting paid for the work for it to have value to yourself. My early writings were never intended to be submitted for publishing. Only later did I begin to think of publishing any of it. Though I’m not published (yet), I still call myself a writer. You can too. Anyone given the term writer should take it as a compliment and wear it as a badge of honor.

  17. I really liked this podcast and the others on violence and horror. I would like to suggest a topic for a future podcast, and that topic would be: Swashbuckling. You’ve done podcasts on epics, and supernatural, and the future but I don’t think swashbuckling has come up in any of the podcasts. I’ve done some internet searches and most of the either reference pirates, or a ton of Errol Flynn movies.

    On another note, I’m eight hours into the audiobook of Mistborn: The Final Empire (about Chapter 8) and feel that it is a good example of swashbuckling.

    I hope that you will consider this topic for a future podcast.



  18. David:
    If you expect a google search for “swashbuckling” to turn up anything other than pirates and Errol Flynn, you’re probably defining it differently than most of the world. I’m intrigued, though–please elaborate.

  19. @ Dan Wells

    Hi Dan. I guess my definition of swashbuckling is different than much of the world and stems from a few sources, some books, some video games and movies, and my own views drawn from my sources. Let’s start with how I define swashbuckling. I see swashbuckling as the type of story that have characters immersed in their lives, where action is a given (based on profession) or is thrust upon them by outside forces and helps carry the story forward while mixing deeper plot elements into the slower sections.

    I’m not sure if you have heard either the books or the video games, so I’ll start with the books. The two series of books on my list are by R.A. MacAvoy. The first series is called A Trio for Lute and includes the books: Damiano, Damiano’s Lute, and Raphael. The second series The Lens of The World contains the books: The Lens of the World, King of the Dead, and The Belly of the Wolf. Lastly the most famous book that encompasses swashbuckling would be The Three Musketeers by Dumas.

    On the video game side, Falcom’s Ys series is at the forefront of my mind along with Prince of Persia, and The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess.

    Movie wise I’ll start with the Japanese movie series Zatoichi (which follows the adventures of a blind samurai), followed by the anime adaptation of Seven Samurai. Rounding out the foreign films would be Hero, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and the animated epic Princess Mononoke. Rounding out the english language movies would be The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), The Mask of Zorro, Cutthroat Island, and Disney’s animated Robin Hood.

    I hope that gives you a better idea as to what I mean when I say swashbuckling.



  20. define: swashbuckling =>

    Definitions of swashbuckling on the Web:

    * flamboyantly reckless and boastful behavior
    * swaggering: flamboyantly adventurous

    * Swashbuckler or swasher is a term that developed in the 16th century to describe rough, noisy and boastful swordsmen. It is based on a fighting style using a side-sword with a buckler in the off-hand, which was filled with much “swashing and making a noise on the buckler”. …

    * Adventurous, exciting

    * swashbuckler – daredevil: a reckless impetuous irresponsible person

    * Swashbuckler is a romantic adventure film produced in the U.S. by Universal Studios and released in 1976. It is a story that takes place in Jamaica in 1718 about a band of buccaneer pirates, led by Captain “Red” Ned Lynch, pitted against a greedy overlord, evil Lord Durant. …

    * Swashbuckler is a 1982 computer game for the Apple II family of computers, created by Paul Stephenson and published by Datamost.

    * Swashbuckle are an American thrash metal band from Mercer County, New Jersey, formed in 2005. They are currently signed to Nuclear Blast Records. …

    * swashbuckler – A swordsman or fencer, that engages in showy or extravagant sword play; A daring adventurer; A kind of period adventure story with flashy action and lighthearted tone

    * swashbuckler – (The Scarlet Buccaneer ) (Goldstone) (as Janet Barnet); Obsession (De Palma) (as Elizabeth Courtland); Alex and the Gypsy (Love and Other Crimes ) (Korty) (as Maritza)

  21. Hum — does it have to include swords? For example, I could see James Bond as fitting into David’s definition, although most people wouldn’t think of him as a swashbuckler. Or how about The Avengers — John Steed could swash buckles with the best of them, and as for Emma Peel — M. Appeal, by all means! And I am thinking of the original TV series, of course.

    I guess I’m asking how broad this definition is. Characters with action in their lives that drives the plot could cover a lot of ground — thrillers, space opera, mysteries, even quite a bit of epic fantasy could be included in there.

  22. No, swashbuckling can be adapted for modern day and science fiction stories. In fact both Han Solo and Lando (especially in their trilogy of novels set before Star Wars IV) are good examples. Also, parts of Robert Ludlum’s Prometheus Deception would classify as swashbuckling (in my definition).

    Also the romance novel: The Chalice and the Blade contains a fair bit of swashbuckling.



  23. When I think of swashbuckling (and I often do) I think of action that’s quick, light, and fun: heroes swinging from things, peppering enemies with witty banter, and generally causing more of a ruckus than strictly necessary.

    Perhaps it’s an attitude more than anything. To me, swashbuckling is story with confident, skilled heroes who make me laugh and cheer.

  24. Swashbuckling: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

    Props for all the Neal Stephenson references. I love the Snow Crash scene where Hiro’s escaped the tent full of rednecks who want to kill him, hops on his supercharged bike, the rednecks grab their vehicles…
    “and after that, it’s just a chase scene”

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