How I Approach Complex Action Scenes

In a recent edition of Writers Supporting Writers (, we were discussing a process proposed by a script writer. Overall, our group doesn’t believe in any flat formulae for writing, but there were some merits in the proposal that I could relate to in my own (non-script) writing experience. Specifically, I have a process I will resort to when confronted with a complex action scene, or any scene where I feel a passage isn’t capturing the physical flow of the characters.

Often, when I reach a point where I have multiple characters interacting and moving through a specific location, I will just plow through. However, there are times where I will either be very disappointed with the final product, or I will reach an impasse as I become mired in complexity. When I reach such moments, the first thing I will do is step back and shift into a more visual approach.

Set Your Stage

Step one is to set the stage. I picture the basic elements of the location as best I can in my mind. If I had the ability to draw or rapidly prototype a layout on a PC, I would. The key, at this initial point, is to get a feel for the full space along with the placement of major objects within it. I don’t know. Is this a mental diorama? Whatever, it’s my theater stage. Next step is to place the characters at their starting points. I should point out that this is a broad stroke step. Could there be other characters and/or objects than the primary ones. Sure, but let’s leave them for the retakes and on-the-spot refinements.

Create Your Basic Scenes Based on Points of View

Okay, so our stage is set. Next, we need to create the action scene which will take us from the initial state to the end-goal state – say for example, only two characters who are tied to a post are left with the Ark of the Covenant once again closed. For this task, I’m fortunate to be a very visual thinker. I can play parts of the scene in my mind as if I’m watching a movie; but I’m still going to need to knit those scenes together. So I will focus on the actions from one character’s point of view, then another, and another and so on. I do this until I reach the end state and I know where all of the major players (who have not melted) are, jotting notes and making scribbles along the way so I don’t forget what I envisioned for each.

Now comes the tough part. How do I take these separate threads of sequences and weave them into a single narrative? I struggled with this early on in my writing. Sometimes I’d stumble on a reasonable outcome. However, while the final product may have been better than an earlier draft, it was still clumsy, often unnecessarily descriptive and wordy. What to do? I have an unknown friend to thank, because ages ago someone made a suggestion to me while we were discussing a completely separate topic. It had to ruminate for a while and then resurface long after the suggester had vanished from memory (sorry, unknown person!). The discussion had focused on the difficulty artists encounter in crafting comic books.

Get Out of the Box

Now for those of you who have them, I ask you to temporarily (preferably permanently) place aside your biases regarding comic books. Remember at the heart of it, you have two (at minimum) creatives – a writer and an artist – attempting to tell a visual story within the confines of a physically limited, dialogue-based, episodic format that needs to appeal to the widest range of ages possible. It’s a feat, that when pulled off properly, I am in awe of. Imagine for a moment you are the artist. The writer tells you the scene: Hero A and Hero B are fighting nine thugs in an alley. The writer generally describes the scene and informs you to leverage as many of the physical elements with parkour-based movements. The writer will also provides you with the dialogue as it currently stands. Your job is to translate this information into a set of individual panels which will need to elicit a sense of movement and pacing while fluidly switching focus between Hero A and B as their dialog shifts – preferably all within one page. All of this and you haven’t even factored in your own artistic style and perspectives yet. But this is what they do.

So off I went and purchased a few comic books that had the same characters I enjoyed as a child, but now viewing them from a creative perspective. I didn’t care about the plot. I focused on the scenes involving complex interactions. Sure, there are a number of visual tricks one can employ with panels, but as I stepped back, I could envision how they approached the problem at hand. I’m certain this is how a director’s mind works at the most basic level, but it was quite a useful learning experience for me as a writer of short-stories and novels. I could see how the key points of action were front and center in each panel and how the dialog provided a mechanism, when needed, to move perspective.

Connect the Dots into One Timeline

Returning to my set of threads, I am now able to pick a point on one, connect to a point further along on another and so on until I have a very clear little movie scene in my mind. Yes, many details end up deleted, but that’s a good thing. Remember, you’re trying to take complexity and distill it down to a single simple narrative. Keep those threads handy though, we still have a couple of steps to go, but the more difficult steps are done.

Now, We Can Go Back to Writing

At this point, I have a single visual flow of the scene. Next step, I write it. I have less to describe and less to worry about. Things are happening off-screen, but not the essential, single timeline elements. Once written, I read it through and focus on pacing. Is it still too dense? (Hopefully not) Does it dwell on one moment by zipping past others? I can assure you, with practice you’ll eventually find your first cut lacking these issues. Perhaps, it may be a bit staccato or lacking some punch, but you’re a writer – you’re back in your home element and you have a number of options at hand. You can relook at sections of threads you cut and maybe add one quick back and forth. But most likely, you’ll be looking to fill out your stage elements with additional props. Maybe a falling bowl of petunias can add just the right amount of levity for a comedic scene. Also, the reverse is true. Now that you know the entire mini-movie, you can eliminate anything that doesn’t move the story along and keep the pacing fresh and taut.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned, I don’t do this often – mostly when I’m stuck or tired of cat wrangling my thoughts. There have been times, however, when I employed this technique in an otherwise simple scene. In our video discussion, I brought to mind a short story I had written which had started with a mildly animated scene: a couple were splitting up and having a final discussion which was relatively civilized yet somewhat acrimonious. The two were moving through the rooms of the apartment as the person leaving was collecting the last of her things. On the first write I felt it was significantly lacking in flow and tempo, and that left some of the more humorous dialogue feeling flat. They went from room to room talking until it ended with the apartment door closing. So, I decided to map it out as an action scene. Suddenly, furniture and objects were there to navigate around or manipulate if I needed to. The best part, as the writer, was the last moment as they stood at the open doorway. She made a last check of the items in her bag, offered up some positive words, then left – closing the door behind her. But here was the sweet thing. Now, I had him standing right there, in my mind’s eye, with the room’s entire layout – never described but present if needed – and I had him perform one simple action: he reached up and locked the deadbolt. That moment defined, for me, exactly what was in his mind and changed the tone and actions I had initially planned for him. She was done – that was obviously written – but he was just as done. See, know your stage.

Discovering a Personality

As you may have noticed, I’m not much of a blogger. However, I’ve begun writing a new book – mainly as a distraction from losing two WIPs and trying to reconstruct them (long story I don’t want to go into).

For a while, I’ve been toying with the concept of recasting one of the Greek myths as a comedy. One problem I’ve been having, is trying to frame the core personality of the main character. Most of the secondary characters haven’t been a problem, but the MC – stuck. Usually, my stories start with some conceptualization of a set of characters interacting in a scene. Then I continue to flesh the scene out until I feel I have a strong sense of the personalities. Next step is to find them a high-level plot and setting that suits them (I usually have a few of those knocking around in my head). That’s just how it works for me.

But in this case, I’m working from established material. Figuring out the correct set of personality attributes that will fit the MC and make the story compelling (and/or humorous) can be difficult. So, I resorted to a technique I created a long while back. I take the problematic character, or characters if needed, out of the story and plunk them down into a basic setting which is almost all dialog. Example settings are: buying something in a shop, on a date at a restaurant, in a job interview, explaining a work of art to a friend, etc. I then ‘pants’ the conversation as freely as I can, ignoring spelling, grammar, etc.

It usually takes me only a page before I’m able to stop and speculate on personality attributes. If not, I’ll continue the conversation or, if the thread peters out, start a new scenario. The idea is to listen to your character and look for personality flags.

So here’s my real-life example from what I’m working on right now. Let’s just label my MC as P. I’m trying to figure out P as a child for now. Later I may, or may not, need to do the exercise again with him as an adult. At this point, I start with a basic unfinished statement:

P, as a child, is…

Then I launch the script. In this case, I chose “buying something”. Here’s what I typed freely, warts and all (C is the store clerk):

P: How much is this action figure from Giant Robot Battle?
C: 18.99
P: That’s a lot.
C: That’s the price.
P: I mean, it’s not even the main character.
C: They’re all 18.99. Doesn’t matter which.
P: Did you see the movie?
C: Nope. You gonna buy that or not?
P: I’m thinking it over. Let me ask you. Who do you think would win in a fight? This guy, Mechoman, or Godzilla?
C: Godzilla. So, make up your mind yet?
P: I’m trying to. Why Godzilla?
C: Because he’s Godzilla and I don’t know the other guy. 18.99.
P: It’s a big investment.
C: It’s not an investment, it’s a toy.
P: Well for me it is. I mean, I can buy other things that might keep me interested longer. Do you think they’ll make a sequel?
C: To Godzilla?
P: No. To Giant Robot Battle.
C: I wouldn’t know. Here. Kid. Let me help you with this. Do any of your friends have one of these?
P: Nnnnooo.
C: What would they think if they saw you with this? Would they think you were cool?
P: I dunno. It’s a new movie. I hafta wait until they see it.
C: Then you’re ahead of the curve. You can be the trendsetter.

That’s all I needed. I’ve done this before, so I was picking stuff up in the back of my mind regarding his mindset. I then wrote:

Analysis: thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Put them together and you have:

P as a child is thoughtful, difficult, prone to over-analyzing, and self-conscious.

Now I have something to work with. I might change or add traits, but I have a foundation. In fact, I may opt to make self-conscious a trait which he will need to come to terms with and/or leverage it for comedy. That’s all part of the fun of writing. Will I continue this WIP? I have no idea. It’s still a fresh thought and I need to see how far it will take me.

New Book(s) in the works…

Okay, probably not the best thing to do, while working on one book a couple of weeks ago, I took a little break and then started on another one. Lately, work (yes, the day job I shouldn’t quit) has been a bit over the top, so I haven’t had as much evening/weekend time free as I usually do. However, that should lighten up soon and I’ll get back to the two.

I’m not overly worried, if trying to write both at the same time becomes too much, I’ll just take the time to jot down as many notes as I can and put one on the back burner (maybe not the best spot to place a book though).

One story line follows a team of psychic investigators, who stumble across a very real and dangerous entity. The difficulty in this one, so far, is crafting the comedy, so I have to step back from it often.

The other story line had been a vague notion floating around in my mind for a number of years. It’s my version of the story of The Garden of Eden, and yes, it takes place in the same ‘universe’ of The Devil and the Wolf.

On both I’m only working through the first chapter right now, doing some dialog exercises to get a better feel for the characters and tinkering with a subplot or two.

So that’s what’s what lately.

A Writing Exercise for Characters

Until very recently, I wrote as a hobby distributing my stories (the ones I was happy with) to my friends. However, when I decided to take on something of novel length, I found myself challenged in a number of ways, but foremost had to do with character interaction.

I would say more than 75% of my story ideas initiate with an imagined, comic, interaction between two or three characters. Once that’s established in my mind, I begin to fill in details about them including their current situation, back story, goals, etc. A general sketch was all I needed for short stories and the situation was sufficient to develop the brief plot line needed.

As I wrote my novel, I found myself occasionally unsatisfied with some of the secondary characters rapport. Given that dialog is my favorite thing to write, I found this especially frustrating. So I decided to take the time and create an exercise to help me get to the core of the personalities and how they mixed.

So here’s what I did:
I took them out of the story and dropped them, as it were, into common settings to see how they would get on. Situations such as, cab driver and passenger(s); complaints desk/customer service call, jury deliberation room, Christmas party, anything that would pop into my mind. Off to the side, as a guide, I kept a brief list of character features under each name.

I then just started writing the loose dialog that might occur for any of those situations. Not a lot was necessary. I also didn’t have to care much about identifying who was talking, I knew that. But I did pay attention to possible body language (very important). I just kept it going for maybe a page or so, switched to another scenario and repeated. Some were easy, some weren’t – the difficult ones, I stopped so as not to waste time. The easier ones were usually revealing enough.

This helped me get a firmer footing to develop better dialog within the story. I hope it works for you, if you find yourself in a similar situation.