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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Pen. Paper. Action!

Hi I'm Melissa Dawn Harte.
Just call me Miss Adventure. As you can tell, I was the tomboy following my brother and his friends around while they played. I had my helm, the jersey was my armor and the fly swatter was my sword. I love a good adventure like Pirates of the Caribbean or National Treasure. Some of the classic adventures will stay with me forever, like Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone. I remember I wanted to be just like Indiana Jones!

Books have a way of bringing that excitement to our fingertips. Written well, they can bring you inside the action, up close and personal, zooming the camera in so close that we can hear the panting breath in our ears, the clang of swords and thunder of the storm as it rolls across the sky. We can see the fear in a character’s eyes as sweat pops up across their brow only to trickle down the temple to the chin. We can even feel the cold blade as the villain runs the dagger across our hero’s neck.

One of my biggest pet peeves in a book is when the author sets up an action scene only to ruin it for me. I will then take said book and fling it across the room. So I’ve made up a little list for you: How to ruin an action scene in ten ways.

10. Dumping back-story into an action scene. Nothing infuriates the reader more than when an author decides to dump a ton of back-story into an action scene after setting them up for a great adventure. They’re ready for the chest heaving, sweaty palms, edge of your seat action and everything comes to a complete halt because you have to describe why cousin Joe hates aunt Helga and has decided to make a scene at the dinner party. We want to see the fight! We want to see Cousin Joe drop Aunt Helga on her tush in the middle of the pea soup, not listen to how the feud started ten years before because Aunt Helga snubbed Joe at his own wedding. Take the time in the previous chapter to set up the necessary information drops ahead of time so that when the ball gets rolling, there’s nothing to stop its descent.

9. Slapping a ton of description in an action scene. What?? I don’t want to see how long and flowy the heroine’s hair is billowing about her shoulders while the action is on ship’s deck and the hero’s pinned down next to the main mast fighting three foes at once! Give me action or give me death! Keep the long descriptions to the appropriate scenes like love scenes.

8. Shorter sentences! This is the time in your story when you can clip your sentences in half and get away with it! Nothing is more exciting than seeing short clipped sentences that say more with two words than you could with ten. Shock the heck out of the reader and get her to sit up straight, hold her breath and make her heart race. Now that’s action.

7. Shorter paragraphs! Action is all about pacing and to keep up a fast pace you not only need to shorten your sentences but shorten your paragraphs as well. Now is not the time to insert flowery prose.

6. Stronger verbs! I cannot abide someone who will use the word hit when strike or pound would paint the picture so much better.

5. Use your senses but use them wisely, young padawan. Know when your character would hear something, don’t just randomly insert sounds or smells. Make each sense count! It should make the scene clearer, and keep the action moving forward.

4. POV! I cannot tell you how many books I have read and thought to myself, this scene would’ve been much better in the other character’s pov. Make the pov count. Stick the character with the most to lose right smack dab in the middle of the action and let him/her react to it.

3. Realism! Biggie with me. One of my favorite authors would have to be Marsha Canham. She writes it like it is. You see the blood splatter! You feel the tear of the flesh, the sting of the eyes. Don’t be afraid to GET REAL.

2. Keep it simple, stupid! Don’t try to write difficult un-choreographed scenes without first reading it out loud. If it doesn’t make sense to you, chances are it’s not going to make sense to the reader either. So keep it simple.

And my number one reason for flinging a book across the room during an action scene has to be this:

1. Know your research! Please, please, please get your research right on weapons, ships and battles. It is so frustrating when you, the reader, know something the author didn’t bother to look up. How many times have you read something and thought to yourself, this person has no clue what they're talking about. So take the time to learn what the difference between a flail and a Morningstar is. Take the time to learn the battle strategies of the era and exactly when each weapon would be used and by whom. Foot soldiers more often used pole arms and knights were mounted with broadswords. During the middle ages a man’s weapon often signified his rank. Keep that in mind as you outfit your characters.

So there you are, How to ruin an action scene in ten ways. If you keep to these basic outlines during action scenes and do your homework, you will find them easier and easier to write. Now, ask me about how to write a love scene and I'm lost. I believe I’ll leave that one to some of the other ladies.

So tell me what can completely ruin a book for you?

Miss Adventure


  1. Excellent lesson on action. I feel like I need to go back and read the scenes I've written to see if they work and I will probably want to rewrite them. What ruins a book for me is historical inaccuracy. Oh, I think I know what my next post may be about :).

  2. Wow! I love you blog today, Miss Adventure. What great information and definitely things I will keep in mind when writing action scenes, which I'm finding I do more and more. What ruins a scene for me? I hate head-hopping. For one thing, it gets confusing, but the other thing is I don't become fully invested with one character. I want to feel what that character is feeling.

  3. I completely agree Amy, historical inaccuracy drives me crazy. I remember how much head hopping I did in my first few stories, lol, as you can attest to Samatha but you're right it makes me nuts now. You'll have to blog one day about investing in the character, I think that may be one of my faults. And you do it so beautifully too.

  4. Great post, Melissa! I agree with Amy...I may have to go back to some of my own action scenes and make sure they won't make someone like you want to throw the book across the room. LOL!

    I'm personally fairly forgiving when I'm reading a novel, but one thing that will make me stop reading is when a book is cliche and predictable. I find this mostly with debut authors and that's too bad, because it makes me not want to purchase their subsequent books. So I think I'll stop buying people's debut novels and just wait for #2. LOL!

  5. LOL Jerrica! I hope that doesn't apply to the present company lol. I have to agree with you though. There are very few unique plotlines yet but there are a dozen different ways to twist a story and make it unique. Thanks for commenting Ladies!

  6. This is a great blog! I love this!!! It puts me in the mood to write now! WOO-HOO!


  7. Great post! I loved it, and although I hate to admit, I may have learned something. I have to go back through my manuscript and check.

    What spoils a book for me...and it's something so simple and perhaps just a pet peeve...word echoes. I hate reading the same word over and over. I read a book by a mainstream author not long ago, and if she said, "he muttered an oath," once, she said it a hundred times. OMG, we have an extensive vocabulary...use it! For example, a ship can also be a vessel, a frigate (type), so you don't have to keep using ship three times in the same paragraph. Shows a lack of imagination and knowledge to me. Of course, I still repeat words, but thanks to my great critique partners, you'd never know it. :)

  8. Thanks Marie, glad I could help lol. Now if only it would put me in the mood to write...

    Oh Ginger, I have to agree with you on that. I'm certain I repeat words but that's really what the editing process is for. You completely made my day by saying that you learned something new. I think when we stop learning new things is the day we should hang up our craft, it would get too boring otherwise. And we have such a wonderful community of women in the romance genre who're more than happy to pass on thier knowledge. Even after fifteen years of writing I still have so much to learn and I more than look forward to it.

  9. Exellent post! Thank you Ginger for passing this on. I think what bothers me the most is too much description. I dont want the whole picture painted for me. I want to use my imagination and let it run wild!

  10. That is such a great list Melissa - might just have to print that out!

  11. I agree with Candace. I hate to be bogged down with too much description.