Why Action Scenes Are Not About The Action

Yes, you read the title right.

One of the most common assumptions that writers will make is: If I pack my book to bursting with fast-paced action scenes, it’ll be so exciting!

Think of it this way. Have you watched one of those action-packed cheap Hollywood flicks that are just cars exploding and planes exploding and people exploding and everything exploding? I know I have, and I can’t stand those. In fact, there are a lot of things I can’t stand about a lot of movies, but that’s for another time.

“But I love those action flicks!” you exclaim.

That’s great. Now, let me give you a hard dose of reality: 1. Writers are poor(er) and do not have the big budgets that Hollywood directors do for special effects and cool explosions and more explosions; 2. Your book is a book, not a movie. When people read words on the page versus watch scenes on the screen, they are going to be looking for very different elements.

Today’s Iron Rule #1: Action scenes are not about the action; they are about the relationship and character conflict (internal/external/both).

From the big, climactic ones, to the small, throwaway ones — they should all go deeper than the physical need for conflict. The action sequences that sink in and stay with us long after are always a physical manifestation of the protagonist’s conflict with the antagonist. They should reflect a clash in values that transpose into a physical fight. Harry Potter’s fight with Lord Voldemort over the series illustrates this well: Harry represents love, courage, and light, while Lord Voldemort represents hatred and darkness. Therefore, all of Harry’s conflicts with the “Dark Side” represent this — whether he’s fighting against Wormtail, or Bellatrix Lestrange, or any one of the Death Eaters. In its own way, each action sequence is reflective of a clash of values.

We’re going to examine a scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s quite a memorable one, in both the book and the movie. It’s the scene where Bellatrix Lestrange tortures Hermione. And still, to this day, it breaks my heart.

Screen Shot 2017-10-06 at 8.17.29 PM

We already know that, just like Harry and Voldemort, Hermione and Bellatrix fall on polar opposite ends of the spectrum where values in this book are concerned. Hermione stands for courage, kindness, and loyalty. Even more so, she comes from a background ofttimes viewed derogatorily by certain wizards; and despite all that, she rose to become the brightest witch of her age.

And Hermione just so happens to stand for everything that Bellatrix hates. Of all the Death Eaters, Bellatrix is known to show a particular vindictiveness towards Mudbloods. And that’s why this scene is so poignant.

“Take these prisoners down to the cellar, Greyback.”

“Wait,” said Bellatrix sharply. “All except … except for the Mudblood.”

In the book, what ensues is a torture scene that’s not actually written out in detail; it’s only heard from Harry’s and Ron’s perspectives as they’re dragged to the dungeons below.

“What else did you take, what else? ANSWER ME! CRUCIO!”

Hermione’s screams echoed off the walls upstairs, Ron was half sobbing as he pounded the walls with his fists, and Harry, in utter desperation, seized Hagrid’s pouch from around his pouch and groped inside it …

The above is a masterful telling of a scene of conflict and torture that doesn’t actually show the torture. Don’t get me wrong. You definitely need some action sequences in an action scene. But not all of it is going to be, “Ninja hurled a knife at Warrior. Warrior duck; the knife smashed against the wall behind her.” Rowling’s scene above, which doesn’t even show the action sequence, is just as effective. And that brings us to the next Iron Rule.

I’m going to switch gears to another book as we go into the next Iron Rule … but first, here’s a nice gif of Hermione for all of us bookworms and writers out there (because my analysis of that scene made me so sad):

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From thence, we derive Iron Rule #2: The best action sequences have minimal action interwoven into the character/emotional arc.

Make the action scene about dialogue and internal conflict, and punctuate it all with the most poignant action lines. The physical action should reflect the ups and downs of the character’s internal arc, and progress with the shifting dialogue, internal monologue, and dynamics between the two sides of conflict. A great example of this is from a book I recently devoured: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab.

As in Harry Potter, the action scene from Schwab features a protagonist and a (sort of) antagonist that stand for opposite values. Kell, the main character of the series, is a special blood magician (an Antari) who was raised in the palace under the wing of the royal family. He’s had little hardships, he is kind, and generous, and brave, and his thesis is that magic should be treated as an equal, as opposed to a servant. The antagonist (in this scene, at least), Holland, grew up in a world of hardships and bloodshed, where there is no room for kindness or sympathy or forgiveness. His experiences have taught him that magic should be dominated. These conflicting values surface at a very early stage; each time Kell and Holland meet, we see an undertone of their disagreement that ultimately culminates to this kickass fight scene.

“Let me pass,” said Kell. … “Please. … I can end this.”

“Can you?” challenged Holland. “I do not think you have it in you.” His gaze went to Kell’s hand, the dark magic twining around it. “I warned you, magic is not about balance. It is about dominance. You control it, or it controls you.”

The fight starts with the two at a stand-off. Immediately, we see Holland’s thesis laid out very clearly. And the upcoming fight scene is going to be all about that thesis.

Kell’s chest tightened. “I don’t want to fight you, Holland.”

“You do not have a choice.” Holland wore a sharpened ring on one hand and used it now to cut a line across his palm. Blood dripped to the street. “As Isera,” he said softly. Freeze.

The dark drops hit the ground and turned to black ice, shooting forward across the street. Kell tried to step back, but the ice moved too fast, and within seconds he was standing on top of it, fighting for balance.

We see both characters make statements that reflect their values in life. Kell, who has lived a life of kindness and sympathy, does not wish to fight. But Holland has led a harder life that has taught him life is fight or die. And that is clearly reflected in his words: “You do not have a choice.” The subtext reads: I do not have a choice.

Schwab then kicks off the fight with the first beautifully-written action sequence. Note her word choice paints such a distinct picture of Holland: sharpened ringdark dropsblack ice. Holland is sharp, efficient, dangerous, and has grown up with values of a darker world. And his action sequences reflect that.

Even the elements that the two characters choose to fight with reflect their personalities. Holland chooses ice: cold, hard, and sharp ice.

Let’s see what Kell chooses in his next move:

Kell didn’t wait for him to finish. A sudden gust of wind whipped forward, nearly knocking Kell off-balance as it cycloned toward Holland. It surrounded the Antari, swallowing him from sight. The wind whistled, but through it Kell could hear a low, haunting sound. And then he realized it was a laugh.

Holland was laughing.

A moment later, Holland’s blood-streaked hand appeared, parting the cyclone wall … “Air cannot be made sharp,” he chided. “Cannot hurt. Cannot kill. You should choose your elements with more care. Watch.”

Yup, Holland literally said it for us. Kell chooses a softer element, made to defend and slow down, rather than to maim and kill.

Another important aspect to note is the dynamic. It’s clear that Holland has the upper hand right now; between throwing ice and parting cyclones, he even has time to smirk and lecture Kell (in a very condescending [but sexy] manner). And the bits of action that Schwab weaves in between absolutely illustrate the current dynamic. Holland is winning the physical fight, as well as the mental fight.

What happens next is a significant development both in the physical fight and in Kell’s character arc. The entire book shows his internal struggle of using a stone with magic so powerful that it can consume him. Kell feels that pull towards power, but he also tries to stand by his thesis and resist.

The stone against his palm sang with warning, and he barely had time to throw up his hand, the talisman shining in it, and say, “Stop.”

The smoke poured forth and caught the slivers in their path, crushing them to dust. Power shot through Kell with the command, followed instantly by something darker, colder. … He could feel the magic climbing over his skin, and under it, and he willed it to stop, pushed back with all his strength as the smoke dissolved.

Holland was shaking his head. “Go ahead, Kell. Use the stone. It will consume you faster, but you might just win.”

Okay, Holland, stop stealing my thunder. In the above sequence, Kell senses that he is rapidly losing the fight, so he resorts to his last measure — which is one he loathes to use, but is also drawn to use. The magic that the stone possesses is so powerful that it can defeat any and all of his enemies … along with him. And we see this crucial internal conflict in the sentence: “Power shot through Kell with the command, followed instantly by something darker, colder.” He feels the pull of power, yet he also understands that he cannot let the power in this stone consume him — otherwise, he is lost.

And this internal conflict presents itself in this fight, which Holland so cleverly points out: Use the stone. It will consume you faster, but you might just win.

Now, we see Kell’s choice clearly laid out for him. Will he use the stone to win the fight, but lose himself in the process? Or will he risk losing the fight, but save his soul?

That’s where I’m going to leave you, because I don’t want to spoil the ending of the fight, and because everybody should read A Darker Shade of Magic! 😉 But hopefully the above was a good example of our two Iron Rules of the day: Action scenes are a physical manifestation of the relationship or character conflict (internal or external — or, even better, both). And action scenes are not just about the action — the action must follow the arc of the conflict, interwoven between effective dialogue and internal monologue.

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