Thursday, May 29, 2008

Action Scenes

One of my e-mail lists had a recent thread on writing action scenes. That’s one of the most difficult parts of fiction writing for me, partly (I’m sure) because I don’t especially like reading or watching them. It takes a highly skilled author to compose an action scene that won’t confuse me, so I tend to skim such passages to find out who won the fight and let the details drift past unheeded. While watching a TV show, I use the action scenes as an opportunity to read a few pages of a book. Yet it’s clear that a suspenseful narrative almost has to include one or more chase or fight sequences, so I can’t avoid writing them sometimes. One suggestion from the person conducting the workshop on the e-mail list struck me as particularly useful: Write out the whole sequence of actions in painstaking detail first, then trim the passage to a fast-moving narrative that will sweep the reader along; that way, you can be sure you haven’t missed any important points. Another often-recommended technique is to act out the movements physically to get a feel for them and catch any awkwardness or downright impossibility.

In my own fiction, human characters often have to fight against paranormal creatures with superhuman physical strength as well as unusual powers. If the story requires the human hero to overcome or at least escape alive from the vampire or werewolf, how can he or she plausibly accomplish this goal? It helps if the nonhuman character has well-defined weaknesses, and the hero or heroine needs a reasonable way of knowing these weaknesses and being able to take advantage of them.

My first vampire novel, DARK CHANGELING, featured a vampire-human hybrid protagonist, a human female he’s in love with, and a fullblooded vampire antagonist. Relatively early in the story, the hero, Roger, clashes face to face with the villain for the first time. It’s far too early for a decisive combat. The scene has the goal of making the renegade vampire’s villainy and powers clear, while pushing the relationship between Roger and the heroine, Britt, to the next level. Roger’s knowledge of his own kind, to this point, is largely theoretical. Britt has never seen a vampire before, yet she needs to escape largely unscathed from the creature’s clutches. Luckily, being quick-witted, she realizes that although Roger is a vampire, too, he has her welfare at heart. Here’s how the confrontation concludes in the published novel. (Volnar is the elder who taught Roger what little he knows about their species; Sylvia is the only other vampire he’s met.)

His right hand still lingering on her neck, Sandor said, "Now that we're more comfortable, we can have a little refreshment and talk over our differences."
Britt's face lit up with amazement that momentarily canceled her fear. If they ever got out of this, Roger didn't know how he could possibly deal with her. "Look, Sandor, I don't want --"
"Don't give me that, Darvell. I can sense your thirst the same way you sense mine."
What Roger felt emanating from the murderer, though, was not simple appetite like his own, but a violent lust that revolted him. He said wearily to Britt, "Now are you convinced? You won't get immortality from this sociopath; you'll get yourself killed."
"I'm convinced of that," she said, her voice steady, "but not that he's typical of the breed."
"Quiet!" Sandor tightened his grip on her wrists, not forgetting to watch Roger. He favored Britt with a caricature of a smile. "So you want the vampire's kiss? I haven't had one like you in a long time. It'll be my pleasure to grant your desire -- and you'll sure as hell get more from me than from the fangless freak, here." In fact, Sandor didn't have fangs, either, except in his transformed shape, but the insult registered loud and clear.
Beyond caring what the renegade said to or about him, Roger interrupted, "Will you stop wasting time? I came here to negotiate, not --" He couldn't say it, not about Britt.
"Right. What kind of deal are you offering?"
"The only deal I'll make with you is that you get out of my territory -- right now. If you leave this county -- no, better make that the state of Maryland and the D.C. suburbs -- I won't pursue."
Sanders barked a laugh. "Don't you think I can see when you're lying? The only way I can be safe from you is to make sure you're in as deep as I am. Now, you listen to my terms. We're going to become partners. And you'll start by sharing this one with me."
The image of Britt writhing in the outlaw's clutches, blood spurting from her torn throat, hit Roger like a blow to the pit of the stomach. He struggled to mask his reaction from the enemy.
"You want it, Darvell -- why don't you admit that?" Sandor's fiery eyes flicked repeatedly from Roger to Britt and back again. "You've been wanting this one for a long time. Well, you can just wait your turn." He drew a curved fingernail down the side of her neck. She winced as a thread of blood, luminous with life-energy, bloomed on her fair skin.
A pang of yearning pierced through Roger's outrage. Britt's eyes met his for an instant, and he thanked God that he saw no fear of himself there.
"You can work up an appetite watching," Sandor continued. "I could make her want it, too -- make her beg me for it. But I'm not going to cloud her mind. She'll feel everything when I bite into her. If you've never taken one fighting and screaming, you haven't lived. Believe me, after you've watched that, you'll be ready."
Roger's long-denied desire to possess Britt, not in terror but in mutual passion, surged up, to be swamped by the fear and anger that washed over him in frigid waves. Britt, thoroughly frightened now, leaped to her feet. Sandor shoved her down with casual roughness.
Roger was amazed at the intensity of his own rage. The worst, he thought, was the subtext of that emotion -- not a chivalrous, "Unhand that damsel, you cad," but a predator's roar of, "Hands off -- she's mine!" Forgetting diplomacy, he lunged at Sandor.
The vampire jerked Britt to his chest, facing him, and placed his bared teeth against the side of her neck. Roger saw her cringe, her face twisting with disgust. "Not another inch, Darvell."
Roger stepped back. Britt tamed her revulsion and said quietly, "You don't have to go through all that -- what's your name?"
"Call me Neil." His hand still encircled her throat, but not so tightly.
"You were right, Neil, I do want intercourse with a vampire. A real one." Sandor shot Roger a triumphant glance. Did his egoism blind him so thoroughly he couldn't penetrate Britt's insincerity? Good -- but Roger doubted her fake submission could disarm Sandor enough to tip the balance their way. "Give me a chance to experience it to the fullest," she purred. "I'm ready to cooperate here and now."
With another gloating look at Roger, Sandor said, "Don't even think of interfering. How long I let her live is entirely up to you."
Roger could scarcely keep himself from rushing the killer, against all reason.
"One thing I'd really like, if you don't mind," Britt said, leaning pliantly against Sandor. "Change back into that -- whatever it was. Giving you my blood would be so much more thrilling that way."
The breathy appeal was so foreign to the real Britt that Roger wondered how Sandor could be deceived by it. Volnar must have been right about the renegade's defective empathic power. What was she up to? Under her fascinated gaze, the vampire did begin to flow out of human shape. Roger suddenly thought of the ogre in "Puss in Boots," devoured when he let himself be flattered into becoming a mouse. But Sandor's alternate form had no such weakness.
Wait -- didn't it? Seeing the silver-gray wings overshadow Britt, Roger recalled what Sylvia had told him the first time he'd seen her transform. When the molecules were in flux, a vampire was abnormally vulnerable. The wings, in particular, were hypersensitive.
How could he use the knowledge, though? Sandor was still watching Roger out of the corner of his eye, while mouthing Britt's throat. Apparently intent on prolonging the suspense, he hadn't yet bitten her. He did, however, relax enough to let go of her arms, instead grasping her around the waist.
"Beautiful," Britt murmured. "I never dreamed of anything like you." Her slender hands crept up over his shoulders, caressingly skimmed over his temples and cheeks. A low growl rumbled in Sandor's chest. Nauseated, Roger ordered himself not to look away. Britt was fighting to give him an opening.
Her body molded itself to Sandor's. Then her thumbs dug into his eye sockets. At the same instant, she rammed a knee into his groin.
Roger could have told her that wouldn't disable Sandor. With undescended testicles, a vampire wasn't sensitive in that spot like a human male. However, the shock of the double attack broke the outlaw's hold on Britt. Roger charged at Sandor, at the same time as Britt fell to her knees and rolled out of the way.
Sandor's claws slashed at Roger's right arm. Springing backward, Roger suddenly thought of the rosary in his shirt pocket. He pulled it out and thrust it toward the other vampire.
To his surprise, the enemy actually retreated. "Halfbreed scum -- using human weapons!"
"Your crimes give all of us a bad name." Roger heard the rasp of his own breathing as well as Sandor's. A crimson haze blurred his vision.
"`Crime' to you and the rest of Volnar's tame dogs! You think he holds himself to those rules?" Reaching behind him, Sandor ripped a branch off the nearest tree. He swiped at Roger, knocking the rosary to the ground.
Roger attacked Sandor empty-handed. Slipping on the pine needles underfoot, they grappled, Roger struggling to keep his antagonist's claws and teeth away from his neck. Though Sandor's wings quivered with the strain, Roger saw at once that the other vampire was stronger than he. A purely defensive strategy stood no chance.
His peripheral vision glimpsed Britt on her knees, groping on the ground. Damn -- if only her eyes could handle the dark like his. Roger focused on Sandor, well aware of the danger of getting distracted a second time. The shimmering wings seemed to mock him.
The wings. Roger relaxed the pressure of his hands, throwing Sandor off balance for a second. As the killer, with a growl of triumph, closed the gap between them, Roger grabbed both wings near the shoulder blades and crumpled the delicate membrane in his fists.
Sandor let out an agonized howl. Roger was vaguely aware of Britt jumping up, the rosary clutched in her hand. She jabbed it at Sandor's chest. The vampire collapsed, stunned, on the ground.
Staring down at him, Roger noticed a second-degree burn where the crucifix had branded the flesh.
Britt gulped a few breaths and said in a shaky voice, "Interesting psychosomatic effect."
Roger's chest ached from the exertion. He, too, had to catch his breath before he could ask whether she was all right. At the moment he didn't trust his perceptions.
"Sure," Britt said. "I knew that book on how to survive rape would come in handy someday. What do we do now?"
Roger eyed the prostrate vampire, who had resumed human form as soon as the cross had touched him. Sandor's legs jerked.
"Get back!" Roger ordered Britt, plucking the rosary from her hand.
Sandor struggled to his feet. Roger thrust the crucifix at him. Sandor's lips curled in a snarl. Lurching backward, he shifted from human to winged form and back again like a time-lapse special effect. He seemed weak, disoriented. One good blow should knock him out, and then -- Roger lunged for the wounded vampire. Sandor spread his wings once more and rose straight into the air. A lupine howl keened from his throat as he vanished above the trees.

Margaret L. Carter

1 comment:

  1. You are so right about fight scenes being a challenge to nail. Especially in books, when the prose can't exactly do jump cuts like in film.

    Speaking of film, the most protracted fight scene I've ever seen was in THEY LIVE between the two lead male characters. I know why the filmmakers felt compelled to do it that way, but it didn't move the story forward at all.

    At any rate, you offer up some great advice! Thanks!