Friday, May 18, 2012

Writing credible action scenes and characters

I was surprised to discover that I was a writer's resource. What? Who me? Why?

One of the authors summed it up this way "You've lived the life we write about."

Ummm... errrr.... well, maybe. The reason for my hesitation is that it was a romance writer who told me that. (Okay on the going head to head with dangerous people, but a guy named "Animal" and wooing? Not so much. But thanks for thinking of me.

I've written elsewhere about some of the problems with how writers handle 'alpha' characters and what traps not to fall into

Today I want to talk about not the standing around and looking heroic part, but more the mindset of those who aren't afraid to go hands on.

Three things about keeping your character from being a bully:
#1 The best don't want to do it
#2 The decision to act is a rational one based on an assessment of the situation; it's NOT an emotional or pride based one.
#3 If they are forced to do it, it's not going to be a long drawn out fight.

Here's an important safety tip about violence -- it's dangerous. You can get hurt. In fact, if you want to get all mathematical about it, technically speaking, half of the people involved in a two-person 'fight' lose. That means ANY time your character engages in violence he knows there's a 50/50 chance of it going wrong for him.

The good one's stack the deck. One of the best ways to stack the deck is NOT to engage in two-person, head to head, 'fight.'

Oh BTW, the bad guys also know this. This is why they show up with extra numbers, weapons and set you up. This gives you, the writer, a chance for some dramatic tension. A good way to explain it is it's like cheating at cards. It's easy to 'win' when you (or your side) is the only one cheating. It's a whole different game when EVERYONE is cheating. More than that, they all know they're cheating yet nobody is going to come out and admit that is what is going on.

That is until the situation explodes. Then it boils down to who's better at stacking the deck before hand.

An example is a group of three guys roll up on your character. Now, simple law of survival. NEVER allow yourself or your character to be surrounded by bad guys. Unlike in the movies when bad guys surround you they don't politely wait to attack you one at at time. Often two will attack simultaneously while the real bad ass hangs back (yeah, he's using them as cannon fodder). Still if they're young punks the 'stud' (who's trying to prove himself) will be leading the set up as they try to surround your character.

No matter what the dynamics of the group are, think of them trying to set up a triangle with your character in the middle. This is their set up. This is exactly what your character DOESN'T want to allow to happen. What's best is that he keeps them all in front of him and at a good distance. And yes, calmly telling them 'that's close enough' does wonders for telling 'cheaters' that you know how to cheat too. Because people who know how the game is played know they don't want to be surrounded. So y'all can stay on your side of the line.

At this time the bad guys have a choice. Did they stack the deck enough? Do they have what it takes to overwhelm your character? Or should they wisely decide to back off? Well, wise doesn't sell books. But
A) stupid, young dumb and full of cum (against an experienced fighter)
B) your character is young and/or female and the bad guys overrate themselves OR
C) this is a professional job
does give you reason for an action scene.

A solid tactic when dealing with multiple attackers is "Line Dancing." (This is primarily for empty handed fight scenes, but the same dynamics apply to weapons.) Obviously, don't let them triangulate on your character, but your character wants everyone in a line with him or her on the end. See if you got three guys lined up with your character on either end, that means they have to get around each other in order to attack him at once. This kind of neutralizes the advantage of superior numbers, dontcha know?

Remember how I mentioned the different group dynamics of the guys coming at your character. That's an important issue of target selection in what I fondly call "Bowling for Assholes."

My oldest living friend "Doc" has certain rules when it comes to weapons. His third one is "Anything longer than it is wide can be used as a weapon -- this includes the guy who is with the guy who's in your face." Thus is the essence of bowling for assholes.

If you assign danger levels to the players, you get he's the most dangerous. He's the second most dangerous. He's third. The two you want to remove from the running ASAP are #1 and #2. This doesn't matter if they're amateurs or pros. Your character wants them out of commission first.

You're character has already communicated, stay back there boys (Indicating he doesn't want to go there at all.) And yet they just keep on coming. *Sigh -- I hate it when that happens.* Worse, they're trying to triangulate on him. Now your character knows nothing good can come from this. This brings us to point two, what's about to happen is a rational decision based on immediate threat.

They're going for the set up. Not going to happen. That means before they can triangulate on him he steps forward, grabs one and throws him. Believe it or not, (unless your character is a moose) the easiest and fastest way to do this is with what's known in line dancing as the grapevine step. You (your character) grabs on, steps behind and across so you're all twisted up (the deeper you step the better) Except unlike the actual grapevine step, you then pirouette. Basically you untwist yourself and end up facing the other direction. This doesn't sound like much, but it is one of the fastest and most powerful throws you can do. Basically it uses your entire body weight to drag the guy off balance and whips him around like a sling. (Ladies, you didn't hear this from me, but it's great for handling grabby drunks at the office party) Because of the mechanics of this move you can aim the guy you're throwing into another person (Doc's third rule).

They both go down ass over tea kettle.

Here's where the group dynamics of the bad guys come into play. If they're punks, you're hero grabs dangerous guy #1 and throws him into dangerous guy #2. In situations like this #3 often decides to beat feet (would you want to tangle with someone who just ate the lunch of two guys you know you couldn't beat?). In more serious situations, your character throws #2 into #1 then drops #3. This allows him to deal with 1 and 2 one at a time as they get up. Oh yeah, both being thrown into someone and having someone thrown into you REALLY hurts. Add to that you get all tangled up when you hit the ground.. It's not unrealistic that one or both don't get up.

If it's just two of them and your character young and female, they don't get up before she beats feet out of there. Or if you'd rather she can kick them in the face as they're trying to get up, Such behavior sounds brutal, but in environments where reprisals are common, doing so tends to get the message across that this one is best left alone. (Although you could use her not kicking his teeth in and the bad guy losing 'face' as a reason for further action against your character.

Elapsed time of bowling for assholes move? About two seconds tops. Moving into position and then doing it. So how do you build suspense? Well, the dance of them trying to triangulate, your character preventing it... until suddenly oh my oh my! Your character, who had been doing so well until now, screws up and steps into a position in line where he/she is not at the end anymore (putting him/herself into a pincer move.) The glee, the chortling, the evil cackles of the bad guys as they think your character screwed up...



Notice how this move conforms to the third point I made about not wanting to 'fight.' The more experienced and competent your character is, the faster he or she wants violence over. More than that, the more he or she is going to stack the deck in a game of cheaters. Like accidentally- on- purpose stepping between bad guys before going bowling.

Now in case you missed it, your character is going to have to think. To know what the subtle danger signs are. To have certain attitudes and an understanding of what kinds of subtle danger signals occur in dangerous and violent situations. But to do that, you need to know it too. Understanding how violent people think is critical for writing believable action scenes.

Well it just so happens that I know about a book that will show you this kind of information (See, I told you we were sneaky bastards). The book is call "Campfire Tales From Hell: Musings on Martial Arts, Survival, Bouncing and Other Thug Stuff."

It's a collection of essays by people who lived (and in many cases still do live) the lives of your characters. It's all the kinds of information -- other than just busting heads -- that people, who survive in dangerous and extreme environments, know and use to stay safe. You want to write believable characters and tense action scenes? Get it from the people who live it -- many of whom are even sneakier than I am.

You can get it as an e-book for $7.99.

Amazon -

Smashwords/Nook -

Give it a shot. But, you better be careful, you might just learn something...

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