Psst. All Writers Are a Little Nuts…and Action Scenes


So here’s a page from Finch, a gun battle in progress. It’s a scene that I knew I’d have to edit and rewrite and be patient with. If you want to do an apocalyptic, gut-wrenching action scene that really sings, you’ve got to be patient. You’ve got to work on it draft after draft, making adjustments.

First, though, if going in no one gives a crap about the characters, who the heck cares that they’re in danger. That’s key. Then you have to think of it in terms of the craziest Hong Kong cinema mixed with your own personal mental unhingement: because you’ve got to imagine being in the middle of that. You’ve got to make some preliminary diagrams of the set-up so you can see it clearly, and then you’ve got to wed that to something visceral.

And when you’re done with that, you’ve got a big, inchoate, half-incoherent mess on the page. Because you’ve got to have the mess–things from several angles, things from the wrong angles, things from above and below, like you just dumped out blood-soaked Leggos on a carpet–so you can carve out some dedicated, focused aggression from that rough clay.

See, the key to an action scene in this age of the big-budget blow-em-up action flick, besides a touch of personal lunacy and cleverness, is making it seem chaotic and confused without it actually being chaotic and confused. And that usually means less is more. Which is why this scene I’d already cut the crap out of now, as seen above, has several more lines cut out from it. And why it leads to that moment John Woo used to do so well when he worked in Hong Kong–that free fall moment, when you’re in the shit and then suddenly you’re flying because the action scene has morphed into something more iconic or ultra-real, something that makes your breath catch in your throat.

And then it needs the dying fall, when you come back to earth, and the state of world before the battle is restored, and yet changed in some fundamental way. Something’s been lost even as experience is gained. And your hero, s/he’s pretty banged up, but he’s still staggering along…

But, yeah, writers are nuts. I’ve spent probably 20 to 40 hours on that one scene. That’s the definition of crazy: choreographing the details of something that’s ink on paper so it can hopefully become three-dimensional in the reader’s mind. Doing research on just how a gun that fires fungal bullets might work. Imagining and re-imagining the dialogue for that situation. Completely nuts.

Don’t give a crap about b.s. about action scenes? Here’s something from the next novel. (Steal it and I send Borne after you. Why? Because Borne’s actually scarier than Mord. That’s why none of the Borne frags I’ve posted over the last couple of years include Borne. Borne’s the secret weapon you hold in reserve that brings the reader again to that free-fall over uncertain ground.

Once, it was all different, I’ll admit. Once there was a wider context. And within that context, as a child, I had wanted to be a writer. At the age of seven or eight, I filled notebooks with my scribbles: poetry, bits of short stories, even scenes from novels I never finished. (Borne could even have been a creature out of my fictions as a child; maybe that’s why I responded so strongly to him.)

The world back then could support that idea. Most of us had homes, parents, and went to schools. Our parents had jobs. Our cities had governments, our cities existed within countries, and those countries had leaders. You could think of travel not as an arduous, life-threatening trek but as a fun adventure. If you had a friend around the world, you could talk to her easily.

By the time I was fifteen, my parents were dead, I was a refugee newly arrived in the city, and the wider context no longer existed anymore. Become a writer? How? Why? What was important to write about? The fragments of everything we once had? The idea that Somewhere Else, in a Far Distant Land, there might be people who did not share our life-and-death struggles? (After all, the Company produced products for someone, unless it was simply insane and symbolic.)

The remnants of a better time: this odd technology, gone wrong or bad or sideways, cannibalizing itself. The ragged red flames from automated factories that dug up metal from the earth to make things that no one could ever use now but powerless to stop, no way to flip the switch. A city stalked by a monster. Daily mangled bodies that the sly coyotes and foxes would tear meat off of during the night.

A city through which a bear-like demi-god trawled like a fishing vessel followed by seagulls and pelicans, when he went on his rampages, a welter of vultures, coyotes, wild dogs, and foxes, and even carnivorous insects and other hybrids, that followed in his wake, seeking a spare scrap of flesh.

Strange how a slight slip could become free fall, and free fall could become a hell. We live in a haunted world, untangling our own creations, living more and more off of recycled parts. I’ve spared you most of the visceral details so far—the corpses, the bloodshed, the sheer chaos and mindlessness of it—because I’m not sure you would believe me and in part because I don’t need reminding…

Don’t give a crap about Borne? Here’re a couple of videos.

Keep telling me what you’re up to. Me, I’m up to my ass in Finch edits (unusual? no–normal procedure; back, vultures, back!). Probably won’t post again until next week.


  1. says

    Thanks for the insight and excerpt. I believe most readers think action scenes are the easy part. Nice to know I’m not the only one feeling a bit unstable during the process. Thanks again.

  2. says

    God, I hear ya. I spent a week and a half dodging the fight scene in the underground chapel in Chapter 22 of HEARTLAND. Finally sucked it up and hit it yesterday, and that John Woo ultra-moment popped right out. I don’t dare touch it for fear of f*cking it up, but I can’t believe it came together. My subconscious is still waiting for me to give it a gold star for working that one overtime while I was off doing other things.

  3. says

    Thanks for writing this. Trying to write good action sequences is so difficult, and I’m glad to see how much effort you put into it, that someone at your level of proficiency succeeds through a hell of a lot of hard work. Charlie Huston’s Caught Stealing has some of my fave action scenes in it, and I think they do a beautiful job of telegraphing John Woo-style violence with Elmore Leonard abbreviation. It’s like looking at a Zen painting, where what’s left out speaks as loudly as what’s on the page.

    Week before last I finished the first draft of my first novel (only a dozen more drafts to go!), and am letting it rest until May. Last week I slapped an SF noir story into shape for beta readers, and this week I’m working on a ghost story in omniscient. Sample:

    A long, slow beat followed, Hortense looking into Camilla’s face, sunshiny as a Yakima peach. He thought about the house, and the quiet, and for the first time he felt something more than defiance welling inside. The headwaters were as hidden from him as from his devoted mother, but perhaps they sprang from the slow blurring of the ghost-shapes that made up his world–the unspeakable knowledge that even the afterlife would pass one day.

  4. says

    I am listening to way, way, way too much Gjallarhorn.

    I’m putting together Scholarship Essays for the Stonecoast Program, in Maine.

    And, I’m enjoying my new job writing video games.

    My only regret is I don’t have as much time to read between working a full-time job and making reasonable progress writing my own stuff.

    And, I’m going to steal this. All of it. It will be merged with leprechauns and turned into a child’s play for church groups. “Borne and the Leprechauns”. A crazy writer will learn the value of teamwork, and stop chain-smoking menthols laced with opium, because drugs are bad. Also, he will sell his gun collection to feed the homeless.

  5. says

    Action scenes are incredibly difficult and yet critics often sneer at them even being present. And readers often think that the action scenes are what I think of first, when what I worry about are the biggest moments of emotional choice for the characters. This was a great entry, thanks for sharing.

  6. says

    I was going back over “Antipaladin Blues” post-edits and realized how many action scenes there were, and shit… some of them I could barely remember writing. Those turned out the better ones, not surprisingly.

  7. says

    Still pluggin away at MMC. It’s potential length is beginning to worry me. I’m about a third of the way in, and already at 40,000 words. At least, I hope it’s a third. I’m going to let it evolve however it wants to, but I’ve never written anything over 90,000 and this one is just rolling along with no signs of slowing down…

    Also listening to a lot of Gonzalez.