MIND MELD: Which Authors Write the Best Action Stories?
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We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
When it comes to some of the best action I’ve read, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to Ilona Andrews—notably, her Kate Daniels series. This urban fantasy leans heavily on action, outlining the motion—and painting the intensity—in gorgeous detail that skimps on flowery prose. No superhero with impossible pain tolerance, you’re transported with Kate with every cut, every wound, every agony. When I think about authors and books that feature action, I can’t help but arrow right on this series.
Two other authors that come to mind are Chuck Wendig and Stephen Blackmoore. Both write a kind of urban fantasy genre, but both are extremely different. Wendig’s Miriam Black series—beginning with Blackbirds—shows action with an almost fascinating intensity. He describes combat sequences that aren’t so much “fights” as a grotesquely detached explanation of events that could go wither way. Blackmoore, in both City of the Lost and Dead Things, colors his often vicious action sequences with a noir grit you can feel to your bones. They are terse, which only allows my brain to color in the details with such ease that I’m both repelled and entranced. Exactly where I want to be when I pick up a Blackmoore or Wendig book.
Action can be so hard to get right, and extremely easy to get lost in. Too much detail slows down a scene, and a lot of beginning authors tend to want to block and write every gorgeous detail—like an epic martial arts movie scene. It takes a certain understanding of physical capability, some blocking, and the ability to curtail one’s prose to keep the scene going sharp, fast, tight, like an actual fight is. It’s a hard skill to learn, but one worth every moment spent revising to learn it. A reader caught up in the intensity and speed of a fight is one who is there for every breathless moment.
Robert E. Howard makes action larger than life. Long before movie stars defined macho with one-liners, Conan struggled with an assassin who boasted of training since birth to be a master strangler, starting with infants, working his way up to young women, and finally throttling grown men. Conan’s response? At sixteen he strangled a Cimmerian bull. Snap! (Literally, he snaps the guy’s neck as his punchline.)
For all the proof you need of the passionate intensity of Howard’s prose, check out Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance as the writer in The Whole Wide World. Watching his face and hearing his voice as the world of Conan erupts from his imagination is as action-packed a scene as you could desire from a twisted little independent love story.
Much as I admired Howard’s visceral action scenes, it was Roger Zelazny whose noir sensibilities stuck with me. Sometimes Zelazny’s action scenes can be too technical, as when he employs fencing terms to describe a duel. Yet his heroes succeed by outsmarting the foe. When Corwin of Amber knows he can’t defeat his brother Benedict in combat, he uses the treacherous environment to escape. He’s got a bit of Brave Sir Robin in him that way.
The best lesson Zelazny taught me is that defeating a foe isn’t always the most interesting outcome. One of his most memorable “action” scenes doesn’t involve a fight against another character but against the hero’s shattered memory, when Corwin of Amber must re-walk the pattern to retrieve his identity. With anti-heroes like Corwin, Zelazny used failure the way Howard used bombast, making the failed assault on Mount Kolvir—and its massive sacrifice of lives—as unforgettable as any of King Conan’s triumphs.
Action comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s so central to our genre that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few authors or books. For modern/urban fantasy settings Jim Butcher and Carrie Vaughn both immediately come to mind as people doing it right. David Weber is brilliant at writing effective space navy engagements for his Honor Harrington and Dahak books, and does a good job in the sword and sorcery department with The War God series. Martha Wells and Douglas Hulick do some great work with fine sword work and individual combat. For tank battles and infantry fights I immediately think of David Drake. And, I will always love Roger Zelazny’s action sequences for their elegance and the beauty of his language.
I did a quick scan through my shelves looking for books that evoked memories of fabulous action sequences, and found a number that I just have to mention: Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, Weber’s On Basilisk Station, Tim Powers’ On Stranger Tides, Stirling’s Marching Through Georgia, Wells’ The Element of Fire, The Wild Cards books, Christopher Hinz’s Liege Killer, and, out of genre, Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome books.
There are other authors and books that come to mind as I’m writing this, but in the interests of brevity, I’ll call that a pretty good first pass. Now, what ties them all together and makes them pop? First and foremost it’s stakes. It doesn’t matter how well an action sequence is written if the reader doesn’t care about the characters and the reasons they’re fighting, because it’s not going to draw the reader in. Action must always serve the story first if it’s really going to engage the reader.
That’s because action isn’t really about the mechanics of a fight, or the elegance of the language, or near misses and spilled blood, though all of those things need to be done well to make a sequence really fly. You can have a brilliant fight scene that’s told in a staccato burst of impressions that give you the strobe-light version of a fight as easily as one that comes out in the cool voice of a master fencer using the language of thrust and parry, or someone writing the literary equivalent of the Matrix’s bullet-time, or any of dozens of other techniques as long as it’s properly rooted in the story. Ultimately, good action writing is about the emotional context, about how a character deals with the moment and what that tells us about the story and the characters. Get that right and the rest is an exercise in style.
The description is the scene itself, what happens and how we’re told about it. The chief problem here is walking the fine line between over- and under-describing. Both extremes have problems. If the author errs on the side of under-description, the action feels “mushy”. It’s hard to follow what’s going on beyond the most basic level, and any tension drains away. It’s hard to get excited and think “How is our hero going to get out of this one?” when there isn’t enough detail to keep track of why she’s in trouble.
On the other hand, too much description gets boring quickly, in spite of giving the reader a very clear picture of what’s going on. Going blow-by-blow through a long swordfight, for example, would become extremely tiresome, even if it’s so detailed I could get my friends together and re-enact it.
The trick is to find a middle ground, eliding the details when they threaten to get dull but giving us enough to stay on board emotionally — excitement when things are going well, tension when things are going badly. In an under-described scene, these emotional beats often feel totally arbitrary (“They fought for a while! And then he was losing! But then he won!”) and the hidden hand of the author becomes too apparent. On the other side, too much detail makes a book feel like it wants to be a movie, dazzling the audience with sheer visual spectacle and slam-bang action; this doesn’t work very well in a textual medium.
No matter how good the description is, though, it requires the context to make some sense of it. The context is everything that leads up to the action scene and makes the readers care about the people involved. Without context, we’re back in the realm of visual spectacle, trying to dazzle the reader with grand but somehow unsatisfying pyrotechnics. What context is required to make an action scene work obviously varies as widely as the stories involved, but typically it involves having some sympathy with the characters involved, knowing their goals, and (perhaps most importantly) understand what is at stake if they fail.
Context is why a swordfight between Darkesh the Invincible and Orc #4,592 can be boring, but the exact same description of a fight between the heroine and the man on whom she’s sworn revenge can rivet you to the page. It’s even more powerful if the scene is a contest between two (or more) characters that are both sympathetic, possibly in different ways, and the reader genuinely doesn’t know which way we want things to end.
Both description and context need to be competent, of course, but the balance between the two varies depending on the author’s goal. Different writers focus on one or the other, to achieve a variety of effects. Some of my favorites:
Joe Abercrombie writes probably my favorite action scenes in fantasy. He’s a master of description, and knows how to present a fight or a chase to neatly thread the line between vague and boring. He also provides excellent context; the action means something, both to the characters and the larger story. When Ninefingers, in his berserker rage, attacks his allies, we don’t want either one of them to get killed. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as aware of the physicality, the ludicrous dangerousness, of a swordfight as during some of the tenser scenes in his books.
K.J. Parker writes action very differently. Parker’s descriptions are purposefully spare, flat and without embellishment. The tension is almost all inherent in the context. Parker excels at creating no-win situations, where every option is a bad one, and showing us how totally logical choices can lead, inevitably, to terrible outcomes. Action scenes are gripping, not because we’re immersed in the sensual details, but rather because we’re able to follow the characters’ lines of thought and see the problem looming ahead like a runaway freight-train.
Brandon Sanderson, on the other hand, does action scenes with a whip-crack speed and enviable expertise. He’s known for elaborate world-building and magic systems, and it carries over into the action. He weaves the powers and options available to his characters into the plot (think of Vin’s education in Mistborn, for example) so that when the time for an action scene comes around, he can veer a bit toward what would otherwise be over-description without boring us — instead, it’s the awesome payoff for earlier set-up. It’s a great example of how one size doesn’t fit all; what wouldn’t work in the hands of a less skilled author, or even in a different book, is excellent fun when it meshes so well with what the book is about.
(To generalize the point: If your book is about, say, rapier fencing, and the protagonist gradually learns the forms, the terminology, and so on, then when you get to the fighting by all means give us the gory details of thrust and parry! If, on the other hand, your book is about political intrigue at the French court, giving the same level of detail when there happens to be a swordfight is probably overkill.)
Finally, action isn’t everything. George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire takes place in a notoriously violent world, but the number of actual full-on action scenes in the book is surprisingly small. He can certainly execute them well (the duel between Bronn and Ser Vardis Egen in A Game of Thrones comes to mind) but they’re not a focus, compared to the intricate web of character relationships and deep intrigue. Even in a book full of war and murder, it’s okay for the action to sometimes stay off-screen.
I think Lee Child writes fantastic close-quarters action scenes. There’s just something wonderful when Jack Reacher wades into a fight with his matter-of-fact assessment of the other combatants, followed by some quick, brutal fights. For the most part, Child excels at that old proverb about most real fights only lasting for two punches.
Dan Abnett is pretty much the master of theater-scale war, in my opinion. His Gaunt’s Ghosts books for the Black Library are just fantastic. He does epic battles of three thousand men against fifteen thousand, but he manages to make it all work on a personal level. When the Tanith First-And-Only go to war, it feels huge and grand, but also dirty and personal. He can work tank battles and trench warfare into the same sequence and make it read smooth and brutal all at the same time.
I think what makes action really work on the page is fast, smooth prose. My personal rule of thumb is that most action shouldn’t take much longer to read than it would take for it to actually occur. It’s not a hard fast absolute, but it’s the way I lean nine times out of ten. If I’m getting overly-detailed, spending half a page to describe a single gunshot, the reader’s going to get bogged down in all of that and the action’s going to lose its momentum. If you think of it in terms of movies, one or two shots in slow motion are cool, but an eight minute sequence of slow motion just starts to drag and feel corny. Seriously, watch a fight scene from The Six Million Dollar Man sometime and see how you feel about slow action.
On a similar note, once the fists and bullets start flying, I try to avoid a lot of technical terminology. It’s very impressive when a writer knows the Japanese names of forty-two different martial arts strikes and blocks, or can name every component and specification of a semi-automatic rifle. But there’s a time and a place for that. Dragging this stuff out in the middle of an action scene just brings stuff to a grinding halt.
And, as always, it has to involve real characters. Sock puppets and flat cutouts trading punches doesn’t mean anything.
Like pretty much everything, action is a matter of taste. Some readers prefer to skim the fight scenes, bored by them, anxious to get past the bloodletting. Some readers love their action over the top, where the hero wades into battle, dispatches foes by the score, so completely badass that he (or she) is a killing machine. Some prefer the violence as realistic as possible, where wounds can be debilitating, armor does its job, weapons have realistic weights and ranges and the results are messy, painful, and deadly, and the consequences real and devastating.
But regardless of style, that’s one of the really interesting things about this topic–there’s so much variety. Judicial duels like the Red Viper versus the Mountain, a small group defending the walls against a besieging horde, like Druss the Legend and his heroic stand, and on and on with all kinds of different tactics in play: naval engagements, raids and skirmishes, shield walls, massive battles, and that’s just your run-of-the mill low-tech milieus. With fantasy, you can obviously have spells and arcane artillery and giants and whatever else you can dream up changing the military engagements, and in science fiction, just as many wrinkles changing the game, with crazy biotech and powerful weapons and all manner of human technology, not to mention the alien angles. While some writers are really good at describing two combatants grappling and rolling in the dirt, trying to thrust a dagger in an armpit to end the fight, others excel at rendering huge pitched battles, conveying the logistics and big tactics and strategies, capturing the clamor and chaos of armies clashing, and making it coherent and compelling.
I’ve always preferred action that is grounded in reality, even if the milieu is flush with supernatural or extraterrestrial or uber-techy stuff. Maybe even especially then. I’m not a purist—I don’t expect every fantasy author to belong to HEMA or teach Ancient and Medieval Military History at Annapolis—but if a writer hasn’t done some fundamental research to make the action seem tangible, credible, and convincing, it does throw me out of the story. I’m an armchair historian and have only dabbled in studying western martial arts, but inaccuracies and big blunders in depicting combat bug me. Yeah, I know, I know–“Uh, dude, a dragon flew overhead ten pages ago, and you’re whining about the shield strapping being wrong??” But while there’s a lot that goes into making action exciting in fiction—good characters, conflict, tension, pacing, etc.—for me, a lot of it comes down to the details, and the writer having enough familiarity with the weapons, armor, training to not ruin my suspension of disbelief. The writer doesn’t need to have built a trebuchet, but if he hasn’t at least YouTubed one to see how it operates and totally botches the basics in describing one being used in a siege, well, I’m irritated, and suddenly on the lookout for more inaccuracies, clumsiness, or laziness.
Plenty of authors write blistering, awesome, and amazing action, so I’ll just run through some favorites.
Going old school, Robert E. Howard always had some really fun and engaging sequences. He didn’t give you a play by play or describe every arc of the axe or belabor things (you know, like I do sometimes!)—there were some broad, bloody, and even poetic strokes, and he was always more interested in capturing the essence of a fight, making sure the stakes were clear, and then letting his Hyborian heroes unleash hell on any who stood in their path. The scenes were fast-paced, and as pulpy as you might expect, but they still hold up surprisingly well.
David Gemmel was one of the best at being able to capture heart-pounding, up-close action, no matter the scale. He could draw you into the death dance in a duel, making you smell the sweat, feel the fear, hear the clash and clangor as two determined armored men tried to get the final strike in, and then two chapters later, lay out the logistics, tactics, and choreography of a pitched battle in a way that was perfectly lucid and still exciting and filled with tension. Neither is especially easy to pull off, but he made both seem pretty effortless. And what made his action so memorable was the exploration of what it meant to the characters involved—demonstrating courage, cowardice, sacrifice, desperation.
Richard Morgan was another one who could describe combat that was intensely personal, brutal, and unforgiving, whether it was two men trying to kill each other with blades or squads assaulting a fortified position and insane nanotech. Some writers excel at delivering gripping hand-to-hand combat, and some with delivering intense firefights, but not every author manages to do both so well. Matthew Stover is another in the same vein, who can give you great action whether in fantasy, science fiction, or straddling the two.
R. Scott Bakker’s action sequences are fascinating in that they are often sweeping, cinematic, and somehow still detached or philosophical. That’s part and parcel with his overall approach and style, where every aspect of the story seems to be presented that way—cold lyricism, or to put it another way coined by Borges, full of algebra and fire. For me, he’s not my favorite writer when it comes to depicting action—plenty of others are better at conveying the movement of troops and shift of battle, or even more realistic single combat–but his treatment of the violence is unusual in tone and structure, so it stands out amid some of the more generic stuff out there, and deserves an honorable mention.
Joe Abercrombie is a writer who is in some ways sort the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino. He takes on all kinds of subgenres and tropes and riffs on them, subverts them (western, noir revenge thriller, fantasy clichés, war story, etc.), and in each instance, the violence is-in-your-face, gruesome, complete with bloodsplatters and berserker rages and guttings, but somehow still doesn’t feel as gratuitous as you might think. It’s brutal and hyper-realized violence that seems critical of its excess even as it’s wallowing in it.
And if we’re going beyond fantasy and science fiction and bringing historical fiction writers into the conversation, Steven Pressfield and Bernard Cornwell have to be mentioned. Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire isn’t non-stop action, as a lot of the book builds toward the climactic and iconic battle of Thermopylae, but for me, that’s part of what makes great action great—the rising tension before a battle, drawing the readers in with the characters and story so that when the action does take place, the readers are fully invested, and grieve a little when beloved characters die. No matter how masterful a writer might be at choreographing an inventive action sequence, if the readers don’t give a shit about the characters and their fates, it’s ultimately a pretty impressive but hollow exercise, the equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.
Bernard Cornwell is pretty much gold standard as far as action scenes go. Despite the point I just made about reader involvement, one of the criticisms leveled Cornwell’s way is that some of his main characters are fairly interchangeable from book to book, and a little wooden at that. But even if true, the man crafts absolutely brilliant scenes of mayhem and destruction. As far as capturing the essence of combat, and conveying the consequences, there are few better writers for my money. And the guy has mad range. Does anyone say “mad ____” anything anymore? I don’t care. Sick range then. No? Whatever. But whether writing about Napoleonic pike blocks, scorched earth raids in the Hundred Year’s War, Viking and Saxon shield walls meeting wall-o y wall-o, or a really interesting take on the Arthurian stuff where everything was grounded in Romano-British culture and warfare, the guy could write a killer action sequence in any time period and bring it to life, making it feel entirely authentic, as well as vivid, pulse-pounding, and pretty awful, as he never pulls punches or overly romanticizes the violence.
Cornwell gives the impression that he’s handled every weapon he describes, worn the armor, undergone the martial training, and experienced the combat firsthand (even if it’s an illusion, it’s a convincing one), and the quality of his research is embedded deep in every book—you can tell, if nothing else, he’s studied the tactics and strategies employed in countless periods throughout history and drawn on them in his fiction. But he’s phenomenal at depicting action not only because he a great technician and knows his stuff and can make any engagement feel credible, but because he does a great job of ratcheting tension, raising the stakes, and presenting everything in a gritty as opposed to glamorized way.
I recently read a fairly popular book. An uber-gritty dark fantasy. It had everything: a fabulously-broken main character, hate-able villains, intense pacing that had me barreling through toward the inevitable fantastic climax that I knew was coming. But then I got to said climax and…squish. The action was confusing and didn’t seem physically possible, the characters acted in ways that were not believable, and resolution was wrapped up by simply explaining what had happened. One paragraph. All the perfect dialogue and epic character-building throughout the book were ruined because of irritatingly bad action.
I am of the opinion that the spark that ignites truly good action is character. Neil Gaiman, though not known for his action, writes emotions and interalizations that are so scarily accurate for a given character that any action that might ensue is riveting. I believe that action needs to be part of the character, an extension of who that character is, or it just ends up being silly. And not the good kind of silly.
Another author that might not pop into most people’s minds when they think of action is Clive Barker. Known for his horror elements, Barker knows how to make people feel ill-at-ease. He is a twisted bastard for sure, but his action scenes are invariably pitch perfect. No matter the series of disquieting events that happen throughout his books, Barker always manages to keep his action character-driven. You are never pulled out the writing to scratch your head and wonder if a character would do the things that they are (usually unsettlingly) doing. From the richness of Imagica to the fabulously dark horror of Cabal, Barker never disappoints me, and I love that sick freak for that.
But when I’m writing, and the action is getting thick, and I’m unsure what to do next, I sometimes think to myself, What would Kadrey do?
Richard Kadrey is a given. In his Sandman Slim series, Kadrey makes you not only believe his characters would act the way they act, maim in the way they maim, and smartass their way through one epic action scene after another, but he even manages to raise the bar on himself every time. With every book I read of Kadrey’s, I always find myself on the edge of my seat, unsure of what his characters are going to do, but knowing that they’re going to bring the action in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable in the best way. I need a cigarette when I wind up a Kadrey book, and I haven’t smoked in over ten years.
Action can make or break a book. And it essentially all comes down to characters.
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