A former freelance journalist, during his developmental years Neil Vogler wrote television scripts, screenplays, novellas, and radio skits. Aside from his stint in the world of journalism he has had a diverse range of jobs and has at one time or another been a lousy shelf stacker, a passable barman, a moderately good busker, and a very hard-bitten wine adviser. A lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan, Neil lives in Devon, UK with his wife and two children. He is the author of sci-fi action thriller Tripler: Book #1 of the Tripler Trilogy, released last month, as well as about thirty short stories featured across two anthologies, We Are Now (2012), and Deadly Sins (2013). A free 34-page prequel to Tripler is currently available to download here. You can find Neil on Twitter or visit his blog at www.awriterhemuttered.blogspot.com.
by Neil Vogler
In my experience, writing action is easy. Writing effective and affecting action, however, is immensely difficult. Certain writers do an excellent job, and as a voracious reader of all kinds of genre books, I’m always analyzing and admiring how other authors handle their action on the page. That’s my first mini-tip, actually, before we get to the more involved ones: never stop reading. That mind of yours needs perpetual feeding.
I read a few standouts in 2014 – Will Macintosh’s Defenders, for example, features excellently described, emotionally charged action scenes, as humans suffer terribly at the hands of the Luyten, starfish-like aliens who can read minds and love to mercilessly burn swathes of people with horrendous weapons. Likewise, Ernest Cline unexpectedly builds some superbly inventive and highly visual action scenes using iconic figures from pop culture in Ready Player One. And Richard K. Morgan (as if you didn’t already know) is a master when it comes to creating visceral, intelligently-staged, adrenaline-pumping action scenes – I was late to the party and read Black Man (aka Thirteen in the US) in 2014, but you can pick up any one of his novels to see what I mean. And outside of sci-fi and quite apart from books I read last year, people such as the late A.J. Quinnell, author of the Creasy-starring crime books from the eighties and nineties, and the likes of a little-known contemporary author you probably haven’t heard of called Lee Child, are experts at creating action scenes that feel natural, stripped-down, impactful, and pacy.
In my sci-fi action thriller Tripler, a never-before-seen virus causes infected humans to split into three versions of themselves, allowing them control over all three iterations but sending them murderously insane in the process. The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Harry Allwear, an ex-soldier turned specialist tracker for an agency that hunts down and kills the infected, who eventually becomes a Tripler himself. Although there is much more to the novel than simply action setpieces, I spent a lot of time thinking about how best to present the action that features heavily in the novel, and even more time pondering what makes good action work on the page in general. And, whilst appreciating what constitutes ‘good action’ is entirely subjective, I’ve come up with a few things that I think are worth considering for any other writers out there about to embark on writing an action-based novel.
All action sequences have to be necessary, and represent a natural development or escalation of the story. Sounds obvious, but this point perhaps bears more careful consideration than any of the others. Just because you have an exciting and innovative idea for a brutal and extended skydiving gun battle, it doesn’t automatically follow that it should be in your book. Story and character are the priorities, always. Action scenes, like all other scenes, have to earn their place in your narrative. Of course, you can always write the scene and delete it later if it doesn’t work, but personally I’d prefer not to waste that kind of time. And readers can spot action for action’s sake, because it generally reads as inert and superfluous. It’s about stakes – what are the stakes for your characters? If there are no stakes, there’s no scene.
Pace is extremely important, and so is structure. Effective action on the page needs a rhythm, a pace, and a flow. It needs to hit dramatic peaks, and also have its quieter, subtler moments – in other words, it needs light and shade to make it interesting. Writing action that has genuine consequences, and peril, and stakes is exhausting for the author. But it’s exhausting to read, too. You don’t want to exhaust readers unless that’s explicitly the point (for example, your novel is written in the first person, and you want readers to feel as fatigued, desperate and worn out as your protagonist by the end of the chapter). Likewise, action sequences should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. The last thing you want is for your action scene to just peter out or feel half-finished – or worse, read like a missed opportunity, all staging and no payoff.
Design and plan your action practically, and get a handle on the geography right away. I can’t over-emphasize how important this point is. In Tripler, Harry has to get inside a heavily-defended underground facility as part of a make-or-break rescue mission, and later he engages in a lethal firefight with multiple adversaries in a huge luxury penthouse that makes use of every room. Both of these sequences needed serious research and effort to make them work. I ended up mapping out the buildings in a crude set of drawings on post-its to help me visualize and keep track of where all the key players in the sequences were and what route they needed to take to get where they were going. Something like this helps you a) ensure consistency and realism across the sequence and b) make sure you’re not accidentally violating any laws of physics – unless that’s a deliberate element of your story. Which brings me on to the next point:
If your story has a sci-fi premise, utilize that premise in the most inventive ways you can. I would also add to this, ‘use it to reveal character wherever you can’. Tripler sets up several rules for the act of Tripling. The original infectee can summon one or both of his or her other selves in the blink of an eye, and likewise can recall them instantly too, although their Tripling ‘range’ is limited, in the first instance, to only ten meters in any direction. Harry can also Triple through walls and other solid matter. Because he’s an ex-soldier and a tactical thinker, everything he does is about achieving his objective in the fastest and most efficient way possible. His abilities allow him to be in three places at once, and his other selves – whose voices are permanently present in his mind – offer us three different simultaneous perspectives as he fights. This allowed me to be extremely creative with the way I presented a lot of the action scenes, because the rules and limitations of a physical fight are completely different for Harry.
Think cinematically. Truthfully, it’s almost impossible not to conceive of your scenes using cinema as a reference point; our imaginations have all been conditioned by our continuous exposure to movies, and we render action scenes in our mind’s eye with certain well-defined, virtually inescapable cinematic conventions securely in place. I’m a former film student and a huge movie fan, so I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to looking to cinema for inspiration for some of my action setpieces. However, where movies have the chance to dazzle (or distract) the viewer with what can sometimes be impressive but ultimately empty FX spectacle, there’s no room for that in a novel. You can’t use the visual trickery of jump cuts or shaky-cam to enliven or otherwise enhance your dramatic battle scenes; and there are no sweeping aerial shots available to help you define the local geography during your setpiece. What you can do, however, is think about how to make your sequences feel cinematic, and think about films you admire and whether certain stylistic flourishes are worth including in your story. Think big, create powerful and resonant movie-like visuals in the mind of the reader, but make sure it all has a valid reason to be included.
Think anti-cinematically. Sure, cinema is great for inspiration, but the beauty of the written word is that you can do things in a book that are impossible (or at least, exceptionally difficult) to communicate in a film. Consider carefully how you can exploit this for maximum tension and dramatic impact within your story. In my case, Tripler is written in the first-person present tense, so everything (hopefully) feels deeply personal and immediate, and the reader gets an unfettered, ultra-intimate glimpse into Harry’s thought processes. However, as I mentioned earlier, he also has two other versions of himself to contend with who are constantly chattering away and embodying other aspects of his personality. In Tripler I often get to present pivotal moments from three simultaneous mental or physical angles – something that would be much harder to achieve coherently in a movie.
Remember your characters should act consistently. This seems basic and obvious, but you’re looking to preserve the reality of your narrative at all costs. You can’t afford to have your central character grab a discarded sword and suddenly bust out Samurai moves in the middle of a scene, for instance, if you haven’t already foreshadowed that character’s skills with a blade somewhere else.
Variety is the spice of action. No two action sequences should ever feel alike. If your action is samey and repetitive, readers will skim ahead, or worse, put the book down. Here’s where thinking cinematically can help you again. It’s worth pondering why something like The Raid, for example, works so well; every fight in that movie feels unique and different, despite that fact that it’s basically just Rama working his way through a building and taking on all-comers. The same goes for classic sci-fi fare such as Aliens; every action scene is uniquely staged. In Tripler, I tried to make sure that every time there’s any kind of action, it felt logically connected to but never the same as what had come before, and I also attempted to make each action sequence feel as emotionally and dramatically distinct from the last as possible.
In the end, how you as a writer handle the action is only one component of what makes a novel work or not, and reading is an entirely subjective experience, so what works for one reader may not work at all for another. That said, although the above is by no means an exhaustive list, I believe it’s worth mulling over the points I’ve raised if you’re thinking about writing a book full of action scenes. After all, no amount of bullets will allow you to shoot your way out of a lackluster action sequence – but your novel can be seriously elevated if your action is well thought-out and vividly executed.