Sooner or later (most) stories come down to two people punching each other. Sometimes it’s on a bridge, sometimes it’s on fire, but regardless, almost every story needs action. But how do you do it right? At MCM London, I chatted to authors Wesley Chu, Kevin Hearne, Lucy Hounsom, Brian McClellan and Jen Williams about action, battles, character and how to bring them all together.
On How What You’re Writing Dictates The Style Of The Action
Kevin talked about how actual fights tend to be over very quickly and how rare it was to see two people so evenly matched a fight would last a long time. As a result, his urban fantasy novels tend to have very quick, punchy action. His epic fantasy novels on the other hand have much larger, longer battles to reflect the massive increase in scale.
Brian talked about consequences and how much he thinks about them. That in epic fantasy you can have your main character kill a dozen people with minimal consequences, but not with other genres. He revealed he’s working on an urban fantasy series about Hell’s collection agency and that, when he realized his lead was a normal guy who just happened to work for Hell, he couldn’t have him randomly killing people without consequences. That in turn fed back into the plot and a sequence where his hero is jumped in a coffee shop, defeats his foes and is furious at them for attacking him in public because it’s just not DONE.
Jen talked about how the video game model comes in useful, with gradually escalating threats leading the characters through to the final epic boss fight. She talked about how it’s a reflection of how many times she’s played Dragon Age and how the structure of video games is both easy to use and difficult to escalate. She talked about how difficult it is to top what’s gone before, and given one of Jen’s books finishes with two giant stone mecha fighting, it’s quite a challenge.
Lucy explained she feels the same way about Skyrim and talked about how epic fantasy tends towards the cinematic approach and how she hates having to write action. She recommended Sebastien De Castell‘s work for authors wanting to learn how to write fight scenes.
Wesley talked about how fights, and action, can be used to drive and define your world. He used Brian’s example of the coffee shop fight and pointed out that fight would last a long time, oddly, if neither person was trained. He mentioned that ‘fight scenes are a conversation with fists’ and that you have to have a purpose for it, just like you would a conversation.
On Action Matching Character
Jen talked about how action should be like dialogue and always be telling you who the characters you’re reading about are. She discussed the characters in her Copper Cat trilogy and how they show who they are through how they fight. Seb is a Knight and trained to fight with duty and honor while his partner Wydrin is a thief who’d rather not fight at all. And will absolutely shove you down a well if she has to…
Wesley talked about the importance of pacing in an action sequence. He talked about how movement works, and how beginner writers can sometimes mistake endless description for emotional weight. He used the original Michael Bay Transformers movie as an example of endless, relentless spectacle and how it quickly suffers from the law of diminishing returns. By building pauses into the action, that gives you as a writer, and your readers, the chance to understand the action for what it is and how it fits into the plot. He emphasized that less is more, and how after every beat you need to show how the plot and character are moved forward.
On Who Influences How You Write Action
Kevin talked about how comics were what taught him how to use action. He picked up on Wesley’s idea of less is more and demonstrated how comics use the high points of each fight, in image form, to tell action scenes in a way that’s efficient and exciting. He cited Spider-Man and the way his endless wise cracks help show the emotional stakes of the fight.
Jen cited movies like Princess Mononoke and The Lord of The Rings trilogy. She also recommended Bernard Cornwell, especially his The Last Kingdom series. Cornwell does a great job of putting the reader in the shield wall with his hero Uhtred and making it feel real, brutal and terrifying. Also, while she doesn’t write naval adventures, she talked about how great Patrick O’Brian‘s Master & Commander series are and how well they use action.
Lucy flipped the question around and noted that great action tends to be invisible, but bad action tends to stand out for the worst reasons. She recommended Patricia McKillip as a fantasy author who does an excellent job of channeling action into tiny, yet massively significant, confrontations.
Wesley recommended Lee Child‘s Jack Reacher series as a perfect example of how to make tiny moments of action count. What propels an action scene is tension not movement and he recommended the first Jack Reacher novel for an incredibly tense moment that culminates in a single, devastating headbutt.
Brian recommended The Duellists, Sir Ridley Scott’s debut movie. The story of two Napoleonic officers who fight a series of inconclusive duels. Picking up on Wesley’s point about tension and the early discussion about character, he explained that one lead is aggressive and the other is honor bound and reluctant, their constant clashes evolving the characters of both men. He also cited the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road as a story that breaks all the action rules. It’s non-stop action but still succeeds massively.
On Whether Genre Fiction Demands Action
Wesley argued that it doesn’t, and cited the first couple of seasons of Game of Thrones being relatively action free and still being immensely successful. Jen picked up on this, talking about how the books are far more character driven than the TV show and that the TV show’s fondness for battle is something she thoroughly approves of.
She also talked about how in the first book of her new trilogy, The Ninth Rain, there actually aren’t any big battles. She folded this back into her earlier points about video game narratives and how fantasy authors have to constantly escalate the tension, action and scale.
Lucy talked about how in her first book, Starborn, the middle third is built around tests the character has to undergo which almost kill her. The transition from ignorance of what was coming to horror of seeing it approach was key to creating tension for the book and driving the reader and her lead character through to the third act. She also talked about how while there is an expectation of action in fantasy, she views the build up and aftermath as at least as important.
Brian picked up on the cinematic ideas discussed earlier and said, as someone who writes militaristic fantasy, he has to be aware of, and depict, the fact two people in the same battle can have vastly different experiences and perspectives.
Kevin talked about the Star Wars franchise and the way that the Death Star demonstrates the escalation problem the others discussed, with Starkiller Base the perfect example of mandatory stakes raising. The need to do something else, he pointed out, is why Rogue One and Solo in particular aren’t just smaller stories, they have to be.
On Bad Action
An audience member asked the panel for examples of bad action scenes and the panel were all terribly nice and refused to name names. Kevin mentioned how difficult older myths are to understand now due to the evolution of language and mentioned Neil Gaiman’s update of the Norse myths as doing a great job of bringing those stories to a modern audience.
Wesley changed the focus a bit, and talked about common mistakes. He mentioned weapon weight as something too many authors hand wave away. He also emphasized that fight scenes are defined by mistakes, and whoever makes the least mistakes wins.
Jen argued that realism is not always your friend, and drowning your reader in technical terms isn’t going to be fun for anybody. Lucy picked up on this, and talked about how while she loved 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea the pages of Latin fish names were SO dull and that again, too much research can get in the way.
And with ‘the fish don’t all need to go in the book’ as the closing moment of advice, the panel came to a close.