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Balancing the story and the action


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From Ami's Ahdiar thread...


Well, Vlad's fight against the Boss is supposed to be short and quick. It's like killing someone with a renegade action in Mass Effect. It's not a long battle, just one action.


But yeah, it's clear that you can tell that writing action is the hardest thing for me as a writer. I've always found it difficult (even in the RP). How do you balance what the character is thinking and feeling with their actions? You can't describe every single stroke or move. That makes it ponderous and hard to read. Also, fights usually take a very short amount of time. I mean, a full on sword duel usually lasts no more than five minutes.


Maybe this discussion deserves it's own thread, but where do you guys think the balance is found?


Floor is open. I know we have some great writers of action sequences that get good balance in this regard. What are peoples thoughts on this.

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I think it's simple: action should be tied to the story so there is no balance that needs to be struck. If the action is just there for action's sake, cut it. If the story is lacking in action, question your characters and see where you can improve the flow of the story.


But when it comes to this specific, SPECIFIC question, there is a mathematical solution! Why yes, the work of literary creation is tied into math.


It's 1+2.


Action. Reaction or context. These can be used interchangeably, of course... you can have two contexts, or two reactions, and the context can come before the action. By mixing it up, it doesn't seem formulaic, but you will find success by working with a 1:2 ratio in action sequences. This keeps your story from seeming too "laundry list of actions" and from seeming too "bogged down in character thoughts".


So let me write some bullshit.


(Action) Luke Skywalker swung his lightsaber at Darth Vader. (Context) The anger consumed him, fury driving his actions as he struck over and over again. (Reaction) Vader, already injured, could barely block with his own lightsaber.


(Context) Han beat her to it, (Action) firing at the stormtrooper. (Reaction) "Hey, I had that one!" Leia protested as the dead trooper collapsed.


So that is how you balance it: with math.


Secondly, you use the infamous rule: Show, don't tell.


Show your characters reacting to the immediate action. Don't muse about might have beens and what ifs and nevermores, you just got stabbed.


(Action) Luke edged away on the platform, (context) his thoughts coming to an absolute halt (context) as the pain took over. (Context) Already he could barely process it, (Reaction) could barely reply to Darth Vader's question. "He told me you killed him," (Action) Luke snarled through the haze. (Context) The haze alone was enough to make Vader's next words almost fail to sink in, but (reaction) Luke still heard them over the blood pounding in his head.


(Action) "No. I am your father."


Then from there we all know we're going to see Luke's REACTION, as he looks from Vader to the plunge into the pit (CONTEXT), and lets himself fall (ACTION).


You could write it by saying:


(The dialogue is our reaction to the previous announcement.) "No! That's impossible." Luke was horrified, (context) screaming out denial as he looked from Vader to the only other option: (context) a fall into a long death. (context) He wasn't going to let Vader win, (action) he thought as he let go.


You're telling the readers what you should be showing them. You should be showing the readers the emotions going through your character's mind at this moment, using the context to show them how he feels.


(Dialogue is the reaction to our previous action again.) "No! That's impossible." The denial bubbled up even through the haze of pain; (And here we have further context.) Luke could hardly stop himself from screaming the enraged words in response to the taunt. (Context) He knew there was another option: the long plunge towards the surface of the planet. (Context.) It would still be a death, he thought, but not a death that would let this murderous liar win. (Action.) A crazed smile crossed his face as he locked eyes with the mask of Vader, and let go.


You'll note in this one since it's not an immediate action sequence, I've drawn out the context a bit further to give more emotional depth to our character.


Please note that you can add even more context to a single action to deeply invest people in the emotions, but for a quick action sequence the 1:2 ratio works best.


This brings me to the final point: buildup and emotional payoff.


This is done by flipping the emotional table. This can be done in a small scale... via chapters or even parts of chapters, or a large scale (the entire story). A good rule of thumb though, is to have one big change like so per scene. The scene starts happy? (Bilbo has a birthday party! Yay! But then he disappears at the end of the party and leaves forever.) Flip it to negative. The scene starts negative? (There is a big fight in the mines! Frodo gets severely injured. But he had a mithril vest on so he survives!) Flip it to positive. Or you can flip it to even more negative! This allows you to string out an emotion over a series of scenes and add reader impact when you finally do flip it around... you can have a series of happy chapters go from happy, to happier, to ecstatic... and then suddenly PIRATES INVADE THE CITY AND THE PRINCESS IS CAPTURED! Or you can have a series go from negative, to bad, to worse, to all your friends have been captured, to Han Solo has been taken away! to "Darth Vader is your father!" BAM. Things just keep getting worse.


By slowly drawing out the emotional payoff from scene to scene, but making certain that by the end of your scene the table has been turned (ei: things don't stay the same by the end of the scene) you make for an interesting scene to read, you compel your readers to keep on going, and you can make even more reader impact when you finally flip things to the opposite side of the scale... because you've gotten your readers emotionally invested.


Really good action scenes will milk this for all its worth because the flip is usually directly caused by your hero's actions. By making the change a direct cause of the protagonist, or external factors directly effecting the fate of the protagonist you make the scene satisfying for your readers. Change shouldn't always be because of things outside of the main character's hands, by making sure that change is always brought on by the choices of your leading characters you keep the action in their hands and let the readers get caught up in their story.


Please note that I took the "steps" for this and converted it to a more PG-rated Star Wars themed tutorial but I did take the three steps to balancing action from a tutorial I found elsewhere. It just happened to, ahem, be a tutorial by a yaoi smut writer so I don't feel comfortable putting it up on here with our site's PG rating. So I wrote my own version.


Just when I thought it was over, I watched Tiana kick Almira in the head, effectively putting her out of her misery. I did not expect that.
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That's a really good rule of thumb, Tiana. But I think saying 'action for actions sake should be cut' is a little much. Too much action for action's sake is pointless, I agree. But some action for action's sake is fine. Some people are only reading for the action (admittedly, a minority, but still). I hate going 3 or 4 chapters without any action because I get bored. But sometimes the story doesn't really need any action for a while. In LTABM I just wrote in an action that I hadn't originally planned to put in because very little other than characterization was going on for a few chapters and I was bored of writing character interaction. I wanted some physical violence.


As writer's we actually have an opportunity to flesh things out a lot more than other mediums. Movies and TV shows have allotted time to fit in x amount of scenes. Some events NEED to happen and they need to take up a certain amount of time. With writing, we really have none of those limits, especially when we're publishing digitally. You can describe every move in a fight if you want to, just so long as it's done well. Sometimes I don't understand people's need to get directly to the point. When I'm writing fights, I often find that they end far too quickly. I try to be very realistic in my fighting, and the truth is, no fight between two people could last for even 5 minutes, especially when using weapons as deadly as lightsabers. Realistically, I think most fights would be over within four or five maneuvers. Which is what I write. This is fine when it comes to minor combat. I'm really not looking forward to writing fights between main characters though. I basically want to write chapter long conflicts, and I have no idea how I'm going to do it without myself thinking that they're completely artificial. And if I don't believe in the fight, it's going to show up in the writing.


Emotional payoff is definitely the name of the game. The best fights will always be ones that have been brewing for thousands of words. Anakin and Obi-Wan's fight at the end of Revenge of the Sith was epic because that's what you were waiting to see for 2 hours.


I think basically my opinion on action is that you need to write however much you need to write. If you really like writing action, more power to you. If you don't, then don't. As long as you're enjoying writing, who am I to tell you how to do it?

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But sometimes the story doesn't really need any action for a while.

This is what I was saying. But what I meant was, really, action only for action's sake IS bad, and if your story is getting slow and boring maybe you should rethink the story and or realize that character development can happen through action too. As long as the action is providing something for the story rather than "suddenly Obi-Wan whipped out his sword and dueled Yoda while they discussed Kamino"... well... then by all means, have your action.


I basically want to write chapter long conflicts, and I have no idea how I'm going to do it without myself thinking that they're completely artificial.

Conflict is much greater than just the swords clashing, though. The hunt, the run through a facility, hiding, plotting out the action... those five moves can be stretched out into a chapter long conflict.


As long as you're enjoying writing, who am I to tell you how to do it?

This is why you'll never be a beta reader. Who are you? You're another writer with experience of your own to share. We don't come out knowing all we can about writing. It's not just about enjoying it, but growing as well to be happier with your craft. I at least am never satisfied and would never be without those who knew they could tell me what I could change.


Just when I thought it was over, I watched Tiana kick Almira in the head, effectively putting her out of her misery. I did not expect that.
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  • 4 weeks later...

That is a great rule of thumb, Tiana. I do, however, think it depends on the story. Some stories just don't have a whole lot of action. Some stories depend on it. I think that writing battle sequences are just about the hardest thing to do because there often is no dialogue, and very little context (or what context you put in there is just repetitious). A lot of it is action vs reaction again and again and again. It's difficult to write it in an interesting way that keeps the reader wanting more.


For instance, take the final fight between Obi-wan and Anakin, or even the final fight between Vader and Luke (although I think that one would be a bit easier). How would you describe that? Sometimes you can get away with "they swung at each other again and again, red clashing with green" but sometimes you need a play by play, especially if the underdog wins. Besides, what if you're talking about a muskateer fight? Often they're both wearing similar colors and you don't have colors of lightsabers either. Or how about a martial arts or fist fight? Battles are often some of the most difficult things to portray in literature.

You know the closer you get to something

The tougher it is to see it,

And I'll Never take it for granted,

Let's go!



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