Monday, August 18, 2014

A Brief Pause In The Action For Dialogue

So my first thought on this subject is that dialogue belongs in action scenes the same way that mayonnaise belongs on a peanut butter  & jelly sandwich. That is to say, not at all.
I like dialogue. Most of best scenes have dialogue. What most of those scenes also have, frankly, is a bit of an attachment to reality. That means I have to tone back my initial response because some dialogue makes sense.
Here’s the thing. First, you have to define “action” When I thin action I think fisticuffs, swordfights and knock down, drag out brawls. Mostly what you her in those is a few screams, a couple of bellows and a lot of whimpering at the end.
We work in fantasy. There should be a little reality to balance that. Most of the dialogue should come before or after the actual fight. Very little should happen in the middle unless you’re dealing with military commanders giving orders and the responses to them.
Actual combat usually doesn’t last very long. There are exceptions, of course, but in most cases one-on-one or hand-to-hand violence is a matter of a minute tops and at the end of that, you’re very likely exhausted. During the fight? You aren’t saying much of anything. You’re too busy trying to take down your enemy before the enemy can take you down.

Below is an example of how I personally feel dialogue should work in an action sequence. The following is from CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. There are a lot of action sequences in that one.

Directly between the four flares a dead man stared toward the sky, his eyes open, his mouth hanging loosely agape. The impact had blown half the lower jaw away, and shattered teeth glared from the ruined orifice. The man was heavyset, mid forties, wearing a suit that said he was likely traveling from some- where else, and soaked through by the rain. His hair was trail- ing downhill, waving in the constant stream that surrounded his skull like a halo. A large portion of the back of his head had been shattered by the impact as well, and gray matter seeped into the stream.

 “Found him. He’s definitely dead.”
“Well, that’s one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Same person that called before said there’s two more bodies on the same stretch of road, Carl.”
“The same number?”
      “Affirmative. It’s a burner. I already checked.”     
“Is it listed to anyone?”
“Man named Chet Ellery, from Nacogdoches, Texas.”
Carl stared at the Texas State flag lapel on the dead man’s lapel. “I got a dollar says I just might have found Chet Ellery.”
      Burley was starting to answer when the hiss of tires on the road reached past the rain and the conversation and registered in Carl’s mind. He turned, saw the truck coming his way, and sprinted across the road. The truck had seen better days; it was a great white whale of a truck, with faded paint, rust spots and a spider-webbed windshield. Several serious dents along the front end showed where something or several someones had hit the hood, the grill, the bumper.      

Whoever was driving was only a silhouette inside, but he could make out the motions of the man’s arms as he turned the truck to follow him.

     Perfect. Carl felt his mouth pull into a tight smile as he threw himself off the road and into the ravine on the side he was aiming for.
The truck had three choices: Follow and go over the side, stop, or swerve back onto the road and head off.
The sound of brakes and hissing tires told Carl what he needed to know. The ravine was deep enough to cause a truck problems, but not so steep that he couldn’t stand back up after he hit the gravel. The ground was properly saturated and his pants were soaked in an instant.

One more reason to be in a bad mood.
Somewhere up on the road, near a dead man, his phone was lying on the ground and getting wet. He wasn’t thrilled about that, either.

     Carl came back up in time to see the men starting to climb from the truck. He did not recognize them. He did not care. They looked toward the spot where he’d gone over the side and then looked toward him, where he was climbing back to level ground.
They were carrying guns. So was Carl.

“You need to stop right there!” He barked his orders loud and clear. They did not listen.
 One of them reached for his back, where he kept his pistol. Carl shot him in the face. The way his mouth exploded immediately made the sheriff think of the dead hit and run victim. The shot was not fatal, but it was definitely enough to change the landscape of the man’s features. He fell back shrieking, all thoughts of going for his gun removed along with his incisors and lips.
“I said ‘Stop!’” He pointed the gun at the other man. The man looked toward his friend where he was lying on the ground and screaming, and then slowly raised his hands above his head. No sudden moves.
He licked his lips as he looked at Carl. “I didn’t do nothing!” Deep south accent. Not local. Maybe as far away as Texas.
“You tried to run me down, asshole.”

“It was an accident.”
“Get up against the truck! Don’t make me ask twice.” The man was looking around too much and he was making Carl nervous. People didn’t often feel the need to look at the landscape quite that much unless they were either planning something or expecting someone. Either way, Carl didn’t much like it.
Carl’s shoes squelched as he headed for the man. The wind picked up, the rain fell harder. Everything tried to distract him from what he had to do, what he had to take care of.
And from the other vehicle that came for him. He likely would have never noticed, but the one he’d told to go up against the truck was looking past his shoulder, looking beyond him. Not just glancing, but actually looking, and so Carl had to look, and was looking when the car with the Texas plates came down the road from the same direction as the truck.
The man in the car didn’t bother with stopping. He barely slowed. The passenger’s side window exploded and Carl dropped. He didn’t try running or ducking or finding cover, because the car was coming too fast and there was only the one option, so he let his legs go and fell toward the ground, catching himself on his one palm and on the butt of his pistol.
The bullets missed him, but they punched three holes in the old white truck, and at least two of them also made holes in the driver of the truck. The man added his own screams to the sounds of the man Carl’d shot.
Carl stayed down but took the time to aim and shoot three rounds of his own at the car as it thundered down the road. The driver didn’t try to fire again. He was too busy keeping his vehicle on the road as it curved into a hairpin.

He could have gone after the man. He could have.
Instead he followed the rules and crawled over to the driver he’d been ready to ask questions.
The man whimpered and looked at where the car had gone past.
The wounds were in his stomach, the bullets in his guts. Even if he lived he’d be fighting sepsis for a while.
“Sit still. I’ll call for an ambulance.”
He looked to the side of the road where his phone was still sitting. Sometimes fate is kind; the device was perched on a couple of rocks that were keeping it out of the worst of the rain.
He moved over to it and checked. Burley was still on the line. “Carl? Answer me damn it!” The man’s voice was justifiably panicked.
“Get me an ambulance. Make it two. We’ve got gunshot victims.” He gave what few details he had on the car that came past and told Burley to send two more cars to come look for it. Some damned fool with a gun was shooting people. As a rule if someone was shooting at cops, they had to be dealt with as quickly as possible. If they’d shoot at cops, they’d shoot at anything.

See what I mean? During the actual action, there's not much that needs to be said. it distracts from the sequence of events. Between the action sequences is a different story. Dialogue is incredibly important in any decent story. Take it away and you lose a lot. But there's a time and a place for everything and the average person being shot at is not going to open a meaningful dialogue with his enemy while the bullets are going.

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