I like action. I like it a lot. I tend to think good action scenes make or break movies and books with fair regularity. Some of my favorite action flicks have sequences that take only seconds to enact, but they're memorable for their eloquent savagery. TAKEN comes to mind. There really aren't that many scenes of violence in the movie, but when the DO show up, they are decidedly fast and brutal. I have seen several other movies where the action was handled with all the finesse of a four-year-old making mud pies and the end results were about as crisp and clean. A perfect example of horribly bad action? RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT, which remains, to my mind, one of the worst movies ever made.
So, let's look into that for a moment, shall we?
What makes action work in a movie? The same thing that makes it work elsewhere: proper direction.
What do I mean? I mean in movies and TV shows you have a script writer and then you have storyboard artists and choreographers, stunt people, actors, soundtracks, cinematographers, and the list goes on and on.
In comic books you have an artist and a writer working together (sometimes they are one and the same) and an editor following up to double check stuff.
In novels and short stories you have the writer and the editor.
When you get down to it, for me at least, a lot of the way this works out is to consider the pacing of the scene. Action sequences should be faster, and terse. There is a time for flowery descriptions, and that time is not when you have two or more characters trying to beat each other to death.
Exposition and set up can take all the time they need to, but when you get to the actual fight scenes, it's best to hit hard and fast. And to prove that I'm going to take a couple of scenes from one of my novels and post them here. And then I'll do my best to explain WHY the scenes works.
I'm doing two here because you have two different writers and two different action sequences. I'll explain that in a moment. First, let's get to the scenes.
Both scenes are from CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD. This first one was written by my co-author Charles R. Rutledge. Charles knows a bit about action, trust me on this. But the actual reason I'm using this sequence is to show how he moves from exposition to action and back again ease.
Calvin Martin tipped the beer can back to get the last of its contents, then crumpled the can and tossed it into the floorboard of his truck to join its eight brothers. For the umpteenth time he looked out the side window at the house that had once been his. Parked in back of a currently empty house, Calvin had been waiting for night to fall. It was full dark now and lights had come on in his former home. Good. That meant Leslie was home.
Calvin opened the door and the dome light illuminated the cab, allowing Calvin one more look at the restraining order. That bitch. She thought a piece of paper could keep him away. He'd show her. Nobody could keep him away from what was his. Not her father. Not the fucking cops. She hadn't been much of a wife, truth to tell, but she had been his and nothing was over until he said it was over. Plus there was no way he was just going to let her take everything he had.
Calvin shut the door and started down the driveway. He barely felt the beers. He was a big man and he could handle his drinks. Maybe he would have something stronger later, after he had taught little miss fucking bitch how the world worked.
He looked around as he reached the bottom of the drive. No one around. Great. He could cross the street and come at the house from the side where there were plenty of trees and that would get him to the back door. Leslie had changed the locks but Calvin knew he could kick the door in. Hell he'd done it before.
He had just crossed the street and was stepping into the yard when a voice said, “Mr. Martin.”
No questioning tone. Whoever the hell it was knew who he was looking at. Calvin turned. In the dim light from a street lamp he could make out a big man standing near the trees. A damn big man. Calvin moved closer. The big guy had close cropped brown hair and pale eyes.
“Who the fuck are you?” Calvin said.
“That's not pertinent at the moment.”
“Huh?” said Calvin.
“Pertinent,” repeated the man. “It means it's not important.”
“I know what the fuck it means, wise-ass.”
“Good. Just making sure. You look a little slow.”
Calvin grimaced. Had that fucker just called him slow? He said, “Listen pal. I don't know what your deal is, but you better close that smart mouth or you'll be spitting teeth.”
“That's unlikely,” the man said. “But back to our discussion. What is pertinent, is that you're currently under a retraining order, which states that you're not to come within 100 feet of your ex-wife. You're in violation of that order as of now.”
“You a cop?”
“Not anymore. Now why don't you trot on back to your truck and go home and finish getting drunk?”
“Or what?” said Calvin.
“Or I'll hurt you.”
Calvin's face felt hot and he could feel the old anger welling up. He had hoped to let a little of that anger out on the former Mrs. Martin, and later he would, but here was a bigger target. Yeah the asshole was big, but he wasn't that big. Calvin started toward the man, balling his fists as he went.
“Oh so you're going to hurt me. Gee, I'm all scared.” The man didn't answer and his silence only made Calvin more pissed. “I'm going to stomp your ass all over this street, fuckhead.”
Calvin lunged, swinging a long, looping right at the man's head. He'd always been good at punching. He had big thick bones. Never even broken a knuckle pounding on some deserving head.
But there was a problem. The man wasn't there anymore. Calvin's punch met only empty air and Calvin stumbled forward, almost falling.
“Last chance, Mr. Martin,” the man said. “Go home.”
Calvin spun. Somehow the man had gotten behind him. Calvin said, “Fuck you,” and threw another punch.
Calvin was never sure exactly what happened after that. His nose exploded into a pulpy mass and then something that felt like a cannon ball slammed into his stomach. Calvin went to his knees, vomiting up his nine beers and the cheeseburger that had preceded them into his gullet.
He looked up just in time to see a foot coming at his face and then the world went dark.
Wade Griffin grabbed a fist full of the back of Calvin Martin's work shirt and dragged the man back across the street to Martin's truck. Griffin opened the passenger door and threw the two hundred plus pound man into the cab. Griffin slammed the door and walked around to the driver's side. He smiled. The keys were still in the ignition. Griffin got in, started up the truck and pulled out onto the street.
Leslie Martin had been right. She had told the county sheriff that her ex husband would just ignore the restraining order and would find her and give her another of the beatings he had handed out so often over the two years of their rocky marriage.
The sheriff had told Leslie that he would step up patrols in her neighborhood but had also recommended that she hire a private investigator. In fact he had recommended one specifically. Griffin grinned, thinking of Sheriff Carl Price sending the woman his way, telling her that she could trust Wade Griffin, a local boy who had just moved back to town.
Griffin had only had to watch the house for two nights before Martin showed up. Griffin had waited for the man to build up enough courage and when Martin had finally come strolling over, Griffin had intentionally pissed him off. It had made it much easier to deal with him. Anger makes people stupid and reckless. That was one of the first things Griffin's sensei had taught him.
Griffin drove Martin's truck to the parking lot of the Brennert County Hospital emergency room entrance. He had noted that the late model truck had an anti-theft alarm. Griffin pulled a four way lug wrench from behind the front seat. He locked both doors, tossed the keys into a storm drain, then threw the lug wrench through the truck's passenger side window. The alarm began to wail as Griffin vaulted the parking lot's chain link fence and disappeared into the darkness.
Now, let's break this scene down: Calvin Martin, a drunken wife beater, decides to pay his ex a visit after having a few beers. This scene is the actual introduction of Wade Griffin in the story, by the way, and Wade is one of the main characters.
What Charles does here is simple and eloquent. He gives an introduction to the character, he explains a bit about the character though his actions and he shows the character cleaning our abusive ex-husband's clock for him. He does all of this in 1,075 words. A very short amount of time to cover a lot of territory.
Charles accomplishes that because he keeps the sentences and descriptions brief. The reason is really very simple: in an actual fight, you don't have a lot of time to look into details. You're normally too busy trying not to get yourself killed. As a result there's a lot of verbal shorthand going on. Short, hard sentences, without much by way of description. Action and reaction without much contemplation in the middle. The scene is small, but I tend to think it's a perfect example of a quick action sequence and I also think it's a brilliant way to introduce the main character.
On to scene two:
Just after three and the day was getting hotter and hotter. The thermometer said the temperature was a mere ninety-three degrees, but Carl knew better. There was the humidity to consider and that brought the heat index up to a little over one hundred degrees. “Just south of Hell,” he mused. That was what his father used to say when the worst part of the summer came around.
He was driving again. Always driving these days it seemed. That was what happened when you were the sheriff. You drove. In this case he was heading into Wayfield, Georgia, which was barely even a speck on the map. If it hadn’t been a part of his county he might not have even known it existed.
Normally he didn’t have to get out this way too often, but in this case they had something he wanted. They had the truck that belonged to Corey Phillips. The thieves had decided to leave the vehicle intact and while Carl wasn’t exactly the sort that didn’t trust his people to handle something like fingerprinting the interior of a stolen vehicle, this was a special case. He needed to see the truck to decide for himself if it was the one he’d seen the night before.
It was. He could tell in a matter of seconds by the wide fingered handprint in the rear passenger’s side window. Was there a rational reason to know so completely that this was the truck? No. But he felt it.
That said he still took the time to very carefully dust the interior and lift the prints, sweating like a stuck pig the entire time. Deke Howard was chewing on a wad of tobacco as he did the work. Deke was a short man who was leaning hard toward flab. His pants were the same size as Carl’s, but he wore them much lower and the belly he had trembled with each breath he took in the humid air. “Dunlap’s Disease,” that was another one of his dad’s favorite old sayings, as in “his belly done lapped over his belt.” Deke looked to be in the final stages of that particular disorder.
Deke wiped a handkerchief across the back of his neck, examined the sweat stains as if they might tell him the secrets of the universe, and then tucked it back into his back pocket. “Found this one just parked on the side of the road, right where we are now.”
“Been getting a lot of abandoned cars around here lately, Deke?”
“Goodly number.” Deke squinted at the sky and then spit a wad of black tobacco. Carl closed his eyes, reminded himself to be nice and made a mental note to get on his deputies about personal hygiene, following the county regulations regarding weight limitations, and to reemphasize that tobacco use was to be limited to break times only. He’d let it go for now, but only because it was too damned hot to start an argument with Deke and the man loved nothing more than to argue over anything and everything under the sun.
“Yeah? Do me a favor and give me a list. Send it to my email, will ya?”
“Course. You figure something’s going down?”
He resisted the desire to throw a snotty comment or two at the man. Deke was just bored and hoping for something exciting. Nothing much ever happened in Wayfield. That was one of the reasons he left the area for Deke. The man was harmless, and he certainly could handle the paperwork, but he wasn't exactly super-cop.
“Might be. This truck was driven from Wellman. That’s a good-sized drive. I want to see where the other ones are coming from.”
Carl slid from the truck, satisfied that he’d gotten all of the prints that might be found. They’d get into AFIS—Automated Fingerprint Identification System—as soon as he got back to the office. Then he’d have to keep his fingers crossed.
“You get fingerprints from any of the other vehicles, Deke?”
Deke got a slightly startled and just-a-touch-guilty expression on his face. “I-uh, I think so. But if you want me to I can double check on that and send the information to your office.”
Yeah. Deke was going to be moving on soon. Maybe he’d be staying in town, but he probably wouldn’t be in charge of much beyond cleaning out the cells in the Wayfield Detention Center.
“Do that for me, okay?”
Ten minutes later, Carl was on the way back to the office. The air conditioning in the truck was straining to keep up, but that was all right. He’d stop somewhere along the way and get something cold to drink.
There was a lot to take care of. He had feelers out regarding the Phillips family. There was something that just plain felt wrong going on with them and he wanted to know what it was.
He stifled a yawn. Too many hours of working and not nearly enough sleep.
Too many bad things on his mind. A vacation was looking better and better of late.
He was contemplating a long vacation someplace where the temperatures never rose above seventy or so degrees when he reached the interstate and headed back for Wellman.
On the side of the road there were two cars pulled over. One of them had the driver’s side door open. The other had three younger men around the hood and on the hood was the man they were currently beating the shit out of.
Carl felt his lips pull up in a smile for just a second and forced back the thought that now and then God answers prayers from his mind.
He pulled to the side of the road and started his flashers. What he should have done was called for back up, but now and then he just felt a need to handle things by himself.
If he had to guess the boys were high school aged. He climbed from the truck, moving at a brisk pace. Two of them were holding the man down, one on each arm, while the third looked like he was revving up to play the bongos all over the poor bastard they were pinning.
“Hey! What the hell is this?”
One of the kids holding the man in place looked his way and sneered. “Go back to your car, dickless.”
“Seriously? How about you knock that shit off.” It wasn’t a question. Two steps closer. The sun was too bright for them to notice the flashers, maybe, or they were just that stupid. Carl hated wearing his uniform and to that end he was wearing a blue shirt that said Sheriff’s Department. He could almost forgive the idiot not noticing that.
The one that was speaking actually let go of the man he was holding so he could turn and face Carl. He had a look on his face that made clear he intended to cause trouble. The look faded fast as soon as he read the logo on Carl’s shirt. His eyes went wide, his mouth dropped open. Amazing, like he’d never in his life expected to run across a cop.
“I said knock it off!” This time Carl bellowed and the other two looked away from their good time beating to notice him.
The first boy started to rabbit. His knees bent and he looked left and right in an effort to find the best way out of his situation. Carl jabbed a finger at him. “Move and I will drop your ass.”
Yeah. That worked as well as he’d expected. The skinny pup went left.
Carl grabbed his arm and wrenched it behind him. The kid screamed like he was being burned alive and Carl rammed him against the side of the car. Practice, practice, practice. Carl had the cuffs on the kid before he could so much as utter another profanity.
The second kid, the other one who was busily holding down their victim, tried a different tactic. He charged right at Carl, screaming out an incoherent battle cry.
Carl was willing to play it by ear. The first one tried to run, so he just subdued him. The second one actually attacked, and that meant Carl had to defend himself. Because his attacker was a kid, Carl just spanked him. He popped the kid in the solar plexus to slow his forward motion, and then, while the kid was gasping, he hit him a second time in the same spot. While he was folding over and trying to decide if he needed to vomit all over himself—he did—Carl swept his feet and dropped him to the ground.
Damned if number three didn’t want to up the ante. He pulled a hunting knife with an eight-inch blade off his belt. The blade was patently illegal unless the kid had a concealed weapons license and Carl would bet money he didn’t.
Carl stepped back and gestured the boy toward him. Better that the dumb ass come at him with the knife than at the man he’d been beating senseless. The kid took Carl’s backing up as a sign of cowardice and grinned as he came forward, swinging the knife in half arcs as if to ward off any attacks.
“Son, you can put that down or I can shoot you. Do the math.” Carl patted the weapon on his hip. He could almost see the kid’s neurons firing up in an effort to decide if Carl could draw before he could reach him. Most of the time kids who were suddenly that brave were on something. He didn’t doubt for a second that all three of them were imbibing in something, and judging by the pinpoint pupils on the kid, it probably wasn’t a couple of beers that were making the kid courageous.
Worse case scenario, he could take the kid and disarm him with minimal damage. He just didn’t want to. Knives were unpredictable and the kid being on something only made the situation more volatile.
He waited for the kid to decide.
The kid swung in a wild arc, and Carl stepped in closer, blocked with his left hand, caught the kid’s arm at the shoulder and then brought his right elbow into his attacker’s face. The first two he dealt with went down with minimal damage. This one got a shattered jaw for his troubles. That took most of the wind from his sails. After that it was just a matter of bagging the two. He called for backup, called for an ambulance, and then checked on the man they’d been beating.
The man was unconscious and his breathing was labored. A quick check told him their victim was still breathing and his pulse was steady. They’d pulped his face properly and he was having trouble breathing through his nose was all.
He resisted the urge to work all three of them over a second time, but it took an effort.
Now and then he envied the hell out of Wade. Wade took a few assholes down and he had a few minor issues—okay, sometimes because Carl helped—but Carl? Now on top of everything else, Carl had more paperwork.
He hated paperwork.
The second scene is around 800 words longer and has a great deal more exposition. Why? Because I wrote it and in comparison to Charles, I'm a wordy little so-and-so. The actual action sequence is a little over twice as long. It's a more complicated scene and the reason for that is actually to illustrate my point here. Even though it's a longer sequence the action in both is actually rather short. The second case has more of a build up and more details on the plot of the story are woven in, but only at the beginning of the sequence. The entire portion of the scene with Deke is laying out groundwork and planting seeds for the investigation that Griffin and Price are looking into and also working in details about Carl Price who has already been introduced by this scene.
The second scene also shows a difference, I think, between the pacing of the exposition and the fight sequence. The dialogue and considerations that Carl Price goes through, his thoughts on the investigation, the caliber of his deputy, Deke, and the procedural changes he needs to make, all slow down the tempo. When the fighting starts, everything changes. The action takes longer in this sequence only because there are more opponents to consider.