Ask the Authors 2022 Book & Blog Series: Action, Pacing & DialogPosted: June 4, 2022 | |
Hello again, and welcome to segment 5 of the “Ask the Authors” blog series. This Saturday series features introductions to each contributing author and excerpts from the Q & As featured in the newly released Ask the Authors 2022 writing reference anthology.
If you missed any of the earlier segments, you can find them here:
Segment 1: Introductions for Kaye Lynne Booth & Kevin Killiany/Writing Life Q & A session
Segment 2: Introduction for Bobby Nash/Pre-Writing Rituals Q & A session
Segment 3: Introduction for Roberta Eaton Cheadle/Plot & Storyline Q & A session
Segment 4: Introduction for Paul Kane/Character Development Q & A session
This week’s segment features an introduction to contributing author Mario Acevedo and a Q & A on action, pacing, and dialog.
Meet Mario Acevedo
Mario Acevedo is a national bestselling author of speculative fiction and has won an International Latino Book Award and a Colorado Book Award. His work has appeared in numerous anthologies to include A Fistful of Dinosaurs, Straight Outta Deadwood, and Blood Business. For 2020, he has short fiction in the forthcoming anthologies, Psi-Wars and It Came From The Multiplex, and a Western novel, Luther, Wyoming. Mario serves on the faculty of the Regis University Mile-High MFA program and Lighthouse Writers Workshops. Mario has also been a presenter and panel member for both the 2020 Stay in Place Virtual Writing Conference, and the 2021 New Beginnings Virtual Writing Conference.
And now, on to the Q & A.
Action, Pacing & Dialog
Do you have any tips for writing action scenes/fight scenes/car chases, where blow by blow descriptions could get tedious?
Mario Acevedo: Summarize. Only share the high points and include internalizations. Also add details that are often overlooked like nausea, panic, pain, exhaustion.
Paul Kane: I grew up watching a lot of action movies and TV shows, the ’70s and ’80s were a golden age for action as far as I’m concerned. So, a lot of that went in without me having to do much. I used to recreate certain action scenes with my toys, or I might race off up the garden with mates to pretend fight. When I wrote the Hooded Man books, I had to have a lot of action in there, so I got very good at not making things boring – there are only so many ways to describe a punch, for example. But the key I found was to visualize the scenes, even play them out – just like I did when I was a kid – so that they become, again, more believable. I was delighted when one of my battle scenes for Broken Arrow was compared favourably to those in The Lord of the Rings movies, especially Helm’s Deep; that’s one of my all-time favourite battles on film, so I did a little happy dance that day. The way to tackle any fight or action scene, whether it’s huge like the ones I’m talking about here, or just one-on-one, is to break it down into its component parts. Ask yourself what you need or want to show. Then do your research, watch a lot of fight sequences, or action scenes, mix and match the moves that are being made. If your character is a master of martial arts, study it. I had a character called Tanek, for example, who was skilled in the Israeli hand-to-hand combat of Krav Maga, so I went out and researched that. Jennifer Garner actually studied that for Alias, so I watched some fight sequences from the show. They used a very particular form of combat for the Batman fight scenes in the Nolan movies called the Keysi Fighting Method, which favours forearms and elbows, so it’s worth trying to find something that’s not been done before perhaps. Or not done very much. Finally, give your fight and action scenes a sense of character, make them like a dance or a ballet. They need to have rhythm, flow, so your reader can easily picture what’s happening. Too much going on at once is a big no-no, because you’ll lose them. Same goes for very dry descriptions of a fight: now this happens, now this, then this… Try and find a way to make your descriptions interesting, maybe comparing them to something, like two animals barging into each other or what have you.
Chris Barili: Know what you’re talking about. It seems obvious, but may writers take it for granted, and end up writing nonsense that loses the reader. For example, I have studied the martial arts most of my life, and I hold a second-degree blackbelt in Karate. Thus, I know that someone trained primarily in Judo or Jiujitsu will be a grappler by preference, while a Karate stylist will be a stand-up striker who looks to avoid going to the ground.
Bobby Nash: It can be difficult to keep fight scenes fresh. I learn the choreography, walk out the fights, play around with different ways to describe the action. How is the character feeling/responding to the action? I wrote a car chase once and showed it from the POV of a passenger in the car instead of the driver. As he’s holding on for his life, we get a sense of the danger that way as opposed to only descriptions of what the car is doing.
Robbie Cheadle: I am writing my second novel involving war which includes fighting scenes. I intersperse the fighting with dialogue, humorous comments, scenes of eating, drinking, and entertainment, and the receipt of letters from family and friends.
You cannot maintain tension at high levels for too long or it becomes monotonous and over-done. In real life, people relieve tension by singing, and making jokes, and talking and I follow this practice in my writing.
Nancy Oswald: Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the scenes readers skip.” Ralph Fletcher: “Write small and use slo mo. The more tension you want to create, the more important the details. In general focus on one detail well rather than all the details which can wash out a scene.”
How do you handle scenes where there is a lot going on, like battlefields or fights in busy settings?
Paul Kane: As I say, break it down into smaller chunks. Show the scale of what’s happening by all means, like an establishing shot in a movie, then focus in on certain specific fights and details. These will usually be with your main characters if it’s a big battle – so I would zoom in on a fight Robert, my Robin Hood, might be having with someone. Then cut to maybe Jack, who is my Little John, and see how he’s getting on. You have to give everyone who’s a main character a turn in the sun, plus give the reader memorable moments – like Robert taking down the Apache attack helicopter with a bolas.
Chris Barili: This is a tough one. I have found that choreographing the whole thing on a sketched-out map of the physical surroundings can help, and if that’s not enough, having some friends act out the scene can help you identify errors, misjudgments, and so on.
Bobby Nash: I try to make sure all of the necessary information is relayed. If you have a lot of characters, you have to try and balance who has dialogue or stuff to do so that they don’t disappear from the scene. POV helps here too.
Robbie Cheadle: I keep my sentences fairly short during battle scenes, and I use a lot of dialogue to break up the action.
How do you keep action flowing smoothly within a scene?
Mario Acevedo: Keep the scene and story question in mind so that the action strengthens the plot.
Paul Kane: Just keep it tight, moving from one bit of action to the next. Even in a small fight, if you have a character get punched or kicked, it’s enough to say it just winds them or takes them down – you don’t have to go into lots of detail about how it feels, whether they’re recovering, what’s going through their minds as they’re fighting. Keep it rattling along at a good pace. Sounds stupid, because it’s a fight, but make it punchy.
The use of weaponry is a good way of handing readers little details that help them visualize what’s going on. Everyone knows what a knife or rifle or handgun looks like. Of course, it depends very much on what kind of fiction you’re writing. A lot of my Hooded Man stuff was military based, because of the nature of armies fighting each other, so readers who enjoy that kind of thing like you to include the names of weapons, specifics relating to what they can do. Does a certain gun jam more often than others? Which are best for close combat as opposed to distance? I once wrote a story about an assassin called Mr D, who had to tear through lots of guards to get to his target. That started off with long-range sniper rifles, and ended up with hand-to-hand fighting as he got closer to the building his mark was in.
It’s also fun to write about weaponry that’s totally out of context, for example plates and pans in a kitchen that can be used to fight with. In my novel Lunar, Nick Skinner raids old castles and museums to get swords, shields and axes to fight the monstrous Loons. Similarly, The Storm was set in an old castle so weapons like that were no-brainers, but I do have my main character – who’s there as a workman – fight off a huge crustacean with a mini-digger. It was just what was around and big enough to tackle the oversized beast, but it worked a treat.
Chris Barili: Keep it short. A ten-page car chase will lose a reader like a prologue.
Bobby Nash: When writing action, I use shorter sentences, short, choppy dialogue, sometimes interrupted dialogue. That reads faster so the reader reads the action scenes faster, highlighting the fast-paced nature of the scene. During an action scene is no time for deep thoughts or anything extraneous. Keep it simple and keep it moving.
Do you consult experts to ensure your action is true to life? How do stories benefit from getting those little details right?
Paul Kane: If you know someone who’s been in the military, or police, or someone who teaches self-defense then definitely use them. Use any friends for anything which requires specialist knowledge. This might be something as everyday as fingerprinting or gathering DNA at a crime scene, say, or if you know a scientist it could be as big as how the universe works. But you don’t necessarily have to go to experts like that these days if you don’t know any, because information is freely available on the net and in books – especially writers’ handbooks. At the same time, talking to experts sometimes throws up interesting scenarios and might take a story in a direction it wouldn’t otherwise have gone.
Bobby Nash: Research can help, sure. Whatever you writer, whether it’s a real-world fight or two super-powered characters battling, you have to write it as though it’s real. If you believe it, the reader will believe it.
Robbie Cheadle: I read a lot of non-fiction to gain knowledge about the subjects of my historical novels. To get a good feel for the era, I read works of fiction set during that time. Fiction reading gives me insight into how people lived, socialized, travelled, and dressed during the period in which my novel is set.
Nancy Oswald: I’m a nut for accurate historical detail, even if it plays a minute part in the story.
How can dialog help pace your story?
Mario Acevedo: Dialog is a great way to advance the plot by having the characters reveal crucial information or to help build a character. Dialog is more active and interesting then authorial narration.
Paul Kane: I think that’s where the planning comes into it, once more. If you have a chapter breakdown you can see where the novel needs tightening up. Is there too much exposition in a certain chapter, not enough? Too much action all in one go, or not enough for long periods? Are you hooking your reader at the end of your chapters, making them want to go on and read more in the next chapter? Even if you’re only writing a short story, if you jot down the structure of it in a few sentences you can usually work out where you’re going in terms of pace. Compare whatever you’re doing to other novels or short stories, see how they’re paced. If you want to write, then you have to read as well – like Stephen King says in On Writing. There really is no other way to learn how to do this. Similarly, if you’re scripting TV or film, then go away and watch how they’re paced. Or a comic or audio: read comics, listen to audio dramas and make notes. It really is the only way to learn your craft, whether it be characters, setting/description or pacing.
Robbie Cheadle: Dialogue speeds the pace of a story up, so I use more dialogue for tense, fast paced scenes.
What methods do you employ to control and maintain the pacing in your story?
Mario Acevedo: Know when to show and tell. Show is “reveal,” during which you draw out the narrative in a way that pulls the reader into the story. Tell is “exposition,” which you need to keep the reader oriented in between reveals.
Paul Kane: Try and stick to the plotting and planning you’ve done, even if it’s in broad strokes. That doesn’t mean your story can’t go off on a tangent if something occurs to you, but go back to the outlines that you’ve done at that point and rewrite those, see where the new development might take you. Predict and project, then go back to the writing of the tale. In my opinion that’s really the only way to keep a rein on the thing and make it go where you want it to go.
Robbie Cheadle: I break my story down into manageable pieces for each character. In my current work-in-progress, I am alternating chapters between Jake at the Western Front during WW1, and Kate in Orange, New Jersey.
In slower sections I use longer sentences and more detail and description to slow the pace down.
I also use introspection to develop my characters and control pace.
How do you find the right balance between action and dialog?
Paul Kane: For me personally, that’s something which just comes with practice. The more you write, the better at judging this you’ll be, until you’ll be doing it by instinct almost without thinking. If you drive, remember what it was like when you first started, trying to keep it all in your head? And once you’ve been on the road a while, a lot of that becomes like second nature to you, doesn’t it? Or it should do at any rate. It’s the same thing with writing really, you develop these skills over time – so that you can tell when something needs balancing out with a bit of dialogue, or a bit of action. It’s all just about putting in the work, honing your skills.
Nancy Oswald: Try to do them both at the same time by using appropriate action-filled tags.
How do you write dialog that sounds natural and realistic?
Mario Acevedo: Listen to the way people speak, then write a tightened version. People tend to repeat themselves. Catalog unique ways in how people express themselves. Also, keep in mind the character’s agenda when using dialog.
Paul Kane: The trick is to get the balance right between it sounding naturalistic and conveying information. Most dialogue should be moving the story along or serving the story, otherwise what’s it doing in the piece at all? In real life we all have conversations that are just random or serve no purpose, or we get distracted and break off from a conversation to talk about something else. You can’t do that in your fiction, because people will get bored. Or they’ll think you’re not in control of your own writing, which would be true at that point. I get criticized a lot for not finishing sentences in dialogue, but what I’m trying to do is leave readers in a bit of suspense, whilst at the same time making it a bit more realistic. Human beings very often leave sentences unfinished, if they’re interrupted or just shocked. I don’t do it all the time, and like I say some people find it jarring, but it is one way of creating naturalistic dialogue if you have a reason for it. Another way is to just let the dialogue flow, batting it backwards and forwards, but don’t forget to keep reminding the reader who’s speaking with a ‘Mike said’ or whatever, every now and again. Or have a bit of action, like Mike scratching his head or getting up and walking across the room to break things up if you’ve had several lines of dialogue. I always find arguments quite easy to write, because the flow of them comes across as very believable, and you can include lots of relevant information. For me, it’s quite easy to imagine a couple of people having an argument, because it happens a lot in our everyday lives; lots of people have opposing viewpoints, so it’s fun to try and get both sides of that across.
Chris Barili: Listen to people talk and write dialogue that way as much as possible. Do NOT write dialogue in grammatically correct sentences…we don’t speak in MLA format, either.
Bobby Nash: A trick I learned is to read the dialogue out loud. That will tell you if it works or not.
Robbie Cheadle: I read all my stories aloud to myself, and to anyone else who’ll listen. Reading my writing aloud helps me to spot errors and clumsy unnatural dialogue.
Kevin Killiany: I read it aloud. (Yes, I do character voices.)
Do you use dialog tags? Basic or varied?
Mario Acevedo: I vary them and use action tags as often as possible. Remember that in interpersonal communication, half of what we communicate is non-verbal so include those clues: tone, pauses, eye movement, facial expressions, gestures, changes in posture to emphasize what is being said.
Paul Kane: I tend to stick with the basics, unless you’re trying to say something specific. For example, ‘he spat’ shows how shocked or mad that person is by something that’s been said. I tend to steer clear of things like ‘he pontificated’ or anything complicated like that, as it throws you right out of the story. But good old-fashioned ‘he said’ ‘she said’ works just fine. It’s amazing how your eye glosses over this when you read. Try it for yourself, read a page from a book, then go back and re-read it looking for those tags – and I guarantee you won’t have spotted half of them.
Bobby Nash: Yes. I used ‘said’ most of the time, but if I need to add a punch to a line, I may use a different tag.
Robbie Cheadle: When I use dialogue tags, I generally stick to ‘said’. I don’t always use a dialogue tag, sometimes I prefer to use an action by the speaker to indicate who is talking.
Nancy Oswald: Both or not at all. Let the actions act as your dialogue tags.
Kevin Killiany: I stick to basics, with some variations. Many times I leave them out. Example:
Pilar realized her watch had stopped.
“Jerry? What time is it?”
“Four. Uh, four oh eight.”
“Four oh eight. Nine, now.”
You know who’s saying what and you get an idea of Jerry’s personality with no tags.
Any pet peeves with dialog?
Mario Acevedo: Info dumps and a character not saying the obvious in response to what’s going on.
Paul Kane: Not really, just if the conversation isn’t going anywhere or serving any kind of purpose. Having two characters discuss what they’ve had for lunch, for example. Unless that lunch caused food poisoning that results in something significant happening in the plot, then what’s the reason for including it?
Chris Barili: No robot-speak unless the character is actually a robot, and usually not even then.
Bobby Nash: Noting specific. I try not to be cliché.
Kevin Killiany: People speaking grammatically correct written English with every pronoun unnecessarily identified. Normal conversation—even in formal situations—is usually made up of sentence fragments because spoken English assumes all members of the conversation understand what’s being discussed.
Would you share a brief excerpt from one of your best dialog scenes?
I asked this question and got some wonderful responses, but most of them are too lengthy to include here, so I guess if you want to view them, you’ll have to buy the book.
That wraps up this week’s segment of the “Ask the Authors 2022” blog series. Be sure to drop by next Saturday, when we’ll introduce Nancy Oswald and bring you a Q & A on tone and all that entails.
And don’t forget to grab your copy of the Ask the Authors writing reference anthology, at the special 3.99 price for the duration of this blog series, from your favorite book distributor through the Books2Read UBL: https://books2read.com/u/3LnK8e
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