Live in the Moment

The distance between an author and their lead character(s) is revealed most clearly during scenes containing heightened action. Possible sources of the drama have a wide range, from bullets flying to a family member caught in a lie. No matter what your choice is, an action scene is often a missed opportunity. Told from a distance, it can be a hurried account in which the exciting events seem to fly by. Yep, they happened, but they didn’t grab the reader, because the author didn’t put enough details down on the page where a reader can experience it.

Let’s take an example, featuring a female PI in a graveyard. When the villains show up, they are summarily dispatched: “She swung out from the side of her headstone and felled the boss ape with a double tap to the heart. His partner took aim at her and blew a large chunk of marble from the stone she’d ducked behind again. She rolled to the other side and took him out with two headshots.” 

Now, as a reader, how am I able to participate in that? I have no idea what the woman is feeling as she peeks her head out from behind the gravestone the first time. I don’t sense that she fired her gun twice—don’t guns recoil, for instance? Although I was told previously that the villains shined their pickup’s headlights in her direction, I don’t sense that she sees the villains in silhouette. Plus, what’s her reaction to the chunk of stone flying off the headstone? Doesn’t any of it hit her? And how does she know to appear on the other side of the stone? Do they teach that in PI training camp? In other words, I’m left out of the proceedings because the author is imagining That Person Out There rather than inhabiting her lead character.

When you have heightened action, you want to dwell in it. You want to record every second that passes. I mean that literally. Among all the options, think of what she is hearing—because she can’t look to see very often. She knows she has to fire her gun. How does it feel in her hands? How many clips does she have, and could she take the time to reload? In other words, focus down on the moment. 

In the same fashion, record all those fleeting thoughts of the lead character that bring us inside his head. How did these guys know how to find him in a cemetery? Where did he screw up? Who was he talking to recently? Plus, research fight and flight reactions. Or, step back and think about what such a crisis could reveal to the character about himself. 

That paragraph in the cemetery? I would expand it to 3-4 times its present length. Think about all the details that could have been included. The longer the reader lives within the tension, the more emotional impact it will have. So, take your time once your knives are sharpened.

Exercise: Using all five senses can help in fully creating an action scene. Too much emphasis is usually placed on sight, and that might be considered last. I mentioned sounds before, but smells can also provide telling details. The intimate details of touch and taste, such as dry mouth, can bring the reader right inside the character. Write down a list of four types of sensations other than sight. 

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