Wednesday, June 30, 2010

300th Post - Staging a Scene

This is my 300th post on this blog. Whoo hoo!

And today I got a nice review of The Wife of Freedom from the KindleObsessed blog. It was a four-star review, but since she started out by talking about Pride and Prejudice, I think I would have had to slug her if she gave me a five-star review in conjunction with that.

But in the meantime, I finished the first Simon Templar story "The Man Who Was Clever." (Technically not the very first Saint story Leslie Charteris wrote, but he didn't really like the first one, so we'll ignore it.) It brought up a lot of interesting writing issues, but I'll start with the most trivial one, because it's been on my mind for other stories.)

The action scenes were all very clear, if a little miraculous and often glossed over tricky details. When told in summary they were great - such as the first action scene, where we see the results of the fight first, and then hear the story told after. You really could see the choreography of the scene, where a gang of four toughs are quickly and easily dispatched by the elegant Templar. He had it planned, and you feel a kind of whirlwind. Crack, bang, whack whack, boom! And all four are laid out almost simultaneously.

AND you also have a clear idea of what happened and how - but that's partly because it was told in summary. There was time to sort out what happened afterward. When a quick blur of action happens, very often it's hard to portray so clearly and yet believably. In the moment it IS a blur.

And that's where many of the other action scenes in the story fell down. They were described very clearly, beat-by-beat, in the moment. As a result, they felt like those scenes where the bad guys all wait in line for the hero to knock them out one at a time. The other thing that contributed to this problem is that the story is told in omniscient point of view. We neither get a deep sense of one person's experience of any of it, nor do we get the clean objective external description.

I think that one of the best ways to avoid that whole "bad guys standing in line" feel is to use two techniques. First of all, you need to choreograph the scene. What ARE those other guys doing while they are not being punched by the hero? Are there obstacles in their way? Do they get in each other's way? Is there a MacGuffin they have to go after or protect? Does the main character manipulate them in some way?

The other thing you need to do, especially if you are not already an advanced action writer, is put the scene in somebody's head. If that person is the hero - if he's Jackie Chan - he will be thinking clearly about each of his strategies. He will be paying attention to those other guys, and he will be taking action based on the fact that they're coming for him all at once, not just one at a time.

If that person is someone else - maybe someone being rescued - he or she can experience the blur and confusion. The audience will not be confused as long you stay clear about what is happening to that person. And the audience can get the same emotional effect as the character in question.

But back to choreography: it can be important for more than just action scenes. In a traditional mystery in particular, it can be very important to know the exact timing of just who was in the drawing room with Colonel Mustard before and after he died. And if Miss Scarlet is your red herring, how do you hide the fact that she has an alibi until later in the story? Why didn't Mrs. White see her? Or if all the suspects were present when Mr. Green was poisoned, who had access to his glass and when?

I like to play with these kinds of scenes by using little Disney figurines and other small toys acquired from fast food joints. (This adds some fun deciding how to cast your characters. Is your detective more of an Esmeralda, or Mary Poppins?) Have some fun with it, but do it next time you need to visualize a scene or turn of events. It can open up your imagination to new possibilities.


Hart Johnson said...

Congrats on your 300th post and great review!

And I love your discussion on choreographing actions scenes--they are so hard, aren't they? It is easier if you stay just in one person's head, because then you have an excuse to only notice what they notice, but it is still something really easy to not quite hit--I've read a ton that I am left wondering if what they say happened COULD happen... it just seems they forgot something.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great ideas here for staging action scenes, Camille! I'm tweeting this one. :)

Talei said...

I like your idea if using little figurines to work out a scene. And congrats in your 300th post !

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks all!

You know, I started using the figurines back when I was writing screenplays. Ensemble comedies in particular require a lot of choreography.