Too Fast For It’s Own Good)
I have a big pet peeve in action movies. It’s something that has been going on for a long while, still finds its way into top-tier blockbuster titles today, and every time it shows up makes the whole scene feel cheap and insincere.
So what is this cardinal sin? Ramping the playback speed up to 1.25x speed.
This is done to make it appear that the actors or vehicles are moving faster than they were when the scene was filmed. Rather than throwing their punches or swerving their cars in real-time, they spring about in a choppy, erratic manner that feels detached from reality.
As soon as an action scene starts to do this, it doesn’t matter what else happens, the moment has been ruined for me. Right then I feel just as disconnected from the action as if it had been animated.
So the only good use of playback is at 1x speed?
No, I wouldn’t say that. To an extent, some modifying of the playback speed is to be expected, but ideally (and usually) it is so subtle that it can’t be recognized. Also a sped up moment mixed with silly music can make for a great comedy bit, the irregular movement accentuating the humor. And of course slow-motion can be used to great effect as well, highlighting the importance and intricacy of a single moment.
But what is important is that the effect should lean into the fact that the playback speed is being changed. It should not make an obvious change and then ask the audience to pretend that what they are seeing is normal. A fast-paced comedy bit or a slow-paced dramatic bit are being honest about their change of speed and they are saying something to the audience through that.
The Opposite Problem)
Overly-fast action, however, is usually not the problem we face in written stories. More often the failure here is a scene of action that transpires too slowly. Again, there is a time and a place for slowed down moments of gravitas, but by and large a scene should be read in the same amount of time that it would take to play out in real life.
What makes this such a challenging feat is twofold. First is that one of the main appeals of a novel is how they allow us insight into the characters that isn’t otherwise possible. If all I do is tell you what people are doing in a sterile, play-by-play fashion, then my story will lose all of its flavor.
But when it comes to a scene of action, dwelling on the private thoughts and feelings of a character just makes the action slow to a slog. Action is not the time for making the audience feel introspective, it is for making them feel excited!
And so sacrifice narrative intimacy?
Not at all. One just has to learn how to write their action both succinctly and evocatively. Do not merely say that one man struck another, do it in a way that conveys mood and intent, but also do it quickly!
The other challenge to writing a scene of action is the matter of conveying a complex event in a clear manner. If you are already familiar with jiu jitsu I could just tell you:
James grabbed the free arm and pulled it into a tight kimura!
Now if you know what a “kimura” is then you’re right there with me. But if not, then you’re checked out.
What do I do, then? Try to describe all the technical details of the hold? Should I recite the angles of each limb involved so you can draw them out on graph paper? Obviously no.
Writing complicated details in succinct terms is one of the greatest tests of how well an author is able to leverage the imagination of the reader. You cannot write it in explicit detail, but you could write just enough that the audience can add the extra detail themselves. I might have instead written that sentence as something like:
James grabbed the free arm and gave it a sharp twist!
It is a more ambiguous bit of phrasing, and different readers might picture different postures from it, but all of them will have the general gist of what’s going on.
Let’s bring this all together with an excellent example from Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town. It begins with one of those slowed down moments of gravitas I was talking about, pulling in close to examine a black walking stick that is going to be of utmost importance in the scuffle that is about to ensue.
It was thick and made of ebony, but heavy even for that wood, with a balanced weight that hinted at loaded ferrule and knob. Except for a space the breadth of a man’s hand in its middle, the stick was roughened, cut, and notched with the marks of hard use—marks that much careful polishing had failed to remove or conceal. The unscarred handsbreadth was of a softer black than the rest—as soft a black as the knob—as if it had known much contact with a human palm.
A moment later and the action is being described in terms that are as evocative as they are succinct, and the shining star of it all is that black walking stick with which we’ve been made so intimately acquainted. Here are three excerpts from the battle.
Steve rocked back against a building front from a blow on his head, arms were round him, the burning edge of a knife blade ran down his left arm. He chopped his black stick up into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip.... He put his left side against the wall, and the black stick became a whirling black arm of the night. The knob darted down at a man’s head. The man threw an arm to fend the blow. Spinning back on its axis, the stick reversed—the ferruled end darted up under warding arm, hit jawbone with a click... Lower half of stick against forearm once again, Steve whirled in time to take the impact of a blackjack-swinging arm upon it. The stick spun sidewise with thud of knob on temple—spun back with loaded ferrule that missed opposite temple only because the first blow had brought its target down on knees.
Literally poetry in motion.
At the end of it all, I would say that my action in the last section of The Favored Son was somewhat lacking. Certainly it was nowhere near the snappy-yet-detailed prose of Hammett.
I’m probably still not ready to write at his level, but I would like to take another shot at it with my next section. Come back on Thursday where I will include another brief scene of action, honestly just so I can try out some of the techniques I learned in preparing this post!