The Speed of Action)
I have just finished my latest short story, Hunt of the Others. The entire piece was a single scene, wherein we saw a group of hunters use advanced technology to invade another world to try and catch one of the local fauna there. Things got out of hand, though, and eventually they tried to extract themselves from the operation, only to discover that they were being invaded in turn. Things did not end well for the group of hunters.
And while I was in the thick of this piece, I found myself falling into a writing mistake that I’ve been guilty of before. This story was one extended scene, in which many different things had to happen, and so I was starting to write it like a list of events.
Let us consider a complex sequence of events that we need to have happen in our story.
- Marcus is going to pull a gun on Jamie.
- Jamie’s friend Peter is going to jump out of the shadows and shove the gun to the side.
- The gun will go off, causing Jamie to faint to the floor in fright.
- Peter will hear Jamie hit the floor and fear that he was too slow, and that the bullet actually struck his friend.
- Peter will turn to see what has happened to Jamie, and in the moment that his back is turned Marcus will hit him over the head with the gun.
Alright, I’ve literally made these actions into a list, which helps keep things organized, but it isn’t pleasant to read a story this way. We want to have it flow and be organic. If this action sequence was being portrayed in a visual medium, such as film or the theater, this would be a trivial manner. Actors can perform complex actions and the audience can process them at the very same speed at which they are occurring. With words, though, things tend to take longer to explain. For example, consider this approach to writing the above action sequence into a story:
"You're not going anywhere," Marcus cackled, leveling his pistol at Jamie's chest. Unbeknownst to Marcus, Peter had concealed himself in the shadows of the room, and all of a sudden he leaped out of the shadows, reaching for the gun. BANG! A shot ran out, just as Peter seized the firearm and twisted it to the floor. Overcome with terror Jamie fainted to the ground. Peter heard the collapse and turned to see what had happened, but in doing so he exposed his back to Marcus, who immediately cracked him over the head with the pistol.
How much longer did it take you to read that than it would have taken to actually transpire? Thing get particularly hairy when we start rapidly shifting from Peter seizing the firearm, to Jamie collapsing on the ground, back to Peter reacting to the thud.
And this reveals one of the limitations of writing. We can really only show one singular event at a time. On the stage an actor could struggle with the weapon as another actor collapsed and the audience would be able to see and process both events simultaneously. In a novel, even though we state that these events happen concurrently, we have to describe one, and then describe the other.
An obvious solution to this is to have few things happen concurrently in a story and limit the number of times you wrench the proverbial camera back and forth between different actions. That might sound like running away from the problem, but in the hands of an expert storyteller, even complex scenarios can be related through such a limited perspective.
Consider these sentences from Dashiell Hammett’s Nightmare Town:
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.
There are a number of characters involved and many different actions occurring concurrently, but the focus remains firmly affixed on Steve and his personal experiences. The burning edge of a knife blade implies another person and a movement, but we only process it when and how it involves Steve directly. The upward chop of his stick “into a body, freeing himself from encircling grip,” similarly implies a foe and another grapple, but only makes mention of it as Steve resolves the issue. The knife-wielder might be the same person as the one hit by the stick, or they could be two different assailants. We have less explicit clarity, but there is enough for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
We can similarly make our above example flow better just by limiting its scope to Peter alone.
Peter's muscles tensed as he watched Marcus level a gun at Jamie's chest. Without a second thought he burst out of the shadows, grabbed the gun, and wrenched it to the ground. The weapon discharged between his arms and Peter heard the thud of Jamie's body falling to the ground behind him. He twisted around to see if his friend was alright, but turning his back to Marcus was a foolish mistake. There came a dull thud as the butt of the gun cracked over his head and he collapsed to the ground.
Originally the scene started with its focus on Marcus and Jamie, then it had to shift to show us that Peter was concealed in the room as well. By starting from Peter’s perspective we have all of the characters presence established right from the get-go. However I don’t mention that Peter is in the shadows until he is already bursting out of them, but that is alright. The audience is intelligent. They will be able to work backwards and revise their understanding of everyone’s position without even thinking about it.
I no longer make clear that Jamie has only fainted, and was not struck by the bullet, but omitting that detail results in a cleaner action sequence now, and I can explain Jamie’s situation in a following scene.
To be sure, there is a compromise at play here. I have less detail communicated in this approach, but it becomes far more readable in turn. And, best of all, it definitely doesn’t feel like we’re reading through a list anymore!
Hindsight is 20/20)
Unfortunately, I’m reminding myself of all these tactics after I have already completed my work on Hunt of the Others. In retrospect, I realize that I introduced too many hunters and tried to give them all an equal perspective in the story. Complex actions resulted in a lot of hopping from one character to another to another in a list-like sequence. I would have done far better to settle on a single, focused perspective, and looked for ways to imply complexity rather than spell it out explicitly.
But a lesson learned through error is still of great value. Hopefully I’ll be able to take these principles and apply them better to my future work.