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  1. Flightlessfoofaraw
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    Flightlessfoofaraw Member

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    Writing convoluted action sequences...

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Flightlessfoofaraw, Jun 30, 2008.

    ...like fight scenes, for example. There seem to be a few pitfalls which are relatively easy to fall into, and it generally takes me a long time to work my way out of them and craft something which flows and reads well.

    I find it especially difficult to describe complex sequences of actions involing two people, both of whom can be referred to by the same pronoun. The problem is (in my case at least) that it seems relatively easy to build sentences which potentially don't make a lot of sense, without really realising you're doing it. For example:

    "Fred punched Rob in the Gut, and he doubled over in pain."

    My question is: who does the "he" refer to, technically? We might all read it as Rob doubling over, because we know he's the one who's been punched. But is it ok to allow context to inform meaning like that? Doesn't the "he" technically refer to Fred because he's the subject of the sentence? Would it only be accurate to write "who doubled over in pain"?

    Cheers guys!
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's a compound sentence, with independent clauses. You could as easily write:
    There's no required relationship between the subjects of the two clauses.

    Because of this, you do have to be careful with pronouns, to make sure the context makes it clear who is doing what.
     
  3. kisonakl
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    kisonakl Member

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    You could avoid the problem altogether by saying, "Fred punched Rob in the gut, causing him to double over in pain." Something like that. English always gives an out somehow =)
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Actually, that's more confusing than the original. Now your second part of the sentence is no longer an independent clause, so by default it relates more to the subject of the first clause (since the closest noun, gut, clearly is not the referent). Now I have to consider the possibility that Rob has a steel plate over his gut, and Fred is now bent double over his mangled fist.

    Another thing to consider is that short, choppy sentences often work better in action sequences. They accelerate the pace. You might throw in a compound sentence here and there to vary the flow, but keep most of the sentences direct.

    That doesn't solve your problem, though. Even as two separate sentences:
    the pronoun ambiguity still exists.

    All I can suggest is to reread your fight passages aloud, and for every pronoun, try to picture it as someone else in the scene than the person you intended it to refer to. If you can imagine it easily, you may need to rewrite the sentence for clarity.
     
  5. Flightlessfoofaraw
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    Flightlessfoofaraw Member

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    Thanks for the informative reply, dude :) It's always helpful to know the "right" way of thinking about percieved problems like this, for those of us who haven't had the benefit of a formal education in the area.

    So i guess the message is: don't overcomplicate things, and try to make the context crystal clear.
     
  6. The Easy Listener
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    The Easy Listener Member

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    Erm, yes, make it clear but, don't put it so much that its a paragraph's worth of description to describe a single action.

    I used to cheat in writing class that way. ;)

    Since then I love writing. Isn't life weird?
     
  7. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Heh. Thanks, but I don't have a formal education in this either. I'm just picky as hell, with lots of opinions. And I listen and read a lot, too.
     
  8. Flightlessfoofaraw
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    Flightlessfoofaraw Member

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    Ah well, you certainly had me fooled ;) My knowledge of grammar is also a product of exposure to it (reading). As a result it's just a collection of instincts about right and wrong, which i often lack the vernacular to justify rationally. In other words, I don't know for certain what the official rules and terms are :D
     
  9. RomanticRose
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    RomanticRose Active Member

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    "Rob doubled over in pain when Fred punched him in the gut."
     
  10. MumblingSage
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    MumblingSage Contributing Member

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    Fred punched Rob in the gut. Doubling over in pain, Rob saw him draw his fist back for another blow...

    I guess that's how I'd do it. Generally, I try to avoid blow-by-blow depictions of fights, because they never much interest me when I read and they don't do much for the sort of plots I write, anyway.

    Come to think of it, you might not even need that 'doubled over in pain' bit--if we picture Fred punching hard enough, Rob's reaction is almost a given.
     
  11. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    Sorry, couldn't resist the temptation...I never did like Fred!

    I like Romantic Rose's solution the best and Cog's advice in general.

    .....NaCl

    ps I wouldn't capitalize "Gut".
     
  12. NaCl
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    NaCl Contributing Member Contributor

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    One more little suggestion, before you write a fight scene. Make a list of all the ways you can describe or distinguish between your characters based on the storyline:

    Fred - older, tougher, wiser, meaner, faster, pipe fitter, supervisor, assailant, etc.

    Rob - younger, weaker, thinner, inexperienced, college student, nerdy, loud mouthed, etc.

    Use these descriptive words to identify characters during the fight scene instead of repeating "Fred did", "Rob felt", "he went" and "to him". If a fight is prolonged, these additional ways to identify the participants will prevent reader fatigue.

    For example: during the story, the reader would already know some things about Fred and Rob. Let's say Fred is a tough guy pipe-fitter doing a construction job on a college campus. Rob is a smart ass college student who looks down his nose at people with less education. As he walks by the construction site, he throws one too many insults at the crew of blue collar workers. Fred reacted. Here is an example:

    Without warning, Fred punched Rob in the gut. The college student doubled over in pain and managed to grab the pipe fitter's tool belt, taking both to the ground. The strong construction worker had no difficulty wrestling this inexperienced student into a twisted tangle of arms and legs. This was not the first time the tough blue collar worker introduced a loud-mouthed young man to body appendages in positions that exceeded the normal range of human physiology...as consequence for arrogance.

    "I give!" The preppy cried out, trying to stop the pain.

    Covered in mud, the underground worker only tightened the wrestling hold, showing no mercy.

    In a moment of desperation, the weak college freshman bit into the nearest available part of the assailant's body, the crotch. Teeth sank into something soft beneath the old blue fabric, and the heavily muscled man cried out in pain.

    The fight ended in an that instant as the abrasive student jumped up and ran away, having learned a valuable lesson about respecting others. Unfortunately for the angry worker, teasing from the other pipe-fitters continued all day. It was the first time one of the crew lost a fight. Taking regular breaks to gently rub the tender groin, the angry construction worker promised revenge!

    I know this is a corny fight scene...but the principle is sound. In a rapid fire fight scene, spread character delineation over lots of identifying character traits. (BTW - For illustrative purposes, I intentionally avoided all pronouns and character names after the opening line in that example, despite there being several places where a few pronouns or proper names would make it flow better.)

    .....NaCl
     
  13. Sato Ayako
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    Sato Ayako Contributing Member

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    General guidelines for fight scenes:

    1. Convey as much information in as few words as possible
    2. Convey as much information with as few characters as possible
    3. When in doubt, avoid compound sentences.
    4. When quickening the pace, use short sentences.
    5. When slowing the pace, use longer sentences.
    6. Actions in fight scenes shouldn't "read" long. Do whatever you have to do to avoid that.

    I think you can trust the reader to understand your sentence as long as the sentence is clear. So:

    Should be okay. Rob is nearest to the "he". A snarky reader will also connect it to Fred, however.

    Won't work because it sounds like Fred is the one getting punched in the gut. Or it could be Rob. It's too unclear.

    This could work in certain contexts. However, it makes the scene slow down too much.

    Very clear and in the right context (as with most sentences), has good pacing and leaves pretty much no room for questions.

    What made warning bells go off in my head was the word "convoluted". I'm not sure if that's really the word you were looking for, but a fight scene should never be convoluted. Aim to be precise. Go from Point A to Point B in the straightest way possible. (That might mean a longer scene or a shorter one.)
     
  14. Apples
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    Apples Member

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    And then Fred delivered a punch that brought Rob to the floor, doubling over in pain.
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I would take suggestion 1 with a large grain of salt (No NaCl, I don't mean you! :)). I think a better way to say is to ruthlessly cut out every word that does not contribute substantially to the scene.

    That's good advice in any scene, but it's particularly important during high action.

    Another item I would add to the list is:
    7. Keep it sequential!

    That may sound obvious, but sentences like:
    violate it by writing the effect before the cause. Your reader's mind takes a moment to shuffle that back into its proper order, slowing the pace of the scene.
     
  16. Sato Ayako
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    Sato Ayako Contributing Member

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    The fewest words will be the words that most contribute to a scene. It may mean two words or twenty-five.

    Yes! I've read action scenes where the author kept looping back to things that happened before.
     
  17. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    The action isn't the problem. It's about the motivation.

    The readers needs to know why and who will win in a fight. The readers needs to care about the fight and what's at stake. Otherwise, it will end up like another Incredible Hulk movie with no substance.
     
  18. Samswriting
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    Samswriting Senior Member

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    This flashed me back to a movie. "The Shadow Dancer"

    Harvey Keitel is a washed up writer, and Joshua Jackson is an aspiring writer, looking for a mentor.

    They are walking and talking and Harvey asks the young writer to say how he would write a person being punched in the stomach. The young writer responded. (mind you this is not quotes but from memory, and using Fred and Rob)

    "Fred punched rob in the stomach. Rob doubled over in pain."

    Keitel's character then says you've never been punched in the gut have you? Turns on him and punches him in the stomach. And injects his own version.

    "Rob doubled over holding his stomach, trying to get the slightest bit of air, it wouldn't come. Until at last when he thought he would pass out, his lungs pulled a long draft of sweet cool air."

    Or some such. His point was study what your going to write and all the better to use your own experience in it.

    Like all things in writing there are few strict words here. Lucy's massive end battle scene is going to be very very different from a walk by punch in the gut steal a hand bag scene.

    How much do you need or want in your scene, are these masters of fighting are they just brutes in the street?

    "Fred and Rob faced each other, circling, judging each other. Both masters in their own arts, they would be slow to give any opening. Fred pawed the air lightly with his fist, gauging robs reaction, rob moved with fluid grace avoiding the blow. Rob tested the air with a well placed round house, Fred easily deflecting his attack. And so they tested and baited, and waited for the opening.

    Fred feinted with a left, as Rob moved to avoid the blow Freds right hand came hard into Robs stomach. Fred moved in for the killing blow. Though out of wind Rob was not out of wits, he reached for his .45 as he doubled over, unleashing a barage of bullets into Fred's torso."

    That is much different than...

    "The two men met on the street, mean and dark they had come to close to each other's territory. Fred was not like to have the CLT gang on his turf, he took the first swing, catching Rob hard in the face. Rob was not unused to it, as often as not his smile was bloody, he would send this ACT member to the grave today. His foot came hard into the stomach of Fred. Fred was tough if not overly fast, the blow slowed him but he caught his foes foot, and twisted it viciously, sending Rob to the ground."

    And of course

    "Rob and Fred danced as only masters of the sword could, blow after blow. First Rob pushed then Fred, they were matched as evenly as any two could be. The battle raged around them, while they focused only on each other. So many years of practice put to the test. It was clear Rob was the more articulate, the extra years of study were paying off. But Fred had seen war first hand, he knew you could not always counter with what was expected. Parry and slash, thrust and slide, Fred's blade caught Robs side, a trickle of blood began to soak through his shirt. The tide had shifted. Rob shaken by his injury began to falter, his form slackened. Fred pushed his advantage, ruthlessly pressing the injured man. Only Rob was surprised when Fred's blade slipped by his defenses, sliding deep into his belly."

    I dunno there are a thousand ways to do the same thing. By and large the blow by blow would not do for an extended scene we would grow tired, but it may well work for a short quick fight. And yet the grander view of a battle would be hard pushed to work in a short 2 hit fight.

    Action is by far one of my favorite things to write. Be prepared for a lot of rework to make it work out the way you see it in your head.
     
  19. varsh
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    varsh New Member

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    I dont suppose writing in passive like 'doubling over in pain, he did that" is a good way. The Active voice is always more effective in conveying a message. I feel that
    "Rob doubled over in pain and much to his angusish, saw Fred getting ready to punch him again"
    would convey the same message in a more direct, more active way....
     
  20. EyezForYou
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    EyezForYou Active Member

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    That's head-hopping. That may be confusing to readers.

    Instead try: Rob doubled over in pain as another fist slammed into him.

    Stick to Rob's perspective.
     
  21. TwinPanther13
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    Fred punched rob in the guts causing him to double over in pain
    i personaly like blow by blow in a fight but i like it to be quick actions and constant movement. Fights should never take to long and the victor should be nown in advance but the moves must be definite. I try to imagine the scene in my head frst
     
  22. TwinPanther13
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    TwinPanther13 Contributing Member

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    i would say do not be afraid to refer to rob again. Just make it plain in action Fred hit rob and rob doubled over in pain. but i will say this in an action scene assume your reader is inteligent. if rob is not considered the type to have a steel plate on his stomach then the reader will assume rob doubles over in pain with the original sentence
     
  23. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This is good advice. Of course, it need not be Rob's perspective you stick to. Whatever the POV is leading into the fight should be maintained through to the end of the fight, at least. There are places where it's ok to shift POV, but entering and during high action is not one of them.

    Twin Panther: My point in bringing in the steel plate was not to say that Fred was the one in pain, it was to illustrate that the ambiguity existed syntactically, and without a clear context, could make for a muddy scene. The auther has a clear picture in mind when writing the scene, but the reader can get lost if the context in the author's head never makes it onto paper.

    A perfect example of this turned up yesterday in the Lounge thread An Interesting Dinner. Read the initial post of the thread, and then this one, and you'll see where the original poster left out a key context element.
     
  24. Flightlessfoofaraw
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    Haha! I think Fred probaby had it coming ;)

    And I have no idea where that capital "D" came from lol.

    All great suggestions - thanks! :)

    I would also just point out that the sentence itself wasn't taken from anything i've written. It was invented purely for illustrative purposes, which is why it isn't especially exciting.

    Interestingly, i was going to mention that other pitfall pit fall of writing things like fight scenes: the temptation to get into a simple list of "and then" actions. Obviously this is something you have also covered in the above! I do use many of those techniques already, although the list thing hadn't occured to me. That'll definately come in handy in the future.

    I did write a fight scene near the end of one of my earlier chapters. I'll have a look over it and post it when i figure out where in the forum would be appropriate :D
     

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