Does Your Form Match Your Function?

Thoughts on Writing Action and a Little Bit on Pacing

So, I’ve been talking a bit about action scenes lately. And one of the big adages that writing coaches and writers put out there is that you want the form to match the function.

Chuck Wendig is a big advocate of this and he writes,

“Form and function do well together across all types of writing, but this is particularly true in terms of writing action. I find that when I write action, the form of my writing moves to match the pacing of the action. I tend to like my action sequences presented as a short, sharp shock, and so the writing tends to mirror that. Shorter sentences. Sentence fragments. Blunt, brutal language. Words like rabbit punches. Like the stitching of prison shivs.

“Is this necessary? No, probably not. But there’s value in setting the pace of your scene with the clip at which you write. You don’t want to write long, languid patches of prose in writing action. We want action to be fast, exciting, engaging, and most of all, easy-to-read. Writing action is in this way like writing dialogue: you want it to come across to the readers without them halting, without them pausing to take a breath.

“That’s not to say there’s no value in slowing things down — pacing is a tricky thing. The escalation of any story has its peaks and valleys and you can give an action sequence those same valleys, too — you can collapse moments just as easily as you can drag them out. The value in that is the value of crafting tension. By pausing before the money shot, the cookie-pop, the underwear-shellacking, you’re forcing the audience to hold their breath a little bit.”

One of the most important things he says here is this: It’s tricky. You want a balance of detail and feeling/senses. You want your reader to know what’s happening but also to feel what’s happening in the scene. Each gut punch should make them flinch and worry.

There is pacing that happens within a scene as well as within a chapter as well as within the entire structure of a book.

Fight and action scenes are no different. There are places within those action scenes where you might want to slow things down.

Why is that?

Well, it’s because your job as a writer is to focus the reader on a whole bunch of things, but the main ones are:

1.   What is happening in the scene?

2.   Why is it happening?

3.   What is the harm or help that this event is doing to your main character?

4.   What are the stakes: physical and emotional?

To get that balance, you have to pick and choose what you’re going to write.

If you write every single detail and every single movement, it allows the reader to truly see the scene, BUT it also makes a lot of readers fall asleep.

What? Fall asleep in an action scene? How is that even possible?

Well, it’s possible because there’s no:

1.   Sensation. We also want bits about how it feels to fall down hard on your bum or get punched by a hamster.

2.   Stakes. There’s no emotional resonance for the character.

3.   Character revelation: You want to show subtext in this action scene. You want it to have a reason.  You don’t want it to be just fighting for the sake of fighting but it isn’t building or dismantling their character or moving the plot forward.

You can look at the simple structure of your sentences and paragraphs and analyze them for pacing:

Think about how long the sentences are.

Think about where the periods are. Where are the commas.

How long is the paragraph? How many sentences are in that paragraph?

How much white space (places with no writing) is on the page?

Short sentences and paragraphs make your writing much more clear and more clean to the reader. But they are also great resonating moments for stories.

Jesus wept.

That’s a big deal moment right there. Two short words.

Think about how different the pacing of that is compared to:

Carrie started crying because she was a little overwhelmed by getting up at 5 a.m. consistently to get all her work done and because she basically has no love of mornings, not that she has a great love of nights either. Honestly, does the woman love anything other than manatees and if not, why does she live so far from manatee habitat. Maine seems like a bad life choice for a weeping, manatee-loving woman like Carrie.

Don’t Make Your Readers Bad Swoon

Writing action scenes means picking details.

Readers, have you ever read an action scene and it made you feel dizzy?

You are not alone.

This happens when the writer wants to put every single detail of the scene inot the scene, on the page, and in your mind. This is a really kind want of a writer, but the thing is that it doesn’t really work.

Writers, I’m talking to you now. Take off your reader hat and just put on your writer hat while I tell you this: You do not want to make your readers swoony in a bad way.

When you tell us every single characters’ actions, thoughts, emotions, and placement in an action scene, it overwhelms us. So, what you want to do is pick and choose here.

You want to pick and choose:

1. The characters that have the most at stake emotionally and physically.

2. The characters that the reader is the most attached to.

The best way to deal with this is to usually try to stay super close to your protagonist during the action scene. Make sure that you are writing the scene from the viewpoint of that characters. If your puppy main character is watching a Star Wars style space battle, you want to make sure you tell it from that puppy’s point of view.

Our jobs as writers is to pick and choose the details that matter and then trust the reader to recreate that scene in their brains. We don’t want to distract them with the color of the puppy’s collar unless that matters.

If we do the opposite, if we show the reader every little action that happens, then we risk boring the hell out of them, but also we don’t give them to focus on.

Spoiler: You want them to focus on your protagonist and then maybe the antagonist. You want them to focus on the stakes, what your hero wants, and what’s standing in her way.

Think of it like this: You are a movie director. The page is your camera. You want to put the things in focus that matter.

Masterclass has this lovely tidbit.

via Masterclass

That’s all a direct quote. What I love about it is that it talks about the most important part.

You don’t want a sword fight in there just for the sake of a sword fight. That sword fight or the hamster zombie troop running down the street after you needs to be there for a purpose.

Once you have that purpose, pick the details.

I think I’ll probably talk more about this next time, too. I hope you’re doing well and safe. It’s snowing madly here right now. And poor Shaun’s just had his third cancer (in less than a year) scraped out of his hand. He’s had three types of skin cancer in one year. This is the kind of overachieving we don’t want. 🙂

our front porch. You can totally tell this isn’t staged because we still haven’t taken the cushions in for winter (Yes, it is March) and one is lopsided. 

I’m posting writing tips and things about how we’re trying to live better lives over here if you want to check it out. My regular website is here. No pressure though, obviously. Thanks for reading this! And happy writing.