Friday, July 2, 2010

Action Scene Makeover

I am reviewing writing tips by showing examples. See sidebar for submission specifics. If your 250 words ends mid-sentence, go ahead and include the rest of the sentence.

Today's focus: ACTION SCENE MAKEOVER

Suddenly, the sound of the front door slamming told Tess her uncle was home. A stab of fear hit her as she thought of the mess in the kitchen--the shattered pieces of his favorite bowl. It had been that stupid cat's fault and not hers, but she knew her uncle would yell at her just the same.
Tess jumped off the back porch in a hurry and skittered into the back yard, panicked. She scanned the yard, looking for somewhere to hide. Maybe she could try to climb up into one of her uncle's three big bushy apple trees, and hide there until her uncle left for his Monday night poker game. She wasn't sure, but the leaves this time of year looked thick enough to cover her.
Since she was running out of time, she bolted for the closest tree. She hoped her uncle hadn't reached the kitchen yet. If he looked out the window, she was doomed! Reaching the tree, her hands clawed for a good handhold, and then she swung her right foot up to the lowest branch. Her left foot swung up beside the first one, and her left hand gripped the next higher branch. She clung tight and heaved her first leg up to another branch. With her heart pounding, Tess reached for more branches while her feet scrabbled. She shifted her weight and moved both her feet again. Higher and higher she climbed. When she thought she was out of sight, she stopped, breathing hard, and listened.

Word count: 254 words

COMMENTS:
The second and third paragraphs of this passage is where the action is, so I'll comment there. A common mistake when writing action scenes is to pause too long for contemplation, describing numerous things your character sees and thinks. Extra adjectives, words, and phrases. This slows down the action and immediacy of your scene.

In general, trim unnecessary words for a faster flow. For example, "in a hurry" is not needed; Tess is already jumping and skittering, which implies hurry. If she's on the back porch, then saying "back" yard is not needed. "Her uncle" is repeated for both the tree and the poker game; again, not needed. The pace also slows down when she stops to contemplate the use of a tree to hide in, and her climb into the tree is excruciatingly molasses-like. The action in the tree turns almost slow-motion, where each right or left hand/foot/leg is placed with exaggerated precision. Remember, your character is in a hurry! You don't want to counteract that by a slow or lengthy writing style.

Also, don't be afraid to use short sentences and sentence fragments--they have a breathless or staccato quality of their own, when used well. Also, punctuation can help, but don't overdo the dashes, italics, or exclamation marks, or your passage will seem melodramatic or over-the-top. Words are often overused in action scenes: suddenly, then, & and then.

REWRITE:

The abrupt sound of the front door slamming told Tess her uncle was home. A stab of fear hit her as she thought of the mess in the kitchen--the shattered pieces of his favorite bowl. It had been that stupid cat's fault and not hers, but she knew her uncle would yell at her just the same.
Tess jumped off the back porch and skittered across the lawn, panicked. She scanned the yard, looking for somewhere to hide. Could she climb up into one of the bushy apple trees, and hide there until her uncle left for his poker game? Would the leaves cover her?
No time to wonder--she had to move!
She bolted for the closest tree, hoping her uncle hadn't reached the kitchen yet. If he looked out the window, she was doomed. Reaching the tree, her hands gripped the lowest branch while she swung one foot up. Her other foot shot up to join it. She heaved her body upward and stretched for the next higher branch. With her heart pounding, Tess grabbed more branches while her feet scrabbled. Higher, and a little higher yet. When she thought she was out of sight, she stopped, breathing hard, and listened.

Word Count: 204 words--50 words slashed!

Much more streamlined and clear, and frankly, the last paragraph could be tightened even more by saying she heaved herself up into the tree and climbed until she reached the part of the tree where she thought the leaves covered her. My, aren't writers wordy people sometimes?

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