MRUs Lesson 3

Last week I began a series of articles that recap everything I said in my workshop at the ACFW conference. The topic of my workshop was “Those Pesky Motivations and Reactions” and the goal is to flesh out the theory with some examples. If you want the theory, you can read my article “Writing the Perfect Scene“.

Today, we’ll pick up with a couple of fight scenes, one that is SHOWN and one that is TOLD. As we’ll see, there is just no rescue for the scene that is TOLD. You can’t tweak it to make it better. All you can do is throw it away and write a new version that SHOWs it. Both of these scenes are by the same author and appear in the same book.

Slide 17: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 18

Tom snaked in and hit the soldier with a short left hook to the head and went in deep to the belly with his right. The soldier let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound as Tom danced back.

The soldier swung a slow, heavy right hand at Tom. Tom ducked under it and dug both his fists into the soldier’s soft middle. The solder bent almost double in pain and Tom hooked both hands to the face. The soldier began to spurt blood and he waved his hands feebly in front of him and tried to clinch.

Randy sez: This scene is SHOWN very nicely. Tom is a young thug who has picked a fight with an older, bigger, and stronger soldier, just for the fun of it. Tom is a brilliant street fighter and he quickly takes the soldier apart. The bystanders are awed into silence.

I have paragraphed the scene exactly as Irwin Shaw wrote it. In the next slide, I’ll color-code the parts that show Tom acting (in red) and the parts that show the soldier acting (in black). Notice that there is a very clear dividing line. First Tom acts, then the soldier acts, then Tom again, then the soldier again. The action see-saws back and forth. The effect is that you can see this scene in real-time as it develops.

Slide 18: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 18

Tom snaked in and hit the soldier with a short left hook to the head and went in deep to the belly with his right. The soldier let the air out of his lungs with a large, dry sound as Tom danced back.

The soldier swung a slow, heavy right hand at Tom. Tom ducked under it and dug both his fists into the soldier’s soft middle. The solder bent almost double in pain and Tom hooked both hands to the face. The soldier began to spurt blood and he waved his hands feebly in front of him and tried to clinch.

Randy sez: This fight scene is beautifully shown (if you like that sort of thing.) If you don’t like that sort of thing, it brilliantly displays an appalling act of violence. But the point is that you can SEE the action.

The only thing I would recommend to improve it is to insert paragraph breaks each time the color-coding changes. The reason is that (just like with the dialogue examples we saw in Lesson 2) breaking the paragraph aids the reader’s eye in discerning who is the actor. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary, but it helps. Anything you can do to give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience is money in your bank account.

Now let’s look at a poorly done fight scene. In this scene, Tom is a bit older but no wiser, and he is now working at an upper-class gym as a sparring partner for wealthy men. In this scene, a rich jerk named Greening has been sparring pretty harshly with Tom’s boss, who finally asks Tom to take over. The boss knows Tom is going to tear Greening up, and Tom is eager for a bit of brutality, since it adds meaning to his crummy life. Here’s the scene…

Slide 19: Irwin Shaw: Rich Man, Poor Man, p. 297

They fought without stopping for the usual two-minute break. Greening fought controlledly, brutally, using his height and weight, Thomas with the swift malevolence that he had carefully controlled all these months. Here you are, Captain, he was saying to himself as he burrowed in, using everything he knew, stinging, hurting, ducking, here you are Rich-boy, here you are Policeman, are you getting your ten dollars worth?

They were both bleeding from the nose and mouth when Thomas finally got in the one he knew was the beginning of the end.

Randy sez: The above scene is TOLD, not SHOWN. We can’t see them “fight without stopping”–not in real-time anyway. That is TELLING. Note the use of adverbs: “controlledly” and “brutally”. Note the use of continuous-action verbs (they usually end in “-ing”): “saying” and “stinging” and “hurting” and “ducking” and “bleeding”. Note the use of passive verbs: “was saying” and “were bleeding” and “was the beginning of the end.”

Is the passage well written? Yes. Shaw is a master storyteller. It apparently suited his purpose to summarize this fight scene in narrative summary, which is very efficient, rather than SHOW it and use up half a page.

But in my view, it doesn’t suit the reader’s purpose, which is to have a Powerful Emotional Experience. The reader wants to feel those punches, smell the sweat, jab Greening in the jaw, and make the bastard bleed. Why? The reader just does, that’s why.

Note that you simply can’t tweak this scene here to SHOW the action. If you want to SHOW it, you’ll have to rewrite it completely. To see this, try color-coding it so that your eye easily picks out Tom’s actions and Greening’s actions. You can’t do it. In the language of fiction teacher Dwight Swain, there are no “motivations” and no “reactions”. (We’ll define those terms soon.)

Now let me summarize what I believe should be the structure of an action scene, and you’ll notice immediately that it’s very similar to the structure of dialogue.

Slide 20: The Structure of Action

Action has a somewhat more complex structure that many writers these days violate:

  • Each character gets a new paragraph when he takes an action.
  • Each action should be shown in real-time, not summarized. Avoid “continuous action” verbs that end with “-ing”.
  • Use verbs, not adverbs, to specify the actions.

Randy sez: These rules are not nearly as universally observed as the rules for dialogue that we gave in Slide 16. But they should be! Few writers these days have their dialogue scenes stamped with “SHOW DON’T TELL” because most writers use the standard structure for dialogue. But many writers have their action scenes stamped with those very irritating words, and the reason is because they don’t use the correct structure for their action.

Remember: The purpose of structure is NOT to limit you. It’s to help you help the reader. The reader wants a Powerful Emotional Experience. By choosing a suitable structure that gives subtle visual cues, you help the reader do that. And you help yourself by spotting right away when you are TELLING instead of SHOWING.

Tomorrow, we’ll get very explicit about exactly how to structure your scenes for maximum effect. We’ll define “motivations” and “reactions” and analyze the parts of each.

See ya tomorrow!

8 Comments

  1. Amy VR September 29, 2008 at 6:50 pm #

    Excellent lesson as always, Randy. Looking forward to tomorrow!

  2. Camille September 29, 2008 at 9:49 pm #

    Great!

    A question in the area I stumble on: when to separate action (as in body motions, not Bruce Willis films) from dialogue when it’s coming from the same person? And when to keep them in the same paragraph? It sometimes looks odd to me to see these combined in a paragraph. For example, told in Emily’s pov:

    = = = = = = =
    But he didn’t say anything else. Emily wanted to know more, but couldn’t bring herself to ask.

    Ian sighed. “Katy attended a ministry training institute in Hawaii while I . . . during our engagement.” The last word hissed out through his teeth. Ian grabbed a bottle of water, twisted off the cap and took a swig. “Janet was there doing a series of lectures and they became good friends. I didn’t meet her until later.” He took another drink, swallowed with a loud gulp. “At Katy’s funeral.”

    They drove in silence for several more miles…
    = = = = = = = = =

    Should the paragraph be broken up? Emily is observing Ian, so the only ‘reaction’ would be her awareness of his hissed word. The rest is motivation – I think? I’m confused.

  3. Gerhi Janse van Vuuren September 30, 2008 at 4:29 am #

    I do not have a problem with action and dialogue in one paragraph as Camille has it above. Emily’s reaction to Ian’s hissing warrants at least an emotional response. Even if she does “nothing” she would “sit stunned”, “gape at Ian in awe” or “scratch her ear in irritation”.

    Her reaction would break up and liven up Ian’s monologue.

    I must say I only heard about MRU’s a year ago and it makes writing so much easier. This lecture series just adds so much to that ease.

    Thanks Randy

  4. Mark Goodyear September 30, 2008 at 6:37 am #

    This is great stuff, Randy. Having the examples and the color coding really helps.

    For me, the second fight wasn’t about action so much as interior monologue. Granted, that second sentence is brutally complex.

    But the few sentences of Tom’s voice that follow make the scene worth it. Instead of blow by blow action, that scene becomes the whole fight as a motivation, followed by Tom’s interior monologue as the reaction.

    That doesn’t mean the scene works as well as the first one, but maybe it’s not intended to be an action scene in the same way?

  5. PatriciaW September 30, 2008 at 11:55 am #

    Again I agree with Mark. I think the reason the second fight scene was told as it was was to focus less on the action and more on the internal.

    So it depends on what the author is emphasing at that point. Not all action or dialogue should be shown, although it certainly should be shown much more than told.

    As far as Camille’s question, as long as the action and dialogue are for the same person, they can be in the same paragraph. I hate when one person speaks and another acts with no paragraph breaks. Throws me off as a reader.

  6. Davalynn September 30, 2008 at 3:50 pm #

    On Camille’s second graph, I would break it again after the comment about hissing out the word, and start a new graph with Ian grabbing a bottle of water. Right? Wrong? Dunno. Curious about your take, Randy. And would you follow with his next comment in the same graph, or start a new one? Hmmmm.

    Thanks for offering an example, Camille.

  7. Camille September 30, 2008 at 5:30 pm #

    Gerhi – What? Driving down the road isn’t a gripping reaction? You’re quite right. I saw that after I posted and groaned. REACTION follows motivation. Duh. I’ll probably use something like:

    [He took another drink, swallowed with a loud gulp. “At Katy’s funeral.”

    Funeral? The steely edge in his voice sent a chill through her, bringing tears to her eyes.]

    There’s an eploding helicopter scene shortly following. I’m making a note to have her scream and duck for cover after it blows.

  8. Ann Isik October 1, 2008 at 8:05 am #

    Thanks for this Randy.

    I like that you used boxing scenes as it made me realise that every scene in every kind of novel is about ‘boxing’.

    The characters are ‘in the ring’ (the setting) together.

    They are ‘circling’ each other.

    One hits out (which can mean deciding not to hit out).
    There is a reaction.

    I’ve yet to read a published novel where two characters got together in a scene to be nice to each other – except at the very end, depending.

    Even romance is about boxing. The greatest ‘romance’ of all time (in my not very humble opinion) is Jane Eyre. Both Jane and Rochester are described as ‘ugly’ in looks. The encounters between Jane and Rochester are electrifyingly sexy – and they never so much as touch each other! I’m trying to do the same with the two main characters in my own wip. It’s not easy, but from now on, when an of my characters go ‘tame’, I’ll think ‘boxing ring’ (and maybe ‘Retribution’, page 54).

    Sorry about ‘electrifyingly’.

    Ann

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