Characterization in Action

I’m not very good at writing fight scenes. Between my limited understanding of different fighting styles and my desire to keep descriptions fast and simple, all of my fight scenes end up reading almost the same way every time.

Another problem I often have with action-heavy scenes is a loss of characterization. When punches are flying and swords are gleaming, my writing often gets so clogged with generic fighting terms that every fighter has the same flurry of movements. Everyone sounds the same. Even I start to  lose track of who is fighting whom.

Luckily, with the amount of anime my husband enjoys watching, I’ve been exposed to a lot more action scenes of late. One in particular stood out to me not only as a budget-busting, beautifully animated sequence, but a stellar example of bringing a touch of characterization into an action-heavy scene.

nanashi

The Sword of the Stranger is your classic action-driven anime. Pursued by a nefarious group of warriors who are into some wicked blood magic, a scrappy young boy and his adorable dog team up with a loner samurai to stay alive. As the stoy goes on, we learn the samurai, called Nanashi, is a loner because he is a foreigner–in 1500s(ish) Japan, he has red hair. He’s been dying it black to blend into normal society for years. He learned how to make the dye from the oils from boiled nuts. Because he has to reapply the dye often, he always carries a bag of nuts with him.

With that information, let’s skip to that fight scene I was talking about. Scrappy young boy has been captured by nefarious group of warriors, and adorable dog and loner samurai have come to the boy’s rescue. Nanashi is disarmed, and for a moment it looks like he’s about to be sliced open, leaving scrappy boy unsaved.

How can he defend himself? Not with his sword–he made a vow never to draw that sword again, and the moment is so not cool enough to break his vow just yet. What else does he always have on him?

The bag of nuts.

So Nanashi throws the bag at his enemy, deflecting the blow. There’s even a nice shot of the fabric hitting the ground, nuts tumbling over the snow, giving the viewer a moment to recognize the thrown object before the battle resumes.

That is characterization in action!

Because of the earlier scenes, we know the significance of the bag of nuts (to make the dye that makes Nanashi acceptable to normal society). We don’t need a flashback to remind us, so no flashback interrupts the fight sequence. We don’t need a lengthy internal monologue where Nanashi debates whether it’s worth throwing the bag that allows him to roam the world un-persecuted, whether the situation is that desperate–it is, he throws it, and we get the picture.

The Sword and the Stranger stands as a great reminder that as long as I’ve set up such characterizing details earlier in a story, it doesn’t take much to sprinkle them over intense scenes in a way that doesn’t bog them down. Distinguishing the fighters in a fight scene can be as easy as having one of them throw a bag of nuts.

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Rethink Your Writing

The word appeared in the margins of many an early draft, sometimes underlined, sometimes followed by a question mark. Sally, the woman who ran the weekly writer’s work shop I attended every Wednesday in high school, used “rethink” as shorthand for “I don’t get it–and as your reader, if I don’t get what you’re saying, you need to think of a better way to say it.”

The first few times I found “rethink” scribbled in red or blue ink on the pages of first drafts, I’ll admit I was a little take aback. (What did she mean, that line wasn’t brilliant?!) But taking the time to go over those passages that made perfect sense in my own head helped me understand that writing was about more than writing down what was in my head. Writing requires that you convey the image, the plot, the dialogue so well that it appears in someone else’s head. It’s incredibly difficult to do that in a first draft.

That’s the amazing part about having your witing critiqued by someone. You need someone to tell you when your brillant words aren’t actually as brilliant as you think. You need someone to question the parts of the story about which you’re most certain.

Outside of a few scattered fiction classes in college, I haven’t had much in the way of serious, consistent critique since that weekly workshop in high school. But I have kept writing. My novel in progress has gone through three separate drafts. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Still, it’s far from finished. In fact, I’ve barely looked at it over the past few months because I’ve known I need to “rethink” quite a bit of it. Finding the problem in your own writing can be exhausting.

After what feels like ages of frustrated writing, I finally realized the problem. I had written the whole novel assuming the story was about the character telling the story, but with a little rethinking, I proved myself wrong. I had made a mistake, thinking this one character was the hero of the story.

And quite frankly, so did the rest of my characters.

With every character just as surprised as I am, the story feels much less scripted and more organic. By rethinking something as fundamental as who is the story is about, my writing has finally come unstuck. I can finally look at the draft of this manuscript with some confidence again.

The next hardest thing will be getting the idea out of my head and onto paper. And most likely, I’ll need someone other than myself to tell me when to “rethink” another passage.

New look, new start

Last year, was a little ambitious. I was working three part-time jobs, finishing my undergraduate degree, and planning a wedding all at once. Somehow, I also thought I’d have the time, words, and motivation to actually run a blog, too.

Silly me.

But the carousel of life is slowing down. In the quiet hush that’s crept in after the past year’s flurry of activity, my words are coming back to me. For the first time in a long time, I’m being drawn back to my desk to actually, finally, write.

So while the muse is with me, I decided to revamp my author blog. And by revamp, I mean start over entirely. A new look and a new drive might just be what I need to really settle in to the writer’s life.