It has been a long while since I’ve posted, for which I apologise. What with an exciting holiday to Falmouth and, er…*consults list of excuses*…life going on I’ve been excitingly busy over the last week or two. So it’s high time I got back to blogging something, right?
I’ve now finished my first novel! And by ‘finished’ I mean I wrote the end and most of the story has been drafted out. I think I have 10% more to do, corridor and elevator scenes for the most part, to match everything up and then I’m ready to submit it to places! How very, very exciting!
Amongst all the excitement that’s brought on I have to say my grand finale, the great and climatic action sequence that brought everything to an end in an exciting crescendo of violence, action and heart pounding excitement, was actually pretty difficult to write. And that’s because it involved violence, that key part of most films and books people think is easy to write, easy to make exciting because it’s something that gets the pulse pounding – indeed, our pulses were designed to pound when we needed to do something violent. So why was it so difficult?
Let’s start with what was, conversely, my smallest obstacle. My characters are not great, legendary artisans of violence and gore who excitingly resort to hacking and slashing their way through every problem they face.. Sebastian, Liya and Julio are not excitingly combat-based super heroes, they are not violently inclined and as a very small group of rebels/usurpers/freedom fighters they cannot afford to take risky, exciting ventures of violence. Sure, one’s a master of stealth and thievery – but is very much against killing, and would rather avoid a fight if possible. Sure, Liya’s more than capable of ninja’ing her way through a melee while leaving foes dead or dying in her wake – but un-armed and un-armoured it would be hard to fight off well equipped and prepared guards. Sure, Julio’s a powerful mage who can melt stone and flesh alike – but the limits on my magic system, and a need for my heroes to look like heroes to the populace of my world curtails his power somewhat. So while action is exciting, I wanted that excitement to fit within the exciting world and with the exciting characters I’d made. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be quite as exciting, would it?
No. So they have to avoid killing people where possible, and dealing with the environment they’re fighting in while facing down the big bad guys.
To some degree this meant I had an interesting, and exciting, issue with repetitive word use. I’ve used the word excite, or a derivative of, fifteen time in these last four hundred and fifty words. That’s about four percent of the words above – one in twenty five. If you didn’t notice it then I wasn’t trying hard enough to ram my point home. Basically, I needed to avoid using the same words to describe the same things. Why is this a problem? Well, after punching, jabbing, hooking, maybe even upper-cutting your way through a fist fight you’ve used up most of the words that describe your motions. Reading the same thing over and over and over again can get boring, tiring and arduous so a good author has to come up with ways to say the same that keep the reader – you guessed it – excited.
And lastly I had a very particular image in mind, involving a couple of important plot hooks and points, that I wanted to get across. Sticking to that imagery while making the action flow believably and smoothly was somewhat difficult, like building a castle around a moat you’ve already dug. I’m worried that one part of the climax is somewhat anti-climatic but after a little more work I think I can fix that. The problem with this point – going back to that moat analogy – is that I didn’t want the finale to take up more of the book than necessary and so was ringed in by a concern about its word count.
To summarise, action scenes have to pay heed to being true to the characters and setting; they have to be exciting and accurate without being repetitive or dry; and they have to create a powerful image in the reader’s mind without taking up too much time in the book.
Have I achieved this? I’ll find out when it gets proof read. There’s a lot that happens, so having it sit at 6,000 words (probably two chapters) is a fair running for it. Not all of it is hacking and slashing either – no, my action scenes involve stealth, intelligence, magic and a whole medley of other things beside actually, grisly violence. There’s certainly some of that though, fear not.
What really helped was that my protagonists – Seb, Liya and Julio – all do different things in a fight, so I had a wide range of adjectives, adverbs and other descriptive tools at my disposal. If they were all highly proficient swordsmen they couldn’t have had the same screen time as they do now, and I wanted them to have their own screen time so they each had their own exciting or ‘cool’ moments. Of course the main character gets a little bit more screen time, but hopefully that’s excused by it being a first person novel.
Our brave band of adventures from Shadows of Brimstone can perfectly highlight good ways of avoiding repetitive word use in action scenes, as well as giving everybody equal screen time. As I recall they were just about to reach one of the so-called ‘haunted’ mines…
The group stood looking down the broken rails at the mine entrance. Light barely penetrated the entrance, as if it was too scared to enter. The group stood in an awkward, mute silence as they each struggled with their inner demons telling them not go inside and find new ones. Eventually Hank stepped forwards, clearing his throat so his voice was its normal gruff pitch.
“We ain’t come here to stare at it. Best get moving. Safi, your good on your feet – keep hold o’ the lantern for us.”
“Sure thing,” Safi said, gratefully looking away from the mine entrance to find the oil lamp in her saddle bags.
“How come she gets the light, hombre?” Javier’s voice held the faintest quiver. “We all gotta see where we’re going, and she’s shorter than the rest of us.”
“You’ll just get yerself blown up, senyor,” Hank said back with a forced smile. Their normal banter came uneasily and had none of the normal comfort it provided them. “You’re gonna need both hands free knowing your shooting.”
“From what I hear her ain’t wrong, bandito,” Jude put in.
“Puta,” Javier said but it lacked its normal venom.
“I don’ see what the big deal is,” John spoke up and swaggered towards the entrance. Lillith made a careful warding gesture and muttered something under her breath as the black man walked down the slope. “Ain’t nothing gon’ on here but – Jesus she-it!”
A slimy, purple tentacle wiped out of the darkness and grabbed John around the waist. The others barely had time to curse before he was dragged, spitting and swearing, into the darkness. Hank brought his shotgun up and ran down to the cave mouth, “Safi! Bring that god damned lantern!”
Safi was only two steps behind and the rest of the group charged in, following the John’s scream and the dull, wet thuds of his hammer. After about three hundred yards the tunnel turned and they found him, in a wider section of the mine surrounded by half a dozen snake-like creatures like the one that had first grabbed him. Two more appeared to be swimming out of a fast flowing river to one side of the cave, and while he had somehow regained his feet it was clear that he would soon be overwhelmed.
“Don’ just stand there! Fucking help me!” He yelled and swung his hammer as a tentacle lunged at him. He caught it square in the middle and with a horrible squelching noise it burst and fell to the floor, flopping twice like a grotesque, beached eel before lying still.
The others need no further encouragement. Safi drew her pistols and Hank levelled his shotgun before the pair filled the small cave with gunshots and clouds of black powder smoke. Two tentacles went done, one peppered and perforated by a few shots while the other had been torn clean in half by Hank’s weapon.
Chittering, chilling laughter filled the cave as Safi and Hank kept up their fire and John kept swinging his hammer in wide arcs, warding the things away from him least they get smashed. Jude turned towards the sound, pistol ready, “Okay, time this got interesting.”
Eight winged serpent-like things with snapping, yapping mouths at both ends flew out of the shadows on leathery wings. Behind them something larger began to detach from the cave wall, chitinous grinding echoing out of the darkness with low menace. “Fuck this!” Jude yelled, his first shot going wide in shock. He fanned the hammer of his revolved and emptied the cylinder, setting himself in a practiced stance and setting his jaw. Five bullets found five targets, and the cacophony of demonic laughter lessened as the creatures numbers dwindled.
None of their savagery left them though, and the three bat-snakes flew at Jude as he tried to reload. They bite and scrapped and tore at him. The gunslinger tried to shove them away or block them but it only seemed to incite them further. With a roar John caught one, his hammer squashing it against the cave wall, but before he could bring it back around a tentacle wrapped around his leg and lifted him into the air, shaking him like a ragdoll. The last of the hideous purple serpents had pushed Safi and Hank up against the wall, bleeding but not broken, where Javier was hacking at it with a hunting knife.
Suddenly Lillith’s voice filled the cave and the two bat-snakes froze in mid-flight. One fell to the ground and shattered into a hundred crystalline shards while the other was thrown by some unseen force at the tentacle holding John. Jude managed to load two rounds and fired point blank at the flailing mass of muscle and flesh. With a hiss like a deflating balloon it slithered to the ground and curled up, unmoving.
John picked up his hammer and helped Javier finish off the last one just as a heavy, pounding sound drew the group’s attention back to the far cave entrance. A great, mantis like creature, the size of a bear and covered in insectoid scales, lumbered in and bellowed at them. Behind it a second one was detaching itself from the wall. Hank and Jude recovered at the same time, the others a moment after, and emptied both their chambers at the thing. It popped and hissed but didn’t stop as it charged towards them. Jude leapt to one side, splashing into the river, and Hank managed to roll away before it barrelled into Javier and knocked the Mexican off his feet. John moved in to bring his hammer down but with unnatural speed the creature pivoted and took his arm in one oversized pincer and began to squeeze. As it did so, it dragged John towards what could only be called its face, a pointed appendage with two deep, green slits for eyes and a writhing mass of feelers and mandibles for a mouth. The black man began to gibber and thrash wildly as he head was brought closer and closer to that hideous, inhuman maw.
Thunder cracked in the cavern again as Safi unloaded her pistol into the things side. With a roar it turned towards her, and only some very fancy footwork kept her clear of its grasp but she was running out of room.
“Fuck you!” Hank bellowed at it, firing both barrels of his shotgun. Jude’s pistol joined in and the thing flailed then collapsed to the floor, finally dead.
The second one bellowed at its mate’s death and began stopping and howling outrageously. Safi, Hank and Jude hurriedly started pulling at breaches and awkwardly forcing bullets into cylinders while John clutched at his hammer and shakily got to his feet, his face as pale as his ebony skin could be. The last creature bellowed again and the group took an involuntary step back, dropping shells as despair washed over them; they wouldn’t be ready, they couldn’t kill it, they were going to die.
“Everyone get back!” Javier yelled, eyes wild and scrabbling for purchase. One hand held a cluster of dynamite, a spark dancing hungrily down the fuse. “Ai, puta! Suck on this!”
The beast bellowed defiantly as Javier threw the explosives. They bounced haphazardly, his aim off and mind shaken, and the group ducked for cover. The bundle came to rest just in front of the beast as it began to charge, the fuse all but gone.
The ground shook and the world was filled with fire and light. In its wake a thick cloud of smoke and dust billowed into every corner of the room. Coughing and muttering the group clambered to their feet, Lillith holding her head and Safi massaging the back of her ears while Jude shook his head and tried to clear the ringing in his ears. John looked around, blinking and brought his hammer up while Hank levelled his shotgun into the corridor where Javier and the alien beast had been.
“You in there, Mexican?” Hank called, only the slightest crack showing in his bravado. “I want you to come out with your hands up and dynamite somewhere safe!”
Something scraped in the cloying dust cloud. It sounded like a leather boot on stone, but could have easily been strange, sinewy flesh on chitin. There were more clicks as the others recovered and levelled their weapons and more scrapping from the swirling smoke.
“I ain’t foolin’, Javier!” Hank called out again and took a step forwards. When no answer came he took another, slow step. His third was brought short as a figure began to emerge from the cloud. Hunched and limping it staggered towards them wearing the remains of a sombrero.
“C’mon hombre, you think a little boom like that can take down your ol’ amigo?” Javier coughed as he stepped out of the dissipating dust cloud. Chitinous remains littered the floor and a splash of blue-purple blood marked his face, but his grin hadn’t gone anywhere.
“Are you okay, Mr Javier?” John said, concerned. The others all gave him worried looks.
“Of course I am, gringo! Why wouldn’t I be?” Javier’s smile faltered when he saw their expressions. He followed their gaze to his chest. Slashes of blood striped his clothes, blue and purple with little wells of red seeping through from underneath, and a dozen tiny spears of rock and armoured chitin protruded from his front. He looked up at all of them with an annoyed look on his face. “Oh, meirda.”
Javier fell to the ground. Hank and Safi rushed to his side, checking he was still breathing, as the others looked on in shock and surprise.
So there’s the next exciting instalment! Hopefully it’s enjoyable and suitably badass as a western gun fight against lovecraftian horrors should be. What obstacles did I face? Well, revolvers all sound the same and shoot the same and get reloaded the same and…you get the picture. Fortunately Hank uses a shotgun and Safi will soon be moving from short-ranged firepower to axe-wielding whirlwind in fights, Javier may as well not shoot and neither John nor Lillith have guns. Since Jude is the only one who does anything fancy with his revolver I get to save the technical stuff for him while in this scene Safi has the slightly more general and onomatopoeic language. Reloading doesn’t feature in the game but provides a useful break from action for movement of characters, and a shift in perspective – or where the spotlight is in the scene.
I’ve stopped writing up my journal from the game itself a while ago now as most of the time when we get into a mine it’s a case of walk-shoot-shoot-shoot-walk-shoot-shoot-shoot-walk, rinse and repeat. This is sad, but the game is very combat heavy and less focused on roleplay – more so than even D&D, which is saying something – so writing a story off of it is difficult. The action sequence of that scene is only 1,100 (approx) and writing more of the same would get very boring very fast. It’s very difficult to keep a scene dynamic without exhausting the reader, and a writer has to change up the speed of the scene and the style of combat or movement to keep their interested focused and their buzz high. And too much violence takes away from the cool moments too much. Watching a character do something cool once or twice provides a reader with an amazing image. The twentieth time they do it the reader has definitely lost interest and by the fiftieth they might even want that character to just give up and die. If you’ve ever played the original Assassin’s Creed and done any amount of proper fighting, you’ll know what I mean.