I’m working through some of the reader questions I’ve received, so this week we’re looking at writing action scenes in deep point of view. Here’s the question:
“I struggle most with action scenes. How deep is too deep POV where the reader loses a sense of what’s happening in the scene? And how do I balance the character’s inner dialogue and reactions with the action?” – Rabecka
Great question. Thanks for asking, Rabecka. Let’s dive in!
Know The Why Of The Action Scene
Just like in every other kind of scene written in deep point of view, know the why for your point of view character (POVC). Why are they fighting right now? Most people take quite a bit of nudging before they’re pushed far enough to take a swing at someone. The why must be specific to that character in that moment. That why should give the reader insight into the POVCs motives, their character, their priorities, their passion, etc. All fight/action scenes should move the story or the emotional plot ahead. If you can remove that scene without changing the story, it’s not essential. Only essential fight/action scenes get to stay.
Emotions In Action Scenes
What mix of primary emotions are at play? That mix will trigger fight, flight, or freeze which triggers a secondary emotion — where we have a thinking response TO DO something. In action sequences this must happen fast *snaps fingers* In most cases, you wouldn’t dwell on this. Let’s have a look at an example:
“Reacher chose the path of least resistance. He ducked his head and let the punch scythe through the empty air above it. Then he bounced back up, and launched to his feet, and twisted, and used his falling-backward momentum to jerk his elbow into the guy’s kidney, which was rotating around into position just in time. It was a good solid hit. The guy went down hard. Reacher fell back in his chair and sat there like absolutely nothing had happened.”
Lee Child, The Midnight Line, ch 3
So, we have Reacher in a situation that’s escalated to violence. I haven’t included the primary emotions here, but Reacher’s already placed his scarred giant-sized left fist on the table, and then the even bigger more-scarred right fist in a failed attempt to intimidate. He’s watching the guys around him for tension, for anything that tips him off to action about to happen. So, the primary emotions at play here would be anticipation – hyper vigilance, wariness plus maybe dread or suspicion that’s led him to seek the information to begin with.
So, the secondary emotion then isn’t anger. It colors more like frustration or irritation because they’re making him work harder than he thinks he should have to to get the information he needs, but he’s flexible. (Many primary emotions can also be secondary emotions depending on the context — if that emotion is a thinking reaction to a primary emotion.) “It was a good solid hit.” <- This is the internal dialogue in this sequence. This is his thinking reaction to the primary emotions he’s experiencing. He hasn’t even broken a sweat — he never felt out of control or in danger, he never exerts himself. His internal dialogue reflects this inner state.
Who your character is must dictate the action and the internal dialogue in any action/fight scene.
Internal Dialogue In Action Scenes
Internal dialogue is where we communicate/show secondary emotions. Let’s look at a writer whose POVC is a bit more… thoughty than Reacher.
“…George deliberately bumping against her. She [Anna] pulled back from him and instinctively wrapped her arms protectively around herself. He gave her a sneer he hid quickly from the others.
‘Illegitimis nil carborundum,’ she murmured. It was stupid. She knew it even before George’s fist struck out.
She ducked and dodged. Instead of a fist in her stomach, she took it in the shoulder and rolled with it. The small entryway didn’t give her much room to get away from a second blow.
There wasn’t one.
Boyd had George pinned on the ground with a knee in the middle of his back. George wasn’t fighting him, just talking fast…”
Patricia Briggs, Cry Wolf
So, the primary emotions are shown through Anna’s body language. She’s wary, afraid, jumpy, hyper-vigilant. So, how does she react to those emotions (the secondary emotion)? Defiance. “It was stupid.” That’s the internal dialogue here. This scene feels like it moves a little slower than the Reacher scene. Any romance subgenre tends to be more focused on relationships so that’s reflected here. There’s more internal dialogue, more description in this scene, because that’s Anna’s thinking response to the primary emotions. Fighting back with her fists would be useless, all she has to fight with is her wit and her mouth. Do you see the difference?
Blow By Blow Action Scenes
There are some action scenes that by necessity are stark in their lack of description and internal dialogue. The intention is to create this snap snap snap response to the violence. There’s no time to think, just survive.
The shot thundered across the beach, an echo of the waves. The lead bullet broke his bottom right incisor, tore through his palate, just above his upper teeth, punched through the lower bone of his eye socket, and broke through the skin just in front of his left ear. He staggered back, then dropped down into a sitting position. Pain shot through his head. The blood dripped warmly down his cheek. His left eye wouldn’t focus.
But he was alive.
Deon Meyer, Dead Before Dying
This is a stylistic choice. There isn’t a right or wrong amount of internal dialogue or description as long as what you keep the pace moving, reveal character, and push the emotional/story arc ahead. This blow-by-blow account is visceral, it makes you want to wince. The only internal dialogue is, “But he was alive.” Where another writer using deep pov throughout the novel might widen the lens and use a shallower point of view to show an out-of-body experience or use a summary technique to force the reader to lean in, Deon Meyer has zoomed way in to create the same but opposite effect for readers.
Be intentional about this. What effect are you trying to create? I had a situation where I had two POVCs in an action scene. I had initially written the scene from the female perspective, the victim of the violence. But I rewrote it in the male POVCs voice as a sytlistic choice based on where I wanted to focus readers’ attention. If we were making movies, we might think of this in terms of which camera angle tells the story best in this scene?
What Tone Are You Creating?
The tone of the fight scene should dictate how deep the point of view is in an action/fight scene. Are you trying to create a feeling of raw shock and awe like the last example? Zoom in close and use cold, fast verbs (broke, tore, punch). Cold efficiency and proficiency like in the Reacher example? The action will be clean, fast-paced, and without a lot of description. The reader does most of the heavy lifting because the description is so sparse. The underdog facing a bully’s fists like in the Patricia Briggs example? There’s more internal dialogue, more description of what’s being felt – physically and emotionally.
Use similes and metaphors and descriptors that readers can relate to. Short, quick descriptions can be very powerful. Describing a character’s clothes as wet with blood for instance, not many of us will have been drenched with blood (thankfully) but we’ve all been thoroughly soaked while still clothed. This pairs an unfamiliar experience with a familiar physical sensation. In this way, we can write what we know even in action scenes.
Make sure you check out Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers available July 1st.
Thanks for the question, Rabecka! Do you have a writing question you’d like to see me answer on the blog? Leave a comment below or on Facebook!
Do you have a favorite action/fight scene from a novel?