Saturday, June 6, 2020

How to Write an Action Scene – DIY or blow-by-blow?

I confess to being terrified of writing action scenes, although I love reading them. When my publisher Penmore Press sent me out the PDF Book Block of His Most Italian City for proof reading I nearly fell over backwards when I read my own attempt that had given me such labour and angst. It actually sounded like a real action scene. I wrote to my editor expressing my amazement but, I have to confess (again), writing one now still fills me with dread and anticipation (the bad sort of anticipation that leaves you awake night after night replaying the moves in your head and finding nothing but faults). Writing the next book Through Forests and Mountains that will come out in 2021, I decided to do the DIY technique: perform the action yourself then rush home and write it up before you have forgotten the chill mists, the pounding heart and the taut manoeuvres. 

We live about two hundred metres from the Australian bush, a pretty menacing place after dark. Often I had walked down long after the sun had set in an attempt to persuade myself to venture just five more metres into its black embrace, before turning and fleeing back to the comfort of the street lights lest I be eaten by wolves, bears and other things that don’t exist in Australia. (There’s always yowies, I suppose. Haven’t seen too many of them recently.) We had lived in the house for over twenty years by this stage and, confronted by the possibility that I would die here and never go for a scary bush walk at night, I persuaded my nephew, who was living with us at the time, to go with me. I was at the point of writing a similar scene in the novel and needed it to be realistic. 

My nephew said we had to take the dog – he weighs thirty-five kilograms and his bark packs quite a punch - so I saddled him up and off we went. Well, to cut a long story short, the three of us went on two bush walks at night, one during the full moon and one two weeks later, because I wanted to be able to write about the differences. The bush was suitably spooky, enjoyably ominous and the trip enabled me to write several hundred realistic words each time. You have to do this straight away, and don’t rationalize it too much. Turn your brain off. Just translate the experience into words and fix up the mistakes later. That’s the Do-It-Yourself method and it works really well. I have also tried it out sailing and created a thousand action-packed and water-logged words without a single neurone helping me.

The blow-by-blow technique, by contrast, requires research and a great deal of imagination. Also it takes much longer, because you have to keep returning to the work week after week to correct the inevitable errors. This is what I had to do in His Most Italian City, never having had the opportunity to submerge in a World War One submarine. There are a few basic maritime expressions, like port and starboard, bow and stern, that you’ve got to understand for starters. Also, don’t think nuclear submarines. These early subs were basically boats that had the ability to submerge and there was even much argument about that. The Austrian U1 that I had originally been using, stopped, flooded and only then sank. Obviously it would be no good in a chase scene. I decided on the U27 because it was the most successful Austrian submarine. This boat pushed down into the water as it went using the hydroplanes, and it could achieve this in under thirty seconds. Perfect!

So the point of the chase scene in the novel is that a powerful motor boat must try to sink a small submarine by swamping it. This was achievable because the U27 had saddle-like tanks on each side that made it roll a lot on the surface. What you want to do is to make it roll over so far that enough water will get in, threatening to sink it. This was forever happening to those submarines. They would simply disappear and never be seen again. They were quite unstable and you had to keep your forces balanced. This is why the submarine in Das Boot sank. It became unbalanced. Whether you could get them to resurface was the question. 

I decided that the U27 had to submerge to escape the motorboat, but it was being chased out of the harbour and the depth of water at the entrance was only thirty-five metres. After that it went down fairly steeply. The submarine itself was thirty-seven metres long. If the submarine crash-dives at an angle of thirty degrees (the maximum possible) how deep does the water have to be to avoid a collision with the ocean floor? Enter trigonometry. (Don’t laugh, I actually did this.) 

Now, as you might suspect, all this took a long time to get right. You also have to get the sequencing correct, and the reactions of the characters must be believable. More than that, it took a lot of soul searching, internal life to make it readable and exciting. Hence my pleasure at the final result. 

I guess if you are writing fantasy, or something that you couldn’t research or employ the DIY technique, it would be a major feat of imagination. I was wondering to myself the other day why Wuthering Heights has become a contemporary cult classic when it didn’t slot at all into middle Victorian sensibilities. The answer, of course, is that it is a fantasy novel. Wuthering Heights was Emily Brontë’s fantasy world of Gondal. 

So, to finish, here is a quote about Wuthering Heights in praise of imagination in writing action scenes. 

‘If the rank of a work of fiction is to depend solely on its naked imaginative power, then this is one of the greatest novels in the language.’ – G W Peck. American Review, June 1848. His Most Italian City (9781946409942): Walker, Margaret: Books