Imminent danger

It’s a large part of any tense and exciting book…

Look, there’s a finite amount of action and dealing with actual present dangers in any book. Yes, in some the character moves at a brisk sprint between disasters, and in other an amble which has you dropping off to sleep after 37 pages of introspection (yes really, a well known author, and the book sold fairly well) but, well it is a balancing act. Too much either way and you lose the reader – one in a haze of disaster, the other in a lack of the same.

What the author does is to generate the feeling of imminent danger. It’s pretty well like the da daa dumm… music they start playing in movies. Time the amount of time they spend working the watcher’s up to the actual event, and the actual event, and you realize that the action incident is very often quite short in reality.

The sentences in a well-written action scene are short (because you read those faster) and not full of speech tags (because there is not much speaking) and certainly with little introspection. There isn’t time. It slows the reader down, when they want to know what happened next.

Which means that these things happen before (or after) and it is in the prelude to action that the reader becomes increasingly aware of the imminent danger. Often these are setting cues – the place is for example shadowy and the characters become increasingly aware of for example odd sounds, that stop when they stop. The real craftsman tend to use some quite vivid language here too -sibilant whispers, and oppressive silences… and they also give you windows into the thoughts of the character. rarely will these of lunch or how chafed your thighs are after a day in the saddle, or how you feel about the way Sally looked at Freddie. There’s a place for all of these. They may well improve the story… but it’s not the lead up to an action scene.

You may think these have little to do with your story, as suspense isn’t what you do. The above example is suspense related – but you could replay that as a scene before battle, or a romantic encounter. All of them need a build up.

Nothing happens in a vacuum (well, except space-battles and Ford Prefect and Arthur Dent being rescued).

Image: Pixabay (no attribution required)

8 thoughts on “Imminent danger

      1. How about jumping out the airlock without a vacsuit? 🙂

        A hundred meters out he cut the tractor beam, and the bore-leech spun away from Wraith toward the dropship’s stronger emissions. It began accelerating halfway across, hit the dropship with a visible thud, and its fusion torch commenced eating a two-meter hole through the hull.

        He waited for it to get inside and out of sight and for the first rush of escaping air to subside, then powered up and brought Wraith in hatch-first so close the two ships almost touched. He set the autopilot timer for two minutes and pelted for the airlock. Override was slow, damned hatch didn’t want to open to raw space, and when it finally did Wraith was already moving off. He exhaled hard and dived out the hatch. Banged off the edge of the hole, kicked and rolled into range of the dropship’s internal gravity and pitched splat against a bulkhead. Scrambled upright with his head ringing and bolted down the corridor, betting his life the same mind that invented the bore-leech had also considered a defense.

        He was in luck. The corridor ended in an airlock. He punched the obvious button; an orange light came on and the lock cycled open. Fell inside, slammed the hatch, slapped at buttons by the far hatch. More orange lights, dim through his greying vision–

        A blessed hiss of incoming air.

        For a time all he could do was lie on the deck, and breathe.

        — from The War with the Toq (unfinished) by yours truly

  1. If what happens outside the airlock results in the character surviving…well, that’s action, and when you’re scrambling for your life, fractions of a second can get stretched out. Otherwise, a lengthy description of a death scene is just being gruesome. Maybe appropriate in horror or if there’s some forensic interest, but I can’t think of any other reason to dwell on it.

  2. The main issue I see with action scenes is too much blow-by-blow and moving-the-mannequin. His right hand did this while his left foot did that… when all that was needed was: he lunged or he grabbed. He bunched up his fist, pulled back his elbow, and drove it into the side of the smart-ass’s head when all you needed was: he punched the jerk in the ear.

    Every time you specify right or left, or some very specific body motion, the reader has to stop and rearrange the characters and props to fit. Which brings the action to a dead halt. So if you don’t absolutely *need* to specify which hand or the like, for reasons directly pertinent to present action… don’t. Especially don’t specify what’s a normal default: he pointed with his right hand’s index finger vs he pointed a finger. Or: he folded up his legs and put his hands on the ground, when what’s actually meant is he squatted down. Don’t describe the action blow-by-blow when a single verb covers it.

    And when the mannequins are on strings, if you’re not absolutely accurate, you wind up with contradictions. My personal fave was when someone riding pillion swung her leg over the horse to dismount… *through* the rider in the saddle. Caused entirely by being TOO specific. (It went something like: “she swung her right leg over the horse’s back.” Since she’s facing forward, and remained so, which way did that leg go??)

  3. I noticed that I tend to use shorter words in fight scenes (unless it is from the P.o.V. of a character who thinks in long-ish words.). Hit, kick, stab, or slugged, kneecapped, and so on. No llllloooooong, poetic words.

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