Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Why are action sequences so hard to get right? You can spend hours pounding out the exact moment, and still come away with it all wrong.

I dabbled in film once upon a time, and I realized cinematography can be compared to writing. Both arts require that we depict a world, create the right mood, and engross our audience. What are some elements of cinematography? Shot length. Saturation/Coloring. Angle.

Have you ever noticed the length of camera shots in any given film? Try it. Pull up your favorite movie and count how long the camera remains in one place. Ten seconds? Three? Now compare an action sequence to a panoramic scene. See the difference? As a writer that’s exactly what you have to get your reader to feel—but your tool is not a camera, it’s sentence structure.

Choppy sentences engender urgency. They demand we pay attention. They speak volumes. What’s not said is as important as what is said. Word choice is paramount.

Saturation and hue are another important aspect of cinema. You may not notice it initially, but compare Pushing Daisies (awesome old TV series) to Underworld (for all you vampire fans). Do you see it? The over-saturation of brilliant colors in Pushing Daisies immediately communicates to the observer the mood—chipper, and primed for smug comedy. Contrarily, the dark, luminescent coloring of Underworld instantaneously tells us this film is serious, potentially brooding, and timeless.

In our sequences, how do we see the scene? Bright? Dim? Comedic? Serious? The more directed the tone, the better an image the reader will form. Again, word choice is paramount. Do we use “downhearted” or “devastated”? “Pulchritudinous” or “Beautiful”?

Angle=perspective. These are so important in film that directors, cinematographers and writers frequently confer to get it just right. You can show someone being beheaded several ways. Imagine a falling blade and an observer’s reaction. Or, you can actually witness the gruesome episode. I find not seeing is terribly effective. From the third person you have the power to show the reader everything, but limiting that omniscience and honing in on what is most important will strengthen your voice. From the first person perspective you are limited to what the main character perceives. In writing action sequences we have to remember that, to hold to it. Think how the character would think. Say what the character thinks. Nothing more.

Imagine your action sequence as a film. How long would your shots be? What angles would you take? What color saturation? Now, paint your scene exactly. Make it flow, or not flow to create the mood you want.

And now, the example:

She stopped. This felt familiar, too familiar.
She shook it off. Father had certainly gone mad with worry by now and planned to quarantine her to the house with a constant nanny-watch. She would not find him. She should return.
She turned and stepped into a puddle. Her reflection rippled.
She backed away, landing against a tree. Last night came back in a rush, hazy images of half-perception, rushing glades, panting as she moved in fear…
Threshing in the clearing pulled her about. An animal? Deer perhaps?
“Hello?” she called shakily.
The sun set. Intimidating branches twisted toward her. Odd shadows played over the swaying leaves, shifting in the most disconcerting way.
If she could hear the chatter of birds or scurrying of rodents—even if it made her jump, that at least would feel ordinary. The breeze ceased. In the sinister light—or absence thereof, she felt eyes burning into her…
Alexia shook the impression away and focused. She imagined it. She personified the dream into reality.
“Is someone there?” she breathed, little more than a whisper.
Wheezing gurgles met her ears. She rounded.
The sound died as quickly as it had come. What kind of creature made noise like that? Did she imagine it too?
She swallowed. The thump of her heart echoed into her ears. “Hello?”
A snicker rippled in a circle about her. She followed it, twirling about, but only caught snatches of something—something moving, fast!
A growl sounded. She needed no greater motivation. She dashed headlong.
Movement ruptured behind her.
Her skirts caught. They snagged and tore, scratching her legs. She ran harder, one arm before her face to fend off the branches. They raked across her sleeve. She gasped as they cut into her flesh.
Her feet slapped the ground in rhythm, echoed by another set of feet, faster ones.
Her chest heaved. She sucked in air, but could not draw enough. Invisible fingers squeezed at her airways. Her lungs pulsed like she was being sucked under a great watery swell. The whoosh of leaves turned her head. A silhouette crashed through her periphery. Blackness blinked at the corners of her vision. Her muscles burned.
She would faint before she’d been outrun!
Air rattled through her lungs. Perspiration chilled her skin as though trying to stiffen her already impregnable limbs. The rasp of her own breathing filled her ears.
She should be screaming. No, she should conserve her air…
“Help!” she screeched. Father had to have taken up a search by now. He’d track her. “Father! Anyone!” But she’d gone miles. Even if he’d begun looking, she’d wandered onto someone else’s property.
A bough slapped her across the face. White light flashed. She blinked it away, uncertain whether her legs were still under her.
She couldn’t outrun it. No one would hear her. It was an empty plea. “HEELP ME!”
Something pummeled into her back. She flew forward. Her head smacked a rock, wind jarring painfully from her lungs. A cry wretched outward as warm liquid eased down her cheek…sickly, wet…
Sight threatened. It blinked out and back. Pounding echoed through her ears, growing louder. Pressure crushed down through her spine. Pain. Piercing, searing, tearing into her back… A scream—hers?
No, she couldn’t give in! She sucked in a deep breath. “Please…” It sounded meager. She forced her eyes open as fire tore through her vertebrae, another shriek wrenching free. Tears wet her lashes. She watched in slow motion as one drop fell to the ground and spattered in a beautiful ribbon of translucent fingers. “Please…”


  1. I love the imagry of your writing. Mine is much like that. Sadly, my critique partners say it makes for a jumbled, disjointed, hard to follow story.

    I believe they are wrong. And I believe you and I are right. We must go with our instincts. Roland

  2. Often when I write, I see the book as though it were a movie, cutting from scene to scene. The novel I just finished is very much like that. Anyway, I appreciate your comparison of cinematography and writing. And I think you are dead-on. Thank you so much for your post.

  3. So encouraging. Thank you friends. =)


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