I believe that realistic action is one of the toughest elements to create for a reader, in any form or forum of writing. I’ve turned the problem over in my mind since I posted my first Kindle Single at the end of October. Titled, “Big Wave Virgin,” I built this story to bring a reader deep into the fast-moving tumult of a surf ride on one of the world’s most powerful waves, the break at Maverick’s in Northern California.
Big Wave Virgin
The first key to a good action sequence is accuracy. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than plunging into the excitement of a pivotal scene, only to be brought up short by a dumb mistake on the part of the author. For example, several times I’ve seen heroes in thrillers or mysteries get ready to take a shot at the bad guy, only to have the gun “jam.” This is major bullshit.
First, the only way a revolver or wheelgun gets jammed is if it’s a double-action weapon that’s been crushed with a dumptruck or pounded with a sledgehammer. Second, if it’s a semi-automatic pistol, the hero needs to have a round in the pipe and the safety on as he approaches the confrontation. If he’s qualified to use the weapon, he’s not going to wait to chamber that round until he’s deep in the jam. So he’ll own the chance to shoot one bullet. Now, when the slide tries to cycle the next cartridge into the chamber, then it could jam. But not before! The only way(s) to keep the first round from going off is if the firing pin breaks or if the primer on the cartridge is defective and fails to ignite. Or your hero is too stupid or gripped to flick off the safety before squeezing the trigger.
People, please. If you’re going to write about guns, let’s spend a reasonable amount of time shooting first, all right?
In the case of that surf piece, I had spent thirty years surfing myself, in conditions ranging from crapulous to sublime. This is not to brag, only to point out the value of relevant experience. Also, in my purview as a professional outdoor sports journalist, I had interviewed and written about big wave surfers up to and including multiple world champ Kelly Slater.
My aim was to describe the high-risk action involved in confronting a wave with a 50 foot-high face, a dynamic, moving structure that releases the mass and energy of a collapsing building as it breaks. And then, to take the reader on a second-by-second voyage through that adrenalized experience. Note that I had two major streams of info available to help me build a realistic scenario: personal experience (my own time in the water) and acquired experience (the interviews).
Not every author can come to crime writing after years with a police department (or a life as a “made man,” eh?) but every author trying to pull off a realistic description can certainly talk to cops, hang out with them, go on ride-alongs. Not every author trying to concoct a fight scene is going to have a black belt in a martial art, but he or she can certainly spend a month learning the basics of an art and talk to practitioners, masters and fighters.
The point is that a story is a virtual world, and one needs to deepen it using best-possible materials. Then the reader has a scene he can dive into without banging his forehead on the shallows.
Other key values to bear in mind? Economy, for one. I give you the top message from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.” And another: consequentiality. Try to make a large result depend on the outcome of your action scenes.