Friday, December 12, 2014

Perspective Errors: Over-Writing Action

Several types of perspective place you inside the head of the protagonist: third-person limited perspective and first-person present-tense perspective both embrace the concept that you are being shown the story in the moment that it happens through the lens of the perspective character. Third-person omniscient and first-person past-tense perspective also sometimes relay the narrative in this manner—through the eyes of a character as it is happening.

We’ve discussed before the importance of describing scenes, action, and other characters in a way that is appropriate for the perspective from which you’re writing. For example, an illiterate thug who grew up on the streets probably wouldn’t describe his perceptive friend as “perspicacious,” even in his own head. He might not even use the word “perceptive,” for that matter. So if you’re in the thug’s head, you shouldn’t describe his friend that way. It doesn’t matter if you, the author, would describe someone as perspicacious; you’re trying to place your audience in the mind of the perspective character, and using out-of-place language breaks the illusion.

Now, the way you describe action and the world of your story should also be influenced by any temporary conditions that your perspective character is under. A blindfolded character could not describe her surroundings visually, and so she would have to focus more on sounds, smells, and other senses that she normally would. A character who has taken a blow to the head might be dizzy or have trouble thinking clearly, and the language you use while they are in that state should reflect that.

One such state that frequently arises but often does not affect the prose of new writers is action. A character in a high-adrenaline situation, where they are perhaps fighting for their life, should not usually perceive their surroundings and their actions in the same way that they would in a calmer situation. Here’s a few things to look out for when writing actions scenes from the perspective of your character:

Match your description to your time

     Jenna moved forward slowly, careful to place her feet gently to avoid making any sound. Between each step, she peered through the trees, checking the darkness between the trees for the source of the noises she had heard. She held her rifle ready—the noises couldn’t have been made by anything smaller than a person.
     A black shadow suddenly loomed above the foliage ahead of her. The moment she noticed it, the creature—an enormous, scarred black Jinduan bear—charged with a deafening roar. Behind it, three small cubs growled, watching Jenna curiously.
White oak branches cracked and shattered out of the bear’s path, and Jenna only caught a glimpse of gleaming yellow irises and massive white canines before she was knocked to the ground by a heavy paw with muddy, five-inch claws. She attempted to raise her rifle, but there wasn’t enough room.

Most action happens quickly. In this example, the bear charged so quickly that Jenna was unable to shoot it, even though she explicitly had her rifle ready. And yet, in that time, she was able to discern what type of bear this was, that it was scarred, how many cubs the creature had, what they were doing, and what type of branches the bear was charging through. Doesn’t that seem a little unrealistic? Even if Jenna might have been vaguely, peripherally aware of these details, they probably wouldn’t have been occupying her attention in the moment that the angry bear was charging her!  Limit your description to fit the focus and observational capabilities of your character in the moment that events are happening.

In action, simple words can trump more complicated or specific words

I’ve posted several times about the need to use more specific, evocative words in description. In action, however, this rule doesn’t always apply. When adrenaline is pumping and action is happening quicker than rational thought, your prose can reflect your character’s inability to think quickly enough to keep up with the action.

For example, in our example above—if an enormous bear was charging you and you caught a brief glimpse of its face just before it attempted to ruthlessly, messily kill you, do you think your mind would be going, “Hmm, look at those gleaming yellow irises and massive white canines. Oh, and what heavy paws with muddy claws. Why, I do believe that those claws are approximately five inches long. My, my.” Of course you wouldn’t be thinking that! Unless you are the most hardened, constantly-in-peril protagonist in all of history, you would probably be thinking, “TEETH!! SCARY EYES!! HOLY @#!% THOSE @!&#ING CLAWS ARE HUGE!! I’M GOING TO DIE!!!

Now, you don’t need to reduce your narrative to nigh-incoherent screaming, and I certainly hope that you would avoid such horrible over-use of capital letters. But you should probably try to find a good middle ground. If your normally-well-spoken protagonist suddenly drops all of her eloquence in the middle of an action scene, it could be a useful and effective way to convey unthinking fear or urgency. Even if your character keeps their head, they should probably be too busy fighting for survival to consider the specifics of every detail.

Mordu, did you know that one of your incisors is broken? Oh, sorry, we're busy, aren't we? This probably isn't the best time.

Shorter sentences are preferable to longer sentences

This is an oft-repeated bit of advice for action scenes, but it is oft-repeated because it is good advice. Short sentences serve the same purpose as simple words—they convey that events are happening quickly, that the character doesn’t have time to think, that her mental state has been reduced to a more basic, primal, survival instinct.

Now, your action scenes shouldn’t consist of nothing but sentence fragments—in fact, many of your sentences may still turn out pretty long. But you should avoid more complicated sentences. If you’re busting out semicolons, colons, or too many em dashes, you’re probably decreasing the tension of your action scene. Your character is having to react too quickly for them to think much, and you want your readers to feel that. But if they have to slow down to decipher or consider complicated sentence construction, that won’t happen.

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