On Monday, Sue Coletta wrote a wonderful piece on how to write a dance scene. As I read it, I realized that a) I’ve never written a dance scene, and b) what a daunting challenge it would be to try. The page is an inanimate thing. There’s no music to hear, no rhythm to feel. All of that–and the romance that it triggers–must be borne solely by word on the page. The more I think about it, the less likely it becomes that I will ever write a dance scene.
I do, however, write my fair share of violence, and it shares at least one requirement with dance scenes: choreography. Whether it’s mano a mano fisticuffs or a major armed conflict with firearms and explosives, it’s our job as writers to bring readers into the middle of the action in a way that makes them feel involved.
It all boils down to point of view.
If you’ve ever endured the adrenaline dump that is our fight-or-flight instinct, you know that in the moments when your survival is threatened, the world becomes very small. If someone threatens to hurt you or to hurt a family member, there’s a special kind of clarity of purpose. The why of the situation that brought you to that moment could not be less relevant. Survival is all that matters. Sometimes, that means running away, and other times it means defeating the threat.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Experts in managing violent encounters–specifically active shooter situations–tout the strategy of Run-Hide-Fight, in that order. Run away if you can, otherwise hide. Only as a last resort should one attempt to fight back. As a non-expert in such things, however, history all too often has shown that to hide really means to await one’s turn to be be a victim. Something to think about.
When it comes to the fight scene in your story, ask yourself whose is the best point of view from which to present the action, and then stick with it. My 2019 Jonathan Grave thriller, Total Mayhem, opens with a mass shooting at a high school football game:
Tom Darone had seen a lot of people die in his day, but not like this. The lady in the blue coat—the first to go down—made a barking sound and then folded in on herself. Tom’s first thought was that she’d suffered a seizure, or maybe a stroke. She sat two spaces down from him in the bleachers, and one row closer to the football field. Her emergency happened at the same second when Number 19 of the Custer Cavalrymen intercepted a pass at the end zone, robbing the Hooker Hornets of a go-ahead touchdown.
In all the excitement, nobody saw her collapse. Then her husband noticed. “Anita?” he said as he stooped to help her.
Then the crowd erupted with a new kind of cheer.
People pointed, and Tom followed their fingers to see that a player had collapsed on the field. Was that blood?
Then two more players fell. A chunk of helmet erupted in a gruesome spray from a third.
The lights went out. In an instant, the field went from the artificial daylight bright that is unique to nighttime football to true darkness.
Anita’s husband shouted, “Oh, my God, she’s been shot! Help me!”
A ripple of four spectators to Tom’s right fell side-by-side among yelps of pain.
The field was under attack.
Tom watched with a strange sense of detachment as the panic hit. Home now only two months from his eighth deployment to the Sand Box, and six weeks into his new status as an unemployed vet, the reality of the moment crystalized in an instant. The first survival challenge would be to avoid being trampled in the stampede of humanity.
The panic around him didn’t blossom or bloom. It erupted. Those who’d been hit—and the people who loved them—hunkered down, while everyone else fled. In a single instant, hundreds of people decided that personal survival trumped everything. A few were so overwhelmed by the enormity of the swirling action that they simply shut down, but those were the minority. Most people ran. They had no obvious destination, and they had no apparent plan. Most didn’t even know where the exits were, so they followed the people ahead of them on the assumption that strangers were smarter than they were.
The mayhem grew to critical proportions in mere seconds. Tom realized in a rush that he was in the epicenter of the kill zone. As the sea of spectators pushed and tumbled past each other—and as bullets continued to find their marks—Tom dropped to his stomach into the foot-trough of the bleachers and rolled to his right. As he dropped into the matrix of the metal support structure, his boot found a foothold, and then so did his hands.
If I had chosen to write that scene from the point of view of Anita’s husband–the spouse of the first victim–all of the action would have been secondary to his efforts to save Anita’s life and shelter her from further harm. If I’d written it from a football player’s point of view as his teammates are dying, the scene would be different still.
If I’d told this part of the story from the shooter’s point of view, it would have given away too much of the story, so that choice was never in play.
The point here is that while each POV character would observe the same swarm of panicked humanity, the reader’s journey through the scene would be entirely different depending on the author’s writerly choice. Even the narrative voice would be different. Because Tom Darone had recently been in battle, his voice is naturally more observant and less emotional than would be, say, a teenage football player.
Action scenes fail when the author tries to take too big a bite.
The choreography of violence is inherently confusing, so it’s easy to lose the reader. Take the cliched barroom melee from every cowboy movie of the 1960s. On film, a viewer can easily keep track of the different punches thrown by John Wayne and Dean Martin because our brains process imagery at the speed of light. On the page, though, there’s that extra filter in play that translates spots on the paper into words and then those words into images that can be far more vivid than any movie adaptation, but that translation is as fragile as a single misplaced word. Throw in a bunch of different POV characters and the risk of losing your readers grows astronomically.
If you pick a single character from whose point of view to show the scene, you can give the reader a literal blow by blow description of that character’s corner of the fight, while observing flashes of the rest of the activity through peripheral observation. We feel his knuckles hurt when he throws a punch, and we feel the pain in his gut when he takes a body blow.