Tuesday, March 20, 2007


Quentin recently posted this paragraph from a novel he's been reading and stated how it reminded him how much he hates action:

It soon became apparent that while Mou-lau was able to keep the men from coming upstairs, he was unable to prevail on them to leave. With the two sedan chairs ready, I ordered my servant, who was very handy with his fists, to go down first and clear a way for us. Hsiu-feng took Tsui-ku and followed him, while I took Hsi-erh and brought up the rear. We rushed downstairs all at once and, with the help of my servant, Hsiu-feng and Tsui-ku escaped by the door. One of the men downstairs grabbed hold of Hsi-erh as we ran past, but I kicked at his arm so that he let go of her. Hsi-erh ran out, with me following behind her. My servant stayed by the door to keep them from chasing after us.

Okay, it's pretty bland but as Quentin himself admits it's probably a bad translation. Still, I found his blanket dismissal of action quite irritating. Using the above paragraph as an example of how bad all action scenes are is unfair anyway. Action scenes, like any other scenes, lose a lot of their power when taken out of context.

Anyway, to try and redress the balance a little here are some examples of what I deem good action scenes. I'm sticking to the one paragraph rule even though as I stated above that's a huge handicap to any scene, not just action ones.

By Stephen Hunter

From Havana:

Whoever he was, he was taken aback by Earl's defiance, but the surprise instantly transmuted into rage, his face flashed the dead white of assault, and he waded in. His first blow, a wide, circular notification by wire, was easily evaded, and Earl instead snared the second one, only slightly less telegraphed, transformed its power by the primitive alchemy of judo back onto his attacker, and rammed the guy's noggin hard against the trunk of the tree.

Also from Havana:

And with that the man threw his punch. It was absurdly telegraphed, as he pivoted just a bit, cocked his right shoulder, cocked his arm, and set his right foot before launch. The big fist flew at Earl like some sort of softball pitch from a woman, and as it swept toward him, Earl almost cracked a smile.

From Black Light:

Earl hit Jed with his balled fist just under the ear, toward the jaw, a short vicious, completely satisfying jab. He hit him so hard the man was driven backwarrds as he chomped on his own tongue, opening a terrible wound, and blood began to gurgle out of Jed's mouth and darken on his overalls. A storm of dust floated up as Jed thrashed a bit and then lay still, one hand raised in surrender. Earl stepped toward him as if to work on him some more. Jed scurried back on his hands and knees, his face gone to the fear a man feels when he knows he's way overmatched.

By Joe R Lansdale

From Mucho Mojo:

I took a punch in the side of the head and one in the kidney and I yelled and turned and hit a guy with a forearm and saw another guy fly by me on the end of Leonard's foot, and then I saw the stock of Leonard's shotgun catch another one in the side of the head, and after that I saw less of Leonard because I was busy.

Also from Mucho Mojo:

I bobbed and weaved and let a couple of shots ricochet off me while I got it together, then we were close and the fists were flying and I was distantly aware of the sound of the gloves as they slapped on sweaty flesh, and I was aware of moving in and out of light and shadow, and finally, when he stood in shadow and I stood in light, with the sun at my back, I decided to hold him. I wasn't going to move. He wasn't coming into the light. He was going to take what I had to give in shadow. Take it and like it.

So you're getting characterization, metaphor and a mad, headlong rush of energy that is almost beautiful in its savagery. And that's out of context, when you don't really know who the characters are, how they relate to each other and why their battles are so important.

Bad action scenes are a bit of a pet hate of mine. Lots of writers -- including a lot of people who should know better as they are bestselling thriller novelists -- can't write an action scene to save their lives. And then readers see these authors' work and assume that it's the eptiome of action writing. It's not. If you're going to slag off action scenes at least read some decent ones before you do so. And don't just take my word for what passes for good action. If you don't like Hunter or Lansdale go read Lee Child or James Ellroy or whoever else takes your fancy.

And yes, I know, I've focused exclusively on fight scenes here at the expense of car chases, gun battles etc but I had a better idea of where to find the fisticuffs stuff in the novels I was using. I didn't really have time to reread all the novels in order to pick a wider range of action options.


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nomis said...

It looks like spam to me. You should probably just delete it.

As for fight scenes, one that has always stuck with me is the climax to Dashiell Hammett's NIGHTMARE TOWN, where the hero uses his cane as a club and beats the hell out of a sea of people.