A Fight to the Finish

I’ve written posts before about my middle grade years and how rarely anyone at my old school avoided a fight. But participating in a fight and writing about one are two very different things. So, as I approached the end of my young adult fantasy novel, I faced the challenge of writing a fight scene. But how to make it meaningful and avoid clichés—ah, that was the difficulty.

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I turned to other authors for inspiration. Let me tell you what I found. In an online seminar on writing action scenes, author James Alan Gardner comments

Roger Zelazny once recommended that fight scenes should have at least two sentences of filler for every sentence of genuine action. . . . . This doesn’t mean useless filler—it means various kinds of reaction shots and other material that contribute to mood or characterization.

Okay. Now I still needed to see how it was done. So I headed to a book written by Markus Zusak, an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Zusak uses filler to showcase character and mood in Fighting Ruben Wolfe, a contemporary realistic novel (in the anthology Under Dogs) about two brothers—Ruben and Cameron Wolfe—caught up in the world of underground boxing. If you don’t like spoilers, you should stop reading now. I can’t avoid them in this post.

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In the following excerpt, Cameron’s viewpoint is the camera that moves us through the opening minutes of the brothers’ last and most spectacular bout—with each other.

In the suffocating seconds between now and the fight, I wait. No practice punches, I’ll need them all. It’s fear and truth and future, all devouring me. It hunts through my blood and I’m a Wolfe. Cameron Wolfe.

I hear the bell.

With it, the crowd comes storming into my ears.

I walk forward and throw the first punch. I miss. Then Rube swings and gets me on the shoulder. There’s no slow beginning, no warm-up period or watching time. I move in hard and get underneath. I hit him. Hard to the chin. It hurts him. I see it. I see it because I want it more and he is there to be hurt. He’s there to be beaten and I’m the only one in the ring to do it. (Zusak 296–97)

Perhaps you’re getting a Fight Club vibe right about now. This is not your typical fight between a hero and a villain. This is a fight between people we care about, and there can be only one winner. Here the filler and action work in tandem like the fists of a fighter to underscore the mood: tense. Zusak’s style is lean like a prize fighter at the top of his game. “The suffocating seconds” in the first line helps us experience the tension Cameron, the younger of the two, feels pre-fight, while “I’m a Wolfe” provides a moment of sharp realization that fits Cameron’s emotional arc. He has always been a reluctant fighter—unlike the more predatory, “wolf-like” Ruben. Now the fight—the need to win this bout—is in his blood, and thus in ours as we move through the fight with him. The short, punch-like sentences, action verbs, and figurative language throughout (“It hunts through my blood”; “fear and truth and future, all devouring me”; “storming into my ears”) keep the tension high and never allows our attention to flag.

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With every jab, Zusak reminds us that while the battle will undoubtedly continue, it is worth fighting and reading about.

So, what did I learn? The right filler can give a fight scene emotional punch. That’s what I wanted for my scene. The key is to carefully consider the details that add emotional weight or develop character in a way that fits the mood.

Facing a fight scene or at least a scene with conflict of a different sort? Get ready to rumble, but don’t forget: character counts.

Gardner, James Alan. A Seminar on Writing Prose. 2001. Web. 28 March 2011. <http://www.thinkage.ca/~jim/prose/action.htm>
Zusak, Markus. Fighting Ruben Wolfe in the novel anthology Under Dogs. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic Press, 2000, 2010. Print.

Book covers from Goodreads. Boxing gloves from macho.com. Fight Club photo from movieroar.com.

Fractals: The Purpose of the Pattern

Before I get into fractals (and I know you’re holding your breath until I do), let me first announce the winner of the Ice Cream Giveaway discussed in Monday’s post.

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The winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Phillip McCollum!

Congrats, Phillip! Please email me at this address—lmarie7b(at)gmail(dot)com—to let me know your snail mail address and phone number for package delivery purposes.

Now, about those fractals. . . . For some reason, I woke up the other day thinking of them. This is either because of the large amount of snow my area has received or because I’ve been doing a Lumosity workout every morning.

Anyway, according to Wikipedia:

A fractal is a mathematical set described by fractal Geometry, the study of figures exhibiting fractal dimension. A fractal set when plotted typically displays self-similar patterns, which means they are “the same from near as from far.” . . . The concept of fractal extends beyond trivial self-similarity and includes the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself. (Emphasis added.)

But I probably didn’t have to tell you that. The Koch snowflake (below), developed by Swedish mathematician Niels Fabian Helge von Koch, is a fractal made of equilateral triangles. Dutch artist M. C. Escher also featured fractals in many of his illustrations.

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Yeah, yeah. I know. You couldn’t possibly care less, right? Okay. I’ll get to the point. When I think of replicated patterns, I can’t help thinking of my writing. What I see replicated at times is a pattern of procrastination. When scenes seem insurmountable, I turn to other activities: games like Plants vs. Zombies, checking email, texting, or reading other people’s blogs. I even sometimes use my Lumosity workout, which takes a few minutes at most, as an excuse. (BTW: Ingrid Sundberg wrote a great post on measuring productivity: http://ingridsnotes.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/keeping-track-of-time/)

So, as I began writing this post, I started to get down on myself about my procrastination. But after thinking about it, I decided to take a radical view and look for what’s positive about this pattern of behavior. No, I’m not crazy. I’m trying to follow the pattern of fractals in nature. If you’ve observed these patterns (snowflakes, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), you’ve seen the beauty in them. (BTW: The WebEcoist has beautiful photos of fractals in nature here: http://webecoist.momtastic.com/2008/09/07/17-amazing-examples-of-fractals-in-nature/)

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Romanesco broccoli—another fractal

So, there had to be something good about my pattern of procrastination. And I discovered just what that something was. You see, I often procrastinate, believe it or not, when I’m going in the wrong direction in my writing. Only, I don’t often know right away that I’m going in the wrong direction. When I approach a scene for which I have no energy and no thoughts about how it could work; when I try to shoehorn a plot point into the narrative, thinking that someone might judge my story as boring without it, I immediately think of other things more enjoyable to do—like playing Plants vs. Zombies. However, when I’m writing a scene for which I have great emotional investment, I usually work on it until it’s done, with no interruptions other than the necessary ones (like going to the bathroom or eating chocolate).

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Case in point: for the last few days I’ve been going in circles about adding to my novel some chapters involving a side quest. You see, one of my characters is dying at this point in the story. Yet I had great plans of writing a couple of chapters in which the dying character’s companions explore a beautiful cavern and make a discovery about their people. But I couldn’t make much progress on the chapters, even after free writing and brainstorming. I found myself going back to Plants vs. Zombies out of frustration. A vicious cycle? I’d like to think of it as an opportunity for reflection. Why did I pick up that game again and again? Because it’s fun and fast paced. Note the words fast paced.

After reading a post at Charles Yallowitz’s Legends of Windemere blog (“Distractions from the Plot or Character Building?”), I determined that the proposed chapters are probably a distraction. I asked myself: If a character in this scene is dying, why would his companions take the time to explore a cavern? Shouldn’t they continue their search for help for the dying person as quickly as possible? After all, that’s the ticking clock element. By trying to squeeze in this side trek, I had inadvertently sabotaged the pacing of the story by decreasing the tension. And I learned that through procrastination.

Now, I’m not justifying a habit of procrastination. We all know its negatives. None are more apparent than in my life. But sometimes, you have to look for patterns and what they tell you. There may be a purpose to that pattern, if you’ll take the time to look. Speaking of looking . . .

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Have you thought about what your procrastination might be telling you?

Ice cream image from hfboards.hockeysfuture.com. Koch snowflake and broccoli images from Wikipedia. Wrong way sign from myparkingsign.com. Ninja cat from LOL Cats.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Yes, the title is an overt reference to the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the 1987 movie starring John Candy and Steve Martin. But this post isn’t about that movie.

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My parents once told me that our family took a long train trip when I was a baby. Funny. I don’t recall that excursion. But since they never mentioned a second train trip, perhaps taking my older brother and me on the train filled them with such horror, they couldn’t bear to take us again.

Recalling some of our antics during long car trips to visit relatives, I can see why they would wish to avoid being on a train with us for days on end. They were forced to live in the same house with us, but were wise about not inflicting us on the public very often.

Now that I’m an adult, I can take myself on a train trip across the country. Alas, I’m too type A for a leisurely train trip. I like to get where I’m going as fast as possible, you see, which is why the airplane is my favorite mode of transportation next to my car. Unfortunately, some airport security lines are about as slow as taking a leisurely train trip these days.

Now that I’ve mentioned all of the means of transportation in the title, I can finally get to point of this post: pacing. I’m cutting paragraphs and scenes out of my work in progress for this reason.

As I pondered the problem of pacing, I asked Nancy, another friend from VCFA, for her definition of a well-paced novel. She had this to say:

A well-paced novel never loses your interest, but is not a constant roller coaster either. But even in the quiet moments, the story and characters are building and growing.

That makes sense to me. How about you? What would you add to that definition?

While you consider that question, I’ll mention a novel that YA author and Nerdfighter John Green described as “brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced” in a review written for The New York Times. It is

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You can read Green’s review here. If you read the book, perhaps you agree or disagree. I’m on the side of agreement. As I followed the journey of heroine Katniss Everdeen, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough, even in the slower moments. The action and the quieter moments worked like a waltz—the rhythm perfectly measured.

Another book I consider well paced is Sabriel, a young adult fantasy novel by Garth Nix, book 1 of his Abhorsen trilogy. You can find out more about this book here.

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From the first page of the prologue (and Nix makes a good case for its inclusion) to the last page of the epilogue, the pacing never flags. Yet it’s not so frenetic that you feel exhausted at the end of the book (like I felt at the end of watching Bourne Ultimatum). Nix, like Collins, includes quieter moments as heroine Sabriel catches her breath or basically tries to survive during the harrowing search for her missing father.

My problem with pacing comes with my tendency toward the sagging middle. And I don’t just mean my own sagging middle as a result of quick pacing at the dinner table. (Now there’s an image you probably didn’t want.) As you know, many stories have a three-act structure (the setup; the confrontation; and the resolution). (For a great post on plot and structure, see Ingrid’s Notes here.) The action of the story rises toward the climax. But in the second act of my WiP, I included scenes that do little to advance the plot. In fact, they stopped the forward momentum. It’s like being forced on a long, leisurely train trip when what you really need is a quicker mode of transportation to get to the end of the line.

Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need, cautions, “It’s not enough for the plot to go forward, it must go forward faster, and with more complexity, to the climax” (150). As I read that, I went, “Huh?” until I realized what he meant: Make stuff happen. Keep raising the stakes.

Another friend sent me a link to a post written by another well-known YA novelist, Libba Bray. It’s hilarious, and I urge a read. But this quote from the post really struck me:

Thinking takes TIME. Thinking forces you to question everything you take for granted, to get past what feels too easy, too pat in order to get down to what feels real and right and true for your story.

I don’t have a magic formula for writing the well-paced story. But what Libba says also makes sense. Pacing takes thought and an instinct for “what feels real and right and true.” Even if a beta reader points out scenes that sag in your WiP (as my beta readers did in mine), you still have to know how to pick up the pace. For me trial and error works. For some of you, maybe you troubleshoot early on through an outline.

Regardless of how we define well paced, I think we can all agree that good pacing, like good taste, is something you sense right away, especially its absence.

What books do you consider well paced?

Train photo and book covers from Wikipedia.