Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Faster! Faster!

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.
Gary Provost

A fellow writer posted up a fight scene for review, and it was quickly apparent that the scene had
Excuse me, but would you say I'm moving with the strength
of a lion or that of an elephant?
problems.  The main problem was the flow.  It didn’t feel like a fight.  Fights are quick, and, if Hollywood is to be believed, suffer from shaky-camera-syndrome.  To be fair, fights and battles are indeed erratic, chaotic, and confusing.  Uniform battle dress was used, in part, to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. 

In the heat of battle, it’s hard to tell one guy screaming and waving a sword from another.

In writing, fight scenes especially should take the advice of Mr. Provost, and use sentence length to advantage.  Because fights are quick, actions are fast, and always in motion, sentence structure should convey this to the reader as much as the words.  This is a lesson I didn’t really learn in my first book.  Fights and battle scenes were some of my first attempts at writing, but I didn’t realize that sentence length could suggest the same speed, ferocity and hammered action of the fight.

Robed figures came from the right.  Each clad from toe to tip in a garish yellow, rendered more so by the obscene red glow.  Blades were produced from under cassocks and growls issued from out of cowls.

Del didn’t have time to aim.

She tried to shoot low, to wound without killing.  Her guns barked and spat fire.  Robed figures fell as scythed wheat.  Something big and heavy cracked against her back.  The blow wasn’t much—in her current state, she barely registered any pain at all—but it distracted her enough that she paused.  A knife, wickedly curved and partially serrated, slashed through her thigh.  It cut cloth and drew blood.

Then Marrin was there, his sword bare, but in his hands it would be as deadly or as safe as he wished.  He used the flat, the pommel and the guard to amazing effect.  His first blow smashed the knife from Del’s would-be killer, and he back-handed the man’s face.  He stepped to the left and put himself amongst the acolytes, slashing and swinging with a speed and fury that was hard to resist.

This ain't no tea party . . . oh, wait.
It’s not a bad effort for a freshman author.  The first couple of paragraphs take advantage of the sentence length pretty well, moving the action forward, and highlighting the speed at which the fight is taking place.  Then Marrin shows up.  His appearance is conveyed randomly, which is poor writing in itself.  Previous scenes reflected that the character was present the entire time, so there’s no reason for him to show up as if he’d been standing off camera just waiting for his big Hollywood moment.  The bad guys and Del should have seen him the entire time.  Marrin’s entire paragraph is only four sentences long, but it’s as many words as the previous paragraph (69 versus 74), which takes up six, short, sweet and mostly adjective-free sentences.

A quick rewrite that would keep the action in the reader’s mind flowing would be:

Marrin stepped to the left of Del, his sword bare.  With the flat of the blade, he batted the knife away from Del’s attacker.  His fist smashed into the man’s face.  The acolyte flew back from the force of the blow.  Marrin moved into the gap.  He used the flat, the pommel and the guard to amazing effect.  He put himself amongst the acolytes and slashed with irresistible speed and fury.

Now the paragraph moves along.  The action speeds up.  Marrin is a force, a whirlwind.  He’s a master swordsmen that the evil acolytes can’t hope to contend with—and they don’t.  The paragraph is the same length (70 words), but it moves a much faster clip—the action is visceral and kinetic.  It’s still not the best it could be, but it’s stronger than it was, reflecting how much attention should be paid to the emotional content of such scenes to keep the reader engaged.

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