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By Carolyn Howard-Johnson
This article is excerpted from some editing I did for a writer of experimental fiction when I was on a Greater Los Angeles Writers Society (GLAWS) panel. No matter what genre you prefer, you can apply these suggestions to the chase, getaway, or high action scene in your script or manuscript. Do it before you send it to an agent or publisher or, better still, while you are writing the first draft.
Sometimes even the most fascinating, interesting and irresistible detail can slow down the forward movement of your story. So as much as writers are told that detail is important, purge as much as you can from your action scenes and put it somewhere else or dribble it into narrative in other places in your manuscript. In the process, ask yourself if your reader really needs to know the color of the protagonist’s eyes. As important as detail is, some is better left to the imagination of the reader. I can imagine where eye color might be very important, but—on average—it probably isn’t necessary. Here are some quick suggestions:
1. Remove some of the detail entirely. Double check. Make it meet the test!
2. Use stronger verbs—especially verbs of movement. Use a Thesaurus to explore related words.
3. Use shorter sentences. By doing so, the rhythm could emulate a fast-beating heart and the pulse of danger. Note that clauses slow copy as surely as passive voice (or tense).
4. In the interest of a faster pace, try dropping into present tense and moving out of it when the run or danger is past. Write the scene that way and wait a day or two before rereading it. By doing so, you’ll be able to honestly compare the effects of the two and adjust the tense change so it doesn’t feel obtrusive.
5. If you are trying to achieve a truly heart-beating moment, consider using fragments. Even one-word fragments.
6. This bears repeating: Consider saving the description of your protagonist for a time when life doesn’t depend on his or her speed. His “bright face of youth” doesn’t meet that test. Is there a way to work the major description into this narrative using smaller bites or to arrange to have it come before or after the chase?
7. Though sensory detail is highly desirable, be careful not to overdo that, especially in an action-moment. The writer of the action scene I was critiquing had the protagonist leaning against a strut for a moment’s rest. The strut’s sensory role in this passage would be intuited by the reader as a metaphor for the feelings of the protagonist. Just let it do its job.
8. Commas can slow the pace. In fact, commas are supposed to slow things down by indicating where a speaker would pause. When your pacing must be fast, think of them as stoplights:
a. Stop: Consider just eliminating the comma.
b. Stop: Consider eliminating anything that come between two commas.
c. Stop: Consider making your sentence into two sentences. Or three.
d. Stop: Consider using fragments rather than commas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of the multi award-winning series of HowToDoItFrugally books for writers including USA Book News’ winner for The Frugal Book Promoter. An instructor for UCLA Extension’s renowned Writers Program for nearly a decade, she believes in entering (and winning!) contests and anthologies as an excellent way to separate our writing from the hundreds of thousands of books that get published each year. Two of her favorite awards are Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment given by members of the California Legislature and “Women Who Make Life Happen,” given by the Pasadena Weekly newspaper. She is also an award-winning poet and novelist and she loves passing along the tricks of the trade she learned from marketing those so-called hard-to-promote genres. Learn more on her website at https://HowToDoItFrugally.com. Let Amazon notify you when she publishes new books (or new editions!) by following her Amazon profile page: https://bit.ly/CarolynsAmznProfile. Her The Frugal Editor is now in its third edition from Modern History Press. Let it help you edit your work-in-process.
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