douglas adams

the wrong details

I’ve read or listened to four novels in the last week, none of which I’m going to review in any depth, although one of them irritated me enough to trigger this posting.

I write a lot of high-action scenes, and I like reading them, too, so I think it’s fair to say that I’ve made a study of what goes into one. You want the reader to be on edge, tense, reading fast because it’s exciting. There are different ways to get such scenes to work. Short, clean sentences are often effective, without the use of a lot of modal verbs (‘he could see’ is not as effective as ‘he saw’). A good action scene as an arc all its own, and a rhythm.

So I’m listening to a novel on tape, and right in the last page there’s a quick action scene where the main female character sees two men about to rape a woman in an alley. She sends her son off to get help and then wades in. I’m not going to give you the paragraph here, because I don’t see any upside in offending this author; I’ll paraphrase, sentence by sentence.

Jean picks up her skirts, takes a deep breath. … She observes the men in detail; both are scruffy, unshaven, dirty … She observes what she can see of the woman, who is struggling … She marches into the dim alleyway … She thinks about the smells and the dark and the fact that she’s afraid; she worries that the men are armed … The woman being attacked screams … The men laugh
Jean picks up a two-by-four as she marches down the alley … The men don’t notice her coming up from behind … She whams one of them across his ear and on the backswing nails the other one … The woman on the ground starts to crawl away … The second man lunges for Jean, and they struggle … She trips over the first man, goes down. … The second man throws himself on top of her. Jean spends a sentence noticing how badly he smells … The second man tells her that for her interference, she’s going to get what the other woman had coming. … He grabs her ankles. … The man falls over as he is whammed from behind by her son.

Okay, so, there’s some pretty predictable stuff here, but a competent writer can make this scene work. It will require some good details beyond the predictable. For example, why is it that male attackers are always filthy and scruffy? Wouldn’t it be more effective — more shocking — if one or both of these men were elegantly dressed, and smelled of expensive perfume? Maybe one of them is wearing a tie Jean happens to recognize as Gucci and costing $350, because she bought one just like it for her husband. Maybe one of them has a dentist’s instrument in his shirt pocket.

You could make it work; there are some promising things here. I personally find it pretty scary when in any fictional setting a woman is grabbed by her ankles. There’s a vulnerability about ankles.

But. You see where the **** breaks up the paragraph? That’s where this author, this misguided author, this author whose editor wasn’t paying attention, put in a sentence with multiple clauses… about the two-by-four. Something like this (again, paraphrasing):

There were a number of two-by-fours of various lengths leaning against the wall, left over, Jean knew, from the repair work being done to the boardwalk.

It’s hard to even know where to start with what a bad idea it was to tell us about this two-by-four, but I’ll try. You’ve got a rhythm going, you’ve got the readers interested, engaged, horrified, eager… and you stop to contemplate a two-by-four. You interrupt the adrenaline surge and the moral outrage that are fueling Jean’s rather rash decision, and why? To have her contemplate the origins of that two-by-four. She must observe how many pieces of wood there are, how they differ from one another, rack her brain for the background information that tells her who put them there, and why.

What was this author thinking?

This kind of stunt is like a bucket of cold water falling from the rafters in the middle of a seduction scene: calculated to stop all forward movement. Imagine the author coming up behind the reader while she’s in the middle of this scene and whipping the book out of her hands to say, wait wait, before you find out what happens and who gets attacked and how seriously, don’t you want to know about that two-by-four? I’m worried you’re wondering about it and thinking it’s unrealistic that it’s there at all, but see, she needed a weapon and that was the best thing I could come up with, and I’m hoping you’ll accept it as feasible. Whaddaya think? Oh, and I hope you like the story otherwise.

Never, ever, stop in the middle of a high-energy scene to explain things. Action and explanation don’t belong in the same paragraph. Action is about big verbs, big emotions, big observations; leave explanations for later, if you need them at all. The sensory impressions your POV character has are important, but again, they shouldn’t slow things down. On her way to confront violent men who may be armed, should Jean be contemplating their personal hygiene, or lack of it? I think not. Choose your verbs and your observations very carefully; use tight constructions; forget the origin of the damn two-by-four. And that’s my best advice.