Ballet vs. Horror: Action in Web Serials

6 years ago | Billy Higgins Peery (Member)

Recently I’ve been thinking about action, and how it relates to web serials. It’s not necessarily inherent in the form -- half of the top ten serials on WFG list themselves as action, which of course means that the other half do not -- but it’s still one of those things that comes up a lot.

Which is interesting, because action feels like one of those things that prose is least suited to depict. Reading, ‘Bob punched Joe in the face’ is a whole different thing that watching Bob punch Joe in the face. One’s cognitive, while the other’s visceral.

And more to the point, one’s ambiguous, while the other very much isn’t. There are a million ways Bob could punch Joe in the face: with the right hand or the left; with a sloppy swing or a precise strike; on the nose, on the chin, on the cheek, or what-have-you. All these little details tell us about Bob, Joe, and the action they engage in. All these details, when taken together, can change the impact of the scene. In film it’s conveyed all at once. In prose, it just isn’t.

One of the easiest ways to convey all these details is to slow the narrative down. However, most people aren’t looking for slow action scenes. They’re looking for something, fast, blood-pumping. The action is supposed to glue our eyes to the words, not make us wonder which hand the knight has his sword in.

I think Curveball’s first post is a great fast-but-clear action scene:

The first couple paragraphs set up the character (Liberty), the setting, and the stakes. Then a sort of timer is set up, which helps establish a sense of time while also raising the stakes. From there it’s mostly a matter of choosing the right details. Too many bog the scene down, too few lead to confusion and a lack of immersion.

One of my favorite details is the use of onomatopoeia: the click of the door, the fwip fwip fwip of the silenced pistols. It’s a lot of immersion packed into a small grouping of letters.

Ubersoft talked about writing action scenes here:

I think it’s interesting to contrast that scene with one of the early ones in Worm, where Taylor is [spoilers but for real it’s pretty early on don’t freak out about it] robbing a bank with The Undersiders:

(Really it starts at 3.7, but 3.9 is the chapter I pull the quote from.)

As opposed to Curveball, Worm takes its time setting things up. Hostages are taken, money removed from the bank vault. Whereas with Liberty most of the inner monologue centers around a belief in his cause, Taylor constantly feels doubt. This makes sense, since at this point she’s doing villainous things -- even though she doesn’t consider herself a villain.

There’s also a sense that she’s probably not going to make it out of there. While Liberty has a sort of gloomy, ‘I’m going down, but the good guys will win in the end,’ mentality, Taylor feels like her whole team is doomed due to the seven good guys ready to stop her.

In conversation with SnowyMystic, he referred to a dichotomy between action that focuses on the movement and action that focuses on the gore. To put it in other words, the ballet of fighting versus the horror of it.

That’s the ultimate difference between Curveball’s style and Worm’s.

To take a piece from Curveball:

“Alex lashes out with his foot, undercutting one man’s stance. He falls flat on his back, his rifle discharging in the air. Immediately Alex throws the bayonet at another. The bayonet is crude compared to his carving knife, but capable. He doesn’t bother to watch the man fall.”

The focus is all on the movement of the fight -- the ballet of it. Alex lashes, the man falls, the rifle discharges, Alex throws. In fact, he doesn’t even bother to watch the consequence of his actions.

Then there’s Worm:

“At my instruction, more bugs forced themselves under the gaps in his costume and into his ear canals. Yet others, smaller ones, crawled in and around his eyes, using deceptive strength to try and force themselves in between and under his eyelids. I couldn’t imagine what that felt like to him. Everyone had probably experienced the sensation of having a lot of bugs crawling on them, but these bugs were operating with a human intelligence backing them, to penetrate his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. They were working together, with a single minded purpose, instead of mindlessly crawling where their instincts directed them.”

Here, there’s horror. Worm features movement too, but the focus is more on the consequences of violence -- the horror of it. Taylor ISN’T an experienced fighter, she HASN’T seen this a million times before. So the clashing takes on a more terrifying tone -- sort of like horror’s version of the sublime. Awe-inspiring in its inhumanity.
I think it’s interesting to see how two very different voices tackle action in web serials.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I started this thread to talk about action in web serials. How is it done? Is there anything you think could be done better? Feel free to talk about your own action writing -- whatever tricks and tips you’ve learned, or even something you saw that you liked in someone else’s work.

"Any number of hitlers, are still not my problem." -Tempest

Read responses...

Page: 12


  1. D. D. Webb (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    My policy for action scenes is mathematical: The amount of description a given action merits is inversely proportional to the length of the action scene. The longer it goes, the more you need to summarize; readers aren't going to sit through page after page after page of loving depictions of every sword swing or gunshot in a pitched battle, and you shouldn't make them.

    The exception to the rule, of course, is actions that carry a lot of narrative and/or emotional weight. When the trusted friend slides a knife into the hero's back, for example, you want to sit on that a little bit, not gloss over it. The power of those moments can even be heightened if they occur in and around a lot of less-detailed action.

    The Gods are Bastards Cowboys! Demons! Elves!
  2. Madiha N. Santana (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I like written action scenes a lot, as I'm a more textual thinker I guess than a visual one, you could say.

    Generally what I try to do is to vary the pace of things. If I know I'm going to write a more detailed action scene, then I will precede it with something fast that catches the reader's attention, and then I will do my slow stuff. When I'm trying to make a weirder action scene I "give some candy" first, with a cathartic explosion or a sweeping burst of tracer fire or something simple and quick and splashy.

    Then I go slower in the next scene, now that the reader's chewed on some candy.

    I don't know if that works but it's what I do.

    I also tend to have different focuses for action scenes than the action itself.

    Sometimes it's a technical detail -- the scene might focus on the speed of an M5A2 Stuart recce over slower plodding T-26s, and it's not so much about the shooting as the characters exploiting a weird technical detail. Sometimes it's character development or shock or horror. Moreso than the guns it's how the character is reacting and trying to survive the guns. I guess that's "horror" in a way? There's been a few action scenes where the weird technical detail is treated as horror -- for example how mismatched light tanks or low caliber gun armed tanks are against heavy tanks, and how helpless they are as they're steamrollered over.

    I try to abide by a number rule, sometime it's a rule of 3's. Guns, whether rifles, anti-tank, etc, don't hit the first time every time, and when they do hit you're probably dead, especially if you're a light tank being shot at by a 76mm gun in a 1941 spec battle. So in an action scene that's two heavily armed characters against one another, the first one to make it count will kill the other, so I have a couple of non-kill shots and non-kill actions to ramp things up, but no more than my rule. Something's got to hit sometime. However, hey, slope armor. Maybe that hit deflected, and the match continues.

    Whether any of that is objectively effective, I don't know. I just do what I like.

  3. SnowyMystic (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Well, this is certainly an interesting topic relevant to my interests, and I love saying things~
    I'll apologise in advance again for how rambling I'll probably get.

    To play off what has been mentioned about what has been said about what I've said, I'll put on my Captain Obvious mask and say at least this much. Motion and horror are but two methods, styles in which to frame the combat, in particular, even within those two concepts there is a wide range of options.

    Honestly, I think a lot of this ties into writing with awareness. It is pretty easy (or at least has been for me) to write on instinct, and I think a certain amount of gut feeling for flow and word choice can be useful, but a lot of it is what you are trying to do.

    To focus on combat, because that is what this thread is about, when writing, one has to ask, "What am I trying to get across?". You aren't just putting words onto the screen, what you are doing is trying to kick the reader's imagination into seeing a vision, an image.

    For an example, lets have a fight between a savage attacker who claws with their hands and even bites and a more elegant fighter that uses a weapon. A fight like this is in a few senses easier to write because the two are quite distinct from each other. You can very easily push an impression onto the reader who has the advantage in the fight by weighting the language with more savagery or more elegance. The conflict is built into the contrast between the styles. Personality is a strong aspect to a fight. This is why a superhero setting can be a joy to write compared to a more mundane setting. The powersets of the supers inform the manner in which they write. In effect, it almost writes itself.

    Anyway, a distinct manner in a character's fighting makes it easier to write it. Having a clear image always helps. Honestly in my case I've found that the more work I put in on prep, in planning and fleshing out the characters, the smoother it is to write the whole story. Is my Captain Obvious mask still on?

    Now, as for pacing? Again, this ties into what you are trying to accomplish. Apart from anything else, some fights are frantic while others might be more mental affair with plan, counter plan and "Your next move will be..." type goings on. The key is that it is interesting or enjoyable. I feel a lot of writing isn't so much, "You can do these things" and "You can't do those things". More I think it is a matter of what you can get away with. Of course, that isn't saying that there isn't more difficulties to doing things. I mean doing a fight that lasts over more than one page is harder to do well than a fight that lasts a few paragraphs. Really though, remember your characters and setting, because you can just lean on those to inform you as to what you should do.

    As a final note, I think an important thing with dealing with combat, is that some stories either don't need it or don't need it focused on. Apart from that, while the ideal would be to excel in all areas of writing, some of us suck at action. While you can work on a weak point, there is no shame in moving over it into what you are actually good at.

    Say for example you are brilliant at dialogue! An obvious thing would be to weight your action with a lot of banter. Alternatively you could be someone that can do well with elaborate plots, and in big cloak and dagger type stuff you can totally get away with combat being almost a mere footnote.

    It is all about finding out what you want to do, and then finding the path by which you can do that. Written stories aren't just words. We also have the reader's mind to exploit!

    Though, really movement focus is just so handy in how it avoids fatality/combat stopping wounds for as long as you wish~

    Maybe I need to read more wuxia type things :3

  4. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Personally, my main guideposts in a fight are:

    1. Overall point of the scene in terms of the plot: As in, "what am I hoping to get out of this scene?" If it's the climax of the story, I can let it go longer. If it's an incident on the way from point A to point B, it will have to be shorter. Similarly, if the important point is to tell something about the world or introduce a new character, I'll try to do a fight that most effectively accomplishes that task.

    2. Realism: As someone who's far from an expert on fighting, but also did spend several years learning Tae Kwon Do and becoming farmiliar with some moves in Aikido and Escrima (Fillipino stick fighting), I want the fight to feel like a fight--which means that you're less aware of what's going on around you than you want to be. It often means that people get hurt, sometimes in ways you wouldn't expect (like sticking your leg in a hole and then breaking it).

    Despite the superhero setting of my work, it also means there's virtually no banter. I'm not up to creating witty insults when doing heavy exercise. Fighting is heavy exercise with a side order of pain. If I ever do have characters who engage in banter, it will either have to be short or be made possible by a side effect of their power. For normal people, it's hard enough to think what to do next.

  5. t4nky (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    So far, my action leans more towards Worm. Nate, like Taylor, is doing terrible, terrible things. There are some differences. Taylor, especially with the bank, had time to plan. Worm's action scenes also tended to be longer and more inventive. Nate, on the other hand, has almost never been in control at the start of a fight or even had any inkling they'd happen before hand. The only times he's ever really had a plan going in were Fight Night (and that barely counts) and this battle where he and his friend fight off over a hundred frat boys with assault rifles. The action in these scenes tends to happen faster with a few detailed blows.

    But the big thing that is similar between my serial and Wildbow's is that the violence is transformative. Every person Taylor hurts makes her become less Taylor and more SKitter. Every time Nathan hurts someone, he becomes less Nathan and more Killer (a nickname he was given by one of his friends. Guess why.)

    This use of violence sometimes isn't used as much as I think it should be, especially in super hero stories. Normal humans have to undergo incredible stress before they are willing to hurt a fellow person. However, characters like Spiderman think almost nothing of breaking the bones of strangers every night. I personally believe that it is extremely hard to do something as inherently evil as hurting another human and not to be made evil by it.

    "An uneducated man may rob a rail car. An educated man can steal the railway."
  6. TimNoel (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I consider my novels action, though 96% of them are build up, suspense, and foreshadowing. And that's what written word is equally as good at as film, the build up and suspense (which is also why written erotica is so popular <_<). Yeah, action is probably cooler to see in a Marvel film, but as previously stated, at key moments the writer can press the "slow" button on the remote and cause the reader to live in that extended second.

    But if done well, action scenes can be the most memorable part of a story. Even though 96% of my book is build up, it's those 4% of action scenes that my demo-readers remembered most.

    Chrysalis Experiment Series 1 complete!
  7. Sten Düring (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    You can speed up pacing by POV-swapping after very small chunks of text. The effect on the reader when he/she is thrown from head to head can be dizzying. Basically it's using filmic techniques in text. Action, cut, observer, cut, new action, cut, distance view, cut, etc, etc, etc.

    It's neither horror nor ballet. With readers used to modern visual adventure you don't have to make a pick between either Heart of Darkness or The Three Musketeers. You can write the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan instead ;)

  8. Tartra (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @Sten - I'm going to agree that it's a dizzying effect but disagree that we should be using that technique. If your scene - any scene - is so bland that you can swap in character interpretations mid-event, I don't believe you've developed enough point behind letting any of characters narrate it at all, or for the fight to exist. It comes off as a fight scene for a fight scene's sake, when I should be able to follow the emotional or mental stake behind things.

    Here's a fantastic link to help explain that. I actually read it just in time to work in its ideas for my next post:

    As for the horror or ballet idea... Well, I think those are two different coins. Horror is an emotion, ballet is a style. Maybe have it on a foursquare chart, with Horror and Awe on one axis and Ballet and Orders (?) on the other.

    'Orders' is a bad word for that. Someone use a better one.

    @t4nky - That transformative concept is important. I've got one character who's all about killing, another character who understands the importance but doesn't want to do it, and one character who's never killed because what no what's wrong with you people. I'm going to be putting them all in the same spot soon to witness a murder, and those reactions should show just how far gone the other two and be a nice place to reference later as the deaths become more commonplace.

    You need those emotional snapshots, and you need emotional progress. If every fight has the same stakes tied to it, things get boring.

    The Other Kind of Roommate — Like Fight Club meets X-Men meets The Matrix meets Superbad.
  9. Syphax (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I've honestly never thought about fight scenes like that, between ballet and horror. I just write what makes sense to me. That being said, Jim's post is probably closest to how I write. For fight scenes, I think less is more. Keeping it focused on the character and whoever they're trying to pound into the dirt is what's important. I don't care about the logic in the fight, I care about how my character will fare. Too many words can and will drown out a scene.

    I maintain that Taylor's true superpower in Worm was that she always stayed calm and logical and five steps ahead in a fight. I wouldn't call that style of writing horror, though. I'd call that more methodical. A thing happens, then the implications are shown. It was horrifying in Worm, because, you know, tons of bugs forcing their way into someone's eyes. But the RDJ Sherlock Holmes are also an example of this. He hits someone in the ears, they get stunned for a moment. Then he punches them in XYZ places, and as a result ABC things go wrong with their body.

    Also, gonna second what Tartra said. Rapidly changing POV barely works for movies, because most action nowadays has the camera cutting once a second and most people have no idea what the fuck is going on. I see no reason why writing would be different.

  10. zephy669 (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Action scenes are definitely tough, and here's the ironic thing about them: THEY'RE INHERENTLY BORING.

    Why? Because there is no way that an action scene in a novel can compare to an action scene in a movie/television etc. We don't have the special effects, the really really fast pace, etc.

    But I still write a ton of action scenes and I enjoy writing them. There was one really amazingly written action scene in the book The Song of Achilles. It's not even an actiony book, but the author writes one action scene that is absolutely stunning. It's actually a great book, too, so I recommend it.

    Here are my rules of thumb for action scenes (which I mainly got from reading a lot of action-styled books and listening to Writing Excuses podcast):

    - Just like with everything else in description, you DO NOT need to describe everything, ONLY the things that matter to the story's progression and to progress the action scene forward. So saying what hand the character used to punch, etc. is not necessarily. Think about what it would be like if you were in a fight? Are you really cognizant of what hand your using to punch? Hell no. You're just punching, trying to get a hit in. And I'm not a big fan of a lot of explanation during the fight either. That's not necessary. It's slows the pacing down way too much. Short sentences, short paragraphs, sensory showy details. That's all you need to give off that impression of action.

    - You need to raise those stakes constantly. The main character should not be a powerhouse and win the fight too easily. He should be losing the fight until the very end when he figures something out or gets lucky or whatever. Even if you have a main character who is the BEST FIGHTER EVERRRRRRRRR.... guess what? The villain's even better than him.

    - Make the fight EMOTIONAL. Here's where novels can take advantage that movies really can't. Stories ought to be an emotional ride. If they aren't, they're boring. I better feel something for the character.

    - Also connected to emotion is that the main character dying as a result of the fight does not necessarily have to be the worst thing ever. There are much worst things than dying. For example, if the main character is a fighting a villain that kidnapped his daughter, that the main character might die is not what's going to be emotionally powerful or even scary for the reader, but that if he dies, or loses the fight, or whatever--what's going to happen to his daughter (which, hopefully, we've been building as a strong connection to the main father character so now we've invested in his wish/want/desire).

    - Make it as quick as you can. By that I mean the actual fighting sequences. They may take breaks where they're actually talking back in forth (taunting, for example). Movies do these breaks all the time 1) so it's not one LOOOOOONG fight scene and 2) opportunity to add emotion.

    - Be damn sure you've done some research on the weapon your using. If it's a sword, research swords, if it's a gun, research guns. Unless it's very fantastical and speculative, in which case you should make up rules but still do research as that will help frame what you create.

  11. Psycho Gecko (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    My fight scenes have some influence from both MMA and pro wrestling. The wrestling stuff in particular can be difficult to put into words, like the first time I had to describe a front-flip piledriver (seen here: ). It helps that those moves are a lot more doable when you have people with superhuman abilities. They're colorful and have some use when you have a bit of an asymmetrical fight, like where one person is clearly bigger and/or stronger than the other. On top of that, some of the holds are legitimately painful.

    That crosses over with the MMA. Realistically, you're not often going to see people spend 20 straight minutes fighting. Even an MMA fight is only a few minutes of fighting, and there's a lot of jockeying for position in all that. So most of your fights are going to be short and an awful lot of the ones that feature trained combatants are going to have them aim for areas that will put an enemy down swiftly.

    Which also brings up fighting styles. I do try to give people different fighting styles. Some people are almost entirely limited to what they can do with powers. Those that fight hand to hand, I tend to give them different styles. Just little things. Gecko barely ever kicks, preferring to drive his knees into opponents and punch them in vulnerable spots. Even when he's forced to show he has something like formal training, it's still a style that emphasizes strikes to areas like the eyes and groin. Venus is better about holds, like law enforcement, with more showy striking that emphasizes kicks. The appearance of a special retro Gecko in one recent arc featured him with a less formal style that heavily featured holds and attacks meant to be much more painful.

    There's room for a lot of variation like that. There are all sorts of martial arts you can check out for inspiration, and make sure to take into account your character. A teenage rich kid who likes beating people up but doesn't like pain isn't going to do a lot of Muay Thai because that involves building up callouses on your shins in training. A revived Nazi super villain is extremely unlikely to use Krav Maga since it was created for the Israeli military. Weaker characters are going to want a style that makes use of agility and evens the odds against stronger characters.

    I haven't had a lot of weapons, but Zephy is right about the research. I personally prefer Skallagrim for both his work about how swords were really used and his examination of various movie and fantasy swords to see how useful they'd be in real life.

    While we're on the subject, I also do a bit of research on armor. For one thing, it helps me to figure out how I'm going to describe the stuff. For another, armor plays a big role in a fight but it has weaknesses.

    As far as how pretty everything looks, it probably shouldn't look like it's perfectly choreographed. People slip, they make mistakes in judgement, blood and sweat gets into people's eyes. They get tired. They miss. That's one more reason why fights are short; taking too long is detrimental to the fighters.

  12. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I find that fight scenes are a lot like sex scenes, in that many of the rules are the same:
    - Gratuitous is bad. Challenge the scene and ask why it needs to be shown. Is a fade to black/summary and skip to the aftermath enough?
    - Logistics are really important. You need to know exactly where everything is and what it's doing, and you need to be super-clear when you write it. Confusion spoils the effect and excitement for the reader. Always, always have the right number of limbs involved.
    - Conversations and emotional reactions during the scene are often more important to the reader/story than the actual physical interactions.
    - The manner and competency of the physical interactions can tell us a lot about the character all on their own.
    - Less is more. Don't swamp the reader in the details; focus on the highlights.

    Most of my stories have some action scenes in them. I enjoy writing them, though they're a challenge to keep different and fresh. Most of the ones that spring to mind are in Starwalker, and involve basically a present-tense stream of consciousness from the ship doing the manoeuvers, interspersed with video log snippets of the action going on outside her hull if there are several parts to the scene (what can I say, I'm a masochist).

    It's great fun, though big space battle/chase scenes hurt my brain sometimes. There's no up! Or down! Explosions are silent chaos! Zero-grav ahhh! Too many exclamation marks are annoying! Most often, I imagine the scene as a movie, to work out the logistics and stages it needs to move through, then write it. Then take out most of the exclamation marks.

    It's also really good fun to write a fight scene from the POV of a character with little fight experience. There's a lot of handflapping, panicking, confusion, scrabbling, and startling images. Experienced fighters are interesting in a different way. As others have said, research is key to keep it believable.

  13. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I for one love the fight scenes in Glory Road, by Heinlein, good balance between the two extremes. I think one of the main things to look at is also intent. CB is intended to feel like reading a comic book. Worm is intended to be more immersive to the thoughts and emotions, than to represent action completely visually.

    I disagree that action scenes cant be as vivid as in movies. I have seen several movies made from books where the action falls flat and just isn't as cool on film as in my head (the climbing the shaft scene in the original movie adaptation of Andromeda strain, or the killing the spider the first time scene in IT, for example).

    There is also the scale. Do you want the feeling of being a crane shot over a war? Check out the mass battle scenes in Feist's works, especially Darkness at sethanon and past. Do you want the feeling of a matrix esque spin around the fighters so you can see the moves they are using on each other? CB is a good representation of that. Do you want a more personal feel of being first person in the midst of it? Check out Dennis's solstice war, cause DAMN.

  14. Billy Higgins Peery (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Good catch, Tartra. In retrospect, I was using the terms more because I liked what they suggested and less because they set up a proper intellectual framework. In a weird way, I think horror is just a form of awe, especially in fighting. A proper dichotomy might be found closer to what Snowy was originally suggesting in the convo I had with him: movement vs effect. Does the style focus on how the action happens, or what its effect is?

    A lot of good tips in here, guys. Thanks, I'll definitely refer to this thread the next time I try writing an action scene.

    "Any number of hitlers, are still not my problem." -Tempest

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