One of my favourite Twitter feminists, Briana Wu, often talks about the importance of emotional mechanics in video games. The action in a video game – violent or otherwise – should exist to provide emotional catharsis to the player. Her argument, as I understand it, is that action in a video game is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Action without a story and the emotional connections therein is a pretty boring thing.
The same is true for books and television shows and movies. When you write an action scene, your purpose is to build an emotional connection with your audience. An action scene should be the culmination of all the tension you’ve built by slowly weaving narrative threads into the perfect pattern. Glossing over it will leave your audience feeling unfulfilled, but sticking an action scene into the story just to have one is equally problematic.
Last week, we saw what happens when an action scene is handled poorly; this week, we’re going to look at the results of an action scene done well. Remember the point is not the events of the story but the emotions those events conjure. I wanted to use a scene from one of the great action writers I love – Brandon Sanderson or Jim Butcher – but most text-based action scenes require a lot of explanation on how magic works in that universe. So to keep it simple, I’m going back to what is quite possibly my favourite television series ever.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In this episode, an evil goddess named Glory has just done terrible harm to Willow’s girlfriend Tara, and Willow is looking for some payback. As Glory gloats about her recent success, the apartment starts to shake, and willow bursts through the door, levitating the whole way.
The very first thing Willow does is trap Glory in a binding spell that will prevent her from moving. This is tactical thinking. By this point, the series has established that Glory is a goddess trapped in human form, and thus her powers are reduced. She is extremely strong and near invulnerable but incapable of using any flashy magic. Freezing her in place prevents her from counterattacking.
Willow then proceeds to deliver what is quite possibly the best action hero line ever.
And then she lashes out with lightning.
Again, this is tactical thinking. Glory is a goddess; she has demonstrated herself to be immune to all sorts of physical punishment. So Willow isn’t going to open with the small stuff and then lead up to her big finisher. No, she’s going to use her most powerful attack first.
Despite her screams of agony, Glory emerges relatively unscathed. At this point, Willow realizes that she’s not walking out of here alive; in fact, an interim scene where Buffy discusses her concerns with Spike establishes that Willow knows she’s on a suicide mission. But if she’s going down, then she’s taking the hell bitch with her; so Willow switches to plan B.
She shatters the mirror and flings the glass at Glory.
After this, Glory points out that she’s feeling remarkably unimpressed. The paralysis spell that Willow used at the beginning of this altercation is beginning to fade, and Glory responds by back-handing the young witch with enough force to send her flying. I think we can assume that the only reason Willow is still conscious at this point is the boatload of magical energy she drew in to prepare for this fight. She’s growing weak and getting desperate; so she tries something that probably won’t work.
She hurls a dozen razor-sharp knives at the hell goddess.
Glory casually knocks each one aside, then picks up a table and hurls it at her opponent. But Willow is a smart cookie. It’s clear that physical attacks are useless; so instead of trying more of the same, she switches gears and summons “the Spirit of Serpents.”
Deadly snakes coil around Glory’s leg just long enough to turn to dust as she pulls herself free. Given that the invocation Willow used was “Spirit of Serpents, now appear,” I think we can safely assume that these aren’t ordinary snakes. Magic in the Buffyverse often involves calling upon some powerful ancient force to do your bidding. That being the case, Willow was probably trying to appeal to some ancient demon or Wicca spirit that she hoped would be strong enough to beat Glory. That’s why I don’t count this as just another physical attack.
Willow has used up all her strength. She collapses to the floor, gasping and moaning. The tension is palpable as Glory strides across the room, grabs willow with one hand and pins her against the wall. She offers one last taunt before delivering the killing blow. “Do you know what they used to do to witches, Lover? Crucify them!”
Buffy then appears to deliver one of her whip-smart comebacks. “They used to bow down to gods. Things change.” The dialogue is important; it establishes that this is not just a physical confrontation but one of emotional warfare as well.
One thing you might want to note, if you watch this episode, is that Buffy continues to pummel Glory for all she’s worth. Why is she doing this? Two reasons. First, she needs to give Willow time to escape. And second, Buffy had the element of surprise when she sneaked up on Glory. Previous episodes have established that Glory is far stronger than your average vampire slayer, and – as we’ve just seen – she’s damn near invulnerable. This means Buffy’s only hope of leaving this place in one piece is to press her momentum and keep her opponent on the defensive. This is more tactical thinking. There is far, far more to this scene than just two women punching each other.
Note that we don’t have to be told what Buffy is thinking. We can deduce her motivations from what she does. Her actions are perfectly suitable to the context.
Glory recovers after just a few moments and begins to counterattack. It isn’t long before she traps the young slayer in a shoulder-hold and throws her halfway across the room. Physical combat is all about momentum. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re going to write that kind of action scene.
One other point in this scene’s favour: it’s quick. From start to finish, the whole thing is over in about 90 seconds. Good action lasts just long enough to make its point and never overstays its welcome. So Joss Whedon and the BtVS production team have proved once again that they are the masters of great action. The characters display tactical thinking at every junction, and that keeps the scene tense and focused. If you want to write action, take a cue from Joss.
Hey, looking for some great fiction? Check out Symbiosis, the book reviewers have called the illegitimate love child of Star Trek and Buffy.
Now available on Kindle
And Kobo http://bit.ly/1Jb7NAo
It’s had some great reviews!