by: Debora Dale
Our characters should be as complex and dimensional as we are – yet easier to understand, more logical in their actions and more mature in their acceptance of lessons learned. When we read a story, we want action. We want emotion. We want connection.
It’s hard when writing, say, a fight scene, to consider all that goes into the moment. It’s left hook, right jab, sidekick, block. It’s ACTION! But what instigates that action? I’m not speaking of reflex, but inner thoughts, fears, needs. What is happening besides punches and kicks?
Or in a love scene… now THAT’s action I want to read about. But… not just the act, the emotion. A love scene with simply a play-by-play narration is not a ‘love’ scene. It might arouse some readers but not fully draw them into the lives, minds and hearts of your characters.
When writing the action scene – fight scene, love scene, chase scene, whatever – you need the cause and effect. You need forward motion and tactical placement. Figuring out what one person does when sucker punched and how that person comes back to defend him/herself is obviously important. And when a villain is coming at your hero with a 2×4, the last thing you want to do is slow down the scene with introspection. “Gee. He’s going to kill me if I don’t duck.” We know this, it’s instinctive. And it should be written that way.
Villain picked up a 2×4, swung it. Hero ducked…
However, if the action goes on too long without a pause for bearing, the reader is lost – and so is the impact of the scene. It’s over too quickly. When it’s over too quickly, there’s little to no tension and tension is what keeps those pages turning.
This is where layering comes in.
Write that action scene – this happens and causes that to happen, which then causes this and this to happen. Then go back. Re-read what you’ve written and see where your character can pause and take stock of what’s going on. Make your hero evaluate what’s at stake if he doesn’t disarm the villain. Make your heroine realize sex with the hero, while physically stimulating at the moment, will change her forever. Show us how making love has jarred her emotionally. It’s said all the time and it’s worth repeating – it’s not all about Tab A and Slot B. It’s about emotion.
Ah-ha! But it’s not just about emotion, either. It’s about location – setting, description. And it’s about the senses – sight, touch, sound, scent, and yes, even taste. Taste, like, say, the bitter, irony taste of blood in a fight scene, or the slick, salty taste of flesh in a love scene.
A reader wants to be anchored in your story. When action comes, they want to be there right in the middle of it. They want the tension of the moment and the breathless release afterward.
As an example of layering, I’ll use one of my own scenes.
First draft – if you manage to get through this entire scene, I’ll be impressed at your staying power. If not, don’t worry. Get a feel of how it reads and why it doesn’t work for you, then see if the revised version holds your attention longer (hopefully, it will).
A little bit of setup – Jake is the hero and has heard sounds coming from the parking lot of his corner restaurant. He’s gone outside to check it out and sees the villain – Devin Reid, and his (Jake’s) love interest – Wilma (Willy) Davis.
From my novel, Tears Before Love –
He rounded the bin. A second passed for the scene to register. Devin Reid and a woman, her hands bound.
They turned. Wilma! Her mouth was taped, her cheek swollen, her dress torn. Devin looked ready to run. Jake lunged forward, hauled off and clipped the guy’s jaw. The bastard hurt Wilma. He drew back and landed another punch to Devin’s gut. The guy doubled over and Jake slammed an upper cut to his chin.
Devin went down. Jake went to Wilma, now on her knees, shaking. He peeled the tape from her mouth, loosened the knot at her wrists and ripped off the twine.
Terror filled her eyes as she looked past him. “No!”
He turned just in time to block his face as Devin’s arm came down. A flash of heat traveled through Jake’s forearm. He curled, like a linebacker, slammed his shoulder into Devin’s gut, then dropped and rolled out of the way. He was cut, his arm bleeding. He didn’t expect a weapon.
Wilma screamed again, and he reached for her, but Devin snatched her first, pressed a bloody knife to her neck, looking everywhere but at him.
He’d kill him. He’d pummel the prick into the ground. He clenched his fists, held his arms ready. But he could do nothing with Wilma between them. She was already hurt, and Devin looked like a rabid animal, desperate and determined.
“Let her go,” Jake said, surprised at the control of his tone.
Did Devin even hear him? See him?
Devin shoved Wilma with such force, she fell forward. Jake caught her, held her, as Devin lumbered off behind The Grill.
Jake pushed her from his arms. “Get inside! Lock the door!”
Revised with layers –
A second passed for the scene to register. Devin Reid and a woman – her hands bound.
They turned. Willy! A thousand thoughts rushed through him at once – grab her… shove her out of harm’s way… kill Reid for touching her… hold her and find out if she’s okay…
But she wasn’t okay. How could she be? Her mouth was taped, her cheek swollen, her dress torn. And Devin was leading her like an animal he’d downed in a hunt.
Jake lunged forward, hauled off and clipped the guy’s jaw with such force he felt the resulting shock through to his shoulder. The bastard would pay for hurting her. He drew back, landed another punch to Devin’s gut, anticipated the doubled-over reflex and slammed an upper cut to his chin.
Devin went down and Jake waited, fists clenched, ready – eager – to pounce. He couldn’t let this end so easily. Devin tried to stand but fell back like the wimp he was. Jake spared a glance toward Willy, now on her knees, shaking, panting.
He ran to her, dropped to one knee and peeled the tape from her mouth. She was breathing too fast, needed to calm down or she’d pass out.
“You’re okay, Willy, you’re okay,” he said as much to reassure himself as her. He loosened the knot at her wrists and ripped off the twine.
She flinched, screamed, and stared past him, eyes wide with terror. He turned just in time to block his face as Devin’s arm came down. A flash of heat traveled through Jake’s forearm. He grasped it, curled like a linebacker, then bolted up and slammed his shoulder into Devin’s gut. They fell together and Jake rolled out of the way, not willing to be an easy target for a second time. And then he saw the knife – blade about 5 inches long, wide as the tang. Solid. He was lucky; in experienced hands, it could have been deadly. He made a grab for it, ground out an oath as Devin kicked it out of reach. It went skidding toward Willy.
He yelled to her. “Grab it!” But she seemed to not hear. He scrambled to his feet, charged after Devin but froze as Devin grabbed it and snatched Willy by the hair. He yanked her to her feet and pressed the bloody knife to her neck.
Jake checked all movement, tried to breathe past sudden panic, tried to calm his mounting rage. He had to focus. Wouldn’t make a sudden move. Couldn’t risk Willy’s life. Ah, but the second he had the chance, he’d kill him. He’d pummel the prick into the ground. He held himself ready, watching for the first sign of distraction. But with Willy between them, with her so dazed, there was nothing – damn it! – nothing he could do. She was already hurt, and Reid looked like a rabid animal, desperate and determined, his eyes darting everywhere but at Jake.
“Let her go,” Jake said, surprised at the control of his tone.
Did Reid even hear him? See him?
Reid shoved Wilma with such force, she fell forward. Jake caught her, held her close, tight, as Reid lumbered off behind The Grill. She was trembling violently, gasping in breaths. He thought to calm her, but couldn’t tend to her now, not yet.
He gave her a small push as Reid disappeared into the back alley. “Get inside.” He took off after Devin, called back over his shoulder. “Lock the door!”
See a difference between the first and revised scenes? I hope you do. I hope you were drawn into the moment along with Jake in the revised version. Could I go deeper, maybe add a deeper level of POV? Yes. But the action is there, the movement AND the emotion. We know what Jake is feeling, where his concerns lie and why. We want him to win and feel his fury… as well as his need to comfort Wilma. At least, I hope you feel all of that.
Layering. Adding the elements that bring a scene to life. Adding emotion. Adding texture. Adding the senses so a reader can relate. So a reader feels so connected to the character, the moment, the emotion, that s/he cannot put the book down until the final resolution when, in her mind, she can see your hero and heroine walking off hand in hand, happily ever after.